I recently discovered this writer on the Internet: one Lynda Barry, a pale, freckled, red-haired, 55 year old American cartoonist who is one quarter Pinay. She’s relatively unknown in the present, but in the eighties, she was famed as the cartoonist behind Ernie Pook’s Comeek, a syndicated newspaper strip that made her famous enough to be invited to David Letterman.
Anyway. Lynda faded from view as newspapers faded from view, but she’s recently been receiving attention for some new work. I stumbled onto an interview on this webzine called The Rumpus. While I was startled by the interviewer’s near-idolatrous introduction, the interview proceeded to reveal a funny, wry, self-deprecating, and very down to earth person who had survived a troubled Fil-American childhood with her sense of humor intact and who also cared and thought very deeply about art and play and the human need for both. My wife subsequently got me a copy of her book, 100 Demons, a collection of semi-autobiographical stories (a genre she only half-jokingly dubs “autobiofictionalography” in the foreword), mostly about her childhood in a small Filipino community in America.
What the book makes clear from the first story is that: although she is a white, Irish-Norwegian mestiza who is only a quarter Pinoy by blood, she grew up in a household that was Filipino by culture. Her cartoons show her as a freckled redhead in a sea of brown relatives. Her mother and grandmother ‘s speech balloons contain English that we recognize as filtering through a language with a primordial grip on their souls. There is also this page, where she explains how to cook rice in terms of water rising to knuckle height, while other works indicate a familiarity with bagoong, adobo, dinuguan, and lechon.
Interestingly however, she misspells practically every Tagalog word she uses, something that none of the reviews of her books ever mentions. Further, she misspells Tagalog in a very interesting way. For example, she consistently spells Ay nako! as Aie n’ako! Obviously there’s something more involved here than a simple spelling error like getting the vowels wrong (e.g. spelling litid as leted) or dropping a letter (e.g. spelling mangga as manga). She’s not misremembering spelling rules! I say this because she adds letters; she doesn’t drop them. The y in Ay is rendered two vowels, i and e. Her version of Nako contains an apostrophe, and so on. Her errors produce increased complexity rather than simplicity.
I figured out what was going on when I saw a nephew spell “any” as “eny” and realized he was fitting the letters to the sounds he heard in his head. When writing in Tagalog, Barry, like my nephew, is spelling phonetically. She knows the sounds that make up the words, and she is selecting letters that she judges to reflect the sounds in the context of English.
I’m guessing that for her, letters represent units of American sounds, and that her spelling reflects trying to make these units of American sounds reflect the sounds of Tagalog words. It’s comparable to having to spell really strangely in order to get Microsoft’s text-to-speech program to speak something that sounds Tagalog-ish.
I live in Manila, the center and capital of the kingdom of Tagalog, and her spelling disturbs me because one of the things we take for granted in the center is a Tagalog orthography: a standardized system for writing Tagalog. We take this system for granted; it’s a kind of cultural infrastructure, a cultural delivery system optimized to enable you to communicate with people who aren’t directly in front of you, a system that enables knowledge and experience to be collected, stored, and circulated like blood throughout the body and history of the culture.
Barry is now 56, which means that she has probably never formally been taught Tagalog, neither by teachers nor relatives. Tagalog, or what she remembers of it (Recent information seems to indicate little contact with Filipinos or Fil-Ams and at least two people recount that she now refuses to talk about her relatives) is for her a language that is heard and spoken, rather than one that is written or read. The mutant words that flow from Barry’s brush is a sign of learning Tagalog in a place where the knowledge is being circulated by oral systems. Of a place where experience is not being written down or mailed to anyone.
You might ask, isn’t this all to be expected? She’s Fil-Am, not Pinoy. She grew up in America. Of course her Tagalog will be a bit cracked. All of which is true, but what I wouldn’t have expected is the institutional reflection of her failings.
The 100 Demons in my hands is not a manuscript. It’s not a bunch of Barry watercolors she put together in her bedroom and handed to me. 100 Demons is a book, a mass-produced artifact put out by a publishing company. Barry is not the first or only writer with spelling difficulties, but correcting an author’s errors is part of what a publisher does. Or is supposed to do. The fact that a real book, a full-fledged, full-color, commercially-published American book should be filled with misspelled Tagalog is a sign of something, but I don’t know exactly what. It’s like a crack that’s the sign of a bigger crack, maybe the sign of a hole so big it’s the size of the horizon. Was the misspelled Tagalog left in as a kind of artistic statement? Something fractured left in the frame to mirror her fractured identity? Something tells me this isn’t it. It’s too po-mo an art move, it’s not in keeping with the rest of her approach, which is all kind of straight-talking and folksy. Plus, it’s a metaphor that would only be perceptible to hipsters who knew how to spell Tagalog properly. So no, it can’t be an artistic statement. But if it isn’t an artistic statement, then it either means that that no-one in the production chain, from the author down to the printer, thought it was necessary to correct or proofread the Tagalog in the book.
The weirdest, most science-fictiony, Philip-K-Dickesque scenario would be that all Fil-Ams in America write Tagalog just like Lynda does: that is, as lone wolves, inventing their own orthographies, their own private transcription systems, and that they believe that this is the proper way to write Tagalog. This sounds fantastical and funny –Dickesque, like I said — but it is just another way of saying that it never occurred to either Barry or her publisher Sasquatch Books that written Tagalog was something had to be proofread. Both passages describe the fact that nobody in the chain could conceive that there was a wrong way to spell in Tagalog.
William Gibson said: the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed. This is one of Gibson’s most famous statements, but I suspect even he would be shocked to learn how unevenly distributed even the present is. In writing about Barry, I realized: the alphabet was invented four thousand years ago. There were Akkadian dictionaries 2300 years ago. The first English dictionary published in 1604, over four hundred years ago. Standard English spelling as we know it, didn’t exist before then. Englishmen didn’t even spell their own names consistently in the 1600s.
Still and all, it is the case that even now, 12 years into the 21st century, many of us — probably even most of us — are in a similar place as Barry with regard to at least one language. Any Manileño whose parents came from the provinces. In 2012 it’s likely that most Filipinos have never attended a class where they wrote in their mother language unless that language is Tagalog or Cebuano. There must be tens of thousands of Chinoys who speak but can’t write Hokkien or Cantonese. I’m also told that most Chinese languages have no orthography; that turning the street Cantonese of Hong Kong into written characters is a work in progress. A story, as they say, that’s still being written.
Tad studied Zoology in the University of Hiroshima, and graduated with a degree in Philosophy from the University of the Philippines. He was a founding member of the seminal sound art band The Children of Cathode Ray and is a leading media artist who uses sound, video, programming and electronics in the creation of his films and installations, which have been exhibited in numerous local and international festivals and galleries. Email Tad at firstname.lastname@example.org.