“Mistaken for an Empire: A Memoir in Tongues” by Christine Imperial

Christine Imperial Christine Imperial

“Take up the White Man’s burden— / Send forth the best ye breed— / Go bind your sons to exile / To serve your captives’ need,” starts Rudyard Kipling’s notorious poem of American expansionism in the Philippines, “The White Man’s Burden”. Those lines will ring familiar to many, particularly those who have received an education in the United States—so widely has the poem become emblematic of American imperialism and the “civilizing mission” during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Those lines also mark the entry point of Christine Imperial’s new book Mistaken for an Empire: A Memoir in Tongues, a hybrid prose-poetry memoir about the author’s understanding of her own Filipino-American identity. The book begins as an attempt to translate “The White Man’s Burden” into Tagalog, “the language,” Imperial notes, “of [the poem’s] new-caught, sullen people.” Imperial translates Kipling’s title, filling the first page of the book top to bottom with the line “karga: to carry  dusa: suffering, grief;  puti: white.” She then turns to that infamous opening stanza, allowing her own associations to enter the work as she translates:


Take up the White Man’s Burden


karga: to carry
to bear
this burden the flesh
fissures from the weight
of the Lord’s mandate
bestowed upon blood


Karga mo ang dusa ng puti


A few pages later, Imperial continues to Kipling’s next line, which leads into the broader history and context of the poem:


Send forth the best ye breed—


Ipadala ang pinakamahusay na sinilang niyo—


The ex-pat laughs


Send: dala: send; what has been sent
the best: pinakamahusay: the most effective
ye breed: na sinilang niyo: ones you birthed


I am unsure




Sorry, not conquest. I’m forgetting
The history books say necessary


occupation. The history books say Benevolent Assimilation. The history books say they saved us from the Spanish. The history books tell us to refer to the Treaty of Paris. The history books say the Philippines was worth $20 million. The history books speak of rebellious Filipinos. The history books say glory. The history books are laminated in plastic.


Mistaken for an Empire contends with the complexities of Imperial’s personal and family history through a larger examination of the United States’s fraught history with the Philippines. Exploding out from Imperial’s confrontation with Kipling, this bold debut embodies the ethos of translation by scrutinizing language in all forms—and in so doing tackles questions of culture, race, belonging, and the subjectivity of truth. The result is a searching and nuanced exploration of a selfhood strung between two countries.


Mistaken for an Empire: A Memoir in Tongues, Christine Imperial (Ohio State University Press, April 2023)
Mistaken for an Empire: A Memoir in Tongues, Christine Imperial (Ohio State University Press, April 2023)

The year Kipling wrote “The White Man’s Burden”—1899—was also the year which marked the start of the Philippine-American War, when Filipino nationalists revolted against American annexation of their country. Throughout Mistaken for an Empire, Imperial builds out this greater context surrounding the publication of Kipling’s poem, citing important global events like President William McKinley issuing the Benevolent Assimilation Proclamation and, later, the eventual American recognition of the Philippine Declaration of Independence nearly fifty years after its signing. She incorporates a variety of primary sources and archival documents from the period into her writing as well, including political speeches, war photographs, immigration laws and regulations, newspaper headlines, advertisements, political cartoons, and more.

Just as Imperial interrogates the version of history Kipling presents in his poem, she also extends that interrogation to these documents and their often overt imperialistic messaging. Examining a photograph posing two armed soldiers engaged in what appears to be friendly conversation, Imperial notes the way the camera itself acts as an unseen threat looming over the image:


To capture the moment mid-conversation between an American soldier and a Filipino soldier in the fields of some unknown province of the Philippines. To send it back to America the image must validate itself with absence. The photographer must present the barren land unoccupied. The photographer must not


                              Place them by the margins.
                              allow the native to
                              litter the scene


let them remain as a mass willing to be seen—The barrel extends beyond the image.


Interwoven with these various threads of history are threads from Imperial’s own family history. Through more colloquial forms of storytelling—personal anecdotes, memories, family photographs—Imperial traces her family members’ movement between the United States and the Philippines over time. Starting with her grandparents and moving to the present, Imperial unpacks the implications of varying states of citizenship and exile. Her own dual citizenship places her in a constant state of in-betweenness. In one answer to the question “Where do you call home?,” Imperial writes: “I live in California I live in Manila I live in between I live with my family I live away I live with my father I live alone I live with my mother I live with my grandmother I live trying to make sense of where I live.” The list goes on, until Imperial concludes that “I live inside the question: Where do you call home.”

The difficulty of placing herself in this complex history leads back, of course, to language. About halfway through the book, Imperial addresses what has so far only been alluded to in the title: the ironic resonances between the book’s thematics and her own surname. For Imperial, her name is another symbol of her entangled history with these two countries, as well as a constant reminder of America’s colonial legacy, reaching into the present: “The barrel extends beyond the image— / What’s your last name? / Say it to be met with disbelief.” Those lines repeat and modulate throughout the rest of the book, as Imperial grapples with her own origins:


I am learning


to be less grateful. “What is your last name?”


As if it mattered.                                                    Say it to be met
with disbelief.                                                        So I return


to the origin:      from the Latin: imperium—command,


authority, empire. From Spanish. From Portuguese.


                                                 From whatever comes         to pass.


                                                                                               I am not supposed to be
what is birthed


                                                from the abstract
                                                                                               I hear the ex-pat laugh.


Imperial’s narrative is nonlinear and fragmented, and long poetic sequences extend over many pages, constellating lines and images from disparate sources, times, and storylines, making Mistaken for an Empire at times a difficult read. Imperial is often self-referential as well, calling on words and phrases she has previously used and adding new meaning to them in new contexts.

But that difficulty is part of the power of this book. Imperial’s intense attention to language is true to the deeply recursive—and truly messy—work that is both translation and self-interrogation. Indeed, by the end of the book, the project Imperial had set out to complete seems to be only just beginning. “I am still translating, Ako—,” she writes on the penultimate page; “ako” in Tagalog means “me, I.”

Lily Nilipour is Digital Marketing Assistant at Harvard University Press and an Associate Poetry Editor for Narrative.