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Interview With Ninotchka Rosca

The legendary Filipino novelist and women's-rights activist discusses the uneasy relationship between literature and activism.

As the founder of GABRIELA Network (GabNet), a Filipino solidarity and women's empowerment group in the United States, Ninotchka Rosca has been at the forefront of advocating for women's rights in the age of globalization. She is the author of 11 books and has won numerous awards, including the American Book Award for excellence in literature.

Recently, while around 50,000 people marched in Los Angeles against Arizona’s new discriminatory immigration laws, Rosca was in Montreal to speak at a conference organized by the Kapit Bisig Centre, Quebec’s member organization of the National Alliance of Philippine Women in Canada. The theme of the conference was "Counterspin"—looking back on the past quarter century in North American activism among Filipino migrants and trying to learn new lessons. Both GabNet and the first Philippine Women’s Centre in Canada were founded in 1989.

Rosca sat down with me after her presentation to talk about immigration myths and policies, the unhappy marriage of literature and activism and her reflections on twenty-five years of community organizing among Philippine women in North America.

Photo by Stephen Davis

Braden Goyette: What is wrong with common perceptions of migrants in North America? 

Ninotchka Rosca: The most fundamental error in the perception of migrants in both the United States and Canada is that they come just to make money. So it's a very one-dimensional, reductionist view of people.  These are people.  They want the things that normal people have. They want relationships, they want families, they want to be significant socially.

BG: What should more Canadians know about Filipino-Canadians—or Canadians of Philippine descent, as you put it?

NR: I think that question you should address to the Canadians of Philippine ancestry. I can tell you what Americans should understand about Filipino-Americans, even those who are coming in as what they call the “undocumented.” We did a study on this; the common narrative that these people are poor and uneducated and so on—this narrative is not correct. One, they're very highly educated, better than the average American. Two, they're actually lower-middle class or middle class, because it's so expensive to get out of the Philippines and into a first-world country. Three, they're not just a pair of hands, you know? To take care of the baby and so on. These are very, very intelligent, very highly trained women who can provide great value to the society—if they're given half the chance that most Americans get! Just half.

BG: You said that essentially the same issues are being discussed in the Filipino community even after twenty-five years of work. What needs to change now?  Does something need to change in the way we approach organizing?

NR: It's not the approach to organizing, I think it's the approach to these issues.  There is a tendency to churn them so that they last forever, because they are of political value—not to us, but to people elsewhere. Let me give you an example. The Filipino veterans of the Second World War who are living in the United States, and who were denied their pensions and their access to veteran's hospitals—it took fifty years to resolve that! Because we weren't thinking as a community. It was just a concern of the veterans.

BG: How does literature fit into your political work?  What is the relationship of the two?

NR: It's not a happy match. Well, you know, one is very solitary work, the other is very social. On the other hand it’s a perfect expression of my character. I'm really very extreme. Zoom-zoom—swing this way, swing that way. No compromises, you know.  And it's also the essence of the work—a very bad match. Politics summarizes, but the language of literature details. There's a huge disconnect between the two. [Sigh]. Mismatch.

BG: You spoke earlier about circular migration, and the way that Canada and the U.S. are making use of this more and more. What is circular migration, who does it benefit and who does it hurt?

NR: Circular migration is a system that has been set up for huge numbers of people never to become permanent residents or citizens of one country, but instead to remain as a floating pool of reserve labour, going from one country to the other. Circular migration is nothing more than a permanent state of impermanence. That's the best way for me to sum that up. And these people who are moved and moved from country to country in fulfillment of this one-dimensional narrative that migrants only look for jobs and money—they serve capital. They enable countries like the Philippines, for instance, to escape from having all the contradictions within rendered acute. And in the case of Canada and the United States, well, they benefit the bourgeoisie. And even the bourgeois women, because we take care of their children. That means we take care of the next generation that's going to feed the corporations with labour power. It's a horrible system. And it's absolutely incumbent upon us to break this narrative.

BG:
What would a just immigration policy look like?

NR: I don't really know. There was a time on this earth when white people went anywhere they wanted, with no issues of passport, visa, et cetera. That's how they got to Africa, how they got to Australia, how they got here. I always thought it was very strange, even while I was a kid, when people were talking about the "yellow peril," like China was going to spill out of its borders and take over the whole world. And these are just projections of the white people, because that's exactly what they did. I mean, the whole continent of North America, the whole subcontinent of Australia, New Zealand, the continent of Africa, you know.

So what would a just immigration policy be? I think it would be the same for everyone, no matter the colour. This thing about the colour, I really do not understand it within the white culture. Because when they look at the colour of the eyes, the colour doesn't matter. Blue, black, brown, green, except when it's really gorgeous, like violet, you know.  Elizabeth Taylor. Okay, then they go crazy over it, because it's rare. But they eyes and the skin, they're the same—they're the organs of the body. So why should the colour of the skin become something different from the colour of the eyes? How these two colours are perceived—it's interesting, no?

BG: Is there anything you'd like to add?

NR: Hello, Canadians.

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—How to Make it as a Writer? Be a Man
—The Bookworm, the Mousy Translator and the Uptight Professor
—Revolution of the Two Ahmads

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