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Dossier Université Invitée : Philippines

The Wails of Heaven: The Representation of Water in Contemporary Southeast Asian Poetry

Les gémissements du ciel: la représentation de l’eau dans la poésie sud-est asiatique contemporaine
Anne Nichole Alegre

Résumés

Cet essai examine la représentation de l’eau dans trois poèmes contemporains venant de l’Asie du Sud-Est: « Yolanda: A Typhoon » de Sarah Gambito, « Flood Season, Jakarta » de Khairani Barokka et « Easter Sunday in Phuket, Thailand » de Cindy Childress. S’appuyant sur deux approches, à savoir, les Blue Humanities et les Trauma Studies, l’analyse interroge sur la capacité de la poésie à démontrer la façon dont les communautés trouvent un sens aux catastrophes naturelles liées à l’eau, telles que les typhons, les inondations et les tsunamis. Elle vise également à découvrir la manière dont les traumatismes, en tant que perturbations ou bouleversements, ont amené ces communautés d’Asie du Sud-Est à redéfinir, étendre ou modifier leur relation avec la mer primitive.

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  • 1 Peter Boomgaard’s edited collection of essays examines the complex relationship of the Southeast As (...)
  • 2 The study included Southeast Asian cities such as Manila and Jakarta: Pei-Chin Wu, Meng Wei and Ste (...)

1What separates the archipelagic nations of Southeast Asia is also what binds them together: water. The islands of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand are not only surrounded by rich waters but are also constantly showered by its wondrous tropical gifts. Indeed, Southeast Asia is a region that never thirsts. According to Peter Boomgaard, « [w]ater, in its many guises, has always played a powerful role in shaping Southeast Asian histories, cultures, societies and economies »1. It comes to no surprise then that the Southeast Asian corpus of literary works, particularly poetry, has generous sprinklings of water as a figurative and metaphoric element. But what happens to the representation of water in poetry especially during an era neck-deep in climate change? A study published in March 2022 predicts that the sea levels in 99 coastal cities are rising at an alarming rate, claiming that « [t]he cities with fastest subsidence rates are mostly in Asia »2. On-ground experience affirms this. Beginning 2009 with Typhoon Ondoy, the Philippines has consistently fallen victim to one or more super typhoons each year. With rising sea levels and poor urban design, Manila’s streets are left submerged in just a matter of hours. Since 2017, news outlets have sounded the alarm concerning Indonesia’s fastest-sinking city: Jakarta. And although Thailand seems distant from suffering the same fate as the Philippines and Indonesia, it also has had its share of the catastrophic effects of 2004’s raging tsunami brought about by the magnitude 9.1 earthquake under the Indian Ocean.

The Blue Humanities and Literary Trauma Theory

  • 3 Steven Mentz’ essay, « Shakespeare and the Blue Humanities » is a clear and comprehensive demonstra (...)

2This essay compares the portrayal of water in selected contemporary poems from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand and examines it within the context of trauma studies. The analysis of water in its various forms and how it figures within human constructs of history, literature, philosophy, and art is called the Blue Humanities. Steve Mentz describes his study of Shakespeare and the Blue Humanities as a specialism that « [focuses] on flashes of water language to uncover the poetics of the most alien and alluring part of our global environment »3. A method that combines close-reading and historicism, Mentz provides a similar framework for this essay. Sarah Gambito’s « Yolanda: A Typhoon » (2015), Khairani Barokka’s « Flood Season, Jakarta » (2017), and Cindy Childress’ « Easter Sunday in Phuket, Thailand » (2012) do not only have flashes of water language, but are themselves poems about real-world water disasters embodied and represented through language.

  • 4 Serpil Oppermann, « Storied Seas and Living Metaphors in the Blue Humanities, Configurations », Con (...)

3On the other hand, Serpil Opperman bemoans how metaphoric representations of water4 (the sea, in particular) in literature are problematic as they displace the sea as a material object:

[] visual images, narrative representations, and aesthetic expressions may create an unintentional self-distance to disconnect the human further from them. Therefore, blue humanities scholars are extremely critical of the sea as a semiotic space […]

  • 5 Serpil Oppermann, op. cit., p. 451.

4Although this essay will be examining how the poetics of each text portrays water, it does not dissolve the discussion to water’s mere figurative function. The three poems do not use water or the forms of water simply as a way to represent another distant reality. It is the destructive forces of water itself — the ways by which water is presented through language, how it moves and acts, its very role as a character— that is examined so that it « enables us to contemplate the images of the sea in cultural productions not just metaphorically but also literally »5. This is why it is also important to contextualize each poem within the real-world event that it directly references, as well as touch on how water has been valued in the region throughout the course of time.

  • 6 Elizabeth Purdy, « The Weight of Water: Some Implications of Textual Fluidity for the Study of Comp (...)
  • 7 Peter Boomgaard, op. cit., p. 2.

5Additionally, the focus on the properties of water in Elizabeth Purdy’s « The Weight of Water: Some Implications of Textual Fluidity for the Study of Comparative Literature » has been essential to this essay’s emphasis on the movement of water in the aforementioned poems. In the essay, Purdy has identified water’s perpetual motion, shapelessness, and connective potential and how their presence in two textual novels demonstrate narrative fluidity6. Similarly, this essay will look at the motions and movements of water in each destructive form: the typhoon, the flood, and the tsunami. Each water form dominates the poems of Gambito, Barokka, and Childress respectively. In the poems, the motion of water represents and demonstrates the effects of trauma on human society, so that one can see how « [t]he sea [...] is a source of food, but also of many hazards [...] Southeast Asian societies and cultures are confronted with and permeated by ‘water from heaven’ in the form of rain, flash flood […] »7. Thus, water is transformed from a rich resource to a destructive force that precipitates trauma.

