My senior capstone!
Within storytelling, through the construction and circulation of narratives, I find a compelling means to strengthen collective and personal identity.
Here is my last (!) college (!) paper (!) ever (!). Scroll down for a video as well.
MAGSALIN: A translation of diaspora from memory to expression
Part I: On embodying Place
Theresa Seguritan Abalos
BHA, Global Studies & Flute Performance
May 11, 2020
Entitled “Magsalin,” the Tagalog word for “translate,” this project fuses creative writing and music to express how in diaspora, there are many kinds of translation: from one language to another, from memory to expression, from one art form to another, and from generations of bodily experience in one geographical space to another.
My overarching vision for Magsalin is a community-based, multilingual, multidisciplinary project. After moving to Pittsburgh four years ago, I sensed that the city lacks a strong sense of community among Filipino-Americans.
Consequently, I envisioned Magsalin as an event for Filipino-Americans in Pittsburgh to celebrate our culture and experiences through storytelling — as in readings of reflective pieces, but also over food and a lot of noise.
Within storytelling, through the construction and circulation of narratives, I find a compelling means to strengthen collective and personal identity.
Due to the pandemic, this vision of Magsalin was impossible to realize in the spring of 2020. My work in coordinating the event — with the Nationality Rooms at the University of Pittsburgh and Filipino-Americans in Pittsburgh — is on hold for now.
For now, I have created Part I of Magsalin: On Embodying Place. Rather than community-based, On Embodying Place is deeply personal. It probes my identities as a musician, woman of color, daughter of Filipino immigrants, bicultural, and writer, in order to contribute to an increasingly diverse body of literature on life in the Philippine diaspora in the US.
Through performance and creative writing, On Embodying Place untangles my memories as a Filipina-American girl, then woman, in order to translate shame into a sense of place that is embodied and expressed.
The central piece is “Poems in Practice Rooms,” a staged practice session interpersing flute performance with spoken word, in order to explore two relationships: first, between creative vulnerability and the perfectionism that enshrines Western classical music; secondly, between the performer’s fragmented cultural identity and the hegemonic force in which classical performance implicates her racialized body.
As the capstone for my degree in BXA, On Embodying Place rests upon creative writing as the grounds to integrate my concentrations: Flute Performance and Global Studies. Through creative writing, I combine the expressiveness around which music-making revolves, with the verbal articulation of cultural perspectives around which Global Studies revolves.
Specifically, On Embodying Place illustrates my experience growing up as a musician in diaspora through the heightened cultural and historical awareness I developed in Global Studies.
On Embodying Place exists in two forms: first as a 37-page, digital document of creative writing, including the script for “Poems in Practice Rooms,” and secondly as video, in which I read through selected poems, perform “Poems in Practice Rooms,” and share excerpts from this artist statement. There are two video versions: a six-minute preview, and a longer, complete version.
To share my project, I circulated a fundraiser for Filipino immigrant workers’ basic needs during the pandemic, particularly those working in healthcare. I announced on social media that I would release the complete video as a gift to those who donated at least $15 to an emergency relief fund for Filipino caregivers.
Incorporating the fundraiser is a way for me to honor and give back to the community on whose shoulders I stand: Filipino immigrant workers. Without them, none of my work could exist.
Below is the rest of my (rather long) artist statement! I don't expect anyone to read this, but here it is, in case people are interested:
Curiosity and Creative Expression as a Mode of Knowing
In studying Flute and Global Studies, I encountered the conventions of academic research and perfectionism, which rigidly define how something ought to be known and expressed. While I recognized their power in transmitting knowledge and expression across experiences of place and time, as a college student, I needed an escape to keep my creativity alive, and found it in creative writing.
While creative writing too bears its own forms of rigidity, the simple act of writing for fun allowed me to discover the joy of working from within a place of curiosity and creative expression, during a period of my life when I couldn't access this joy as a classical musician.
In other words, I found more truth in questions than in answers.
Through Magsalin, I turn to the construction of narratives as a framework to shape understandings of life in diaspora. Rather than conducting interviews and employing theoretical frameworks to construct a sense of objectivity, I locate authority in the creative freedom of representing one’s own experience.
An Ethnography of the Quotidian
Since taking Professor Paul Eiss’s class, “Extreme Ethnography” in the fall of 2018, I became captivated by how ethnography often merges with art when it moves from a study of the “Other” into a study of the everyday, even the most personal.
