Janice Sapigao's Shadowy Musings

'Like a Solid to a Shadow' explores the power, mystery of language
Language is the liquid that we're all dissolved in. Janice Sapigao's new poetry collection is available now.

"I've been coming here since before those graves and tombstones were built," says Janice Sapigao, pointing to a cluster of headstones nestled against the hillside. "I've been coming here a really long time."

We're near the intersection of Meditation Road and Memory Lane in Oak Hill Memorial Park, standing over her father's gravesite. Janice visits multiple times a year. She's been doing so since she was 6 years old. A lot can change in that time.

Like a Solid to a Shadow, Janice Sapigao's forthcoming second book of poetry, is a constantly shifting work of translation. At the center of the book are a series of recorded love letters her father sent to her mother. These letters were spoken in Ilocano, a secondary dialect of the Philippines, and a language that Janice was previously unable to speak.

"There aren't a lot of textbooks about how to learn Ilocano," she says. "I would go to my classes in grad school Monday through Friday, then I would take Ilocano classes Saturday and Sunday. I wanted to document that process as it was happening. The prompt, which is always changing, is: 'How do you document this thing that you will never know?'"

The process of learning her father's native tongue is very much a part of the book, and Janice picks out specific Ilocano words as inspiration for groups of poems that exist within the larger poetic narrative:

like calling out to father
where the 'n' and 'g' collide
finding that he is not there

Like a Solid, which will be released on Sept. 30 by Oakland imprint Timeless Infinite Light, takes as its method an experimental process known as "ultratranslation." Created by "language justice" group Antena, they describe ultratranslation in their manifesto as taking "the untranslatable as the starting point...labor[ing] to translate the untranslatable, and also to preserve it."

In her opening note on the book's concept, Janice writes "I want my translation to hold, most importantly, the feeling of an experience that is fleeting and disappointing," noting that the book's translations should include within them "the underlying tumultuous journey" of the text. Early on, she reflects on the project: "I think of how each phoneme and allophone is an element of story. I often wondered, what is a word?"

Standing by her father's grave, planes on their way to SJC cast massive shadows along the hillside, rippling with the folds of the soil. Sapigao is recalling past visits to this very spot over the years.

"This is like multiple stories now crashing together..."

Like a Solid often feels like a mystery. The question of words, of their meaning, of their movement from mouth to ear to mind, is at play on every page. But there is also a very real mystery held within, one that is still unfolding today. In 2012, Sapigao found out that her father had another family, one she knew nothing about previously. She still knows little about them. The surprise came while she was in graduate school, already working on the translation of her father's recordings.

"I think I am part of the Other family," she writes, comparing herself to the reflection in a mirror.

Though it is slim, there is weight and heft to Like a Solid to a Shadow. Her examinations of self and family speak to the experiences of generations of Filipino-Americans, and even at its most specific the book is shot through with shades of the universal. The language is striking, creating a sense of control and poise in a story that is fractured, uncertain, and haunted by the unknown. San Jose isn't often known as a hub for literature, but Like a Solid to a Shadow might just start to change that.

On Juan Sapigao's grave there is the image of two books, side by side. The book on the left is engraved with his name, birthdate, and the date of his death. The book on the right is open to an empty page.

"That book used to scare me," Janice Sapigao says, pointing at the gravestone. "The blank one. I know what it means."

She pauses as another plane passes overhead.

"This book is what I imagine that book would be."

Like a Solid to a Shadow

Find Art Events

Type: Area:
List your event with Metroactive