First, I should say, it’s Filipino American History Month. Not Philippine Heritage Month. Not Pilipino Heritage Month. The Filipino American part is important. The History part is important. Please see the FANHS website here.
Second, I should say, that for National Poetry Month a couple of years ago, I listed some folks — Al Robles, Jose Garcia Villa, Virginia Cerenio, Catalina Cariaga, et al. — to read here.
So, that said. Who are the women writing in our community? About folks in our community. And in the 21st century, what does our community look like? So here are a few reading recommendations, starting with Pinays in the last century.
This is a lovely book. Perhaps you will think it “un-literary.” It is a diary, after all. But the diary, the epistolary, as we literary types call these things, is indeed firmly entrenched in literary study. Angeles Monrayo begins this diary by stating that she would like to write a book about herself, that one day, when she is old, she will look back upon it and remember what she was like as a young girl. This young girl, BTW, grew up in the early 20th century, in the US Territory of Hawaii, the daughter of a illiterate Visayan sugar plantation laborer. Later, they move to Stockton, the El Dorado of Pinoys in America. A glimmer of progressiveness in his eyes; he gifted his only daughter with a diary, and permission to attend school. Think about what daily writing affords us. It not only is a muscle that is conditioned with practice, but also the diary becomes a crucial reflective space of her own, for a young Pinay who has no room of her own. She becomes self-aware, thoughtful, contemplative, self-confident, right there, before our eyes. The dailiness and minutiae fall away, and we see this young lady who knows how to protect herself, how to fend for herself, how to hustle. So for those of you who never knew there were Pinays in the USA in the 1920s, read this.
It’s been a while since I read this. But you notice a theme already? Pinays, writing about themselves, and their own lives. The “I,” is a powerful voice, especially when we come from a community centered upon the “we.” The Pinay “I,” is a powerful thing, when considering centuries of patriarchy continue to shape us. I think of Yay and her mother Dolores, as Pinay liminality on fleek (do people still say, “on fleek”). Yay is Pinay and Irish (in which I consider the Irish probably the most like Filipinos in their postcolonialism, Catholicism, and tradition of rebellion), born in Colorado in the early 20th century, the daughter of an undocumented stowaway, who survived on grit and fight. Yay becomes a journalist, travels to Manila during WWII, and becomes a guerrilla army colonel, the leader of a scrappy unit of boys. So she plays mother to them, and with her lover, Marking, she speaks her mind, and always stands up for herself. Lots of melodrama, but also it’s very crucial to think of this work in sharp contrast to what we have learned about Filipino women during WWII; there was extreme brutality, cruelty, and sex slavery, and there were fighters.
Your are going to tell me, this is not literary. But I will tell you in response that if you want to know what Pinays in the early and mid-20th century were doing, and what was the quality of their lives, you would miss so much if you neglected these diaries, autobiographies, and memoirs. Not everyone gets to go or wants to go to MFA and PhD programs to polish their shit just for you to accept. The granddaughter of a Buffalo Soldier, Vangie grew up on Magnolia Street in West Oakland, not too far away from where I now live. In this book, as with Angeles Monrayo, the glimmer of progressiveness in her father’s eye grants her the ability to go to college, rather than be married off the second she reaches adulthood. We see also how the women, the mothers, enthusiastically left the domestic space for the war effort, and brought home income, increased their power, their ability to have a say in their own families.
I am jumping ahead in history here, from foremothers to contemporary times.
This is still one of my favorite novels, in which we see, from the POV of a “whitewashed,” “petit bourgeois” Pinay, the complicated drama of a Filipino American community unfold, “gang” violence, electric slide, beauty pageants and all. Think of the roles of Filipino core values in a community struggling with self-definition. How does pakikisama operate, when the community is so splintered, when the youth have no knowledge of not only their parents’ histories, but the larger history which has shaped our colonial mentality and revolutionary spirit, deeds, and actions. There’s a question here about whose rituals, whose performances, whose community spaces are sanctioned, and how we may embrace change. But there is always the question of who constitutes “we,” in the first place. And what about our girls. How do we do them right. Why continue to oppress and repress them, and to what consequence.
Last one for now, because I have to get back to work.
Noticing a theme here? I love this book. It’s written for young people, and this is very important. What if we Pinays in our American middle schools, had this book, when we were 12. How different could our adolescence have been, just seeing ourselves, so normalized in an actual American book. So that’s the first thing. As with Galang, the book centers Filipinas. But here, the POV is the young Filipina’s, as she is left to her own devices. Here, we get the details of her social world, and her interior life, in her own words. We see her mess up, we see her learn. We feel so much for her, this abandoned girl, who must deal with her own loss and grief as best she can, and also care for her younger sister. The life of these two girls is a fairy tale. But by fairy tale, I mean the dark roots of fairy tale, dark, cruel, violent, with no guarantee of happy endings.
That’s it for now. I will continue this tomorrow.