"So much to read...to hear"

By Christopher Yasiejko (posted June 10, 2013)

JoAnn Balingit
Photo by Ellen Wise

For information on JoAnn's work as Delaware's Poet Laureate and the Poet Laureate Program, visit: About the Poet Laureate or JoAnn's website at www.joannbalingit.org

She was in the fourth grade. JoAnn Balingit, the third eldest of 12 children, would find herself in the public library of her Central Florida town of Lakeland, biding her time until a parent could pick her up. There was so much to read, of course, but there also was much to hear.

Before her eyes sprawled six turntables, and on the nearby shelves, what seemed an endless array of vinyl LPs. For the next few years, JoAnn often could be found there after school, checked-out headphones cupping her ears, listening to Beethoven’s symphonies or some-such classical fare – rock records had their turn, but she usually began with classical – while reading books.

Music and language, two loves that would carry her through life. Music and language, two loves that would inform her livelihood.

“I couldn’t play the cello or the violin, or compose music, but I could compose words,” she says. “And I think I’m a storyteller because I wanted to know my parents’ stories so badly and they were so not storytellers.”

Balingit, the poet laureate of Delaware since 2008, always has wanted to make the sounds. From a very young age, she wanted to have command of more than the English words at her disposal. Her father, a Filipino immigrant who reached the United States on the eve of the Great Depression as a college-educated civil engineer, never spoke to his children in his native language of Kapampangan. Not a word.

But his accent was a constant reminder to JoAnn that he had a past life, in the Pampanga Province of the Philippines, and of the stories he must have held. She was thrilled when told in ninth grade that she could take French or Spanish classes, and today she feels confident traveling to locales whose predominant languages are French, Portuguese or Spanish.

Her maternal ancestors immigrated in the early-to-mid-19th century from Bavaria and Alsace-Lorrain in present-day Germany. JoAnn’s mother met and married her father, some 30 years her elder, in the Midwest in 1951.

And so JoAnn, a child of mixed heritage, was raised in the American South during a period of racial turmoil, witnessing the integration of her high school through the eyes of a half-Asian, half-white girl in a world of black and white. She considered herself culturally white, and she was taken aback each time people approached her as foreign – “What nationality are you?” they’d ask, or, “Where do you come from?”

“Columbus, Ohio,” she’d reply to the latter, matter-of-factly.

USS Jackson
JoAnn's father aboard the USS President Jackson, May 1929, sailing to San Francisco.

All but the four youngest of her parents’ 12 children each was born in a different city along a route scribbled from Bethlehem, Pa., through Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia to Lakeland, as JoAnn’s father drifted from job to job. The family found some stability in Lakeland; JoAnn wasn’t acutely aware they were financially strapped. Her mother taught her and her sister to butcher chicken and rabbits and to cook from scratch. JoAnn from the seventh grade on sewed her own clothes. As she approached her sophomore year of high school, her style grew increasingly influenced by the likes of Mick Jagger and Peter Fonda.

In 1966, her father, then 63, had a stroke and was laid off. In 1970, her 10-year-old brother Armando was accidentally killed by a neighborhood bully who had thrown a gig used for catching frogs. Her brother’s death, JoAnn says, sent her father reeling.

The first anniversary of Armando’s death was approaching when, on Nov. 17, 1971, her father used his shotgun to kill her mother, then himself.

JoAnn was 16. The Balingit children were scattered to foster homes and relatives; she and her sister Maria spent the next year-and-a-half living with the family of a friend. JoAnn was on her own by the summer before she started college at Florida State University.

In the decades since, she has faced the grief, moving gradually from confusion to acceptance. But even now, when she reads or hears news of a murder-suicide in which children are left behind, it takes a moment for her to recognize that the sorrow she feels for the survivors is connected to her own life.

“I know so well what that child is going through that I feel immediate, total emotional compassion,” she says, “because that happened to me.”

Balingit hasn’t yet written what she feels she needs to write about her parents’ deaths and the separation of her siblings. And racial identity remains a thematic riddle for her writing.

This is the first time in 30 years that the mother of four is an empty-nester – she has three grown children by her first husband; she and her husband Fred Hofstetter, a University of Delaware professor, have a son, Julian, who will be 14 this summer and attends a boarding school in New Hampshire. (Julian, she notes, plays cello and piano.)

House Story image

History Textbook, America

I’d search for Philippines in History class.
The index named one page, moved on to Pierce.
The Making of America marched past.
my enigmatic father’s place of birth.
The week he died some man we didn’t know
called up. This is his brother, one more shock,
phoning for him. “He died three days ago."
The leaden black receiver did not talk.
My uncle never gave his name or town,
we never heard from him. Was it a dream?
The earpiece roar dissolved to crackling sounds,
a dial tone erased the Philippines.
And yet my world grows huge with maps, crisscrossed,
my history alive with all I’ve lost.

("History Textbook, America" from Words for House Story by JoAnn Balingit, published in 2013 by WordTech Editions, Cincinnati, Ohio. )

Balingit dearly wants to know more about her parents and their lives, just as she did when they were alive.

“Trying to fill in their stories makes me realize how little I know,” she says. “But then, even if they talked my ear off and they were still alive and living in the in-laws’ suite and I couldn’t get away from them, I still wouldn’t know. I realize now, because I’m over 50, that you really can’t know what the truth is. So I think I write because I’m trying to figure out, well, what really happened? What do I really think?”

A poem is good, she says, if the emotional impact is visceral.

“The craft is at the service of communicating how you felt,” she says, “or how you would feel if this thing happened to you.”

Recently, she’s been exploring Kapampangam, the language she never heard her father speak:

The numbers, from one (metung) to ten (apulu).

“What is your name?” (“Nanu ing lagyu mu?”)

“I love you.” (“Kaluguran daka.”)

“What a strange and beautiful language,” she says, “just as they all are.”

Visit: About the Poet Laureate or JoAnn's website at www.joannbalingit.org for information on JoAnn's work as Delaware's Poet Laureate and the Poet Laureate Program.