  • 8 Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Baltimore, John Hopkins Univers (...)
  • 9 Michelle Balaev, « Literary Trauma Theory Reconsidered », in Michelle Balaev (ed.), Contemporary Ap (...)

6Trauma Studies have greatly evolved since Cathy Caruth’s seminal work, which argued that trauma cannot be expressed or represented, and therefore its meaning cannot be derived8. Michelle Balaev suggests that the evolution has been marked by a movement from Caruth’s theory towards one where trauma « locates meaning through a greater consideration of the social and cultural contexts of traumatic experience »9. As mentioned, each poem presents a destructive form of water and alludes to very real and precise events in the history of each country. By recalling specific names of disasters and places — Yolanda the typhoon in 2013, Jakarta the city, and Phuket the beach town — each poem also ushers its readers to consider the real-world causes, conduct, and consequences of these disastrous events. In doing so, the poems’ use of water does not only operate on the figurative plane, but as Opperman insists, also emphasizes water disaster as lived material experiences that yield trauma. The deliberate acknowledgment of each place as sites of traumatic disaster events illustrates what Michelle Balaev calls « [t]he primacy of place in the representations of trauma »:

  • 10 Michelle Balaev, « Trends in Literary Trauma Theory », Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journa (...)

A traumatic experience disrupts attachments between self and others by challenging fundamental assumptions about moral laws and social relationships that are themselves connected to specific environments. Novels represent this disruption between self and others by carefully describing the place of trauma because the physical environment offers the opportunity to examine both the personal and cultural histories embedded in landscapes that define the character’s identity, and thus influences the meaning of the traumatic experience10.

7Combined with the method employed by Blue Humanities scholars, the selected poems analyzed in this essay each describe the place of trauma and water’s inextricable role in disrupting the identity of the landscape. This essay attempts to answer the question: How does the portrayal of water in these poems help interpret the meaning and impact of disaster-related trauma on specific social and cultural sites of Southeast Asia?

  • 11 Michelle Balaev, « Trauma Studies », in David H. Richter (ed.), A Companion to Literary Theory, Oxf (...)

8In order to answer this, it is important to acknowledge that « trauma is conceptualized as an event that alters perception and identity yet in the wake of such disturbance new knowledge is formed about the self and external world »11. The poems do not only tackle these traumatizing events, but also aestheticizes the character of water and how it has changed the very landscapes of cities and provinces by imposing its force and power on these historic spaces. Such force of water on landscapes ushers a shift in perception about humanity and community, which will be demonstrated further on in the essay. Additionally, Irene Visser in her essay entitled « Trauma and Power in Postcolonial Literary Studies », she posits:

  • 12 Irene Visser, « Trauma and Power in Postcolonial Literary Studies », in Michelle Balaev (ed.), Cont (...)

Unlike what is currently the dominant idea in trauma theory, social fracture, alienation, and a weakening of social cohesion, are not the only, nor perhaps even primary characteristics of trauma. In fact, while trauma may cause divisiveness, it can also lead to a stronger sense of belonging and can in fact create community12.

  • 13 Dorothy Nicole Soderstorm, From Trauma to Testimony: Resilience in Four Contemporary Novels The Far (...)

9While communicating anxieties about human mortality, the fading significance of the city, and the force of natural disasters, each poem still seems to end with a vision of societies that have survived to stand strong in resilience. Dorothy Nicole Soderstorm in her dissertation From Trauma to Testimony focuses on how women characters from certain novels build resilience after traumatic events. Her work has been able to shift the focus of trauma theory from the study of one’s painful past to the recuperation of survivors, showing that « it is possible to mine some good from history’s ills and leave behind a lasting literary monument »13. The poems selected are able to dynamically uncover the anxieties and pain of destructive events and at the same time bear witness to the incredible strength and resilience of Southeast Asian communities. In the next sections, this essay illustrates how Gambito’s « Yolanda: A Typhoon », Barokka’s « Flood Season, Jakarta », and Childress’ « Easter Sunday in Phuket, Thailand » make sense of a real-world water disasters. Each persona in these poems contemplates forms of water such as typhoon, flood, and tsunami and illustrates how the very movement of these water forms usher anxieties about the sea. While confronting the painful past, the poems also show the gift of surviving in the present and how such survival could lead to a reinvigoration of these communities whose cultures, politics, economies, and societies have been shaped so greatly by the primeval sea.

The Sound & the Fury of Water in Sarah Gambito’s « Yolanda: A Typhoon »

  • 14 Greg Bankoff, « Storms of history: Water, hazard and society in the Philippines 1565-1930 », in Pet (...)
  • 15 Ibid., p. 156.

10In a study entitled « Storms of History », Greg Bankoff noted that between the years 1888 to 1897, « [n]o fewer than 5,050 storms of all types were recorded for this ten-year period or an annual average of 505 »14. The Philippines, indeed, is no stranger to rainfall in its many forms and degrees of intensity. Philippine mythology even assigns different gods to the wind, as opposed to the mythology of other civilizations which assigns a single deity as their wind god. There is Habagat, the god of wind from the Southwest; Amihan, the goddess of wind from Northeast; and Buhawi, who is the personification of typhoon. Although storms and typhoons are ingrained in the Filipino consciousness, recent years have shown that its effects have become more and more disastrous. Bankoff attributes this to « the accelerating pace of deforestation since the 1930s »15 which has increased the harmful consequences of typhoons on cities and communities. One such typhoon was Yolanda or Haian in 2013.

