Eileen R. Tabios, From Poet To Novelist
Book Review: DOVELION: A Fairy Tale for Our Times
AC Books, 2021
Eileen R. Tabios’ new book “Dovelion”
Eileen R. Tabios is a prolific writer, and writer across genres. She’s released over 60 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and criticism from publishers in 11 countries; this year she also is scheduled to release French translations of her writings in France. But despite the abundance of her publications, it required 20 years for Eileen to accomplish her first long-form novel, coming out April 2021.
DOVELION is an inventive, multi-layered novel featuring a poet, Elena Theeland, as she overcomes the trauma of her past. Theeland ends up raising a family who overthrows the dictatorship of the novel’s fictional country of Pacifica. She is aided by artist Ernst Blazer whose father, a CIA spy, instigated the murder of Elena’s father, a rebel leader. As her family frees Pacifica from the dictator’s dynastic regime, Elena discovers herself a member of an indigenous tribe once thought to have been erased through genocide. That discovery reveals her life to epitomize the birth of a modern-day “Baybay” modeled after the “Babaylan,” an indigenous spiritual and community leader of the Philippines.
Given the novel’s many layers, it’s logical that it required years for Eileen to accomplish its sophisticated fruition. In presenting the effects of colonialism and empire-building, DOVELION incorporates reflections on history, poetry, art, orphanhood, redemption, and indigenous values. Glimpses are provided of spy warfare, internet-based rebellions, dominant-submission encounters, and the insidious effects of beauty pageants. Relief is provided through Elena’s love of Wikipedia and the world’s “most simple but delicious recipe for adobo” (which she’d actually borrowed from Texas-based Fil-Am artist Matt Manalo, with Matt’s permission).
Now that Eileen’s been able to release the novel, she says she doesn’t mind the two decades between publication and from when she first conceived of its premise through a paper she wrote as a political science major at Barnard College. Her paper addressed Philippine politics and economic development, “specifically the conflict of interest that arises when the economic elite is (mostly) also the political elite.”
She explains, “It’s a conflict of interest because one wants to preserve or increase one’s own economic riches and yet a responsible politician would want to implement policies that aids the wider population. As the saying goes—and has been proven over and over in numerous countries throughout human history—Power corrupts. This also is seen in how the novel’s dictatorship is a dynastic regime, spanning three generations before it can (be) overthrown.”
Eileen R. Tabios
While the country in DOVELION is not the Philippines, Pacifica is presented in the novel as sharing the same territory as what was occupied by the Philippines during indigenous times. As time passed, a portion of the shared land split and Pacifica separated geographically from the Philippines to become its own island-nation.
“I didn't want to make DOVELION’s country be the Philippines as I wanted the freedom to write fictions that would not be true to the Philippines’ history,” Eileen says. “But I was still able to reference much about the Philippines. For instance, I call the rebellion against Pacifica’s dictatorship to be ‘June12.com,’ which relates to the date of Philippine Independence Day when Filipinos led by Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed their independence from 300 years of Spanish rule.”
The novel's title also hearkens José Garcia Villa’s term “Doveglion” that he created from combining the words “dove,” “eagle,” and “lion.” Though the novel has nothing to do with Villa, Eileen wanted to give a nod to the poet whom she considers the Philippines’ greatest 20th century poet in the English language.
Another interesting element about Eileen’s DOVELION is how she incorporates some elements of her life within the novel’s narrative. She includes details from her life in New York City where she lived for 20 years (she now lives in Napa Valley, California). She also uses some of her own poems as sample poems by Theeland, includes titles of her own poetry books as the titles of books written by Theeland, and even includes an actual back-cover blurb she’d once received from Philippine poet-fictionist Alfred A. Yuson for her first poetry book (a Manila Critics Circle Philippine National Book Award recipient), Beyond Life Sentences. Some have noted these would exemplify a type of literature known as “autofiction,” a form of fictionalized autobiography.
Yet, Eileen says that autofiction was not what she had in mind in creating DOVELION. Instead, she says she was trying to manifest “kapwa” in terms of the notion of the interconnection of all things. As a result, she says, she wanted to eliminate the barrier between the life inside the book versus outside of the book. “Like in some theater when the actors walk off the stage and continue the play’s actions amidst the audience members,” she explains. “I wanted to acknowledge the connection—by eliminating a division—between author and story and, later, story, and readers.”
Autofiction, in any event, would simplify what Eileen’s novel actually achieves. DOVELION is not just a work of fiction, but also the creation of a new myth. DOVELION creates the world of an indigenous tribe known as the Itonguk who live in Pacifica. Once thought to have been genocidally erased by a corrupt Pacifican leader, DOVELION offers the resurgence of the Itonguk following the downfall of the country’s dictatorship. As part of that resurgence, the novel presents the idea of returning the country’s name to its indigenous original—from “Pacifica” to “DoveLion.”
Eileen says that in writing her novel, she originally did not anticipate its ending to include the recovery of the Itonguk tribe. But she now considers “DoveLion” to be like Wakanda, home to Marvel’s superhero Black Panther.
“Frankly, I hope other Filipino artists and writers do something with DoveLion. Because the novel ends shortly before fully exploring the Itonguk culture, their world is open to others’ imaginations of what such a world could be,” she says. “I encourage them to read DOVELION and then be the ones to continue its story, in part by being the ones to specify the elements that could make up Itonguk culture.”
An example is the pre-publication opportunity for a collaborative response between movement artist/ritualist Lizae Reyes, spoken word artist Mila Anguluan, and myself on the drums for a multi-genre embodiment of the Itonguk culture. Our performance was presented in November 2020 during the “Dancing with Uncertainty Conference” sponsored by The Society of Indigenous Wisdom and Ancestral Healing.
The novel’s structure of being open to others’—including readers’—engagements is emblematic of Eileen’s poetry. She often creates poems which can be interpreted in a variety of ways to incorporate others’ viewpoints. She also invented the poetry form known as “hay(na)ku” that, because it’s a form instead of a specific poem, can be written or utilized in as many ways as others might wish without Eileen’s authorial presence. “Poetics” relates to the philosophy of poetry and it seems logical, then, that Eileen structured DOVELION to reflect “kapwa poetics.” This befits how she considers herself to be not a novelist so much as a poet who writes novels.
DOVELION may be a novel, but its dedication page reflects Eileen’s love for poetry as it features the phrase, “For (All) Poets.” The parenthetical, she explains, relates to how “we are all born poets; it’s the living that can leach the poetry out of us.” Consequently, and as she writes in the novel, “Be vigilant” about protecting the poetry in our lives. Poetry, she insists, makes us better people. Such betterment, in turn, strengthens us for fighting back against abusive power, such as what she describes in DOVELION, as well as advocating for good causes and our communities. It’s an approach that she describes through a long-held slogan (and which she often writes as part of signing her many books): “Poetry as a Way of Life.”
Eileen R. Tabios’ DOVELION: A Fairy Tale for Our Times (AC Books, New York) will be released April 1, 2021. You can order it through its distributor Small Press Distribution (https://www.spdbooks.org) and in a few months through variety of retailers like Amazon. Book information will be updated at https://eileenrtabios.com/fiction/dovelion-a-fairy-tale-for-our-times/
Leny Mendoza Strobel is soon-to-retire Professor of American Multicultural Studies at Sonoma State U. She plans to hang out at Tone Studio to study the Sutras with Monica and do yoga and pilates.