[Above: Remnants of Jose Rizal's library includes Webster's Complete English Dictionary, William Shakespeare, Gulliver's Travels, and more. Source: Filipiniana.net.]
Recently, another Pinay writer said to me that I have more non-Filipino American readers than Filipino American readers. I agreed with her, and thought about how telling her observation about me was.
Here’s something that’s been coming up in a lot of discussions and interactions I’ve been having re: teaching Filipino/a American Literature. Are we creating/cultivating readers? And how does one go about creating/cultivating readers? To add: does our popular American culture cultivate readers? Or does it destroy readers? So then in addition to what we’re doing within our community, there’s that larger battle to fight.
I can tell you that my freshmen students do come into the classroom enthusiastic and curious; they come with questions, and they come with a need to understand something about themselves. They want to learn something about their families and their lives. They’ve come to a literature class thinking this is a good place to ask those questions. This tells me they are already readers. As I’ve also written before about my Fil Am Lit students in general, they want to be visible, to see themselves and something familiar about their lives and families in the literature.
How is this similar to the way we POC watch TV and movies, wanting to see people like ourselves in programs and films, where those people who look like us are not props, stereotypes, tropes. We flock to the TV for Jessica Sanchez on American Idol. Charice as Sunshine Corazon on Glee. Manny Pacquiao’s every fight. Journey frontman Arnel Pineda. Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra (wait, do we flock to the TV for his Filpino-ness? Maybe we do now that he’s a winner.). Without these pop figures, we feel invisible.
(My personal favorites are Reggie Lee in Grimm, and Charlyne Yi when she was on House. Understated? Yes, but that’s the point; they’re so normal, you miss them if you’re looking for an ethnic spectacle or a superstar.)
So we demand representation, we burden others to represent us, but we all differ on what that representation entails. That’s hardly fair. To add: We demand positive representation when our communities are, as real human beings, both good and not so good people, with complex motivations, well-meaning or not. I think of Andrew Cunanan, the beautiful, tragic, and sad real life figure, the murderer of Gianni Versace. Think of Gina Apostol’s story, “Cunanan’s Wake.” My students come away from this story with all kind of interesting insights, about media representation, about tsismis (group dynamics, multiple/conflicting versions of “truth,” construction of narrative for various purposes and power), about self-hatred and pride, about how we form and delineate community, about who’s in and who’s out and who gets to determine that, about sexuality and migration in the communities we define/delineate. These are substantial, layered discussions with no easy answers or resolutions.
As a fellow Pinay writer said to me the other day, ideas take time to process, especially when the narratives are layered, nuanced, presented in figurative language, when the authors don’t spoon feed you “The Message,” and you have to do some intellectual work to get to text’s multiple meanings and possibilities. Yes. In my classrooms, I give my students the space to dialogue and process. The very fact that we have this space — that it comes from Fil Am literary works — is amazing and necessary. So here we see young and capable, critical Fil Am readers and thinkers.
Still. I see folks in our grassroots community throwing around words like “ivory tower,” “sell out,” “whitewash,” “elitist,” when referring to us authors. They dismiss or ignore all considerations of form, construction, craft, and experimentation. Many Filipino American educators elect not to teach our works, even when the works handle in diverse ways themes that can be relevant to the community — migration, war, displacement, etc. This, at the same time that the larger community laments the alleged dearth of Filipino American authored books. I can’t help but think about how these things are related.
I also hear arguments from within the community that we Filpino Americans are visual learners, and that’s why we’re so concerned with performance and less so with books. But visual learners benefit from the presence of text, as pages of text are visual objects (objects to which we can visually refer). And visual learners are not the opposite of readers. So there’s a contradiction and a lot of things here that confuse me.
Something I do understand clearly: Our community’s world view privileges groups, group participation, committee, and public consensus. By contrast, to be an author is to do solitary/individual work. Even when so much community input and consideration goes into the process of creating and editing the work, the author must necessarily work in some kind of isolation, and when comes time to seek publication, the author pitches herself and her manuscript in what is a series of private interactions between her and different prospective publishers. When the manuscript is accepted, when the book is published, it is her name on the cover. And even when her acknowledgements page is extensive and inclusive, people see her name on the cover, and that’s the thing to which they respond. Even when editing anthologies and other collective writings, she is the one acknowledged for having gathered/compiled the work. What she has accomplished here is the opposite of committee and public consensus. I can’t help but think the nature of this work being counter to our group-oriented world view has something to do with being derided as elitist.
Then there’s the expectation that the literary work be an immediate action, because it’s bourgeois to dwell in a place of ideas. But I go back to the importance of cultivating of critical readers and thinkers. Those who value praxis have to acknowledge that without thought and reflection, action is just action. So in addition to the ways in which our larger culture may be destroying readers, how are we destroying the readers in our own community? And then how do we counter this destruction?