Decolonisation as re-membering

In this conversation with advaya, Leny Strobel discusses diasporic identity formation; reconfiguring belonging in the context of empire, as a process of re-membering; how she draws from the well of liminal space; and more. Leny speaks to us with and from her personal history and experience of being a Kapampangan from Central Luzon in the Philippines, and (currently) a settler on Wappo, Pomo, and Coast Miwok lands.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the second in the series of conversations hosted by advaya ahead of the upcoming online course, KINSHIP.

The course begins on 31st of January, and tickets are still on sale. And you can find out more information about the course on And the course is a multi-teacher, six-week course exploring community, relationality, and belonging in the world of islands.

And today, I'm really excited to be welcoming the opening speaker of the course, Leny Strobel. She is one of the many incredible teachers on the course, speaking from many diverse perspectives, and Leny is first up, and I'm especially thrilled because Leny is a fellow Southeast Asian. And I would like to begin by thanking Leny, for your time, and also asking if you would like to introduce yourself, your background, where you are at the moment, and any other opening thoughts you have, before we begin officially into the questions.

DR. LENY STROBEL: Yeah, thank you. Good morning, Tammy, in Singapore, and good evening, and good afternoon to wherever your viewers might be. I am currently on Wappo, and Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo lands, also known as Sonoma County in California, northern California, and it's about 5pm on Wednesday afternoon. Yes.

So I am Kapampangan. I am from the island of Luzon in the Philippines. But I left my homeland 40 years ago today, actually. And I know that, in your conversation with Hannah, she said Leny is from the Philippines... And so having left the islands 40 years ago, I don't know how people in the Philippines will see me. Will they see me as someone from the Philippines still? Or someone from California, you know? So it's just one of those dilemmas of placemaking and identity making, where I say I am from the Philippines, I am Kapampangan, and that is my homeland, and I am a settler on these lands that I have mentioned, for the last 40 years.

I'm a retired academic, and Professor Emeritus in American Multicultural Studies from Sonoma State University. And my work has focused on the process of decolonisation, and re-indigenisation, and I have published and edited anthologies on those topics, and I am a Founding Elder at the Center for Babaylan Studies, a nonprofit organisation that has been around since 2010, and we host conferences, and retreats and workshops and other events, that have to do with the dissemination of Filipino indigenous knowledge systems and practices in the diaspora. That is most of the bulk, I guess, of what I've done in the last few decades. Thank you for the invitation to join you on this advaya course on kinship.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: Thank you so much for that Leny, I think we'll get into a lot of the themes that you were talking about. Usually when people introduce themselves in these conversations, the conversation doesn't usually touch explicitly on a lot of bits of their identity, about diasporic belonging and things like that, even though [they're] very relevant topics to a lot of what we explore, but we don't usually get to address it as explicitly as we will be in this conversation, so really excited to have you share from your actual lived experiences of being a disaporic person, and also celebrating your rich personal history. And also, recognising that while it's a beautiful relationship, it can also be quite a difficult one to unpack and talk about, so really appreciating time to speak with you about that.

And so I wanted to begin by asking you, and prompting you with your own words that you shared, that stuck with me quite a bit. So you've written before this question of: What are our cultural stories about the Land, our homeland of over 7,000 islands in the Pacific Ocean, this archipelago, that used to be connected by land bridges to Southeast Asia, and you said that decolonisation is a process of re-membering, remembering with a dash in between it, and that your deepest desires for yourself and your kapwa became to no longer become the "split subjects of empire"? I think it's really interesting to think about decolonisation as a process of re-membering and putting things back together, and seeking to no longer be a "split subject", and kind of refining those connections between our lands and between ourselves. I was wondering if you could talk us through what you meant by re-membering, and how that's a process of decolonisation, and what you also mean by an "ecology of remembering"?

