Monday, 26 April 2021

Antiemetic for Homesickness by Romalyn Ante

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Romalyn Ante's debut collection is full of poems that track the experiences of two generations of Filipino emigrants who have left their country to work abroad, for the NHS and elsewhere.

Romalyn Ante herself came to the UK when she was 16 and is now a nurse practioner. Her mother, like so many others, had previously left her family behind in the Philippines in order to work for the NHS.

Ante’s poetry unveils the truth behind the flippant comment by the Duke of Edinburgh quoted on the opening page (“The Philippines must be half empty; you’re all here running the NHS”) – laying bare the homesickness, the separation from one’s children, the long hours of hard work for little thanks, the racism…

In “Manananggal” she compares the migrant to a creature from Filipino legend which splits itself in two.

I am halved in order to be whole – I rebuild by leaving everything I love.”

The poems also disclose some of the reasons why these workers stay, even in the face of hardship and hostility. They will cannot leave:

“Not until Junior has got his diploma, not until we have nailed a roof on the house and the pen grunts with pigs […] and we have paid off our parents’ grave plots and our children’s …”

In “The Shaman, The Servant” we can see the contrast between the respect shown to a grandfather who was a shaman, a healer, with the image painted “Invisible Woman”of “goddesses of caring and tending, but no one hears when their skulls pound like coconut shells about to crack.”

Ante reminds us that this is a pattern that has been repeated across generations. In the series of short poems scattered through the book, “Tape Recordings for Mama”, she captures the point of view of a child trying to understand why her mother has left.

The poems blend phrases from Tagalog and elements of Filipino culture and tradition with medical jargon and details of hospital procedure. Ante’s use of language is at once challenging and playful. In the ironically titled “Mastering English”, structured like a test paper, she toys with English idioms,

“The phrase a drop in the ocean indicates:

- Very little in comparison with what is expected or needed

- All the migrants who mysteriously vanished at sea.”

There are also poems that mourn the loss of traditional Filipino culture

“When the colonisers came, their brightness bleached the scripts inscribed on our bamboo stems. Our [memory*] was replaced with their hymn.

*written in Babayin script

These poems blend the deeply personal and specific with the universal sense of loss and longing that any immigrant cut off from home would recognise. Shortlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize.

Listen to Romalyn Ante reading from Antiemetic for Homesickness here

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Avoid If you Dislike:  Being reminded of loss and separation

Perfect Accompaniment: A shot of coconut wine

Genre: Poetry

Buy This Book Here:

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