People like to say with some bravado that Filipinos don’t write. They like to throw their hands up in the air and exclaim, “Well, where are they,” in which “they,” is Filipino American authors.
I used to keep a public running bibliography of Filipino American authored literary works. I started amending it a while back, to include Filipino diasporic works. I used to produce, organize, and host a lot of Filipino American author events, which were free, open to the public, and held in ADA-compliant spaces, accessible by public transportation. So few people would come out. Our authors would be reading and talking to almost empty rooms.
Well, this is one reason why I’ve scaled back radically on my event planning and community work. There’s also the fact that my work was free labor, unappreciated, frequently overlooked, but always demanded. Perhaps I’m just a damn sad sucker, that it’s taken me this long for my idealism and optimism to wear down. Perhaps that, and you all were trying to warn me, and I was just too stubborn to listen. If that’s the case, then thank you, and I apologize to those of you whose worry I mistook for cynicism.
You know that adage, that “If you build it, they will come.” I am feeling this less so in the larger community, and more and more in my classrooms. This is the place and the people for whom I am reserving my optimism these days.
Classrooms are always a mixed bag.
When teaching in MFA programs, you find that some POC grad students might really not want anything to do with you and your pushing, challenging, criticizing. They might prefer a professor who will validate all and say esoteric things. They might want to keep believing they are the first and only writers in their communities to transcribe their ethnic experiences onto the page, and so their work should transcend critique. And then you get the non-POC grad students who are sponges for what poetics you can offer, what poetics they’ve likely never previously considered. And you see their work become wildfire.
When teaching in the enormous public university, you get working students who are so overcome with work and family, it’s a miracle when they show up. You cannot attend personally to each of the 50 souls in your care. There’s just not enough energy and time. These enormous classrooms can be daunting for the thoughtful but shy students who are still getting their thoughts together, processing through intense emotional shit and haven’t yet nailed down the words to say aloud in front of the other 50 souls in the room.
When teaching in the smaller private university, sometimes this is the perfect fit. Your students know that they can anticipate some human conversation and reflection space. Your class sizes are small enough that over time, your students actually feel comfortable to exercise bravery, and speak their minds, ask questions, ask for clarifications, respond to one another. They know they can approach you after class with personal stories, and they can open up to you in confidence.
All this, I am saying, within the context of reading and teaching, discussing, handling the literatures of POC — but more specifically, Filipino/a American Literatures. It’s in my classrooms that I am focused so much more intensely, not because students are obligated to be grateful, but because it’s become so gratifying to see numbers of young Pinays and Pinoys with wide eyes at everything you’re putting in their paths. You see them thinking so hard, you see them making vital connections between the work and their own lived experiences, you see them learning how to handle the tools — literary device, literary technique — you’ve introduced to them, you see how hungry they are for all of this work, how important it becomes to them. They want more. They want to know why they’ve never learned any of this before. And you have a space to talk about that openly, critically.
By sharp contrast, putting Filipino/a American Literature — your own and the works of others — into the community is met with all kinds of social funkiness. Of course, grown-ups don’t like to be told what to do, but they also don’t like when you put something out there that they don’t know. They want to blame you, and they resent you for it, and/or they resent that you are the one doing it. They try to ignore you, pretend nothing that you are doing is of importance or relevance. They pat you on the head and say, “That’s nice.”
And then they continue bitching; “where are all the Filipino/a American authored books,” “what is wrong with our people.” They throw their self-pubs in your face and mansplain to you how publishing works, and that so few Filipino/a Americans do it. They interrupt you at your public events to mansplain to you what you should be writing about and how you should be writing about it. They ask you how you get/got published, and then they literally turn away when you start to respond to them. When you tell them what you teach, they back the fuck up like you are the scariest human being they’ve ever met.
I don’t know what is fair to call any of this. What’s this called? And why is it a thing? Perhaps the feelings a community member goes through is very much similar to what students feel when presented with Filipino/a American Literature for the first time. “Where has this been all of my life.” “I wish I had this book in my life when I was younger.” But you see how younger people handle it? They embrace it, immerse themselves in it, decide whether it’s important to them, and if so, then carry it with them into the rest of their lives.
I always begin my semesters with my own personal story, of being handed Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters when I was 18 or 19. That was what set me on my path to become an author, knowing that this Pinay-authored novel in my hands was possibility. One scrappy Bay Area Pinay could do it. Then this scrappy Bay Area Pinay could do it too.
For me, it’s as simple as reading your community, to borrow a Pinay author’s phrase from social media: Read your community. Read as much as you have the energy and time for, and become discerning and critical readers. Talk about it, post about it on social media, spread it around. Normalize it. See it as possibility. For all of us.