Pilipinx American Library: “I dreamt of a place to gather…”

I have so many thoughts, about where and how we gather.

I have written in the past, at the Poetry Foundation blog, for example, in a blog post I can’t find, about how lively our spaces are. We bring food, we do things oftentimes palengke style, and we make a ruckus, the volume is loud, and I love it. And then, as a reader, and as an author for whom solitary time is crucial to what I do, and who I am, I need to retreat from the ruckus and think.

Yesterday, I wrote about how it was so great, to see all of these folks, sitting in the resource room, reading, picking up books that looked interesting to them, and then taking some time with these books, and then sharing with one another what they were finding. It was lovely, to have what are usually solitary moments, and moments of realization, occurring in this public space.

So, I compare this with so many of the other events in which I participate or attend.

When we did Kuwentuhan for CWF, we turned the stage into a large dinner table. The focus of the room shifted, and so did “audience” and “performer.”

For other events, literature can get lost in the fray, too much time is dedicated to speechifying, and to over-explaining to attendees why they must value such-and-such. In these settings, the work itself is no longer there for attendees to find their own meaning, or to create their own relationships. Over-explanation, the death of one’s own process of discovery.

I loved about the Pilipinx American Library opening event, that speeches were pretty non-existent — welcomes, thanks, and then the work, contextualized with discretion by the writers. And then the focus, the library, and the space in which to read. Of course, these are all mediated things, but as a friend recently said, it was elegant. I love this, the ability to move instinctively through a space without being pushed around, herded, or shouted at, without needing a complex set of instructions.

I love a gathering space that can communicate openness of minds and thinking, in which one who has come into the space does not have to be jerked this way and that, spoken at. That even those with perceived “authority” and “status,” can project openness.

Pilipinx American Library at the Asian Art Museum


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.”

[Work in Progress] Writing (Whose) Immigrant Song

This past Father’s Day, I was overcome with this need to excavate my father (not literally, of course). During my usual walkabouts, music emerges, and it is the music of myself moving in the world, the music of heart and breathing, and the musics of many outside of me moving in and through their own worlds. I was thinking of my father, and I wanted to hear his music again. Not the kind of clipped, abrupt, chaotic or confused noise, what is caught in the throat, in the chest, held hard on the tongue, these sounds to which I had grown accustomed, but something else. What was his purest music.

The sounds to which I had grown accustomed, I think of them as having been imposed, violently upon us.  I am talking about this ugly shit we live through as tongue tied immigrants, jarred in American cities and institutions that shame us and make us small, make us afraid to speak, make us erase ourselves, make us forget, fill us with rage for forgetting, that rage so volatile, it blasts so aimless, everything and everyone is a target or collateral damage.

Not that music. I have written so much about it already, and though I am nowhere close to completely cataloging it, I needed to step away from it.

So I started to free write, in my usual 0.7 mm mechanical pencils and brand new, soft, narrow ruled Moleskine. After weeks of free writing that violent music necessary for us all to hear and know how it got there, after tiring of grieving the fact of us being bodies who hold that violent music in all of our cells (we are vessels of it), I found myself writing into an imagined past, where a boy’s music has come from the grasses and the dragonflies — these beautiful golden dragonflies hovering above a pre-industrial river, its sweet mud. Its cool breeze too, and also monsoon and typhoon.

And then I stopped. What am I doing writing this imaginary past that my father never lived. Why was I writing about a boy who did not grow up to become my father. Is that unfaithful. Is it dishonest. Is it pointless.

So now, I am writing about my writing about my father. I am writing about creating a version of him that is not true to life, or at least, not entirely true. Is there such thing as writing that is true to the intention of a person. And isn’t that what we do when we write about anybody, living or dead. We write our version of that person, or our intended version of that person. We’ll never get it exactly right. We may get aspects of it, and/or we may approach a certain familiar version. Maybe that’s good enough. Maybe.

