I admit it; Filipinx authored books are absolutely normalized in my life, and have been for some time. But this has not always been the case. I tell this story a lot, about being 19 years old, about Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters coming into my life then, when I was an undergrad adrift at UC Berkeley, and that the book in my hands meant everything to me.
It didn’t matter to me then, how well-reviewed the book was, or that it was published by a NYC “big five” publisher, or that it was an award winner, although those things are what enabled that book to get into my hands. I didn’t know that. What I knew was that a Pinay writer from San Francisco had become an author, and that her book was in the world for me to read. I didn’t “get” Dogeaters the first or second time I read it. I wasn’t ready. But that hardbound first edition has been on my bookshelf since 1990. So I had plenty of opportunity to revisit it on my own schedule and on my own terms.
This is the beauty of book. It remains in your home, in your space, and you come to it many times, oftentimes before you are ready. And then one day, you find you have grown up and that now you understand.
I say all this now, because last night’s Pilipinx American Library event at the Asian Art Museum showed me something I am not accustomed to seeing — many people, many of whom are Filipino/Filipinx, sitting down, reading Filipinx authored books. Some were quietly sitting at the big table, some in beanbags, as if in their own Ikea furnished living room, reading because they had interest and curiosity, and not because I have assigned them 200 pages to read by next Thursday.
If people are in “the industry,” then they talk about biz stuff, talk my ears off about CV items, applying to such-and-such residencies, a lot of busywork. If people are aspiring writers, they will ask me questions about how I came to write, how was I able to start publishing. I gauge their interest as I start talking about my private notebooks and MS Word files from when I was in my teens and twenties, to Maganda magazine, to Creative Writing class at Berkeley City College, to my first DIY chapbook, to SFSU’s MFA program. I tell them about finding mentors and teachers, finding a writing community, and about reading. If they’re really not interested, if they are asking me these things for various other reasons (such as, can you hook me up with your publisher because I wrote a book too and here it is), then I’ll end the story with some open-ended encouragement, and thank them.
Most people are not in “the industry.” They’re people who may read books when they can or if they find one that sounds interesting to them. At community events with multiple attractions and stimuli, books and writers can get relegated to the background because they’re not flashy and performative, and because reading is generally a solitary activity.
So to see this reading room filled with many Filipinx folks looking through books, reading, sharing what they find interesting with their friends and others around them was so great. In our super communal community, how do we take a solitary activity like reading, and make it communal.
Rommel Conclara of ABS CBN interviewed me last night. He asked me what this meant, to have our books in this space. I did talk about the recognition; how big and ubiquitous is our community in the Bay Area, in San Francisco alone, and how little representation we have at the San Francisco institution that is the Asian Art Museum (in fact, I was told the many Filipino security guards at the museum were so excited about this event; when I checked in, I gave them my last name, and they first asked with much excitement, “Reyes? Oh, are you related to the poet? We’re going to have a Filipino poet here!”) — but more so in my purview was the importance of being a young and hungry Filipinx American, holding a Filipinx authored book in their hands, seeing that someone, many someones just like them were capable of creating this thing — how they can take that with them into their lives, and how this is everything.
Thank you to Shirley Ancheta and Catalina Cariaga, whose poems, whose presence reaffirmed for me why I do what I do. Thank you to PJ Gubatino Policarpio for this beautiful and necessary Pilipinx American Library, for carrying out this vision — as Manong Al Robles wrote, “I dreamt of a place to gather,” — and thank you to Marc Mayer of the Asian Art Museum, for having us in this space, and for knowing and understanding why it was important for the museum store to carry our books. Every single copy of Invocation to Daughters sold last night. I signed so many books for so many young (and not so young!) WOC whose eyes were so lit up, so much warmth, so much heart, so much adrenaline.
To quote a fellow Pinay author, “last night was like going to church.”