At the time, I was researching the “Other”: in my case, indigeneity and expressions of ownership and belonging in Argentine folklore. While humbled by the opportunity to conduct this research, I often felt torn between authentically representing the experiences of marginalized groups of people, versus completing a project that would only impact my reputation. In other words, in researching and presenting on other communities’ history of violence, I sometimes felt like I was parading their histories for an intellectual elite who had no stakes in supporting these communities.
While I reconciled this conflict by organizing my research presentations around sharing the music of Argentine musicians, since then, creating an ethnography of what is most authentic to me — of what I am most capable of representing — has been a goal of mine.
Rooted in the personal, On Embodying Place locates its study in the realm of everyday, lived experience. Therefore, its bibliography is not particularly impressive. Nevertheless, I’ve included scholarly works from past Global Studies classes, as these have laid the intellectual groundwork upon which I wrote On Embodying Place.
Translation as a Mode of Representation & Interrelation
In the title “Magsalin,” I use translation abstractly, as a mode of representation and interrelation. While translation studies is a growing field I have little experience in (but hope to learn more about in the future), this project expresses my interest in translation not only across languages, but across myriad, other expressions of reality. Whether language is implicated or not, translation is an essential means by which humans share knowledge and experiences across countless forms of difference.
Understanding Shame through Post-colonialism, Feminism, Race
Influenced by my history classes, particularly those including postcolonial discourse, I locate my personal experience in the sociocultural, historical contexts of Western hegemony and diaspora. Diaspora has become the basis not only of On Embodying Place and Magsalin, but of a broader, professional aspiration of mine: to perform more artistic and intellectual work in the multicultural, multidisciplinary realm of diasporic literature.
In regards to race, my classes in anthropology and cultural studies left me with the notion of race as implicated in everything — despite and because of its nature as a social construct. On Embodying Place explores the impact of race in various realms, such as my relationship with Western classical music, personal relationships, and encounters with strangers.
Lastly, I draw from feminism, of which I sculpted my own understanding while taking Professor Marian Aguiar’s class, “Transnational Feminisms” in the spring of 2019. To me, feminism includes celebrating and listening to women’s voices. It also extends to locating truth and power in spaces beyond historically-sanctioned structures — typically defined as patriarchy, heterosexuality, or Western-European ethnocentrism, but also institutions like Western classical music or academia.
Together, these three lenses — postcolonialism, race, and feminism — informed the work of On Embodying Place to translate shame into a sense of place: post-colonialism and race offered a sociocultural, historical context from which to understand the origins of shame, while feminism opened doors into alternative modes of knowing, living, and expressing, so as to overcome the speaker's struggle with shame.
Examples from On Embodying Place that express the above include “His bottle, her book” (which explores the role of race and diaspora in a fraught encounter with a stranger) and “To the white man I fell in love with” (reflecting on interracial romance through postcolonialism and feminism).
Poems in Practice Rooms: A post-colonial take on classical music performance
As the center of my capstone, “Poems in Practice Rooms” is a one-act play or "staged practice session." I first performed it at BXA’s annual showcase, Kaleidoscope, in the spring of 2018. The following spring, I reworked it entirely for Professor Monique Mead’s class, “The Art of Audience Engagement.”
The title “Poems in Practice Rooms” gestures towards my freshman fall at CMU — intimidated by conservatory culture and discouraged by hours of practice, I would put down my flute in the practice room and instead write poems that expressed my aspirations and frustrations as a flutist.
“Poems in Practice Rooms” expresses the themes above. Crucially, it locates the heart of a musician’s work not in how they perform (the institutionally-glorified spaces of concerts, recitals, and auditions), but rather in the journey of becoming an artist. For musicians, this journey takes place predominantly in practice rooms. In my case, it also happens through making video recordings of my playing just for fun — usually after chancing upon a recital hall that is open and empty (two such clips are featured in the video above).
Similarly, the presence of poetry locates authority in private, personal writing, as opposed to writing sanctioned by publishing institutions.
On Embodying Place features creative writing that I have written over the past four years. This spring, I revised these works guided by Professor Jim Daniels. His guidance helped me to translate raw emotions and ideas from past years into a more nuanced level of creative writing.