DR. LENY STROBEL: Yeah, thank you. And also, I want to say that I can only speak from the specificity of my own location and my own position and my own experiences. So I'll be telling a lot of stories from that perspective, although a lot of those perspectives are informed by academic discourse or worldviews—those will come into play as I tell the story.

When I talk about decolonisation as the work of remembering—to re-member is to put back together all the parts of the self that we have been disconnected from as colonised subjects, because colonialism is all about dispossession. Dispossession of the land primarily, and then dispossession of our value systems, our cultural traditions and practices that we have been severed from.

So in doing this work, I have been using the framework of what a colleague has called ethno-autobiography. And Jürgen Kremer came up with this framework. Basically, when I started working with him, it was because I have recognised that the work that I had been doing, without calling it ethno-autobiography, is a process of reconnecting us with, or reconnecting me, to my ancestors, reconnecting me to history, to community, to the imaginal realms of dreams, to mythic stories, to faith and spirituality, to gender and sexuality, and all of those elements that has served to disembody us, so to speak, and separate us from all of those elements that make us whole.

Because, having been colonised for 500 years, you realise that, or at least when I became an adult and I came to the United States, I left my homeland, all of these questions became a preoccupation, because I didn't know how to explain those feelings. When I came to the United States, I had assumed that it will be easy to adjust, that I had assumed my familiarity with American popular culture, with the American educational system, with English, I thought it would facilitate belonging quite easily. And of course, my experiences, hasn't done that. So my questioning of: why do I feel this way? I grew up being taught how to identify with the United States. Why doesn't the US identify with me? So that was the beginning of this decolonising period in my life. It led me to an academic journey, and then it led me to write about this process of unlearning this colonial consciousness and then answering the question, well, if you are not who the colonisers say you are, who are you?

That was the beginning also of uncovering a lot of the history that I didn't learn. So when I responded to advaya's invitation to talk about islandness, I had already been thinking about the long history, the beyond 500 years of colonial history—I might have 5000 years of history that connects me to Southeast Asia, that connects me to once upon a time when that part of Asia was part of the Sunda shelf, when we were connected by land bridges... so what were all those cultures that were already in motion in that part of the world, way, way before my ancestors were born. So in the process of unlearning the colonial education, I then had to think about, how do I lengthen this historical perspective from 500 years, to 5000 years, maybe 10,000 years, maybe 14 billion years? So I think it took three decades to do that work, to get to this point of being able to say, yes, I am an Islander, but once upon a time, my ancestors, my cultural genes, come from these cultures that were already present in that part of the world, and so I think this recent adventure into thinking about this long period of history is asking me to reframe a lot of my own theorising about cultural identity about identity politics in the 21st century. So that's kind of where I am.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: I'm wanting to hold on to that last bit that you were talking about, in the context of today's identity politics, and talking about how people today view and understand identity, and belonging, and I was wondering if maybe you can share a little bit about how you think today's identity politics might be quite harmful to the way people or the way colonised subjects and people who come from countries who have been colonised, how that affects their journey of figuring out their identity?

DR. LENY STROBEL: Yeah, I think I have to be specific in talking about identity politics within the US discourse, especially the discourse of multiculturalism. And, I'm not saying identity politics is harmful. I am saying that it is important, it is still relevant and necessary. But when you're doing this work, and if you want to deepen [this work] and to really look at the concept of kapwa, which in Filipino indigenous psychology means, there is really no other, you and I are one, there is not other, so in working towards a sense of being, in which there is no other... identity politics, as it is played in the United States within a racial discourse, it will keep you from doing that exploration. We know that racial politics in the US would like to keep ethnic groups separate and disconnected and fighting each other. And so I think that is beginning to change, and that is beginning to shift, as I see the BIPOC movement, and as I see the indigenisation movement...

But those who are just starting their journey of decolonisation, and they are wanting to hold on to a sense of identity, even if it's essentialist... because I was at that phase too, 30 years ago, I was hanging on to what it means to be Filipino, and what it means to decolonise. And that is what I held onto for a long time, as I was trying to come up with my own sense of identity, apart from this colonial identity that has been imposed, so that was an important phase, and I think if we are at that phase, where we are feeling angry, or we want to resist, we want to speak and talk back against empire and against colonialism, against capitalism, I think that is part of the work that needs to be done.

