In early 2003, Romalyn Ante’s mother arrived in England from the Philippines. After a couple of years, she was able to bring the rest of the family over. “All of us are here,” says the specialist nurse practitioner, 16-years-old when she came to the UK, “apart from my youngest brother because he chose to stay in the Philippines to continue his studies, and eventually he had his own family there.” Ante was appointed poet-in-residence at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust / Hosking Houses Trust in 2019 and is the first East-Asian to win the Poetry London Prize (2018). It seems England has embraced her as a poet, but has she always felt welcome as a person? “Wherever I go,” she says from her home in Wolverhampton, “there’ll always be resistance. I think it’s human nature to initially not fully embrace someone who is different. I have experienced really racist comments and microaggression, not just as a nurse, as a person. At 16 (when I had to repeat my GCSEs because the UK didn’t really acknowledge my Filipino high school diploma) other young people would say something about the shape of my eyes or my accent. That continued to happen even after graduation, as a nursing student, as a nurse now. But I’ve always believed that if somebody doesn’t accept me, it’s not my problem. Also, in Wolverhampton I have my Filipino community to support me. I have my parents, siblings, friends; I have poetry organisations who have supported me. I’d like to focus on that rather than the resistance.” This year, shortly before the publication of her debut collection, Antiemetic for Homesickness, she gave us an insight into a few of its pieces.
A lot of people think my whole book is autobiographical, that the ‘I’ in the poem pertains to me and only me, but ‘Half-empty’ is inspired by both my mum and one of my friends who’s also Filipino and a nurse. I did my nursing in the UK, as soon as I graduated, my job was secured. But in the Philippines, when you finish your nursing, the country wouldn’t necessarily give you a job straight away. It’s very normal to have to do voluntary work first, before paid work; it’s saddening because sometimes you spend years in the voluntary sector. ‘Half-empty’ is my mum’s story and that of my friend.
This is a love poem. The speaker is saying goodbye, the woman and the man get separated. When I came to England, I was almost 16 years old, I didn’t have a love interest then – I was very childlike, all I thought about was climbing trees. So, I had to really work my imaginative energy with this poem. When the speaker says, “You convinced me to go, lying about England: It’s a brighter place”, it’s literal but also metaphorical. If you’re coming from a third world country like the Philippines, you look at a country like England as full of opulence – the Queen, all these palaces – but it will also give you ‘bright’ opportunities; chance of a better life and money to give to your family.
“A food tray on a table, a woman with potash perm gapes at the steam of roast potatoes – she clangs the metal lid down.” When I was writing that line, my main thought was that in the UK, we have the NHS who everybody’s thankful for (especially nowadays). But throughout my years as a nurse, I’ve also experienced moments where people who’ve always been reliant on the NHS, don’t seem to appreciate it. I had patients who would complain about the food, like the woman with the potash perm. In the Philippines, if you saw someone reject food like that, you would be shocked because you’d think, “Well, you’re lucky everything is free – even your food.” In the Philippines, you have to pay for a little bit of paper for your dressing (growing up, I remember we had to sell our house to pay for my grandmother’s dialysis treatment). When I came to the UK, I was shocked patients were not appreciating what they had. I thought, “Roast potatoes are nice, you get shepherd’s pie, Sunday roast, what else do you want?” Sometimes it’s easy to overlook that with which you’ve always been provided.