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Marianne Chan reads her poem "Some Words of the Aforesaid Heathen Peoples”.

Marianne Chan:

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Hello, my name is Marianne Chan, and today I'm going to read my poem "Some Words of the Aforesaid Heathen Peoples". I think this poem is the heart of my collection All Heathens, which is why I wanted to read it for you today.

Some Words of the Aforesaid Heathen Peoples

In Magellan's Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation, Antonio Pigafetta includes a list of Bisaya words and their translations called "Some Words of the Aforesaid Heathen Peoples," words he learned on the island of Cebu. 

In this list, he translates the Bisaya word for "mother-of-pearl," but not the Bisaya word for "mother." 

I wonder if his readers—Europeans—found this strange, the exclusion. Perhaps they thought: These heathen peoples did not have a word

for "mother." These heathens did not have mothers at all, only mothers-of-pearl. They were born, not from women,

but from milky shells that tumbled onto shore. Or, maybe, these heathen peoples were never born, only written into life. If a tree falls in the forest with no European to hear it, did it really exist before the 1500s? Did it have a mother to speak of? Was her name Pigafetta?


My mother’s name is Patricia.
My mother’s mother was Guadalupe
Mabano, an illiterate entrepreneur,
who made her living selling ripe fruit

at the market. She was obsessed
with food, afraid of starvation.
When she arrived home after my mother
had fallen asleep, she fed her

without waking her, shoving spoon
after spoon of rice and kamungay
leaves into her mouth. I imagine
she feared that my mother would

dream hungry. My mother chewed
without tasting, took a full supper
before she woke up, surprised
at the grains of rice that lingered in her

throat, the fullness of her belly
beneath her shirt. Years later, in the States,
my mother, a diabetic, saw a new doctor
who doubled her prescription of insulin.

My father pressed the needle into her
stomach before bed, and that night she

dreamed she was a child screaming:
I’m so hungry, Mama, so hungry,"

and she awoke out of the dream
into an America where her blood sugar
was down to 60, where her mother
had been dead for years.


Most likely, Pigafetta’s list of heathen words excluded the word for “mother” because the items he named were limited to merchandise, that is, objects or elements that could be exported

          Mana          Cinnamon
          Boloto         Boats
          Pilla             Silver
          Tipai            Mothers-of-pearl

Why then did he include

          Camat          Hand 
          Illoc              Armpits
          Boto             Genitals 
          Dila               Tongue

Pigafetta sold my mother’s tongue in the form of his book all over Europe. He said the language was more valuable than cloves.

My mother still speaks to me in this language, now influenced by Spanish words, and I can understand, but can’t speak it. These are words I forget until I hear them.


My mother can’t wait until I am
a mother. She wishes to be a lola,
a grandmother. But I don’t want
to get pregnant. I want to learn
and re-learn this language,
our history, again and again.
Maybe I lack courage. Maybe I fear
the uncertainty of the future,
so I hold the past with both arms.
Or perhaps, because my husband
is a White American, I worry
my child won’t need to learn
her past. I worry that my daughter will
enter the world with three navels,
and will never know the various bodies
that came together to feed her.
Word for "navel" in Bisaya is "pusod."
Pigafetta includes this in his list
of heathen words. He does not
include the word for "forgetting."


When I ask my mother questions about her childhood, her answers tumble onto shore. She becomes the debris of a broken ship. She overflows, overflowers. Discovers

new feelings she can’t express eloquently in English. Discovers herself—all of her—

again in the retelling. She awakens with leaves in her throat, Bisaya in her teeth, a belly full of her mother tongue.

When I think about my lola, my mother, myself—I recognize all the things that have been and will be forgotten, so I’m writing this down,

like Pigafetta, alongside his list of words, all of them ours, all of them heathen.