But I am at a point in my life, where I have done a lot of that work, and part of coming full circle to a sense of being and a sense of becoming that is grounded on kapwa psychology, or Filipino indigenous psychology, I have begun to see the commonality across different groups, what is the shared history, and, in fact, a lot of the work that I am currently doing, I'm doing it with white folks. And in the context of looking at settler colonialism, and then to look at the history of Native genocide, and if I am working with white folks, and we all identify as settlers, what is the work that we need to do together in order to repair historical trauma? So I think there is still a part of that, which is identity politics, shadowy work that we work through. But since we recognise that we are part of this history that needs to be addressed, then, let's work on those things together.

I'm very interested in identity politics in that part of the world, in Southeast Asia, because when I look at the Philippines today, there are Korean communities, there are Chinese communities, inside the Philippines, and wondering what those relationships look like, and what the conversations look like, but because I have been away for so long, I'm not familiar with the discourse around identity.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: And it always comes back to I think the prominence and the centrality of US discourse, that I am just fully aware of the identity politics that you're speaking of in the US, even though I've never lived in the US.

DR. LENY STROBEL: But I think that's why I have shifted my own take on decolonisation, to a decolonial practice.

Because decolonisation has been a response to empire, has been a counter-narrative to colonialism. The decolonial perspective gets away from that Western gaze. It decentres the West, it decentres American discourse.

So where are those discourses coming from? I look to Latin American scholars, I look to non-white scholars and listen to them and listen to the kind of world-making and meaning-making that they are doing, and it's very refreshing to pay attention. Walter Mignolo, and Quijano and other Latin American scholars, there's Vanessa Andreotti from Brazil, and someone like Bayo Akomolafe, talking about what it is like to decentre American discourse, US-based discourse, for example, or decentre the Enlightenment discourse.

What Mignolo and Quijano have said is that you cannot look at modernity without looking at coloniality. And when you look at coloniality, you have to look at the matrix, which is ontological, it's epistemological, it's legal, and there are structures that supported it. So, when you come to understand the global system, from that perspective, you know that it's been out of balance, and this is what Indigenous peoples have always said, that if we don't talk back, if we don't address modernity, then the world is going to be destroyed by the little brother, indigenous peoples call us their little brother. So I think this is part of the reason why indigenous discourse is also beginning to take centre stage in a lot of discourse. And a lot of folks that are trying to think outside of the Western paradigm, the modern paradigm, is to begin to look at the other sources of power, where do we draw that from, and what would the world look like if we begin to think outside of that framework?

And I see that happening, for example, where I am, I see that through the land back movement, where white folks settlers are trying to make historical trauma or historical wrongs, right, in making personal and collective reparations. That is a growing movement, right now, here.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: Yeah. And I think this is a good point to jump into question about kapwa, because we've mentioned it a few times, but I think it's worth maybe elaborating a bit on it—and I would also love to hear about it, because I think it's been a recent, repeating theme in my life and the work that I've been reading, the idea of disrupting the concept of time, and thinking about alternative ways to approach time. Because the only time that a lot of people know is the linear concept of time. But in a lot of indigenous paradigms and non-Western paradigms of time, the concept is much less linear. And kapwa is an example of that. So I wanted to ask you to talk about a little bit about what kapwa means. And, specifically also about the idea of long bodies. I think you tapped into it earlier when you were talking about lengthening your own personal history, and looking back further in time...

DR. LENY STROBEL: Yeah. The concept of long body is actually a [Native American] concept that was borrowed by the psychologist Stanley Krippner, he started using the word long body to talk about your identity as inclusive of who your ancestors are, way, way back, maybe more than seven generations, and who your descendants would be, seven generations forward. So this is your body, the long body would include history, it would include community, it would include your dreams, so all of those elements of ethno-autobiography that I had named earlier on will be part of your long body.

