In Filipino folklore, an aswang is an evil, shape-shifting character. According to the Culture Trip website, it can resemble a werewolf, vampire, or ghoul, depending on the region.
Here in B.C., Surrey Filipinx writer Louie Leyson decided to put her own spin on this beast in an essay called “Glossary for an Aswang”.
“Bad girls become aswang,” she writes. “My mother told me so. Half-woman, half animal creatures.”
Leyson, who prefers the pronouns they and she, then declares: “As a girl, I’d stay up and wait to shape-shift into one, crouching alone in the dark of my room. I would whisper prayers to God. I would beg him to pity the poor, defanged thing I’d become. Where are my wings, my scales, my long coiled tongue. I don’t want to be soft anymore.”
On Thursday (September 21), CBC Books announced that Leyson is the grand prize winner of the 2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize. It comes with a $6,000 cash award from the Canada Council for the Arts and a two-week writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point.
When Pancouver reaches Leyson by phone, she’s pretty giddy over the news.
“I was really surprised,” the UBC English grad says. “I didn’t expect anything out of it. Even being on the shortlist and the longlist was such an honour.”
Leyson includes other entries in this literary “glossary” to highlight how employers abuse of Overseas Filipino Workers. She notes that the second wave of feminism in Canada in the 1980s—which freed white women to join the labour force—“depended heavily” on the importation of domestic workers.
Aswang glossary impresses jury
Meanwhile, under the “Non-Perishable” entry, she writes about Overseas Filipino Workers’ proximity with death.
“When migrant workers gift their loves ones canned foods across oceans—often food that is sneered at by a Western middle class, yet seen as cosmopolitan and vied for in the Philippines—do they send back a feeling that, too, can never die? How, then, might I learn this feeling’s private language? In what secret hour of the night is it spoken?”
Like all fine poets and essayists, Leyson dishes up plenty of imagery. She also packs the essay with research reinforcing how “bodies” are the “most urgent export commodity” in the Philippines. Moreover, Leyson feels that she has a personal connection to this story because her parents are immigrants from Pampanga, a province on the northern island of Luzon.
“I have firsthand experience seeing what it’s like for migrants in Canada,” she tells Pancouver.
CBC NonFiction Prize jurors Eternity Martis, David A. Robertson, and Merilyn Simonds praised “Glossary for an Aswang” for its “painfully fragmented” stories. The jury also applauded Leyson for situating the reader “within the loneliness, isolation, injustice, violence and even death faced by those who leave their families in search of a better life”.
Leyson is delighted that the judges valued her unconventional approach.
“As someone with a poetry background, I can’t really help myself but experiment more when I’m doing prose,” she says. “They did like the form and I believe they appreciated the research that went into it.”
Billy-Ray Belcourt mentors Leyson
Leyson reveals that she’s been influenced by two Manila-born and U.S.-based writers: poet, playwright, and author Jessica Hagedorn and novelist Gina Apostol. “Glossary for an Aswang” originated in a UBC creative writing class taught by Billy-Ray Belcourt, who’s from the Driftpile Cree Nation.
“I’m really lucky to have Billy-Ray Belcourt as a mentor,” Leyson declares.
It’s been quite a journey for Leyson, who, as a child, dreamed of becoming a famous writer. As a UBC undergrad, she began sending samples of her work to publications. Her first break came in 2019 when Nat. Brut published “inheritance of glaciers”. This poem mentions how her grandfather was taken hostage in the Second World War.
“I was very honoured that such a personal poem was chosen for publication,” Leyson says.
The Canada Council for the Arts grant will allow Leyson to work on her first manuscript. She mentions that it will be a collection of poetry and might also include essays.
When asked what she might tell a young person who aspires to become a writer, Leyson has a straightforward response.
“It’s really important to read a lot,” she states. “I make a practice of reading every day. I’m exposing myself to new ways of using language—ways that are surprising…
“Most people who become writers are writers because they are inspired by something they read.”