  • 16 Philippe Lopez, Untitled Photograph, Leyte, Time Magazine, « TIME Picks the Top 10 Photos of 2013 » (...)

11In an iconic photograph taken by Philippe Lopez16, a group of women holding religious images of the cross, some Santo Niños, and the Black Nazarene form a procession amidst the ruin of Typhoon Yolanda’s aftermath. It is an image that bespeaks the Filipino’s unwavering faith and Catholic devotion in the middle of extreme suffering. The women were reportedly giving thanks to God for the miracle of their survival, and understandably so. With Yolanda’s death toll reaching over 6,000 people across the islands of the Visayas region, the typhoon is one of the strongest-recorded in history. While numbers can never recount the stories of hunger and desperation that befell the survivors — the families displaced, the resource centers pillaged, and the collective grief experienced by the Filipino people — perhaps, poetry can.

12Filipino-American poet and professor Sarah Gambito writes about the catastrophe in her poem, « Yolanda: A Typhoon » published in 2015. In the poem, the character of water as a typhoon brings about strong winds and heralds the tumultuous passage of human life on land. This is achieved first by showing imagery that evokes the vulnerability and frailty of human life, contrasted by the omnipresence of a supernatural conductor:

How much our hands are God’s
to be running fingers over braille cities.
We are this hand pushed through our womb.
Weeping with each other’s blood in our eyes
17.

13The first four verses of the poem already show the contrast between God and man. Whereas God’s fingers may forge the unseen stories of humanity, man’s hand had merely come from the womb with the image of « blood in our eyes » as a reminder of physical frailty. Further on, the poem illustrates the Earth’s flimsy « cardboard » existence and humanity’s « consequent smallness as miniature baseball players », which are both easily be blown away by « horrible winds »:

  • 18 Ibid., v. 9-11.

We were on this cardboard earth with its puffing volcanoes
miniature baseball players and horrible winds
scored by musician’s hands
18.

  • 19 Ibid., v. 7.
  • 20 Ibid., v. 8.
  • 21 Ibid., v. 8.

14While the force of water as rain storm is not explicitly stated or mentioned in the poem, it is nonetheless palpable as an invasive cacophony of sounds that sweeps the landscape and reminds one of the « the frets of my death sure to come »19. The use of the word fret does not only come from musical jargon, but also suggests the anxieties and fears concerning human mortality. The motion of water and wind can be characterized as « Ears of wind rushing »20 that sweeps the landscape furiously and forces the great trees to bend and become « jellied »21.

15Between the landscape of the earth with its human inhabitants and the battering of the winds and storms, it is evident that water in the form of a typhoon comes down as an invasive force of nature. It can blow away the earth’s cardboard and miniature existence — a devastating reminder of human mortality and the earthly temporality. The flimsiness of human existence stands as a contrast to how water had encroached and enforced its power upon land in the most catastrophic way, which parallels the trauma experienced by Filipinos in recent years. The direct allusion to 2013’s Typhoon Yolanda carries with it echoes of trauma that had brought about a strong sense of solidarity in the nation, specifically the provinces of Samar and Leyte of the Visayas regions. Yolanda seemed to be the first disaster to widely martyrize the Filipino’s quality of resilience that is rooted in religious faith.

  • 22 Olivia Wilkinson, « Faith and Resilience after Disaster: The Case of Typhoon Haiyan », Misean Cara, (...)
  • 23 Sarah Gambito, op. cit., v. 12.

16As mentioned in prior discussions of trauma, Balaev emphasizes the importance of considering cultural contexts and the primacy of place in order to locate the meaning of disruptive events. The Philippines has been known to be a godly and Catholic country that has deeply assimilated 300 years of Spanish colonial rule. This aspect of Filipino history and culture is key to understanding the spiritualization or supernaturalization of disastrous events as opportunities to strengthen an individual or a community’s resilience. In a study by Olivia Wilkinson entitled « Faith and Resilience after Disaster: The Case of Typhoon Haiyan », she concludes that « faith helps [victims] to give meaning to the event, gives them a good attitude so that they can act responsibly following the disaster and encourages them to serve other people in their community »22. The spiritualization of the typhoon is already apparent in how Gambito weaves God as a great musician conducting the winds and waters, and how human smallness is reminded of God and nature’s forces. But it is the last line of Gambito’s poem that urges the faithful resilience to « Stand in the strong ear of this love »23. Doing so, the poem refocuses Typhoon Yolanda from an event of catastrophe to a testament of survival as a community, reflecting Visser’s assertion that trauma can generate a sense of unity and belongingness. In the case of Gambito’s poem, the community of survivors are brought together by standing amidst the strong ears of wind sent forth by the great conductor and by enduring it with love.

17Through its particularity in referencing and using Yolanda in its title, the poem calls attention not only to the catastrophic event in the Philippines in 2013, but also to the resilience of survivors that are associated with faith, love, and ultimately God — thus reflecting a distinctly Filipino response to the typhoon. By doing so, the water-centric disaster event’s material and social significance are also highlighted, instead of its merely symbolic function. Though Gambito uses figurative devices to describe the movement of wind and water, its content and contextual details reveal how the trauma and resilience depicted in the poem is anchored by and grounded on Filipino attitudes on religion — a result, of course, of Filipino cultural history. Despite the tyrannical force of the typhoon — a furious emissary of the sea, Gambito ends the poem in the same spirit as the women who had marched in thanksgiving to God for surviving Yolanda.

