like a solid to a shadow
Janice Lobo Sapiago
Timeless Infinite Light, 2017
During her parents’ courtship, Janice Lobo Sapigao’s father sent her mother and
grandparents cassette tapes of spoken love letters. These artifacts, which predate her
earthly existence by seven years, are the starting point for Janice’s book. In it, she
traverses many dim corridors in search of her father, who passed away when she was just
six years old. In the book’s introduction, she provides a link to one cassette tape’s
contents, in which her father’s gentle voice moves between English and Ilokano. i
strongly recommend listening to the digitized source recordings with this text at hand,
she writes. (begin with track 1). these letters are very special to me, she later continues.
please listen with an open mind and try to listen to them in a private space.
As such, I wait a week to dive into her book. I want the time, and the setting, to be
precise. It is six a.m. in San Jose: the darkness just yielding to daylight. My apartment is
still but for a hum from a corner of the kitchen. I know, from a brief conversation at a
local reading, that Janice and I live a few miles apart on the same thoroughfare. Friendly
acquaintances, I imagine our street as a cord of communion between us while reading. I
light a fresh candle on my altar while I wait for the water to boil for my first cup of
While some readers might argue for rule-breaking (or, worse, skip the book’s
introduction all together), Janice’s instructions have heft. you are in for an intimate
reading/hearing session, she promises. I begin to think of the book as a map to her series
of corridors; her words and the sound files, lit matches. The process of reading and
listening is like keeping pace with a detective who’s intent on cracking a mystery, one
that’s an effort to bear and to bare.
I say keeping pace with, rather than trailing or shadowing, because Janice intends to enlist
an active readership. On writing about her father, she pens: each time I open myself to the
mercy of an audience. As such, we must prepare ourselves to pour mercy. Next, we must
position ourselves to take part in a conversation: to engage with, rather than glaze over,
the parts of the text we don’t grasp. i want to tell you what words in ilokano mean, she
writes. yet i believe that it is an important political choice for me to have my readers
work to understand and construct their own meanings, at the risk of feeling frustrated or
failing. by posing my text, then, as a dialogue, i attempt to distort dominant frames of
At the heart of the book is Janice’s desire to help readers see and interpret what she sees:
to hold up her end of the dialogue. She goes to great pains to light passageways for
readers like us. as a translator, she writes, i want my reader to have choices, options, and
decisions available to them. And so, Janice’s documentation takes on many forms. There
are family trees with limbs that snake through the pages. There are grammar worksheets
and lessons. Hand-written notes. Outlines of countries. Facebook messenger screenshots
and old family photographs. There are prose blocks in taut, direct sentences and short
verses that take wild turns. (mayonnaise and waterpark, she uses, as verbs.) There’s her
real father’s voice on the sound files: a sure thing stark against the uncertainties she lays
out in text.
The act of making these sound files public—the tracks of her tears set loose in the wilds
of the internet—is a fascinating one. Of her mother’s relationship to the cassettes Janice
writes: She said she’d only listen to them once and then / put them away. And there they
remained, put away in what I imagine as some San Jose closet or desk drawer, for three
decades. (It is a trip to think these cassettes have been near my home all along. A
researcher-descendent of my own deceased loved ones, this notion appeals. What other
boxed treasures exist in our South Bay landscape?) The two tracks are now trackable; that
is, anyone can find them—a primary source—preserved on the internet. I give the files
their 44th and 38th listens respectively.
In writing and documenting this text, Janice plays the split role of researcher-descendant.
When the subject you’re sleuthing concerns your own blood, how can it not prompt deep
yearning? Alive in these poems is a pressing and unmet desire to divide what is real from
what Janice and loved ones imagine as true. In one poem the speaker asks: Do records
make someone exist? In another, she aches to find witnesses. Tell me that these pictures
happened, she writes. What we mine alongside her is the gradient space between fact and
imagination, life and death, real and unreal.
A dialogue is a shared experience, as evidenced in these resonant lines when Janice
addresses the reader and herself as one you:
You think it’s difficult to keep discovering, but it’s what you’re doing.
Exploring. Discovery is a process of struggle, hustle, and poetic
motion, if you let it. If you look back, look up, look forward. So, of
course, this project will be difficult. But you are able. And you’ve
been searching. Will you find anything? You don’t think you will.
You think you already know the end result: that no matter how hard
you try, he won’t come back. He can’t. That’s the reality. But you
can conjure up a spirit. You believe in spirits. But you don’t want to
conjure up a spirit.
I don’t expect closure, nor do I get it. In fact, the book ends right as the author unveils a
big family secret: one that reads more like a chasm than a cliffhanger. What I do expect
(and soon find) is Janice’s startling transparency. The lines If every woman has a grave
deep inside her / then mine is my father’s repeat twice in the text. You will not regret
plunging into what’s logged of that grave.
Leslie Patron lives and writes in San Jose, California, where she founded the place-based journal Cheers from the Wasteland. Her most recent work appears or is forthcoming in Dream Pop Journal, littletell, Daily Gramma, Entropy, Weird Sister and others. She is the social media editor of 1913 Press and an active member of the San Jose zine community.