And kapwa, as a Filipino indigenous psychology, was actually conceptualised by Virgilio Enriquez, who had a PhD in Psychology from Northwestern University, but when he came back to the Philippines, he realised that if he were to impose this western psychological models on identity and personality, it would be a disservice to his people.

And so, when he was doing his research, he told his researchers to go outside of Metro Manila, to go into the rural areas, ask the people themselves, what it is that they value, because up until that time, this was in the early 70s, the Filipina personality was defined by foreign philosophers, anthropologists, missionaries, and all of the values that they were coming up with were through the lens of Western psychology, for example, the Filipino is like this, the Filipino is fatalistic, the Filipino is lazy, the Filipino is never on time, all of this negative perspectives. So when the data came back, the research data came back, to Enriquez, he saw that kapwa, the sense of kapwa, which means, you and I are one, you and I are connected, you and I are connected to the divine within, so kapwa is connected to your Loob, which is your inner self, and your connection is strengthened by your ability to empathise, your ability to feel with the other.

So there's the affective, the cognitive, and the spiritual dynamic, that makes kapwa inclusive, expansive. It's individual, but also it's familial, it's cultural, it's historical, and then it's cosmic.

So it's a very large framing of worldview, that, is macro, but then also is micro, because the outer is connected to the inner, and then the connections and how things are interconnected and interwoven. And you see that in many of the art and the crafts that is produced by indigenous peoples, and you see it in the music, you see it in the rhythms, you see it in the colours, and the weaving patterns, and so on. So, I think the indigenous Filipino who is still capable of discerning that kind of place-based, indigenous-informed worldview develops kapwa as a skill. It's a very sophisticated skill that that becomes then your cultural capital. And for me, I feel like that is my cultural capital. When I came to this country, I already had those values and then I put them up on the shelf because I couldn't use them. Because when I used them people wouldn't respond. Let me tell you a story. When I first came to this country, I would cook something and then I want to share it with my neighbour, because that is what my mother did when we were growing up, you were always sharing, and I would go next door and offer them something that I had cooked and people would look at me and wonder why I was doing that.

So I stopped doing a lot of things because my gifts were not being welcomed and my gifts are not recognised, but as I decolonised, I realised that it will be good to bring those gifts back and it will be good to share them, it will be good to bring them back, and I will find the community that will receive them, and I will find the community that will appreciate them and reciprocate. And that has happened. And I think that is why I feel that even though I have told Hannah, in my abstract, that I am an island girl adrift on the continent, I think there was a certain point in my life, when I recognised that. I said, Oh, I am an Islander. That's why I couldn't relate to these giant mountains. That's why I couldn't relate to these colours and the space.

And that that is important too, recognising how place has shaped us, recognising how coming from an island, coming from that part of the world, shapes your sense of how you move in the world and how you carry yourself in the world.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: No, I think you you segued very nicely back into the second question about finding your belonging as part of a diaspora or the diaspora. And I was wondering if you could speak a little bit to your experience of being scattered. I'm wondering if you could speak to that experience of being in some ways, disconnected physically, at least, from where you came from, and how it's been like trying to place make and trying to reconfigure a sense of belonging, either to the place that you're in now, or back to your homeland, or just generally speak to the diasporic experience?

DR. LENY STROBEL: I spent many years trying to reconnect with my own indigenous roots in Pampanga, in the Philippines, among indigenous tribes, in indigenous communities in the Philippines, I spent a good amount of time trying to reconnect with those parts of myself. And then, because that was during the period of my life, when I was always thinking about being bicoastal. I said, Oh, I would really like to spend six months in the Philippines and six months in the US trying to do something. And then when that wasn't becoming feasible, there came a point in time where I said, my body is here. My heart and mind are over there.

And I stand on the Pacific Ocean from the California side, and I would look at the horizon and I said, over there are my islands, and...