Erasing the City in Khairani Barokka’s « Flood Season, Jakarta »

  • 24 JBA Risk Management, « A Retrospective View of Floods in Jakarta », The Flood People, 10 September (...)

18The Waladuna Mosque in Jakarta remains to this day a reminder of how the city is slowly being occupied by the Java sea. Against the backdrop of the cosmopolitan skyline of Jakarta, the half-sunk edifice remains abandoned and desolate since 2001. Each year, heavy and intense rainfall leaves the city centimeters deeper than the last. In 2007, « around 75% of Jakarta city was inundated, resulting in 57 deaths and more than 400,000 people affected. »24 While there may be many factors at play in Jakarta’s gradual but inevitable submersion, one cannot deny the dual roles of climate change and urban overpopulation. The city is located in low coastal land with many running rivers within it and a population of around 10 million inhabitants. With heavy super typhoons and cyclones bringing thicker amounts of rain each year, it is no mystery that the city is sinking.

  • 25 Roland B. Dixon, « Myths and Origins of the Deluge », Oceanic Mythology (1916), 12 September 2022. (...)
  • 26 Ibid.

19Deluges of water and the sea’s overpowering presence is a sentiment long-echoed in the indigenous myths of the Indonesian people. In Roland B. Dixon’s Oceanic Mythology, he observes that different creation myths from the regions of Makassar, Kei Islands, Minahassa « assume the existence of a sky-world or upper realm, and of a primeval sea below it in which or on which the world is made »25. He also adds that « Deluge-myths appear to be fairly well developed in Indonesia and show some features of interest »26. One example of such myth is from the province of Nisa where the flood had been caused by a deity who had become angry at three arguing mountains. The deity had sent a crab to clog the ocean so that rainfall will have nowhere to flow, which left the three mountains submerged until only very little landmass is left. Such stories could have explained the existence of the different island regions in Indonesia. What cannot be denied is the role of water and the sea in the creation and formation of land. But Khairani Barokka’s poem might signal readers to a totally different role of water.

20Unlike Sarah Gambito and Cindy Childress, Khairani Barokka does not seem to allude to any specific disaster event in Indonesia. Instead, she refers to the title as « Flood Season, Jakarta » which could suggest its recurrence and normalcy in the city. In this poem, water comes in the form of flood. While water as flood dominates the poem and the city in the same way that water as typhoon does for Gambito’s Yolanda, its movement in Barokka’s poem is starkly different. The motion of water is that of gradual climbing. Words that help paint this picture include: « rising up to meet us », « sinking spectacle », « floating », and « mooring ». The dominance of these verbs in the present progressive tense gives an impression that the drowning of the city is an ongoing phenomenon. The movement of water does not come as a slap like a typhoon or a battering wave like a tsunami. Unlike the Indonesian myths of the past, the poem portrays water not in terms of creation, but in terms of erasure:

  • 27 Khairani Barokka, « Flood Season, Jakarta », Rope, United Kingdom, Nine Arches Press, 2017, p. 42, (...)

While inside the minds of islanders —
cushioned on the hills
of this sinking spectacle
of cardboard, blood, roads
twisting on each other like yarn
and neon, the flash
of a smile for the cameras,
journeys for food,
immune to eviction,
the rasping grey of the air —
we will be none27.

21These verses begin to enumerate the things of the city that will be erased by the flood. These discrete things— cardboard, blood, roads — are described to merge into one another and form an unrecognizable yarn of objects rendered into insignificance. The idea of insignificance is further emphasized in verse 14, when all spectacle — including the inhabitants — « will be none ». Barokka’s poem, then, presents an image of a flooding city in which water had erased the meaning of existence:

  • 28 Ibid., v. 19-24.

While inside us
we will never have felt
more present in the world,
nor deadened, alive to the whims
of rivers and the sea, and bare.
Meaning bolts itself to hunger28

22Present but deadened, the voice of the poem’s persona seems to come to terms with the dominance of water. Any trace of meaning that can be derived from such traumatic events are replaced by the urgency of hunger. One of the direst consequences of a flooded city is the displacement of thousands of families. Survivors would often be faced with a shortage of resources, food, and basic necessities. As suggested by the poem, hunger and survival takes precedence over any attempts to make sense of and derive meaning out of the event. Thus, the movement of flood water in the poem seems to suggest the gradual erasure of the city’s significance and meaning. The term erasure is more appropriate than disappearance as it connotes measured but inevitable effacement. In a sense, the poem parallels Jakarta’s fate and encapsulates the trauma that such doom brings to its inhabitants.

  • 29 Balaev, « Trauma Studies », op. cit., p. 360-371.

23Albeit less shocking, the motion of water as depicted in Barokka’s poem shows the same invasive and encroaching dominance of water on land, or on the city in particular. By specifying Jakarta in the title of the poem, Barokka dabbles on the trauma caused by flooding as experienced in reality. Michele Balaev mentions that traumatic experience « alters perception and identity »29 such that survivors may arrive at new conclusions and insights about self and identity. The poem presents that such trauma had ushered a shift in the perception of Jakarta from a city of significance to a meaningless landmass that is powerless against the whims of water. However, just like Gambito, Barokka ends her poem with an image of communal solidarity:

  • 30 Khairani Barokka, op. cit., v. 32-36.

