For #APIAHeritageMonth, Ongoing Thoughts on Teaching Filipino American Literature

Reminder. Never, ever underestimate what our predominantly Filipino American students are capable of. They are young, resilient minds, in a place of critical and intellectual inquiry. Give it to them. Open up the space for them to do this, to ask questions, to grapple with ideas and concepts with which they may not have any previous exposure. Facilitate their inquiry. Ask them questions. Coax and push, bit by bit, past their social, political, historical, cultural comfort zones.

I always start with what they claim to know. I ask where and how they came to that knowledge. I go from there, excavating, examining pieces very closely, proposing alternative points of view, presenting other existing knowledges. (One of the things that I appreciated most in this semester’s recent weeks was how my students said of Cheena Marie Lo’s A Series of Un/Natural Disasters, that the poetry affirmed, solidified what they already suspected or thought they knew.)

I discuss concepts, always doing my best to discuss them in real life contexts. After it’s clear they are understanding what’s being discussed, after they have contributed themselves to that understanding, then I offer them the terminology. We all contribute to meaning making, to defining.

We read. We read critically. We hone in and pull way back. Here, Amanda Ngoho Reavey’s figurative tesserae and mosaic in her multigenre work, Marilyn, are useful. Examine the individual pieces closely, reflect upon their “fit,” with/among one another. To what larger picture is each tessera contributing.

I am saying all this, because I am tired of our community underestimating our young people’s capacity for literary, poetic rigor. I think we resort to what is most simple when studying our community’s literary work, because we are compartmentalized — we believe intellectual work belongs only behind the closed gates of the highest echelons of the academy, and then we resent that intellectual work exists only in singular form, only behind the closed gates of the highest echelons of the academy.

We want to be passive and just watch a performance. We want to be entertained. We want meaning spoon fed, glossed over, and given to us in memes. We don’t want to engage what we don’t already know. We don’t think we want to expend the energy or invest the time. We dismiss complexity in literature as “colonized,” as literature for “white people,” and in doing so, we dumb down some pretty amazing work that folks in our community are creating.

The obvious problem is that the above logic is saying, only white people write and read complex literature; we are saying to others that our own people are not capable of literary complexity. So when others come and treat us in a simplistic, reductive, and imposing manner, why be offended? This is the message we’ve put out there, that we are incapable, that we are passive.

We think of reading literature as a “bourgeois” activity and pastime — “Filipinos don’t read,” remember? But seriously, even the most so-called “street” or “everyman” poets and authors in our community are avid and sophisticated readers of literature.

When I was very young as a writer, back around the year 2000, I remember arguing on a listserv with a fellow aspiring APIA writer, about “straight forward,” “narrative” poetry, versus “experimental,” “inaccessible” poetry. This person chided me about my being so influenced by “experimental” poetics, telling me no one would read or “get” APIA authored work that was “experimental,” because it was “irrelevant” to “The APIA Experience.”

I wonder where this person is now. I haven’t heard from them or heard their name in 17 years.

(In the meantime, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee is canon in Asian American Literature.)

I want to say that suspicion of those who wield English is legitimate. This is part of our colonial legacy. I also want to say that as we collectively work towards decolonization, we have to look very closely at our use of English. Nothing of what I am saying is new or revolutionary, by any means.

Do be critical of our mastery of it, the language and its literary forms. But yes, strive towards mastery of it. Not to be in its thrall, and not to oppress our own, but to complicate it, to hybridize/mongrelize it, to transform it.

And yes, rather than replicating those same oppressive systems, rather than perpetuating inequality among our own, let’s wield our Englishes to communicate well our complexities, use it in our everyday liberatory practices.

I believe the finer we communicate our complexities, the more painstaking work we invest in our literature, the much more long term its effects. Cheap and easy = disposable culture. I do not want my poetry to become a victim of forgettable, throwaway culture.

Ultimately, I come back to the reasons why I chose to dedicate myself to the arts. Art opens us. Art makes dialogue happen. Art and literature stay with(in) us, having entered through our pores, our hearts, our brains, our ears, our eyes, all at once. They reside in our memories, as if they reside in our cells. We feel and experience their effects for years to come. We pass these down to the next generation, that they would in turn, do the same.

 

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