Love Doesn’t Save Anyone from Themselves: An Interview with Angeli Cabal

Angeli Cabal

I first encountered Angeli Cabal’s work as the co-editor-in-chief of {m}aganda Magazine. My staff and I were blown away by the pieces she submitted–poems critiquing colonialism, Western beauty standards, and the figure of the Filipino woman. I was stunned to see that in addition to being a poet, Cabal is also a visual artist and multi-genre writer who creates sleek, intricate, highly clever illustrations and incredibly heart-wrenching creative essays. In addition, Cabal has been a devoted fanfiction author since age 12 and has garnered an impressive online readership on Tumblr. In 2013, Cabal self-published her first chapbook, True Love and Other Myths, which sold out after the first printing. She went on to publish a second chapbook, The Anatomy of Closed Doors, joining the ranks of  poets and writers who use social media as their vehicle. Cabal’s work is raw, evocative, hands-on, and accessible. She joined me for a conversation where we discussed fanfiction, our immigrant parents, and which three fictional characters she would invite for a session of afternoon tea.

MV: I’m not sure if you’ve read this recent Buzzfeed article about women and fanfiction, but they argue that fanfiction is a central genre for women writers because it allows us to create narratives that are not available in everyday life. Why fanfiction? Why should we keep writing and reading fanfiction? What power does this form of creation give us?

AC: It’s been 14 years since I started writing fanfiction and I’ve never grown out of it. Fanfiction is so much more accessible for me because of world building. In fanfiction, you already have this world created for you so there’s less pressure and you can focus on the narratives you want to tell, particularly characters you want to transform and flesh out. When you have these characters presented to you and you see all the paths and avenues the author could have taken to make them more human, these are awesome opportunities to take. It is also such a supportive community, I can’t even read some of the stuff I wrote back then because it was so horrible but I get reviews that say, “Hey, this is really good, keep it up.” That was so important for me as a young writer because no one else knew I was writing fanfiction. It really encouraged me and is one of the reasons why I still write fanfiction today.

MV: I’ve also been reading fanfiction since middle school and I know how difficult it is to venture into more sensitive issues, such as racism. Do you think fanfiction could move toward becoming more inclusive of such issues? How do you think fanfiction can tackle these themes?

AC: The fanfiction authors I looked up to were actually the ones who wrote darker and more mature stories that grappled with those issues. It’s not very commonplace, but I hope these conversations keep going so everyone is at the point where we don’t have to have them anymore. The thing is, fanfiction is an escape for a lot of people so it’s rare to see these issues being addressed because people want to focus on the romance and the fluff. It takes a certain kind of writer to take these issues on.

Art by Angeli Cabal

courtesy of Angeli Cabal

MV: I am also guilty of falling into the trap of fluff. Which brings me to my next question about the reoccurring critiques of love in your writing. What I appreciate about your writing is that even though you’re writing about love, it’s real and I don’t see a lot of fluff. Why is making such a critique through poetry, through a public forum like Tumblr, necessary? Why should we open depictions of love beyond fluff?

AC: As I’ve grown older, I’ve just become more cynical of love. I’ve seen many people who (through no fault of their own) have bought into fairy tale depictions of love. Once you find love, it’s a cure-all. This portrayal doesn’t do us justice as human beings. It sets people up for failure, to have these unrealistic expectations about love, that it’s going to fix depression and self-esteem issues, which really undercuts the work we have to do on ourselves so we can love people properly.

My second chapbook, The Anatomy of Closed Doors, was written after my cousin committed suicide. It dealt with loss and grief. Love was also a theme in which I felt very disillusioned because when we lost her, I kept thinking, “We loved her so much and we couldn’t save her. Love doesn’t save anyone from themselves.” Writing those poems about that experience was gutting and I feel that in times of distress and sadness, we really lean on words to be more than what they should be. To translate all the emotion you feel onto a page and see that they’re not good enough made me question, “What good are words to me if they don’t help me?” But when I feel this way, I have had people who message me and say that my writing has helped them come to terms with difficult life situations. When you publish something on the internet, it’s hard to believe that it’s ever going to affect someone, but it does in such poignant ways.