Last fall, to learn more about the Philippine diaspora in Pittsburgh, I met with a Filipino professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has lived in Pittsburgh for a long time. He gave me valuable insights into the fragmented, sensitive nature of Pittsburgh’s Philippine-American community. He also suggested various possibilities for my project — from taking an objectively curious, investigative approach to documenting the community’s history, to focusing on my strengths in music as a way to explore Philippine cultural identity. Lastly, he suggested that the event take place at the Philippine Nationality Room at the Cathedral of Learning, an idea that I instantly loved.
In addition, I met and interviewed Jordana, a Filipina-American friend of my advisor’s. She spoke about her experience as a daughter of a Filipina immigrant, expressed the importance of food as a locus for cultural identity, and influenced my decision to make the final outcome of Magsalin a community event. Lastly, she generously lent me a copy of a book by her cousin: This Woman’s Work: Images and words from the Filipina women in my family by Lorelei Narvaja, who collected reflections written by Filipina women in their family — in both the Philippines and the diaspora. This book had tremendous influence on my goal to invite members of the community to express their own narratives.
In the summer of 2019, in what I sometimes laughingly refer to as “participant observation,” I joined the Philippine-American Performing Arts of Greater Pittsburgh (PAPAGP). For two months, I attended rehearsals and community gatherings, culminating in a performance of folk music and dance in PAPAGP’s annual recital, Sari-Sari, in September 2019. Beyond finding a place among other Filipino-Americans among Pittsburgh, I learned more about the experiences and history of this community whom I hope to celebrate through Magsalin.
In December 2019, I reached out to the committee relations chair of the Nationality Rooms at the University of Pittsburgh, who happens to be Filipina herself and expressed great excitement and support for the project. Together, we communicated the project’s idea to the board of the Philippine Nationality Room (which included people I had worked with in PAPAGP).
Before the pandemic intensified in March 2020, we brainstormed various features of the event, including Filipino food, incorporating a children’s writing contest, choosing a date representative of Philippine history and culture, setting the theme as “life in diaspora,” and incorporating storytelling, both formal and in formal.
Entries from process journal
Lastly, here are two excerpts from my journal to share my thought-process behind creating and sharing On Embodying Place:
March 18th, 2020
My BXA capstone has evolved from an ambitious community-based project, celebrating creative expression within the Philippine-American community of Pittsburgh, into a personal poetry collection.
What story is this collection telling? Honestly, I am still being pretty ambitious. I intend for it to be a rather large collection of the poems I have written over the past four years, relating to my experiences of cultural and ethnic identity, diaspora, race, body image, & being a woman. It’s a pretty wide range of themes, and it’s quite ambitious of me to want to include all of them. It’s simply that I’ve written so much.
May 2nd, 2020
I’m deciding to “release” my BXA capstone as a gift for a fundraiser for Filipino immigrant workers who are especially vulnerable, working in hospitals on the frontlines of this pandemic.
Yes, I’m worried that less people will want to read it because I’m asking them to donate. But it feels so right, to make the release of this project into an act of giving to the communities on whose shoulders I stand: people of my ethnic background, who work heedless of the privileges not handed to them that I was given. We’ve come from the same place — places of poverty in the Philippines — how can I, who’ve benefited so much from my parents’ hard work and circumstances, not seek to give back to them at the same moment that I relish the experience of my privilege?
Philippine-American Performing Arts of Greater-Pittsburgh ⧫ Jim Daniels ⧫ Carrie Hagan ⧫ Stephanie Murray ⧫ Jordana Grodek ⧫ William Alba ⧫ Alberto Almarza ⧫ My family
Ben-Rafael, Eliezer. “Diaspora.” Current Sociology 61, no. 5-6 (2013): 842-861. Accessed on 5 Nov. 2019. https://doi-org.proxy.library.cmu.edu/10.1177/0011392113480371.
Covington-Ward, Yolanda. "Transforming communities, recreating selves: interconnected diasporas, performance, and the shaping of Liberian immigrant identity." Africa Today 60, no. 1 (2013): p. 29+. Gale Academic Onefile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A349224088/AONE?u=cmu_main&sid=AONE&xid=6ce2a68d. Accessed 5 Nov. 2019.
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Narvaja, Lorelei. This Woman’s Work: Images and words from the Filipina women in my family. 2011.
Sakamoto, Michael. “Soil: Crisis, the cultural commons and performing South-east Asia in America.” Performance Research 21, no. 3 (2016), 103-114. DOI: 10.1080/13528165.2016.1176743.
Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Duke University Press, 2003.