[Photo credits: Center for Art + Thought]
With Noël Alumit, Rachelle Cruz, Giovanni Ortega, and Chris Santiago, I just participated in a wonderful literary community event down in Los Angeles yesterday afternoon: The Writer Is Also a Citizen was the closing event for the exhibit, I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story, at the Japanese American National Museum.
From the JANM website:
I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story was created by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and curated by Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center Initiative Coordinator Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis. The exhibition is supported by a generous grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, and is a collaborative initiative with Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES).
November 2, 2013 also happens to be the 100th birthday of Carlos Bulosan, the man and monument. It was apt to end the exhibit’s JANM run with a literary event, because in my opinion, a lot of folks forget to read Bulosan’s work as literary work by a man with American literary aspirations. This event featured Filipino American writers and authors in multiple genres, and from multiple generations, and novelist Noël Alumit and I were the “elders” in the program! And really, this was just fine! I love that we get to share these spaces with young, emerging Filipino American writers. We not only read excerpts of our own work, but excerpts of Bulosan’s work as well. The preferred text seemed to be On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan, edited by the powerhouse that is E. San Juan, Jr.
I appreciate very much the community that happens at these events. What I mean by “community” — I mean the dialogue that the works, our own, and Bulosan’s, seem to be having with one another. Giovanni and actor Johnny Kwon performed some scenes from Giovanni’s play, Allos, a living document. It was wonderful to receive this grounded, humanizing performance. Rachelle read from Bulosan’s letters, and discussed the intimacy of the epistolary form (something Noël and I had been talking about earlier that day). In the letters in which the addressee is not stated, I started to wonder if Bulosan was writing to himself, and if so, what kind of unmediated insight we get from these. From her own work, she read excerpts of notes that accompanied remittances from SF to the Philippines. That tension between intimacy and pragmatism when “speaking” across vast distance. The tonal quality of Chris’s poems was one of familial tenderness, and so it was apt for him to read the poem, “For a Child Dying in a Tenement.” Noël read an excerpt of the story, “The Laughter of My Father,” from the same titled collection of short stories. This kind of masculine pride a man has for his sons, within a specific historical, geographical, and gendered context! What do we learn about Filipino masculinity and yes, Filipino machismo, from that story? Finally, what do we learn about sons, as we hear in Noël’s Talking to the Moon. As for myself, I read an excerpt of “I am Not a Laughing Man,” because, well, I love Bulosan’s anger, and I love his writer hustle. I read the poem, “If You Want to Know What We Are,” because I love Bulosan’s anthemic verse, especially when it is Whitmanesque and multitudinous, when it is unabashedly political. I read poems of mine which are centered around the toughness of American city.
Carlos Bulosan clearly means many things to many people, and it was great to see and hear how he means many different literary things to different literary people. He is “ours,” and I see how we all lay claim to him, as Filipino Americans and as writers, figuring out our place in American letters. As an educator, I think of returning to his work, as I do every semester, and this time, with new and deeper readings of his work, with more ways of communicating many layers of Bulosan to young folks, newly entering his work.
For literary events, we are privileged to access to many kinds of spaces, and it’s great when admission is free, as yesterday’s event was. Yesterday at the JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum, a beautiful, distraction free space, we had a large stage, a podium, a microphone. A spotlight. An audience who listened and heard intently, and then afterwards, have the opportunity to respond and engage in dialogue. For me, this is what reading can do, and bring. This is a critical part of the reading experience. And honestly, this is my preferred type of literary event, because I can actually hear myself speak, and therefore, can work with tone and nuance. I can also hear the audience responding, which is important to me. (Though I have to say, PAWA’s recent participation in SF’s Litcrawl, in which we ended up in the Deepistan National Parklet, reading poetry to Valencia Street passers-by on a lovely autumn evening, was great, and I really enjoyed it.) You may be reading this blog post and thinking, “Ivory Tower Literati.” I want to reference my previous post, in which Rashaan Alexis Meneses and I discuss the “elite,” in that blog post’s comments section. I think about myself as a supposed part of this literati, and I know that any kind of reductive “Ivory Tower versus Street,” “Academy versus Community,” is just cheap. We work, we live, we read, we create. We hustle, we publish, we connect, we share, we exchange.
I loved yesterday’s event, a very clear/focused, and straight forward event and opportunity to connect, share, and exchange, which Chris Santiago organized, and which Giovanni Ortega hosted. Yuri Santiago designed the gorgeous poster and these very impressive projected images for each of the readers. KAYA Press was in the house, handling book sales, and I got to reconnect with longtime Bay Area writer and SFSU MFA colleague Neela Banerjee. Professor Sarita See who is Executive Director of Center for Art + Thought was there. I told Sarita that I bought her book, The Decolonized Eye, at Eastwind Books, and she told me that she used to work there. Professor David Lloyd was there; until yesterday, I never had the opportunity to tell him that back in the early 1990′s at UC Berkeley, I crashed his Colonial Literature class in the English Department, because I heard he had focused on Filipino and Irish Literature, and that I thought the combination was appropriate and fantastic. I crashed his class on the day he was showing a Kidlat Tahimik film. Emerging writers Andrea Gutierrez and Cherisse Nadal were there, and it was great to see the exhibit and break bread with them. Third Paran, editor of Salamin, was there. There was ensaymada from Goldilock’s. Also, I just realized that Rachelle, Chris, and Cherisse are all recent Manuel G. Flores Prize Fund recipients for Kundiman and/or VONA. PAWA administers this prize.
We work, we live, we read, we create. We hustle, we publish, we connect, we share, we exchange. This is how it’s done.