[…] pebbles and glass
under trucks rushing manic to the capital,
bringing and wresting, oil drums, men,
boxes of ginger candy, forests of logs,
chairs made of water hyacinths30.

  • 31 Ibid., v. 1.
  • 32 Irene Visser, op. cit.
  • 33 Ibid.

24The poem ends with a picture of rescue. Despite the fading and sinking status of the capital, rescuers are shown to « rush manic » and bring with them people to help and objects that can keep people afloat even though the city is deeply submerged in the « brown tongue of water »31. The fact that the trucks are depicted to rush towards the capital seems to suggest that it is the neighboring cities of Jakarta that had come to its rescue. The movement of flood water may signal the erasure of Jakarta’s significance, but the poem’s ending illustrates that other communities are stepping in to provide assistance. As Irene Visser had theorized, trauma involves a « weakening of social cohesion »32 as illustrated by Jakarta’s fading authority as Indonesia’s capital city, but there is also the potential to « create community »33. In fact, the community that is in the process of creation is a bigger one as it invites the assistance of cities outside the capital. It is important to note that the poem ends with this image that acknowledges both the direness of the situation as well as the impulse to persist and survive.

25Just like Gambito’s « Yolanda, A Typhoon », Barokka’s flood poem invites yet again not only a figurative reading of the water disaster, but a material one that is rooted in Jakarta’s particular and current circumstances. The erasure of the city by constant flooding calls to mind its real-world reputation as the fastest-sinking city in the world. Words such as « cardboard » and « paper » floating and « collecting against the grate » underscore what is left unsaid in the poem: man-made pollution and its contribution to the current state of Jakarta. Thus, the gradual encroachment of the sea on this coastal city also points towards the extent to which human beings are accountable for Jakarata’s current reality Just like half-sunk Waladuna Mosque, the poem stands as an acceptance of the reality of Jakarta’s sinking fate as well as the self-inflicted and inevitable hardships that come to its inhabitants in the wake of such a disaster.

A Sea-scarred Spectacle in Cindy Childress’ « Easter Sunday in Phuket, Thailand »

  • 34 Peter McGuire, « Tsunami and the Spirit World: Aspects of Thai Folklore Collected in Ireland in 200 (...)
  • 35 Ibid., p. 213.

26While Thailand is not an archipelagic nation like the Philippines and Indonesia, dwellers and fisherfolk living at beach towns still follow ancient superstitious practices concerning the sea. As a country steeped in ancient Buddhist teachings, Thailand’s folklore and mythology is rich in stories about ghosts and spirits. Peter McGuire’s field study, « Tsunami and the Spirit World: Aspects of Thai Folklore Collected in Ireland in 2005 » uncovers these stories that illustrate how locals in Phuket view the sea as a spiritual and otherworldly place34. One of the superstitions detailed had been the custom of bringing a particular bird to a fishing expedition as it could prevent unforeseen disasters like monsoons. Another custom had been to say a word before entering the sea in order to ask permission from the spirits who could also be fishing for the same creatures. Thai locals believed that « at so particular part of the day, there are water spirits or water ghosts who are looking for replacements»35. Such superstitions and beliefs reinforce the idea that small communities living in Phuket have always had spiritual reverence towards the sea. In Cindy Childress’ poem, « Easter Sunday in Phuket, Thailand », there are traces of this mystical outlook as the sea is depicted in its powerful and pacified forms.

  • 36 Pacific Asia Travel Association, « After the Tsunami: The Phuket Action Plan, PATA Crisis Resource (...)

27In December of 2004, the touristy island of Phuket had been one of the locations that fell victim to the deadliest tsunami in recent history. The Indian Ocean earthquake claimed more than 200,000 lives from affected coastal towns of Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Thailand. In Phuket, Thailand, several memorials had been built to commemorate more than 5,000 deaths and 3,700 missing people — numbers that include Thai locals and vacationing tourists from 33 different countries36. In Khao Lak memorial park, there stands a 60-ton police patrol boat that had been carried 1 kilometer inland by the tsunami. Unmoved since 2004, it serves as a testimony of the sea’s destructive force. To survivors and locals, memorials such as these preserve and honor the lives of victims, as well as help them process their grief and pain. To post-tsunami tourists, Childress seems to present the memorialization of the disaster as just another spectacle to the growing list of tour activities in Phuket.

  • 37 Cindy Childress, « Easter Sunday in Phuket, Thailand », in Bernice Chauly and Sharin Bakar (eds.), (...)
  • 38 Ibid., v. 18.

28Cindy Childress’ poem contains a memorial of past scars by recounting what Phuket looks and feels like during holiday seasons five years after the tsunami. Among the three poems discussed in this essay, Childress’ has the most direct engagement with a water disaster straight out of the sea. There are two movements of water in the poem: one is the implied movement of sea waves « battering »37 the city, and another is the explicit « frothing »38 of the sea water against the sand. In both cases, the poem demonstrates the double-edged power of seawater to hurt and to heal at the same time.

  • 39 Ibid., v. 13-15.

