Christine Imperial’s debut book, Mistaken for an Empire, was released in April 2023 by Mad Creek Books, an imprint of the Ohio State University Press. Described as a memoir in tongues, this hybrid text marries poetry, document, and image in a brilliant interrogation of what it means to be a Filipino subject, and what it means to translate across languages and temporalities.
Imperial begins the text with a translation of Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden into Tagalog, a poem about the Philippine–American war that sings the praises of US imperialism in such an explicit way that many mistake it for satire upon first reading. Imperial, too, had trouble gauging the earnestness of such a violent text, and in translating, takes up this violence, while intentionally questioning her own subjectivity, her own Tagalog, and her own ability to make sense of who she is and where she comes from. The book turns into much more than just this translation, and ultimately presents a weaving of history and personal story that grapples with belonging, family, and the possibility of healing.
It should be said that Imperial and I are also best friends, often collaborators, and constant presences in each other’s lives. I’ve followed the evolution of this book since we were graduate students, and I’m thrilled to see it in the world. It is no surprise to me that the book won the Ohio State University Press’ Gournay Prize, and that it has been described as “a dazzling debut” and “major contribution to contemporary literary culture” (Michael Leong). I had the privilege to sit with the author and discuss her book, colonialism, names, love, guilt, and more.
Sarah Yanni: Christine, tell me about the seed of this idea. I know it was your MFA thesis project—did you know that this is what you were going to do from the beginning of your MFA program?
Christine Imperial: No. So my initial thesis proposal was more a collection of poems directly ruminating on my last name, and broadly, Filipino-American relations. There wasn’t really an anchor, which I feel the translation of Kipling does. First year of grad school, we had a Translated Bodies class with Gabrielle Civil and one of our prompts was like, to think about what a healing text and a wounding text could be. So I wanted to think about if translation could be a form of both healing and wounding.
In the initial part of the book I talk about my first encounter with Kipling’s poem in high school. And I think that was also a stark moment of mistranslation, which was so dissonant because I was so sure that like, my formalistic reading of the text was right—that he was satirizing empire, not calling for this actual further subjugation of the Philippines. And then when I went to class it was like, no, no, no, this is real! And so thinking about that moment, and about my education in the Philippines and how it was molded after something still American, or Spanish.
Yeah, it’s wild that it’s just . . . not satire.
Also I’m like, this poem is so bad! The White Man’s Burden—part of it was like, how could anyone write this? Like, this is just bad poetry.
I was also starting to write hybrid Filipino/English poems, where I would tackle my relationship to the language. And I thought that translating this poem would be a good way to do that. And I tried as much as possible not to use Google Translate, and sort of like, think about translation as a process of language acquisition all over again. And thinking about: What are my gaps in the Filipino language, and where does that come from? And that’s when the project expanded.
So that’s when you chose to make translation the primary point of departure?
Yeah, it was still gonna be a mid-length lyric poem or documentary essay, not my whole thesis. But I talked to Gabrielle Civil and Jon Wagner and they were both like, this is actually your thesis.
Yeah. And then, I mean, it became so much more than just the translation of the poem. I wonder if this whole book is an act of translation. I mean obviously you’re literally translating between languages, but I think you’re also translating your past to your present. Like if we think of translating as creating connections or legibility from language A to language B, or point A to point B, I also feel like this is translating the different spaces that you were moving between and kind of making sense of all of these disparate ties you have in your life . . . between memories and what’s been told to you and how you experience it, versus how your siblings experience it. I don’t know. Do you think of your whole book as an act of translation?
Yeah, I do. The original title was DUSA: A Translation of Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden, so the whole thing is also a translation of like the white man’s burden into another subjectivity. And like you talked about, moving between temporalities that I can’t really call my own—I inherit Filipino American history and my Lola’s memories and my mom’s memories, but it’s sort of like, there has to be a recognition that in any translation of those things, meaning emerges through ruptures. Translating Kipling’s poem activated a certain memory, and then this one, and then this other one—so it was very associative.
Yes! Your book feels totally associative.
Which I think is a hidden process when we’re reading a translation. Because when you read a translation from one poem to another, it’s very—this is what the poem says in this language, here’s what I think it says in this other language. And what helped too is thinking about how the root of translation means to carry.
I love that. I feel like Gabrielle’s class also was really helpful in expanding the definition of translation beyond just language A to language B. Translation can be so much more than that.
