Lit, Poetry, Events, Syllabus Updates, and Becoming a Dona Gangsta

Whew! Lots has just happened, and Oscar and I have found ourselves in many lit spaces over the last few days, while also managing a couple of birthday feasts.

I need three more students to enroll in my Philippine/Filipino American Literature course, and it’s a go. Good news is that incoming freshmen have not yet enrolled, and I’ve also just spread the word to fellow USF faculty in Asian Studies and Asian American Studies, folks with whom I’ve recently reconnected at the 04/26 USF Growing Up Filipino American author panel, featuring Peter Jamero, Pati Navalta Poblete, and Janet Mendoza Stickmon. As I’d previously mentioned, I’d never met or heard Jamero and Poblete, so I wanted to say a few words about them, as I came away impressed with their presentations.

Poblete, a journalist by trade, told us she’d originally started writing The Oracles, so that her children would know something of their ancestry. What followed was a frank and familiar, refreshing narrative about a young Pinay trying her best to fit in at middle school, negotiating that hip suburban Americanism against her Old World grandparents’ presence. Her narrative is so clean, something I greatly appreciate. She also told us that in the process of writing The Oracles, she herself grew, in empathy for the grandparents’ lives and hardships. And thus her writing grew too. Convinced by a co-worker (at San Francisco Chronicle) to submit this work for publication, she first queried Heyday Press, who accepted the manuscript. First publisher query, last publisher query, and a book contract. That’s gangster. Certainly, we can attribute that to the clarity and focus of her work.

Manong Peter talked about the lost generation of Filipino Americans, of which he is a part. They were the children of the Manongs, American-born Filipinos figuring out their own sense of community distinct from single ethnicity blocs, and their parents’ provincialism. I admire Manong Peter’s self-determination and drive, coming from a farm labor camp community into the military, into graduate school, into politics. He came into writing, if I remember his talk correctly, because he and his late wife, also of his generation, talked constantly about getting down their generations’ stories, and pushing for scholars to pay more serious attention to them, lest they fade into invisibility. He became a writer when he was in his 60′s, after retiring from a long career in community activism. His first book, Growing Up Brown, was published by University of Washington Press in 2006, and he is now in his 80′s, soon to see the publication of his second book, also on UW Press.

Then of course, R. Zamora Linmark came through on 04/28, and read at Manilatown; with Wilma Consul and Joel Tan, they performed sections of Leche, complete with a Kris Aquino talk show and audience participation, just as boisterous, irreverent, and lively as the text itself. I loved our Q&A, which was just like having a conversation in front of people, in which I was able to ask him about his relationship with Manila, whether the novel served as a purge or exorcism of that crazy city of our births. We talked about moving between writing his poetry collections and writing novel, about the inclusion of multiple forms, and many other things I can’t currently remember.

Two days later, 04/30, Jessica Hagedorn came through, and read from her latest novel, Toxicology, at Intersection for the Arts. Really, it was more performance with the actors of Campo Santo, similar in a way to Linmark’s reading, bringing her city’s idiosyncratic, lively characters off the page. Her character Eleanor Delacroix reminded me of Jose Garcia Villa, an elderly “experimental” author and recluse, just crotchety and embittered, with no need for social graces. I especially appreciated the acting out of that Delacroix interview scene, thinking about the jumble of literary scene and the changing city and aging, relevance, prominence, obscurity, what work is well received, and what work gets panned.

Yesterday, Oscar and I ended up at Kim Addonizio’s home for a poetry salon, featuring Marie-Elizabeth Mali, and fellow BOA author Keetje Kuipers. There was also an open mic, which Oscar kicked off with “Ode to Government Cheese.” But let me briefly say about Marie-Elizabeth that I love the freshness in tone, that wonder permeating her poems in her debut collection, Steady, My Gaze. As for Keetje, how intense and precise, beautiful, these lamentations in her debut collection, Beautiful In the Mouth. She and I exchanged books and contact info (I did not know she was in the Bay Area), and we will be reading together soon.

All this, and I have made some revisions to my course syllabus. Somehow, my discussion with Zack regarding Leche emboldened me. No reason to be intimidated by novel. Even in a two-unit course, we can handle longer works, if tackling them in groups of readers and discussion leaders. So, in addition to excerpts from some poetry and fiction collections and Philippine and Filipino American literary anthologies (Isagani Cruz’s The Best Philippine Short Stories of the Twentieth Century: An Anthology of Fiction in English, not available in the States, is a biggie), here are the texts we will be using in their entirety:

  • The Thirdest World, by Gina Apostol, Eric Gamalinda, and Lara Stapleton.
  • One! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry.
  • The Oracles, by Pati Navalta Poblete.
  • Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Bus, by Gizelle Gajelonia.
  • The Gods We Worship Live Next Door, by Bino A. Realuyo.
  • Leche, by R. Zamora Linmark.
  • Ilustrado, by Miguel Syjuco.

Three groups of students handle one author apiece in The Thirdest World. The class divides into four, and present either Barry, Poblete, Gajelonia, or Realuyo. Then for final presentations, the class divides in two, and present either Linmark or Syjuco.

Our literature is really exciting, and there is a lot of talent here! I say this, of course, with a bias, but I really think students can do this. There are a lot of distinct voices, energetic storytellers, a lot of crazy form usage, invention, innovation, form and genre busting, throwing the middle finger at “the establishment,” while simultaneously taking what we need from it and making it ours.

I think of the huffy Filipina matron at the Philippine Airlines counter at the Honolulu International Airport in Leche, whose balikbayan box is 30 pounds over the allowed 70-pound weight. Are you saying my bathroom scale is a liar! And, fine, whatever, hijo, here’s the required fee for the box’s extra weight. Leche! Milk. Shit. I kind of think this is an apropos reference for how we can handle ourselves in American letters. Really. I always think, I look forward to the day I will have my mother’s Doña gangsta ways.

Dare I say it’s a great time to be a Filipino American author. Yes, I think it is.

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Barbara Jane Reyes

Author of Gravities of Center, Poeta en San Francisco, and Diwata. Adjunct professor in Philippine Studies at University of San Francisco.

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