29Although the poem does not narrate the events of the tsunami, the devastating movement of sea water is visually implied by the « rubble / which is plotted along the 120-minute circuit / left unrepaired »39. It serves as a spectacle for tourists who had come to see what the battering tsunami had caused. In fact, the impact of the disaster had been so strong that five years later, the event had become part of a tourist’s Phuket experience:

  • 40 Ibid., v. 7-10.

as with the pork chops waiting in warmers
for foreign tourists who won’t be bothered
to feast at the cost of ceding poolside chaises
or forgoing diving expeditions and elephant treks
through the beach town swallowed by tsunami
just five years before, according to our tour guide40

30The persona and voice of the poem, who seems to be part of a touring group, describes how tourists would forsake the usual tours and activities in order to bear witness to the scars left by the tsunami. As much as this bespeaks an attitude of ambivalence by the foreigners’ capitalistic valuation of the sea, it also implies that the magnitude and scale of the disaster has been imprinted on the town with permanent reminders on its material culture. As with the previously-discussed poems, water had invaded the landscapes of Phuket and left its lasting impact through the « rubble ». This poem also details the physical environment and therefore emphasizes the importance of place according to Balaev. It is in the current rubble and destruction of Phuket — memorializations of the tsunami — that the poem locates the meaning and value of the scars brought about by the sea. Like the erected memorials, including the 60-ton police patrol boat, the permanent scars of the tsunami extend the sea’s otherworldly dominance and power.

31But unlike « Yolanda: A Typhoon » and « Flood Season, Jakarta », the poem in discussion seems also to show a movement of water that is not quite as ferocious:

when oh, how the Indian waves,

wave upon wave, pearls of iridescent foam

  • 41 Ibid., v. 17-21.

frothing toward sand-tossed sidewalks along the shore,
professing absolution for battering the city
resurrected, but scarred41.

32In these last five verses of the poem, Childress weaves the two realities of sea water: that it can destroy, and it can also alleviate. After the city’s destruction, the waves froth back to the shore as though « pearls of iridescent foam ». But instead of wreaking havoc, it professes absolution in the form of waves upon waves of foam, which connotes that the sea is remorseful for what it had done. In the poem, there is the same spiritualization of the sea as seen in the anecdotes of Thai folklore aforementioned. The difference is that it is the sea that makes a ritual of confession.

  • 42 Dorothy Nicole Soderstorm, op. cit., p. 72.

33Just as a memorial seeks to provide a way to confront one’s painful past, the scene conjured by Childress’ poem creates a memorial that acknowledges and testifies on how two opposing things can be true at the same time. On one hand the tsunami had left a painful scar on the island, portraying the sea to be fearsome and unforgiving. On the other, the frothing waves come in the spirit of healing and absolution, thereby portraying the sea to be remorseful and calm. In a way, the poem as a memorial is a kind of testimony. In her dissertation on trauma and testimony, Soderstorm asserts that « [i]t is through the act of testimony and creating a narrative about what happened, that trauma survivors piece together threads of their traumatized selves and re-create a whole self and find healing »42. Trauma is an unspeakable battering or disturbance at the beginning. But time and testimony can create a distance wide enough to revisit the scarred city in a spirit of absolution and remorse.

  • 43 Serpil Opperman, op. cit., p. 448.

34And yet against this dual portrayal of the primeval sea is the irony of how memorializations of the tsunami have been commodified for foreign tourists. The commodification of past scars is perhaps even an extension of how Phuket had itself been subject to the capitalistic demands of Western tourists. Serpil Opperman suggests that « [t]he most startling of all these threats is the constant commodification of the sea, which causes its unabating destabilization »43. Although the tsunami is not a direct result of Phuket’s commodification, it is apparent in Childress’ poem that the touring foreigners treat the beach town’s rubble and remnants of catastrophe as just another spectacle to see or an activity to check off their lists — like « elephant treks » and « diving expeditions ».

The SEA Stands: Trauma and Resilience

  • 44 Steven Mentz, « Towards a Blue Cultural Studies », At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean, New York, (...)

35This essay has examined how water is represented and portrayed in three contemporary Southeast Asian poems as a means of understanding collective trauma « from an offshore perspective »44 as Steve Mentz says in his book, At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean. This study has done but a small sampling of contemporary Southeast Asian poems that deal with water disasters. This essay has opened up the possibilities of the analysis of water in light of trauma. While the study has integrated classical and current readings of trauma in literature, it has also shown that the materiality of water and of the sea as objects of study in Blue Humanities becomes more realized within the context of human trauma. This is because Trauma Studies have emphasized not only the might and power of water disasters, but also the extent of human involvement to mitigate, worsen, prompt, and give meaning to such disasters. It may also be taken further to the specific study of climate trauma, as begun by E. Ann Kaplan’s Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction (2015) and Lee Zimmerman’s Trauma and the Discourse of Climate Change (2020). Doing so could yield to rich insights and conclusions about Southeast Asia, climate change, and postcoloniality in the age of Globalization.

  • 45 Michelle Balaev, « Literary Trauma Theory Reconsidered », op. cit., p. 4.