The only thing that separates us is the ocean, but aren't we still connected?

I said, What I have learned from the t'boli community, from the Talaandig people, from the Cordillera people, all of the things that I have learned, it's already here. It's already in my heart, and I am living them here. The indigenous values that I have learned and what they have taught me and what they have given me, I am already living it here, even though my body isn't there.

So I feel like if I hadn't done that work, then I would not feel that grounded. And I think this is why we hear a lot of people who are just searching and they find teachers from other cultures. For example, I have some Filipino friends they were looking for identity, looking for grounding. They might find a shaman from Peru, they might go to India, in their search, and eventually they will find a teacher who will tell them go back to where your ancestors are from, find out. And so some of the folks that have come to our organisation have been told that. That is how they found us, they were told by another teacher to go back to their own place of origin. And, I think, when I think about Filipinos in the diaspora, and many of our indigenous peoples are part of that diaspora too, but one of the things that I was telling another friend recently is that the Filipinos that are in the diaspora...

There's a Filipino anthropologist who called them mystic wanderers from the land of perpetual departures, and he said, even though they have left, they maintain part of that mysticism. And I think by mysticism, he meant really indigenous spirituality, that sense of wanting to express their Filipino-ness wherever they are in the world. So you will hear about Filipinos in the most remote parts of the globe, finding each other, and building community, and immediately, they are attracted to each other. So I think that is something so beautiful that I hadn't started thinking about until recently, because I've always felt that... actually, I was raised Methodist, I was Protestant. And I think my sense of angst about my cultural identity is so different from someone who was raised Catholic, because the Catholic that came to the Philippines is kind of syncretistic already. And it was folk Catholicism. And, there is a Filipino theologian who said, we were never really converted, we just exchanged images.

We traded the image of the Anito or the indigenous God, for the image of Virgin Mary, but actually deep within, that animistic, shamanistic spirituality, indigenous spirituality has always been there. It has always undergirded that devotion. In fact, one Catholic priest said, Leny, Filipino Catholics don't really know their theology, but they're very devoted. And that devotion... that's your Loob, that is the kapwa sense. They already know it, but because this kapwa psychology is not part of the academic, or educational canon, a lot of it is not written and validated by by the neocolonial system. It's not understood very well, it's not appreciated very well, because, as you said, the dominance of Western American discourse is so strong. And I felt the same way, when I started writing my dissertation, I was so scared nobody would want to read it. Because I said, I was doing this for myself. I was doing this to heal myself.

And then once an elder told me, he said, Leny, you need to publish because you have a responsibility to your community. So when I did publish it, my dissertation, it took another few years before other academics picked it up. And, there was even an older scholar who said, Leny, this is so courageous, to actually talk back like this. And I didn't realise that that was the impact of what I was doing for me. I was doing it for me. And so there is now the visible decolonisation movement in the diaspora. I'm seeing it in the social enterprises, entrepreneurship, I'm seeing it in the cultural productions, I'm seeing it in what we do as communities in the diaspora.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: I think it's a good time to go to the last question about liminality. I think this sentence that you wrote, really stuck with me, because I think it's a very interesting and refreshing take on liminality. You write, that I draw from the well of liminality, and liminal spaces, the awareness of my location in the in-betweenness of spaces. So I'm wondering what you mean by drawing from the well and how that has played out in your life, any guidance that you can offer to people who are on that journey, who are in the in-between trying to figure things out?

DR. LENY STROBEL: When I was teaching a course on mixed race identities, there was a biracial student who said, Leny, I'm neither Black or white, every time we talk about mixed race, I always fall through the cracks. And I said, don't worry, someday the crack would be so big, you wouldn't even realise that you're in it. I think that is the liminal space, and one of my mentors said...

"Leny, you don't always have to be oppositional, because the liminal space is a creative space. Learn how to create energy within those spaces."