Where I am currently at: if in our kuwento, if in our tsismis you live, then you were always my you.

Pinay Lit: Origins and Evolution of the Course

I first taught Pinay Lit in Spring 2012, a couple of years after not fitting so great with the classes I was given to teach in Philippine Studies at USF. This class began as an idea, put in my head by then-program director Professor Jay Gonzalez. I don’t remember now exactly how the subject of a Pinay-specific literature class came about. I do know that when the idea was put on the table, I immediately thought of Professor Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo’s Comparative Literature class at University of the Philippines at Diliman: Filipino Women Writing in Love, War, and Exile. How damn amazing is that. I took her class back in the mid-1990s, and my world opened wide.

I want to say it was because Professor Gonzalez wanted to encourage me to have ownership over this teaching thing, which I do part-time, and which, in 2012, I was still pretty green about. Now, I can say, how forward thinking was that; I don’t know that adjunct professors are ever encouraged to have ownership over anything we do in the university. So this was already a different animal, my being encouraged and supported through course proposal, and curriculum development — create the class of my dreams, and step by step, make the thing real.

The original title of the course was Filipina Lives and Voices in Literature. From the original Spring 2012 course description:

In this course, we will be reading and discussing Filipina/Pinay works of literature written in English. Some intersecting themes of their work include Body, Memory, Love, Work, War, and Tribe.

In the texts we will read, we Pinays speak for themselves. Throughout historical movements and into contemporary times, how do Pinays see themselves, and where do they place themselves in the world? How does this correspond and/or contrast how the world sees them, and where the world places them? We will talk about Pinay autonomy or lack thereof, and we will talk about the “dominant paradigm.” We will discuss how our Pinay protagonists and heroines subvert or succumb to this. We will read these texts as literature, as historical document, as testimony.

My original list of required texts  was not too radically different from what I teach today: Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons! and M. Evelina Galang’s One Tribe have been on my reading list from the very beginning. It’s the portrayals of young Filipinas in this country that continue to make these works important for me to bring into my classroom. Already, in these texts are social and gender expectations. How are we to “appear,” present ourselves socially as Filipina daughters in this country. Why are we expected to present ourselves in certain ways. Whose criteria, whose standards are those. Why have we accepted those. What happens when we don’t.

And how are these Filipina authors writing about social expectation. There are power dynamics that my above set of questions are trying to get at. How do these authors handle questions of power. This “how” becomes a question of language, narrative strategies, genre; in Barry’s case, the visual representation of Filipinas is very important. In both of these works, we are looking at generations of Filipino women and girls. We are looking at issues of socioeconomic class.

I always try my best not to predetermine the conversation. I always try my best to give space for my students to arrive at their own answers. What do they noticed? What have they honed in on and prioritized?

So those are some things to start. I do want to write more about the original texts, and then eventually, how this class has evolved, given the six years of literary production since this class’s inception, and given what I am continually learning about my students.

[Poem/Immigrant Song] Brown Girl Fields Many Questions

[This is the opening poem to my manuscript, Letters to a Young Brown Girl. It is also very much a “To Proceed, You Must First Understand” kind of poem. A previous version of this poem was published over at GIANTHOLOGY, so thank you Thomas Sayers Ellis for that.]

Brown Girl Fields Many Questions

If you want to know what we are whose body parts are scattered to the winds, dispersed as heirloom seeds into the beaks, stomachs, and droppings of migratory birds, broken through our clear film of rage to leaf and fruit, no matter what the territory or terrain,

i. In which “you” may indicate a “hearer of unspecified identity,” a second person narrator such that the “you” is really meant to be an “I,” a “we,” regardless of whether the hearer, onlooker, or reader wishes to be included or addressed,

ii. In which “know” may indicate “awareness through observation or inquiry,” “having information concerning,” “having a personal experience of,”

iii. In which the English “we,” is crude, lacking in the specific exclusive and inclusive distinctions of the Tagalog “tayo,” and “kami,”

iv. In which “what,” is a pronoun choice you might find curious; not “who,” which indicates personhood or personified thing, but “what,” as in concept, as in phenomenon, as in the object you already believe the “we” is,

v. In which “if” is the operative word, the contingent term, “in case that,” “on the condition that,” “despite the possibility that,” “even though,”