36In Sarah Gambito’s « Yolanda: A Typhoon », the violence of the wind and rainfall awakens its survivors to the reality of human mortality and earthly frailty. Khairani Barokka’s « Flood Season, Jakarta » parallels the rising waters that come to erase the city with the reality faced by Jakarta’s alarming subsidence — thus prompting a sense of meaninglessness and insignificance. Meanwhile, « Easter Sunday in Phuket, Thailand » by Cindy Childress memorializes the catastrophic event and consequently presents two clashing attitudes of spiritualizing and commodifying the sea. It is clear that the three selected poems show the impact of disaster-related trauma, especially when such disasters are caused by something so culturally and geographically close to home. The poems demonstrate Michelle Balaev’s point that « [t]rauma causes a disruption and reorientation of consciousness »45 and does so through the various ways in which water is portrayed. The poems have revealed how each community’s relationship and feelings about water and the sea have been redefined, extended, or altered, and even how such feelings are actually influenced by each community’s lived cultural and material experiences. For Filipinos, Gambito’s poem has presented the typhoon as a reminder of one’s mortality, which contrasts with the designs and powers of the God-conductor and thus prompts a resilience that is rooted in faith and worship. Such representation of the typhoon resonates and enforces the ancient animistic beliefs in Habagat, Amihan, and Buhawi as wind-gods and post-Hispanic, Catholic associations between hardship and faith. In either case, what is revealed by Gambito’s poem is a reconfirmation of natural events and disasters as supernatural occurrences sent by a higher power or powers. As for Indonesians, Barokka’s poem have redefined the role of water from a land-forming element of their early creation myths to a city-erasing force that threatens Jakarta as a capital. Such erasure does not absolve its citizens of their own participation and accountability through the spread of man-made pollution which exacerbates the city’s crisis. And finally, Childress’ poem extends the spiritualization of the sea with its might and power, but also contrasts this with how foreign tourists continue to regard Phuket as an object of leisure, even after the tsunami.

  • 46 Serpil Opperman, op. cit., p. 446.
  • 47 Michelle Balaev, « Trauma Studies », op. cit., p. 360.

37In all three cases, it is the experience of human trauma that clearly underscores water — in the forms of typhoons, floods, and tsunamis — and its material reality. This is done not only by highlighting the primacy of place and physical environment, as Michelle Balaev insists in her essay « Trends in Literary Trauma Theory ». Although this essay has demonstrated that water in these catastrophic forms have affected the landscapes of Visayas, Jakarta, and Phuket, it has also examined how human beings are both victims and agents of these water disasters — thus bridging the « critical distance to the global economic impulse of overexploitation and destruction of marine life »46. While each poem puts water disasters front and center, the undercurrent of human participation is palpable. No longer is water and the sea a mystical and undisrupted power as presented by Southeast Asian folklore and myths, but it is now — through these poems — a material reality on which human activity is inextricably linked, be it through waste pollution, oceanic disturbances, or commodification. This development or change in the valuation of water and the sea in contemporary Southeast Asian poems can only come from trauma that has generated « new knowledge [that] is formed about the self and external world »47. It has thus far been made clear — through methods of analysis used in the Blue Humanities — how such new knowledge about the sea and water is formed. Insofar as new knowledge about self-identity (that is, Southeast Asian identity) is concerned, one may look to how Gambito, Barokka, and Childress end their poems. Each poem ends in a notable tone of hope and resilience. It seems not a kind of masochistic optimism, but rather a hope that acknowledges pain and loss. Southeast Asian trauma wrought by water-related disasters seems to be characterized by the acknowledgement of water’s destructive force but coupled with the hope of affected communities rising again. This new knowledge of self is characterized by resilience and resolve. Indeed, recent years have shown how — despite the rushing typhoon, city-erasing flood, and battering tsunami — Southeast Asia continues to stand strong beneath the wails of heaven, « resurrected, but scarred ».

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Bibliographie

Balaev, Michelle, « Literary Trauma Theory Reconsidered », in Balaev, Michelle (ed.), Contemporary Approaches in Literary Trauma Theory, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, p. 1-14.

— « Trauma Studies », in Richter, David H. (ed.), A Companion to Literary Theory, Oxford, Wiley Blackwell, coll. « Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture », 2018, p. 360-372.

— « Trends in Literary Trauma Theory », Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 41, n°2, University of Manitoba, 2008, p. 149-66.

Bankoff, Greg, « Storms of history: Water, hazard and society in the Philippines 1565-1930 », in Boomgaard, Peter (ed.), A World of Water: Rains, rivers, and seas in Southeast Asian histories, Leiden, KITLV Press, 2007, p. 153-186.

Barokka, Khairani, « Flood Season, Jakarta », Rope, United Kingdom, Nine Arches Press, 2017, p. 42.

Boomgaard, Peter, « In a state of flux: Water as a deadly and a life-giving force in Southeast Asia », in Boomgaard, Peter (eé.), A World of Water: Rains, rivers, and seas in Southeast Asian histories, Leiden, KITLV Press, 2007, p. 1-26.

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Dixon, Roland B., « Myths and Origins of the Deluge », Oceanic Mythology, 1916. URL: https://www.sacred-texts.com/pac/om/om16.htm

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Mentz, Steve, « Shakespeare and the Blue Humanities », SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, vol. 59, n°2, John Hopkins University, Spring 2019, p. 383-392.

—, « Towards a Blue Cultural Studies », in Mentz, Steve (ed.), At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean, New York, Continuum, 2009, p. 96-99.

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Oppermann, Serpil, « Storied Seas and Living Metaphors in the Blue Humanities », Configurations, vol. 27, n°4, Fall 2019, John Hopkins University, p. 443-461.

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Notes

1 Peter Boomgaard’s edited collection of essays examines the complex relationship of the Southeast Asian Region to water in different forms such as rain, rivers, and seas: Peter Boomgaard, « In a state of flux: water as a deadly and a life-giving force in Southeast Asia », A World of Water: Rains, rivers, and seas in Southeast Asian histories, Leiden, KITLV Press, 2007, p. 1-26.

2 The study included Southeast Asian cities such as Manila and Jakarta: Pei-Chin Wu, Meng Wei and Steven D’Hondt, « Subsidence in Coastal Cities Throughout the World Observed by InSAR », Geographical Research Letters, vol. 49, n°7, 16 April 2022. https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.1029/2022GL098477.

