#APAHM #APIAHeritageMonth: Time for Some Author Introspection

APIA Heritage Month is drawing to a close. I don’t know that I accomplished much out there, in the big world, apart from surviving my last semester of teaching an enormous Filipinx Lit class. I did a cluster of book events, readings, which were difficult for me; my voice cracking and my being breathless throughout, and so I have been thinking about this difficulty.

Invocation to Daughters is a hard book. I have so much in it I am so emotionally close to. There is also a bluntly stated brutality in it that is hard to read aloud to audiences, and to discuss with students. This brutality is contained in what I worked really hard to make poetically sound, and even manageable. Yes, this is the power of poetry, to make appear manageable what is not … and should not be?

To Love as Aswang was also filled with brutality, but my emotional stake in the material was a lot less intense, mostly political and artistic questions. The reach of this book was considerably “smaller” than Invocation and so discussion felt contained. It has also appealed to a different kind of reader of poetry, perhaps someone who never considered themselves a reader or subject of literary works.

I don’t know that I had this kind of emotional difficulty with Poeta en San Francisco, speaking of farther reach. I was so young in the industry, and at a place where I could still be so brave, precisely because I was young, and the most difficult thing happening in my life at the time was student debt. I had a lot of energy to be “out there,” defending my shit and arguing hard on my own behalf. I had a lot of confidence in rallying “allies” as well. I thought fracas made my work cool, that it was a measure of its success.

Yes, bravery and difficulty are what I want to talk about here, and “success” too. I see when other writers and authors shrink from public view. Being in the public view is not safe. It’s almost counterintuitive , to put all your shit on blast, and appear perfectly comfortable discussing this with total strangers. For me, that’s all performative. You’re on a stage, enacting your public persona. There may be pieces of that public persona that approximate your true self (whatever that is), but it sure gets difficult over time to be in that performative space.

I am going to say, that for WOC, for Filipinx Americans in public, literary spaces, it takes a toll, all of this white supremacist, all of this patriarchal crap to which we are called upon to respond. All of this, how to make people care about this work, when we know that in life outside of literature, they will never give a fuck about people like us, much less, what we have to say when we are speaking on our own behalf.

It becomes even more exhausting when you are called to “battle” against, to answer to folks in your own communities, who disapprove of your work and its execution, and in life outside of literature, they’d just as soon avoid people like you.

So I am here, exhausted by this work, and the stupid lines drawn across our so-called POC and APIA communities, where we end up being on the side of wrong, for not staying inside socially acceptable lines, as per the Filipinos who chide me for my anti-colonial and anti-patriarchal anger.

While for a while I felt like I could open my personal me to the poetry, which the readers I was trying to reach seem to respond well to, I am now here, after I read, “The Day,” having had strangers in public spaces open up to me to tell me about their grieving, which is beautiful and difficult to do in crowded rooms of people I don’t know. I have also had strangers tell me to my face that I could have done more to keep my father alive. Who the fuck are you, telling me this to my face like you know me and my family. Fuck you and your armchair judgment. Why do you think you can do this. And this too, is the beauty and difficulty of poetry.

Perhaps these are ways of telling that the poetry is effective, and perhaps you will tell me I must weigh the “good” and the “bad.” That it evens out in the end, that it is a good problem to have, people in public talking about your work, talking to you about your work, responding to your work because they took the time to listen to you. I am inclined to agree, but I also know it’s wearing me down.

I have been asking myself whether I should want to continue sharing these deepest, most honest things in my work, and it is making me uncertain, where I want my next manuscript to go when it finally leaves my hard drive. What will it, and I, go through, once it’s in the world. I see why other writers go the route of the clever and the quirky as a kind of social protection. I see it, I get it, and I also hate it, seeing POC writers having to make themselves socially neuter as a strategy, or falsely transcendent, looking obviously disingenuous. I think this too, is the opposite of bravery.  I can’t help but think, might this also stunt the growth of the work.

