Creating or Destroying Readers in Filipino American Literature 2

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Wow! I am so heartened by the ongoing discussion about cultivating and creating readers! Thank you! So many great points have been raised and reiterated, and I want to carry this discussion further.

“Karaoke Culture,” is the term that Rodney in my comments section of that previous blog post has used to describe what we do in the name of visibility. I love this term because it speaks to the kind of mimicry and apery our community both internalize and decry. I think of Freire again, where “to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor.”

I have recently guest edited “Poetas y Diwatas,” the Pinay Poets special section of The Bakery, and am thrilled at the responses and interest. I may not have publicly mentioned this next part, but one of my larger goals with that editing work, and with the Pinay Lit course I’ve been teaching, is to query publishers with a Pinay poetics manuscript proposal, which would definitely be building upon the work already done by folks like Nick Carbó and Eileen Tabios, with Babaylan and Pinoy Poetics, as well as Going Home to a Landscape by Marianne Villanueva and Virginia Cerenio.

What I envision is a volume of Pinay authored creative works and process essays, in which the process essays take on work concerns of craft, history, tradition, politics, activisms, et al. Questions I have for now would be regarding not limiting this volume to poets and poetry, though poetry is my area of expertise. Expand this to multiple genres of literature? Expand this to other art disciplines? Or ask other practicing Pinay artists and writers of my generation whose areas of expertise are other genres and art disciplines to co-propose a series of anthologies?

But I am way ahead of myself here.

On creating and cultivating readership then.

I was talking to one of my grad students last night about the place of art in our political and cultural movements. What is art supposed to be “doing” there? Is the expectation of pragmatism what cripples the art by making it have to be didactic and dogmatic? Or is there something deeper we need to look at? I think about claiming to be disconnected from great literary traditions as a community, such that we get to a point that we feel we have no great literary traditions, which leads to the sentiment that great literary traditions have nothing to do with us. This is fallacious logic.

I keep thinking of an introduction to a volume of poetry by Nobel Prize winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, in which it is mentioned that one can move through the Indian countryside and hear workers in the fields reciting Tagore’s verses from memory. Similarly, I think about the Latina custodial workers in a nearby Oakland school, who know and remember the poems of Nicolás Guillén. And I think of Philippine poet Emmanuel Lacaba, the “Brown Rimbaud,” whose poems that I know best (from Salvaged Poems) recognize complexity, irony, contradiction, and the artist as warrior and tightrope dancer:

The People’s Warrior
Emmanuel Lacaba

The people’s warrior is an athlete:
A mountain-climber, not because it
Is there, but because the masses are there.
He is an acrobat: balancing himself
On fallen trunks of trees that bridge rivers
And monstrous waterfalls of certain death,
Like a tightrope dancer. The people’s warrior
Is an actor: on the stage of revolution;
An actor of sincerity, for the masses
Are the best critics, can read faces and bodies
And know when you speak the truth, or are just
Hamming. The people’s warrior is, oh yes,
A comedian: making the masses see the paradoxes,
The irony, of their condition –
The contradiction between he who is ruled but sweats
And him who rules without a sweat from his
Cushioned car and office and marble toilet seat;
The people’s warrior inspires the masses to march
Forward to battle cheerfully, but with all
Determination; he clowns, to make the masses feel
At home with him, who is of them
And for them – for the first time one armed
But not abusive, the people’s warrior.

Reiterating the fact that ideas take time to process, I will also add that the kind of literature that has stayed with me and changed me is the literature that I have had to arrive at only when I was ready to arrive at it, whether this meant reading Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters a couple of times, or Wilfrido D. Nolledo’s But For the Lovers many more times than that, having failed in and persisted through the process. This to me can only be a good thing; I needed to get to a place of intellectual maturity and life maturity in order to process some sophisticated, layered, complicated texts, narratives, and ideas.

I want to say I am a better person because of this, because that ongoing work has also made me more capable of processing the complicated reality in which we live. I want to say I walk in the world not easily duped by the political rhetoric and mass media sound bytes of shucksters and liars, force feeding us pablum and bullshit, and telling us to love it, because that is all we are capable of accessing. What is this pablum and bullshit but grossly oversimplified messages that shrink our capacity for critical thought and creativity, that encourage us towards not thinking for ourselves, that encourage us away from mindfulness, that push us towards being unthinking beings. This is a process of dehumanization.

So that’s what’s at stake for me.

And hence, some things I want my students to be able to do is to grow their creativity, to hone their bullshit meters, to see and know deeply our world and how we live, to resist dehumanization. Those are the kinds of people I want in my community. Now I have to be real and say that what breaks my heart is when said pablum and bullshit is coming from within our own communities — whether it’s from artistic laziness or anti-intellectualism posing as liberating pedagogy, we need to acknowledge how damaging it is to move ourselves, to move young Filipino Americans away from artistic and intellectual exploration.

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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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