Yeah, plus we got to do a human pyramid in that class.
Oh god right I was on the top.
And I was on the bottom.
That’s friendship, that’s what it means to carry.
Okay, I guess this is more of a concrete question. You have this good line in the book about the incapability of the poem, and we’ve talked in the past about the limitations of language. So much of your book is about the destabilization of the self and straddling multiple homes and multiple versions of yourself. So I’m wondering: For you, was language able to really capture this? Has poetry served as a stabilizing force of making sense for this? Or has it just caused further chaos for you?
Yeah! I think poetry has helped me make sense of connections that felt kind of amorphous in my head. I’ve always felt this sense of discomfort or weird dissonance with my dual citizenship, my relationship with Tagalog, but also not wanting just to write Oh I’m Filipino, I’m a minority, I’m going to translate this poem into Tagalog, because that felt very essentialist. Like an essentialist translation.
Yeah that would be a one-dimensional version, but that’s completely not what you’re doing here.
With translation, it’s like you can do the one-to-one or you can dive into the semiotic excess and see what happens, and rather than try to order the chaos, it’s more sequencing the chaos.
And it’s more than just excess of language. If you flip through the pages of your book, there’s images, news clips, blocks of repetition, documentation, material—there’s so much going on. What was your relationship to gathering that material? I’m assuming you consider this documentary poetry?
Yeah I do.
Yeah, so what’s your relationship to the document? Did you find that bringing in all of these documents and images and working across these modalities gave you more than language could give you? Like, was that a necessary tool to actually capture all of the things you’re trying to capture?
I came to CalArts with a poetry practice that was really invested in looking and interpreting images and thinking about—how can subjectivity change the image, and what are the ethics of that? And then when you think of the document as an image, a lot can spring forth from there. I remember we read Brian Teare and he says something like “documentary poetics is the language of the document incriminating itself.” I think Kipling’s poem is a document that incriminates itself. But also, with the document, there is a necessary erasure that is done by someone like a Filipino who reads McKinley’s benevolent assimilation document. That’s one I redact in the book. And then it’s like the document is being interpreted as a document, not as like a monolith of truth.
It makes it into this mutable thing.
And all the images in the book also helped me when I was getting stuck with the writing. I would think—what does this image conjure? And that really helped. Or, what is the history of this image? Or, how can I sequence it with language, and what is the language doing for the image? Rather than—how am I describing this image? Because I don’t want to just like, describe what’s in the images. I think they act the same way as language in my poems. It’s this fluid process of moving through image and word and document. I wanted it to feel cinematic, not like the kind of book that you can just come back to after a couple of weeks, but something that propels itself into continuous reading.
Yes! So do you not consider your work ekphrastic in the sense that like, ekphrasis is language about image? How do you think about that?
I still consider my work ekphrastic, especially my sequence of poems that are directly about a painting. But instead of it being writing about image, it’s an irreverent translation of the image that exceeds its place within the frame. It’s a translation.
I love that idea of irreverence, too. Because I was going to say that your book kind of breaks this presumed, formal idea of what a printed book is. This formal arrangement of words on a page. In your book, anything can be on the page—screenshots and shapes made out of words . . . it really breaks conventions of how we expect language to be presented to us. And it feels true, because ideas are chaotic and history is chaotic and translation is chaotic. Not to say your book is chaotic—
It’s a little bit chaotic.
But it’s a poetry book where there aren’t necessarily these fixed sections. It’s not like title, poem, title, poem. It’s this conglomerate of image and text and sometimes text as image, and erasure, et cetera. I love how it asks the reader to suspend their prior relationships to how a book is supposed to be presented to you.
Yeah, and it was interesting to be in the process of submitting it, because it’s being published as a memoir, as non-fiction. But it’s also considered a poem, but it’s also a translation. And I’ve always liked the impulse to not write traditionally in my projects. I can’t really write individual poems. And the texts that influence my book mirror that, like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s DICTEE is so cinematic.
I love DICTEE, and especially how it plays with presence and absence.
I know! It’s so good. Another influential text was Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let me Be Lonely, which changed the way I was thinking about what a poem could be.
Yes, also so good.
And I think the chaos and fragmentation are in a way reflective of what’s being talked about. I’m not trying to make a book that’s like my mom is America, my dad is the Philippines!
Sure, there’s an illegibility—because life is illegible.
