A Review of No Saints by Keana Aguila Labra

Keana Aguila Labra (she/their) is a Tagalog-Cebuana poet, writer, and advocate for Filipino/a/x voices in the literary arts. Their debut poetry chapbook, No Saints (Lazy Adventurer Publishing, 2020) interweaves the experiences of a Filipinx-American daughter, where themes of insecurity, obedience, forgiveness, and defiance rise from the pages unapologetically, and where otherness strikes down the white hegemony, holding no translation for Filipino words that otherwise speak for themselves through their context. 

Divided into four parts, we see an unfurling of the family tree, from Grandmother “Lola,” Mother “Nanay,” Daughter “the Self,” and finally legacy, its uncertainty, but also its promise. 

In Part I, Labra tenderly paints images of their grandmother, such as sidewalk, front door, rocks, hands, coffee, Nilla wafers, paksiw, as if the images in the opening sequence become a conjuring of the old woman, as if Lola were our own. As the collection moves forward, we witness a departure of all that once was in Lola’s world, primarily language being the first to go in a granddaughter who desperately tries to cling to the mother tongue, Cebuano, where their sounds hold more meaning than in the English translation that simply seeks to make it “Other.” It is from here that we see a granddaughter struggle with adoration for their matriarch that also spirals to resentment and shame when the narrator takes Lola out of that tender granddaughter context and places Lola instead under a white colonial lens. Labra does what she does best in this situation and brings us back to image: begonias. Rather than be expository, Labra returns their reader to the power of the plain image, such as “hands” and “begonias,” which not only makes the narrator remember their grandmother with gentleness, but that the immigrant experiences buried deep inside Lola’s body are so powerful that Lola even overlooks them within herself, and in turn, the image of the begonias brings the granddaughter to finally see and acknowledge the subtle power within Lola.

In Part II, Labra trellises down to their mother, another strong feminine figure where the narrator also struggles between adoration and loathing, or maybe it is not so much loathing, but a fear of not being good enough in front of the woman who is also contradictory in her maternal authority over her daughter. We see the pressures that a daughter of an immigrant mother must succumb to during childhood, whose mother at times subconsciously enforces the patriarchy where daughter is expected to uphold propriety in all instances, i.e. of being the good girl and not the slut as first echoed in the preface before the collection even begins. At the end of this section, while there is ambivalence between mother and daughter as prefaced in “Fate” (which Labra even admits isn’t the most accurate translation of its Filipino linguistic counterpart but they use it in order for the collection to begin): “You always seem to digress, to return to embedded bitterness,” there is also a fierce unequivocal love and loyalty between mother and daughter that cannot be broken regardless of their differences.

In Part III, Labra arrives at herself/themselves, the eldest-daughter-body a holding tank of family responsibility and expectation, but at the same time, who forges their own path through defiance toward independence. We see eldest daughter who is not only defined as Daughter, but we see the Self emerge, the one who questions the oppressive disposition of the female imposed on them by those who raised them as seen in “First”: “You are made into many things. But you are not allowed to be.”

In Part IV, Labra arrives at reflection. Questions that arise include what does legacy look like, particularly when those we have ever known are now gone? It’s in this grappling that the reflection is not only introspective, but also reflective of a bigger picture of the children of immigrants who must acclimate and assimilate in their adopted country, while facing ridicule, judgment, and ignorance not only from their non-Filipinx peers, but possibly their own Filipinx peers, to a point of Asians being pitted against each other when falling outside their own ethnic origins, such as Filipinos being mistaken for Chinese in “Roll Call”:

“I don’t look like my people,
so they displace me.”

As we think about the repercussions of what that kind of denigration does to one’s mental health and growth, Labra doesn’t succumb but ends on resilience in “‘Take your own advice,’ they said, and I’m trying”:

“It will only get better from
here.”

For those of us who have lived through this most recent administration whose leader has gone so far as to blame China for the pandemic by not calling the coronavirus by its correct medical term but adamantly renaming it the “China virus,” we have witnessed the egging on of violent physical and online assaults against Asians where we have all been lumped into an indecipherable monolith. Labra’s voice demands us to listen and see the unheard and unseen—what is so necessary now, and more than ever—speaking against negative characterizations that have antagonized Asian communities and their families.

Labra’s poetry doesn’t specifically address the pandemic as their collection was obviously written before 2020. However, in chronicling the experiences of their own family and themselves, Labra’s poetry reveals the ongoing racist microaggressions and attacks that have been happening against Asians in this country for over a century. The current relevance of the pandemic and the racist backlash against Asians in 2020 is not anything new—that this treatment continues to be fueled by anti-Asian sentiment and a tenacious white supremacist rationale that has been going on since the foundation of this country. Thus, the result can lead to a dangerous inferiority complex as seen in “Begonias in Bloom”:

“These opinions of self-deprecation
do not formulate overnight
it simmers every time we are mocked
it stews every time eyelids are pulled back,
and we are thrust forcibly back in time.”

Throughout the collection, Labra honors their subject matter with tender imagery, compassionate analysis, and raw honesty, so that when the first section about Lola comes full circle to the image of the begonia, we do not simply see a flower, but how this flower is a bigger symbol of familial love that may hold regret, but ultimately represents redemption and forgiveness inside a granddaughter’s unyielding memory.

With the collection as a whole, Labra takes control of their narrative, where the intricacies of familial relationships shape who we are and who we choose to be. As Labra carefully chooses “No Saints” as their title, yes, there is nothing saintly about the female figures in this collection where saintliness is an obvious cultural expectation to embody while simultaneously an impossibility to maintain at all times, especially with regard to women, and yet Labra reveals how the absence of saintliness doesn’t make us any less powerful. In fact, its absence makes us real.

Keana Aguila Labra’s chapbook, No Saints, was released on October 26, 2020 by Lazy Adventurer Publishing. You can purchase your own copy of their work here.

Elsa Valmidiano is the author of We Are No Longer Babaylan, her debut essay collection from New Rivers Press. Her works have appeared in various literary journals such as Cosmonauts Avenue, Anomaly, Cherry Tree, Trampset, Marías at Sampaguitas, and Canthius, as well as anthologies such as Walang Hiya, Loon Magic and Other Night Sounds, and What God Is Honored Here. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College and has performed numerous readings.

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