Here are some questions you may try to consider:

what’s it like to be collected and shelved by people who say they dig your (island) (oriental) (tropical) look, your dark lidless eyes, your endless straight black hair,

what’s it like for them to tell you with their wide round eyes, how lovely your accent is (they can’t identify where it’s from though) and yet you still speak such good English (how is that possible),

what’s it like to have white people coming up so close, gawking and poking at your flat little nose, your little body, touching your silky hair,

what’s it like to hear them tell you 24/7 that they wish they could bottle your skin like a liquid boutique bronzer for that tawny warm glow, all that gold,     

what’s it like to be this sun-kissed, plump-lipped, almond-eyed, fine-boned tiny thing, to be so precious and treasured and sublime,

what’s it like to be so treasured to be trafficked,

what’s it like to be locked in for your own good so no one will get their oily fingerprints on you, so that no one can hear your soft soft asking voice,

what’s it like when they mispronounce your alien name and shrug, when they tell you your ass should be deported,

what’s it like when they push you off the sidewalks and into the gutters,

what’s it like when they ask if you were bought from a catalog,

what’s it like when they mistake you for the help the nanny, the maid, the janitor, the dishwasher, when they say you speak such good English, how is that even possible,

what’s it like when they ask whether your mother was a green card hunting whore, a nudie dancer near the military base, a drug addict, a welfare cheat,

what’s it like when they say you are an illegal, when they say fucking monkey, when they ask why you eat dog, when they call you a dirty Filipino,

what’s it like when they tell you you should be grateful,

what’s it like when white kids in a prom limo yell fucking jap go back to China,

what’s it like when big white dudes get in your face shouting anything not white’s not right,

who will remind you of Bulosan’s songs of love (this meant something to you, once)

who will remind you where the heart is (there, between your third and fourth rib)

who will blame you for effacing your face, for peeling your skin from your body

what’s it like when white people yell at you that you ruined the neighborhood because you people kept landing at SFO and goddamn Mineta is named after you people now, you took over our church, you took over our market, you took over our donut shop, you took over our liquor store, you took over our beauty salon with your chatter and your babies,

what’s it like when they yell at you that you have so many damn babies, now you are taking over over Silicon Valley and all the schools, and now everything smells like fried fish and feet, all the weird shit you people eat, this place was quiet but now your grammas yelling who knows what to your uncles and your cousins, why can’t she just speak English, fix your busted cars in the driveway parked on the weeds in your junk front yard, they’re spilling into our street you’re parked in front of my home, move your damn car, stay away from my daughters, stay away from my dog, fix your lawn, this is not the ghetto where you belong,

what’s it like when they yell how many goddamn illegals can you pack into that little house (fix your paint job; this is not the ghetto), there are so many of you, you’ve snatched up all the houses you built over the old orchards you picked the apricots gladiolas and almonds, we remember the mustard flowers and the dragonflies, our children rode their ribboned bicycles, but now your boys racing rice rockets break the quiet into pieces, you killed our peace, you stupid Filipinos can’t even drive,  

what’s it like when they say your boys are hoodlums and your sisters are indecent, all your girls are whores, just go back to where you came from, go back to where you came from, go back because you don’t belong here, because we never wanted you in our neighborhood

how are you still here, breathing, working, hustling like a motherfucker

how haven’t you given up, when everybody tells you not to speak, how are you speaking

how haven’t you disappeared into your sheets, into the dark, with the windows shut and the front door bolted

how do you step outside your front door every day, how do you stand and walk that walk

how aren’t you afraid, sister, were your parents afraid, how did they teach you to be so steel, please teach me how to be steel like you

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