And I did that, when I refused to pursue being published by a university press, for example, because I was already coming up with work and framework that didn't fit in any academic category—the university press would look at it and they would say, there is no audience, there is no market for Filipino American Studies. This doesn't fit into psychology, sociology, we don't know where to put it, and so I published outside of the university press, and I didn't care whether I got tenure or not, and the books that I have put out, were not published by university presses.

But as soon as they were out in the world, people would pick them up. And they would say, oh my gosh, this is me, you are speaking my experience, my story. And this is, how a movement happens. And that is how change happens—is that people begin to see themselves in the stories that you tell. And so that liminal space for me, whether it's the third space or the Mestiza consciousness and then what Bayo Akomolafe calls fugitivity, and then Hannah was quoting Braithwaite, and tidalectics, and all of these new ways of thinking about that space, that is outside of what is perceived as the canon, or the dominant, or the privilege, or the Western discourse. And I think, depending on where you stand, depending on where you locate yourself, if you're still playing the game of tenure, and academic tenure, you might still be tempted to think that that is the way to do it, is to play by the rules and ignore that liminal space and so on.

But I think, if we have a long view, if we have this thinking of seven generations down the road, if we have the view that we are not totally in control, that if we open ourselves up to those energies, to the mythic stories, to the dream world, they will speak to us of the spaces where we can create cultures and create communities and do something totally different. And, to me, that has been a comforting place to be, but it's also a very lonely place to be, because I find, you don't have that many people to talk to. So yeah, and for me, that is a well, because the space includes not just the space in your intellect, but includes the space of your heart, it includes the space of your ancestors, it includes the space of everything that is outside the purview of what we have come to create around this modern framework.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: Yeah. Wow. That was.... Yeah, I think when you said that it was a lonely place to be. I hope that a lot of people who join us on the course will be voices that you can bounce off, and listen to as well. And, I'm sure there'll be a lot of people who are drawn to this inquiry, who are drawn to this container, who are people who can speak to that experience, and who are people who are trying to figure out how to begin on that journey, how to find other people on that journey. And yeah, thank you so much, Leny, for sharing that.

I think that's a good way to wrap this conversation, as well. And so I want to invite folks who have been listening to this conversation, to explore more of sessions and the teachers on the course website, you can check We have a lot of different speakers and from different parts of the world speaking to a lot of themes that Leny and I were conversing about today. A lot of different conceptions of identity and belonging and relationality will be spoken about during the course. And I'm really excited to hear from all of these teachers and all of these speakers who will be speaking from such different experiences and giving us so much to work with. And I think the picture that we'll be painting together may not really make sense, in the in the normal way of thinking about things, but I think it will be one that represents a better picture of reality than what we have now. So I'm looking forward to the course. And I'm wondering if Leny you wanted to, if you have any closing thoughts, or if anything you're particularly excited about for the upcoming course?

DR. LENY STROBEL: Yeah, I think I would like to invite folks to come to this course with curiosity for different opinions, different worldviews, different experiences, especially the experiences of people from islands versus continents. And, I hope that this curiosity will help us connect a little bit more with each other and to understand history. And when Hannah was talking about the impasse, what is the impasse in keeping us from experiencing the world as an archipelago, and what I could think of in terms of impasse is that sense of separation and disconnection that very often is very hard to name, because of our different locations around the planet, but the framework that was offered in terms of connecting to ancestors and dreams and mythic stories, and history, and community, all of those elements, reconnect us back to each other, regardless of where you are in the world, as long as we are able to share our stories with each other and hear those stories with the heart.

Because that can be difficult. The work is difficult in trying to make that connection and that has been my experience in doing the work of settlers in this area where I am, when you have white settlers, you have people of colour, you have indigenous peoples, all trying to do the same kind of work. All of those tensions and quaking come up and you have to work through them. So I hope people will come and sign up and register!

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: Thank you Leny.


Leny Strobel

Leny Strobel is a Kapampangan from Central Luzon in the Philippines.

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