October 29, 2018

More About “Filipinos Do Not Read”

I am an educator, an adjunct professor. I have been teaching undergrads and grad students for over a decade now. I have successfully developed two Filipino literature curricula in the Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program at University of San Francisco. One more course proposal is pending. I am the author of five books of poetry. The sixth is scheduled for release in 2020. An anthology I am editing is also due in 2020. I say these things so that you are clear on my position, why and how I am invested in Filipino Americans reading and writing.

I want to build upon my thoughts from my previous post about Filipinos and reading.

Fellow Pinay authors and educators Gayle Romasanta and Dawn Bohulano Mabalon (RIP) have focused some much needed attention on younger readers in our community. At Bridge and Delta Publishing, their Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong just launched this past weekend in San Francisco. I see there was a packed house, generations of folks and families. I am heartened by this enthusiasm.

Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales created Pin@y Educational Partnerships (PEP) back in 2001, in order to intervene in curricula, with the assertion that our invisibility in American curricula and our community’s social problems are not mutually exclusive.

At the beginning of each semester, I always ask my students for a show of hands: Who here has ever read a book authored by a Filipino? Who here has ever read a book authored by a Filipino American? Who here has ever read a book authored by a Pinay?

Usually, zero to one hand goes up.

I tell them, by the end of this semester, you will have read six, seven, eight more Filipinx authored books than many people in our community ever will in their lifetime. I tell them, I can only hope you will continue on, after you leave this classroom, and into the world.

In addition to my courses’ required texts, I provide recommended reading lists in multiple genres — full volumes, anthologies/collections, as well as links to individual pieces published online.

Some may never read another Filipinx authored book; they got a pretty good grade, and they got course credit, and it fulfilled the literature and diversity requirements, and that’s what they came for — I am glad they did it with Filipino Literature. I can’t complain. College is expensive; we live in a culture where “curiosity,” “exploration,” and “discovery” aren’t encouraged as much as getting equipped for the working world. But I am happy to say, they will walk into the world armed with knowledge, and maybe even wisdom.

Sometimes, I feel that by the time a 20-year old is reading their first Filipinx authored book for my class, it’s almost too late. The void has been so normalized, it is as if we were never told that Filipinx authored books existed in this country.

Some Filipino American students will straight up say, where has this book been all of my life. I wish I had read this when I was young.

This is the case with The Land of Forgotten Girls, by Erin Entrada Kelly. Erin is an author of middle grade novels, which means young people are reading stories about young Filipino Americans. Imagine, if we’d had books like this, from a young Filipina American’s perspective, when we were very young. What would the emotional impact be of having this book, and M. Evelina Galang’s One Tribe, these narratives of young Pinays living, struggling, and learning.

As an important aside, in the big publishing industry: Erin also recently won the Newbery Award. This means more and more young people in this country are and will be reading stories about young Filipino Americans. And at my most optimistic, I think (hope) this leads to the publication of more young Filipino American texts. Publishing in this country moves slowly in the right direction. Elaine Castillo’s America is Not the Heart has been critically acclaimed and wide-reaching. And Trinidad Escobar’s YA graphic novel Of Sea and Venom was recently picked up by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. And Elda Rotor continues bringing canonical Filipino texts into Penguin Classics. And Jose Antonio Vargas is currently on a book tour to promote Dear America. And Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto was just named one of Publishers Weekly’s Top Ten Best Books of 2018.

How to get this interest in the “big” works, to include the independent and small publishers’ offerings, i.e. as opposed to believing only these writers exist, that there are no others. Surely, these big transactions get books onto people’s radars. Big contracts, big publishing houses, big awards — when Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters finalisted for the National Book Award, not to mention when it was reviewed for big venues such as the New York Times and Vogue, a lot of people picked up the book. They read it, and even if they hated it (see the Amazon reviews), they took the time to read it, to think about it, to feel something about it, and to share their feelings in public forums.

In my classrooms, my students aren’t so outraged by Dogeaters. Surely this has to do with the disconnect, as the book is 27 years old, and written about another time and place for my American millennial students. But it’s also because narrative strategies branded as “post-modern” have become much utilized in today’s storytelling.

And in my classrooms, some students share with their parents what they are reading — a student recently told me she told her father about Angeles Monrayo’s Tomorrow’s Memories, because this was her family’s history too, as descendants of Filipino agricultural laborers in Hawaii. Monrayo’s diaries, chronicling her everyday life of labor and hustle, resonate. This is no exaggeration then, when I say that students see themselves in these works.

Some students tell their friends, and this word of mouth brings more students into my classrooms, and to my events. In other words, the work has moved them; they found something in it they needed, or enjoyed, or made them really think. My classes fill so fast; my class sizes have grown from nine students and canceled classes, to 30-40. It’s changed the way I teach. This also challenges me to be on top of who’s publishing what. How do I balance seminal texts with new and important works. How do I prioritize.

These are great problems to have. I share these here, because it’s important that all of us know how enthusiastic young people are for our literature. That there is interest, even in the works conventionally defined as “difficult,” whether it’s difficulty in content/subject matter, such as To Love as Aswang and Invocation to Daughters, and Elynia S. Mabanglo’s Anyaya ng Imperyalista, or difficulty in form, construction, or experiment, such as Cheena Marie Lo’s A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters, or Wilfrido D. Nolledo’s But for the LoversNolledo’s “experimental” narrative strategies haven’t become as accessible as Dogeaters potentially is now, because (I think/believe) his is a magnum opus, more akin to the density of Latin American magical realists.

All of this to say, a few points:

  1. I support and applaud the work of those making Filipino American authored texts accessible to young readers. A Filipino American bookseller once told me that books for young people were a harder sell because you had to rely on the parents to bring these books to their children. That was perhaps a different time, because now, it seems some sectors of Filipinx American parents are indeed voicing that interest in books for young readers. Sometimes, it’s for themselves, because they’d never had the opportunity, and want to start somewhere (they’re experiencing the “where were these books when I was young” that I mentioned earlier).
  2. I support and applaud those educators bringing Filipinx authored texts into their curricula, whether it’s classes in Filipinx Lit, Asian American Lit, World Lit, American Lit, American Poetry, and so on.
  3. I support and applaud the Filipinx authors hustling to get their best works into the world. There are the big names, the big publishers, the big transactions. There are the indie authors and indie publishers. Our community’s authors are in many places. The hunger to get our work out there is real, and I would like to gently remind folks — no pressure — this is much larger and more important than our own egos and individual careers. I see every publication as an opportunity to connect with a Filipinx reader.
  4. I am forever grateful for the supporters, the editors — Eileen Tabios, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Nick Carbó, Luisa Igloria, Edwin Lozada. The curators — PJ Gubatina Policarpio. The librarians –Abraham Ignacio, the booksellers — Eastwind Books of Berkeley, Arkipelago Books, the book reviewers, the buyers of books, the gifters of books. Too many people to name. Even someone who does not think they have “cultural capital,” can support. Support comes in many forms, so thank you.

 

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