I don’t have a tidy resolution here. I’m just in this space, and I don’t know yet what to do with it. I know readers in my community who want honesty and social relevance, not cleverness and artifice, and I love that about them. And I want to keep bringing it.

#APIAHeritageMonth #APAHM: How women hustle against erasure

This is where I am this morning, threatening to leave the industry again, and thinking about why I stick it out.  There’s a name I’ve been hearing about — Felicidad V. Ocampo. Two novels of hers were published in this country, both of which predate Carlos Bulosan.  But you won’t hear much about her.

I’ve been teaching the (short form) writings of Yay Panlilio Marking, and Helen Rillera in my Pinay Lit class at USF. If not for scholar Denise Cruz, I would have never heard of Marking. If not for scholar and artist Jean Vengua, I would have never heard of Rillera. And there at Vengua’s Commonwealth Cafe website, she discussed the work of recovery, and the wide casting of nets to find Pinays’ writings. Hence, the Op Eds in Filipino American community newspapers and newsletters. I also teach Angeles Monrayo’s diary, Tomorrow’s Memories, and Dawn Bohulano Mabalon‘s Afterword to the volume, so we can rethink “Pinay absence,” in Filipino American History. My students talk about Monrayo, and why she stopped writing in her diary. This coincides with her becoming a wife and a mother. As with Rillera, we talk about these “non-literary,” genres, and is this why these women are so obscured. BUT. Ocampo had two novels published. Novels are revered in American Letters. And yet, we know little about her work. We can’t find her work.

When I teach Marking, Rillera, Monrayo, I talk about recoveries of buried work, and we talk a bit about why their writings have been buried in the first place. But what I do not stress enough is that our community is so invested in championing the works of some to the expense of others, and why this may be.

Even in contemporary times, when conceivably everyone is “findable,” people ask me all the time, “What ever happened to Catalina Cariaga? She has dropped off the map.” Some people ask me whether Virginia Cerenio and Shirley Ancheta ever published again, and what ever happened to them. And perhaps the answer is that we can make ourselves “unfindable” if we wish. But also, that if we are not aggressively sticking our necks out there on the regular, we disappear from public view.

The truth is, I am exhausted. The truth is also that I have a spouse who has never asked me to pull myself out of my public life, who knows and respects this is very much a part of who I am and what I do. Not all WOC have partners supportive like this, and there are women and WOC who have partners who will in a fucked up way make them choose. But the truth also is that I fear erasure. I resent the possibility of erasure. I resent the institutional reasons why I, why someone like me, may be erased.

#APAHeritageMonth: A Kind of Grieving

I failed at utilizing my blog to signal boost APIA poets for #NationalPoetryMonth! But now it’s May, and it’s APA Heritage Month, and the show must go on.

I wanted to talk a little bit about discovery. As a young reader of color, as a young immigrant (or child of immigrants) reader of color. When do people like us eventually find ourselves and our narratives in literature. What happens to us at that point?

I talk and write all the time about that invisibility we experience from the get go, that invisibility we normalize, we resign ourselves to not being important enough in the world to be the subject of books.

By the time many of us are already young adults, we’ve spent our childhoods in a normalized invisibility, living all of the emotional complexity of that invisibility without a lot of the vocabulary or institutional knowledge. We’ve been little and belittled. We’ve had to find ways of standing out. Many of us act out, in desperation. Some of us are destructive, or self-destructive. Many of us find ourselves in a long term  relationship with self-hatred — if I’d only been born into a more visible, normal, beautiful, place worthy of everyone’s attention, and damn this ugly, weird, obscure foreign culture I was born into; nobody understands anything about me — does any of this sound familiar?

And then, as we slowly make our way out of our familial homes, into the bigger world, there may be a forward thinking mentor or teacher who puts in front of us the books we have needed to read our entire lives.

I hadn’t read Asian American or Filipino American authors — much less Asian American and Filipino American WOMEN authors — until I was in college. In 1989, in 1990, to have books by Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Jessica Hagedorn  entered into my head space by various local teachers was a godsend. I was 18, 19 years old; I was pretty self-erasing, self-negating, emotionally self-destructive. I was so stuck there for a long time.

