Written by Reese Leyva

The Poetess Heart is a series of articles dedicated to women writers of poetry and their poetic explorations into girlhood, womanhood, and femininity.

The Poetess

For our inaugural post, I’ve chosen a poem by one of my favorite poets — Barbara Jane Reyes. Born in the Philippines and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, she writes with unique and piercing cultural, historical, and geographical perspectives. One poem in particular, “To Be Walang Hiya,” published in The Poetry Foundation’s May 2014 Issue of Poetry, resonates with the deep, hidden, childhood heart inside me which remembers being called walang hiya, a common Filipino term that loosely translates to unconscionable, inconsiderate, shameless, rude, or selfish.

At its core, walang hiya says, “you should be ashamed of yourself.”

While the term may be foreign, the concept is familiar. Can we not all relate to the struggle of recovering from childhood shaming experiences? The struggle of defining ourselves amidst the expectations of our families and our societies? Reyes’ poem reflects the experience of a Filipino-American girl trapped between these insistent expectations and her humble longing to live outside of and beyond them.

The Poem

To Be Walang Hiya

By Barbara Jane Reyes

Bubblegum lip gloss kissed,                                                  Our lifelines, our mirrors,

I was never a singkil princess                                                These are Luminous Mysteries

Knuckle cracking, polished toes,                                         Our notebooks, our language,

I was never a Santacruzan queen                                         To witness, to make way,

Black eyeliner, push up bra                                                   Our thirst and our wedding bands —

I was never a curtsying debutante                                        To fill stone jars with water, to wed,

Loud, gum-smacking babygirl                                              Our glamour and our armor.

I was never a tiaraed Miss Fil Am                                         To transfigure, dazzling as the sun.

A Reflection

Cracking my knuckles, wearing black eyeliner, and smacking gum were more than frowned upon in my childhood. These were loud and obnoxious acts: behavior forbidden for “proper” girls, “good” girls.

While I’ve come a long way from fearing the wrath of my elders at the sound of my gum bubbles popping, this poem makes me reflect on how completely I’d internalized the girl I was “supposed” to be, not to mention the woman others expected me to become. Yes, their hopes were from another time, another generation, and another land, but they were also expressions of love from elders who faithfully prepared me for the world as they understood it.

I realize this now.

I also understand, that many women of my generation enjoy privileges foreign to the women who came before us: the privileges of being able to work when and if we wish, to earn and spend money freely, to own property, to indulge in creative and artistic expression, and to choose a life partner based on considerations other than financial security.

Mine is a new world of personal freedoms and cherished sovereignty. No one in my life expects blind obedience. Not one person in this world has enough power over me to compel me to dress a certain way, present myself a certain way, or behave a certain way.

My world is a safe enough place for me to declare, “This is me. This is who I am.” Fully. Shamelessly.

I know not all women around the world enjoy the same privileges, and I also know some women enjoy many more than others, but we each carry a sliver of sovereignty–a small way in which we can courageously declare, “I am a woman now–no longer a child–and this is who I choose to be!”

The Invitation

To be a sovereign nation is to self-govern.
To be a sovereign ruler is to have complete and total control over that which is ruled.
To be sovereign holds the power to choose, to decide, to self-determine.
What is it to be a sovereign woman?

Call upon the poetess inside, and join me in this exploration by writing a poem based on the below phrase:


Use the words, or use their meaning. Let them inspire you and take over your writing. Let them nudge or hurl you toward some sort of awakening or remembrance or recognition, and then take this new realization into the real world with you. Hold it with care in your heart. Nurture it. Tell this voice, this spark, it is time: time to show up, time to make choices and ignite a wildfire, time to wear bubblegum lip gloss (if you want) and black eyeliner (or purple or green or none) and honor the part of you who knows — who has always known — that you are a sovereign woman. Let that voice scream with wild abandon, “This is who I am!”

Please Share!

If you’re willing, please share your poem on Instagram with the tags #thepoetessheart and #sovereignwoman. You can also message the poem directly to @reese.leyva. I’ll be reading and celebrating selected poems on an upcoming Her Heart Poetry live show, so stay tuned for details.

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