What’s great about publishing poetry on Tumblr is the accessibility. It’s easy to stumble upon and immerse yourself into a poet’s work, which is a really powerful thing. I have also never read a book of poetry before. Poetry is something where you have to willingly go to the poetry section of a library or go to a book store and spend money. Tumblr is also the gathering place for a certain age group, high school and college age folks flock to Tumblr to express themselves, which makes poetry popular as a form because they’re at this stage in their lives where they look for people to explain things in a way they can’t, which is found in poetry on Tumblr. There are a lot of women artists and writers on Tumblr and I think it’s great to expose that age group to poetry and this type of art. When I was that age, I was not reading poetry, and to know that it’s accessible and that people may be falling in love with poetry at an early age is really cool.

MV: And with that, you began self-publishing. How was that process like? Why did you come to the decision to self-publish?

AC: I’ve always been into the process of creating things for myself, like making my own book in the second grade. What was most attractive to me was the creative control. I was in charge of what the cover would look like, the type of paper to use, the font–I was just really into the details. I folded and stapled all the pages myself–there was so much trial and error, but seeing the end result and knowing that I did it myself was such a proud moment. In order to be published, there have to people (with money) who agree that you’re good, which comes with a certain form of validation. However, I liked that I did it myself, I liked choosing my own paper, putting my own illustrations in the pages, and doing it on my own.

MV: That process of being in control of your art–having a say on what it looks like, how it gets produced, where it gets distributed–I see that being translated into your visual art as well. I know you have an Etsy shop and I know you sell your work at San Diego’s Handmade Holiday Market. It’s easy to fall into the trap where you think, as a female artist, I have no avenues to share my work other than my family, friends, and the random stranger on the internet or to even make money out of it. Why Etsy? Why the SD Handmade Holiday Market? Why should we use local avenues to get our work out there?

AC: Etsy is great for anyone who wants to put their work out there. It’s easy and not at all daunting, which is one reason why I chose that avenue. There isn’t a lot of risk involved with Etsy, which was appealing for me, as someone who was selling her work for the first time. It took me a long time to feel confident in myself to think that people would pay me money for something I created. It’s so surreal. When I do those holiday markets and see people giving me money after taking something I’ve made and telling me that they really love my stuff, I just think about my six-year-old self, who would never have imagined that something like this could happen to me.

As immigrants, my parents never instilled the possibility that I could pursue art as a career. I didn’t think that world would ever be accessible for me. Even though I was good at it as a hobby, my parents didn’t want to feed me this dream that may not come true.

MV: If you could be paid a living wage, what would your long term art project be?

AC: I would love to write a novel, actually, finish writing my young adult novel. It may never see the light of day–I started it ten years ago and it’s still not finished, but I do see stuff on Tumblr that make me feel good about not having accomplished much in my 20s.

MV: I am definitely feeling that right now. Most of my peers in my Ph.D. program are in their late 20s-early 30s–folks who were able to study and work abroad and have full-time jobs for years–so for a while, I thought I had no valid life experience.

AC: I think it’s easy to sell yourself short that way. I feel like our parents’ stories impact our lives so much in ways that we are not even aware of. A lot of people don’t have this experience–they don’t know what it’s like to grapple with these identities. For our immigrant parents, their hopes and dreams are on us. Whenever I talk to my friends, they always say, “Why don’t you just do what you want to do? Why don’t you pursue art?” and I always have to explain that it isn’t just about me, my parents sacrificed so much to bring us here. This guilt, this debt–it’s something you’re going to have for the rest of your life. Even when you don’t want it to, it affects the choices you make–academically, financially–so whenever I see people who look more “cultured,” I think of our experiences that are invisible and can’t automatically be translated but we still feel.

A lot of us don’t get to hear our parents’ stories or even the full story until we get old enough. When we do, it really changes us. It makes you look back with different eyes and be a lot kinder with how your parents raised you. It makes you realize that your parents are actual human beings who are flawed and have these traumas you are not aware of that affected your childhood. As children, I feel we put our parents on a pedestal and as an adult, I think it’s important to lift our parents off the pedestal because keeping them there fosters a lot of bitterness and resentment.

MV: You said it. Thank you, Angeli, for partaking in this conversation. Final question: if you could bring any three fictional characters to life for a session of afternoon tea, who would they be and what ONE topic would you all discuss?

AC: Tom Haverford from Parks and Recreation, Dwight Schrute from The Office, and Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter. I would have them listen to R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” and discuss.

For more of Angeli’s work, please visit her Tumblr, Instagram, and Etsy.

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