This “life of literature” that I’ve made for myself since my late teens has been decades in the making, as I’m inching towards my 50s. It’s been a lot of hard work, not just the literature and writing education, but the emotional work, to motivate, push myself out of that self-erasure, self-negation, emotional self-destruction into a place where I have centralized and normalized the self — a self-insisting Pinay who speaks and places the utmost value in her own voice, who resists individual, patriarchal, institutional bullying and intimidation, and who tries like hell to branch outward, toward other Pinays.

But for the “stuck” piece, I am coming to realize what’s happening there is a kind of long grieving. it’s like Carlos Bulosan’s “I Am Not a Laughing Man,” essay, in which his anger — because no one ever told him how “easy” it was to write, to be a writer, to publish, to make money as a writer publishing — his anger was a kind of, a part of the grieving. Look at all the abuse, the life or death situations, starvation and homelessness, hopelessness and despair he had to live, because he couldn’t previously conceive of anything other than that, because there were no avenues to exit this, and how to realistically exit that mindset and open himself to a different place, for himself, for his own folk.

I am not trying to say that being “freethinking” is the way. Shit, lookit Kanye’s “freethinking” mess and nonsense that’s all over social media. That doesn’t do anybody any good, emotionally, spiritually, materially.

What I am saying is that we grieve, precisely because the worldview we’ve been told is the only worldview we are allowed to have, has boxed us into envisioning no possibility that we could create for ourselves and work toward.  Step by step, finding mentors, community, and allies along the way to work with us to build something else. Something that is sustainable.

Sometimes we get stuck in the grieving. The pain is for real. It’s hard to let go if that is all we know, being erased, negated, and abused/violated — thralls to/reliant upon that white supremacist, patriarchal worldview.  We’ve normalized trauma.

So the “OMG I never knew,” — about our voices, about how we can work to create other possibilities for ourselves — can be a place where we live the rest of our lives. Just in shock and grief. Think about how trauma can stunt our growth, keep us revisiting a place in our histories we actually never leave. Is it possible that an entire community can be stuck in a place of grief? And is it possible that literature and art can help, or even be the primary catalysts, for jarring a community from a place of trauma and into a different space, perhaps even spaces where we can grow to accommodate more complex thought, engage in worlding — yes, worlding, world building something we envision and work towards as a community of artists and educators.

#NationalPoetryMonth: Brown Girl: A Glossary of Terms

Brown Girl: A Glossary of Terms

Internal Colonialism
In the story, children who bite their tongues eat a porridge of falsehood til they are fattened little piggies. In the story, ladies who say yes are locked in wrought, jeweled cages. They dance to the tune of Taylor Swift covering Earth, Wind & Fire, and they say, this is just fine.

They want to take this word away from you. They want you to explain why you look Asian, when your name is clearly Spanish. They want to bring you Jesus, even though they see your people nailing themselves to crosses on Good Friday. Moreover, they think they brought you light bulbs, feminine hygiene products, and feminism. They love your fine white sand beaches. They think your whole nation is one of military bases and air conditioned shopping malls, and fine white sand beaches made for them. They need you to clean their houses and raise their babies. They don’t even pay you minimum wage to change their elders’ adult diapers. They don’t accept that you are from Oakland. They don’t accept that you have a nation they did not name.

White Privilege
In the story, the hero is always light-eyed and fair-haired. The distressed damsel is as well. Of course, he is meant to claim her. Of course, they are meant to have the brightest babies. See them banish the dark from their domain. See them build their castles of light where our dark children play. Our dark bodies and tongues will be outlaw. Our dark gods as well. See the hero thrust himself upon his dark maidservants. See those dark maidservants silenced. See how wreched and ratchet, all their dark offspring. Hear the chorus of “not all white people.” Hear the chorus of “all lives matter.”