3 Steven Mentz’ essay, « Shakespeare and the Blue Humanities » is a clear and comprehensive demonstration of using the blue humanities in order to discover insights about Shakespeare’s engagement with salt and freshwater as articulated in his plays: Steven Mentz, « Shakespeare and the Blue Humanities », SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, vol. 59, n°2, Spring 2019, p. 383-392.

4 Serpil Oppermann, « Storied Seas and Living Metaphors in the Blue Humanities, Configurations », Configurations, vol. 27, n°4, Fall 2019, p. 443-461.

5 Serpil Oppermann, op. cit., p. 451.

6 Elizabeth Purdy, « The Weight of Water: Some Implications of Textual Fluidity for the Study of Comparative Literature », TRANS – Revue de littérature générale et comparée, n°27, 2021. https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/trans.6889.

7 Peter Boomgaard, op. cit., p. 2.

8 Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1996.

9 Michelle Balaev, « Literary Trauma Theory Reconsidered », in Michelle Balaev (ed.), Contemporary Approaches in Literary Trauma Theory, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, p. 1-14.

10 Michelle Balaev, « Trends in Literary Trauma Theory », Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 41, n°2, 2008, p. 149–66.

11 Michelle Balaev, « Trauma Studies », in David H. Richter (ed.), A Companion to Literary Theory, Oxford, Wiley Blackwell, coll. « Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture », 2018, p. 360-372.

12 Irene Visser, « Trauma and Power in Postcolonial Literary Studies », in Michelle Balaev (ed.), Contemporary Approaches in Literary Trauma Theory, op. cit., p. 106-129.

13 Dorothy Nicole Soderstorm, From Trauma to Testimony: Resilience in Four Contemporary Novels The Farming of Bones, In the Time of the Butterflies, The Poisonwood Bible, and The Rapture of Canaan, Alabama, Auburn University, PhD Dissertation, 2017. URL: http://0-hdl-handle-net.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10415/5852.

14 Greg Bankoff, « Storms of history: Water, hazard and society in the Philippines 1565-1930 », in Peter Boomgard (ed.), A World of Water: Rains, rivers, and seas in Southeast Asian histories, Leiden, KITLV Press, 2007, p. 153-186.

15 Ibid., p. 156.

16 Philippe Lopez, Untitled Photograph, Leyte, Time Magazine, « TIME Picks the Top 10 Photos of 2013 », 18 November 2013. URL: https://time.com/3423489/time-picks-the-top-10-photos-of-2013/

17 Sarah Gambito, « Yolanda: A Typhoon », Poets.org, 10 September 2022. URL: https://poets.org/poem/yolanda-typhoon, v. 1-4.

18 Ibid., v. 9-11.

19 Ibid., v. 7.

20 Ibid., v. 8.

21 Ibid., v. 8.

22 Olivia Wilkinson, « Faith and Resilience after Disaster: The Case of Typhoon Haiyan », Misean Cara, Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, 2015.

23 Sarah Gambito, op. cit., v. 12.

24 JBA Risk Management, « A Retrospective View of Floods in Jakarta », The Flood People, 10 September 2022. URL: https://www.jbarisk.com/flood-services/event-response/a-retrospective-view-of-floods-in-jakarta/

25 Roland B. Dixon, « Myths and Origins of the Deluge », Oceanic Mythology (1916), 12 September 2022. URL: https://www.sacred-texts.com/pac/om/om16.htm

26 Ibid.

27 Khairani Barokka, « Flood Season, Jakarta », Rope, United Kingdom, Nine Arches Press, 2017, p. 42, v. 4-14.

28 Ibid., v. 19-24.

29 Balaev, « Trauma Studies », op. cit., p. 360-371.

30 Khairani Barokka, op. cit., v. 32-36.

31 Ibid., v. 1.

32 Irene Visser, op. cit.

33 Ibid.

34 Peter McGuire, « Tsunami and the Spirit World: Aspects of Thai Folklore Collected in Ireland in 2005 », aloideas, vol. 74, 2006, p. 207-229.

35 Ibid., p. 213.

36 Pacific Asia Travel Association, « After the Tsunami: The Phuket Action Plan, PATA Crisis Resource Center », 17 September 2022. URL: https://crc.pata.org/learn/case-studies/phuket-action-plan/.

37 Cindy Childress, « Easter Sunday in Phuket, Thailand », in Bernice Chauly and Sharin Bakar (eds.), Readings from Readings 2: New Writings from Malaysia, Singapore, and Beyond, Malaysia, Word Works, 2012, p. 52, v. 20.

38 Ibid., v. 18.

39 Ibid., v. 13-15.

40 Ibid., v. 7-10.

41 Ibid., v. 17-21.

42 Dorothy Nicole Soderstorm, op. cit., p. 72.

43 Serpil Opperman, op. cit., p. 448.

44 Steven Mentz, « Towards a Blue Cultural Studies », At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean, New York, Continuum, 2009. p. 96-99.

45 Michelle Balaev, « Literary Trauma Theory Reconsidered », op. cit., p. 4.

46 Serpil Opperman, op. cit., p. 446.

47 Michelle Balaev, « Trauma Studies », op. cit., p. 360.

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Anne Nichole Alegre, « The Wails of Heaven: The Representation of Water in Contemporary Southeast Asian Poetry  »TRANS- [En ligne], 29 | 2024, mis en ligne le , consulté le 15 juin 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/trans/9215 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/trans.9215

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