Especially for immigrant subjects or diasporic subjects. And then there’s the weirdness of Filipino history in the sense that—it’s not really independent yet. It’s still pretty colonial. So I’m not writing about this faraway past. I loved the observation earlier about translating past and present, and I guess I’m also looking at these things less in a linear, western history paradigm. Instead, it’s a simultaneity happening all at once. And I’m not speaking for every Filipino either, so there were wider issues of, I’m inflicting these signifiers with my own history and context and ways of knowing.
But it’s important that you’re not reducing your experience or falling into tropes of diasporic writing. You’re not reducing, you’re expanding. You’re expanding the understanding of what it means to be Filipino, which is, so many things.
Yeah and I’m reckoning with my own disavowal of being Filipino. There’s this shame of not being able to speak the language that well, but also the shame is part of the truth of my context, factors of class, geography. But there’s also an intentional decision not to ascribe to hegemony and be like I am smart because I can speak English. I wanted to expand my own understanding of paradigms of success.
A pretty direct question for you: What is the role of guilt in your work?
Oh, it’s all guilt.
I think it begins from a place of guilt and shame, too, with the mistranslation of Kipling’s poem. The guilt of not being Filipino enough or American enough. The guilt of my explanations never satisfying anyone. And the big one is familial guilt. Not understanding what was going on as a kid, or where I was. Coming to understand it much later in life. Not understanding why I wanted to just speak English, read English writers, consume American culture, and then growing up and learning how I’m the model minority. Guilt for class, for the irony of what it is to grow up with maids, and for me to replicate paternalistic dynamics.
And what’s the role of love in your work? There’s so much with your family.
Thank you for that question. Yeah, there’s a lot of love, and I did really want the tenderness of the book to come out.
Yeah at its core, it’s a very tender book, I think.
Which I didn’t expect. Recently my Lola read it and she was like Christine! I don’t need a eulogy! But there’s so much love for her, and for my siblings.
I also think that there’s this expectation in diasporic poetry sometimes where it’s like, I am being held by my mother, my mother is my home, my safety, my mother tongue, and it’s like no—my mom is very complicated, and my relationship with her is very complicated. There’s a lot of love there but the sense of belonging isn’t as easy. When I write about my dad, there’s so much hope. And there’s also sadness, thinking about the life we could have built if things were different.
I’m gonna cry, Sarah, I love my dad!
We love John. I think all that love comes through in the book.
And I love my Lola so much, and I think love helps with all the chaos that’s been present in my family. I even try to write about moments of just like, me and my dad lying down and drinking whiskey. Because these small moments can also be moments of clarity. They’re moments of breath. I’m not always trying to say something about history and language and treatises of colonialism.
Yeah it would be a very different book if it was just the academic stuff.
And I think in Kipling’s poem, there’s no sense of love. It’s love for empire, but it’s very clinical and capitalistic.
There’s a loss of like—you’re talking about humans. And your book makes space for the humanness of everything.
Okay, One more question for you. You’ve touched on the negotiation of your role in this book, you know––who am I to do this? Who am I in relation to these two nations? And the original title of your book, DUSA, I know you told me that it means burden. So I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on if, in a way, the burden is trying to answer these questions? Is the burden justifying the book? Or is the burden trying to assert who you are? Are the burdens placed on you by an outside force, by yourself? Basically, what is the burden, Christine?
Yeah I’ve seen dusa translated to burden, or suffering, but I’ve always understood it as burden. And yes, I think the burden is everything you just said.
It’s a multitude of burdens.
Yeah you know first, there’s the white man’s burden, which we can critique in a kind of clear way. And then there’s the burden of trying to understand who I am in relation to the poem. Am I really one of the savages he’s writing about? Or am I closer to Kipling? And then there’s the burden of home, not feeling at home, the burden of expectations, of history. Because history is something that you carry with you. It’s even in my last name—imperial. It’s the burden of inheritance, and the burden of critiquing the burden too.
Well despite the burdens, you’ve edited this enormous book, it won a prize, you finished it, it’s out in the world. How do you feel?
I feel very excited. Now I just keep trying to stop myself from being like, oh, I should have put that in this book, I should have put this in the book. I need to turn that off.
That’s a burden for another day.
Sarah Yanni has been recognized as a Finalist for BOMB Magazine‘s Poetry Contest, the Andres Montoya Letras Latinas Poetry Prize, and others. She was most recently a Finalist to be the Poet Laureate of Glendale. She holds an MFA from CalArts and lives in Los Angeles.
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