You know what annoys me? People who won’t see the through line from Joe Bataan to Bruno Mars. You ever wonder about the sound of a poet rappin’ with ten thousand carabaos in the dark? You ever eat fish and rice with your hands, off styrofoam plates, in a hole in the wall, South of Market Street? You ever roll down your windows while speeding down Highway 101, to smell the Pajaro River? What if that’s the poem, and you missed it, because you were looking for something roseate and effete.

Do you know yourself, Pinay? Do you name yourself, Pinay? This name was made here, born here, American as you, your SPAM cans, and your balikbayan boxes. American as the jeepney. American as your father’s favorite Applebee’s on Farwell in Fremont. Do you cringe when your people don’t translate — have you Googled “cultural cringe”? I fucking hate that term. Do you know that Prego® commercial daughter, pleading, “English please,” for her white lover, at a table full of titas and pinsans? That fabled Filipina hospitality, so much giving unto others until you are shoeless, penniless, mute and hollowed out. Hija, you ain’t Jesus, multiplying fishes and loaves.

Hella indigenous, which does not mean gone native. Kakayahan umunawa sa damdamin ng iba, for real. You know, like Ruby Ibarra and one hundred Pinays giving you resting bitch face. You know, like those syndicated, full color photographs, of boys and men in LeBron James and Steph Curry jerseys, thinned flipflops on their feet, one body together, shouldering a nation. One bamboo hut at a time. One set of lungs breathing. One heart. Isang mahal. Isang bagsak.

#NationalPoetryMonth #APIA #Poetry Day 7: José Garcia Villa

[I am so behind on this! But here we go; I shall try to catch up.]

This month, I shall be posting one APIA poet (or book) recommendation per day, so that all of you who are asking me what to read will know what to read.

Today’s recommendation is José Garcia Villa. Know history, know self, people. I don’t get the “Art for art’s sake” label/judgment imposed upon Villa. He was a poet of immense ideas, God, divinity, the meaning of human life within this context. Poetry was his vehicle for exploring that kind of immense meaning. How is this art for sake of itself. To me, it is art for sake of humanity, no mere navel gazing affair.

Villa is also known for his invention and innovation. Here, I am referring to his comma poems, and to his reverse consonance rhyming. And actually, what interests me about reverse consonance is what he wrote: “this new rhyme method is subtler and stricter, and less obtrusive on the ear, than ordinary consonance.” Compare the music of his reverse consonance poems to his sonnet, “First, a poem must be magical,” in which his lines, meant to sing, to me, singsong instead. I wonder whether that singsong takes away from the largeness of the poem’s intent. So then, rather than just do away with poetic constraint, the poet finds other, more appropriate poetic constraints. Lesser poets would make themselves accept the singsong (or not even know they are singsonging), or abandon poetic constraint altogether. But a poem is a container for language, to house big, big ideas and beliefs.

Here’s Ned O’Gorman in 1959 in Poetry magazine: “It is perhaps true to say that Jose Garcia Villa’s vision and understanding are considerable. But his poetry is unachieved. In the end it is a failure. The artifact shatters under close study. For Mr. Villa has not yet found a language that can contain a vision so immense and theological.”

My last thought for now on Villa is the “Doveglion,” the hybrid dove, eagle, lion, whose country is not land and commerce, but the “strange country” with “no boundaries,” inhabited by “Earth Angels.” Open yourselves to the bigger implications here, rather than dwelling in surface/cliché reaction that casts Villa as a wacky artist stereotype. Also, think about why a Filipino poet, decades in America, would create a hybrid mythical identity and nation to inhabit. He was, as e.e. cummings wrote about him in the poem, “Dovegion,” looking for a new, different way of seeing.

National Poetry Month APIA Poets:

04/01 Rajiv Mohabir

04/02 Amanda Ngoho Reavey

04/03 Truong Tran

04/04 Al Robles

04/05 Kay Ulanday Barrett, Sokunthary Svay, Jane Wong, Khaty Xiong

04/06 Virginia Cerenio, Jaime Jacinto, Jeff Tagami