“One of the things that young people need to know when they go into writing is that they ought to stop writing these stupid books that please people.”

Jamaica Kincaid is quoted as saying, “One of the things that young people need to know when they go into writing is that they ought to stop writing these stupid books that please people.”

And I am all over this. I was just having a conversation yesterday, about the MFA Industrial Complex, and the Book Award Industrial Complex. (Is that a term? If not, it should be.) Again, with the book award machine, operated at the slush pile level by the unpaid interns, the least experienced and the least qualified. Why would you want your hard work, your work of art, in the hands of these folks. You still have to pay to play in this model. I see people on social media disclosing how much they spend on contest fees per year. These are the same people who are getting paid very little as adjuncts in their institutions, and oftentimes, this is their only source of income. And then they pay to go to AWP. And then they’re paying off student loans.

I do not know how this is sustainable. Math tells me it’s not.

I am not accusing anyone who may fit the above demographic. I am questioning why it is acceptable, why it is the norm, why it is expected that folks live like this.

Back to Jamaica Kincaid’s quote. I want to know who is to be pleased with/by our work. And how will they be pleased. What kind of work fits the bill as pleasing to these bodies — whether it’s MFA application committees in the over-bloated MFA system, or if it’s these unpaid, inexperienced interns at one of several million book prizes. “Several million” is exaggeration, of course, but this kind of saturation I feel is diminishing the value of work — talking to a lot writers and aspiring authors, especially the ones who bum rush my space with their industry demands, I can’t tell anymore, why they write, why they want to publish in the first place. And the thing about this saturation is that folks are still instructed to operate in a scarcity model that makes folks act so cruel to one another.

All of the above is predatory.

Maybe I am idealistic or nostalgic, but what I appreciate and prefer is the corner of the industry — and yes, I am acknowledging this is an industry; Carlos Bulosan wrote, “the writer is also a worker.” — where there a lot less noise, where there still exists the editors and presses whose value systems resonate with our own. Where the possibility of human conversation about the work still exists. The most recent editors of my books are people I have been able to have a drink or share a meal with. Having space to talk.

There is so much now in this industry that prevents these human conversations from happening. I am feeling, as I get “older” in this industry, this is something that’s climbing my list of priorities. Human interaction with folks who want to know and come to know my value systems, why I write, why I must write what and how I write.

I used to think doing this my way would mean retreating into a tiny corner and never being heard from again. I am sometimes surprised this has not been the case. So then, there has to be something to be said about longevity in this industry — building up, improving the work over time. Sticking to your guns, and persisting!

My dos centavos for today. Maybe I’m just an old grump.

Author pre-publication notes on Anxiety and Reticence

Friends, we’re getting close! Invocation to Daughters is due for release November 14. It’s going to come fast.

I’ve just proofread the galleys, and sent my feedback back to the editor. It looks really great, very simple, which is my usual preference. It’s clean. Add this super clean design to the vibrancy of the cover and its colors. I am so pleased. This book is exactly what I want it to be — the publisher I want (and the chillest, most polite editor ever), the content I want, the aesthetics of the design that I love. (Does this ever happen? I’m not sure.)

Maybe the more relevant question though, is why I’m feeling really anxious about this. Specifically, why I’m feeling anxious about this book being released into the world.

Well, readers don’t always love your work. I’ve been raked over the coals before, especially for Poeta en San Francisco, which had some readers not enjoying my “reverse racism,” and “anti-whiteness.” Other readers have gotten catty and bitchy about my work just being published (presumably, in place of theirs — hello, scarcity model) in the first place. Other readers have gotten catty and bitchy about critical acclaim my work has received. Other readers are Filipino Americans who claim I have gotten Filipino-ness wrong, that my work “does not properly represent them,” and especially “the beauty of our culture.” These are things to which I have grown much accustomed.

Some thoughts.

I think part of my pre-publication anxiety has to do with timing. I’ve recently blogged about Lola Eudocia Tomas Pulido, as we’ve read through the narrative/narration of Alex Tizon. So many of my questions and concerns about this story — perhaps they are solely or primarily “writerly” concerns — have to do with Tizon’s narration, versus Lola Eudocio’s narration.

These are not new issues to me or my fellow Pinay writers. We discussed this at our Critical Pinayisms panel a few months ago. How do you tell the stories of these women, and not perpetuate/further the victim narrative. What does it mean to “humanize” a person via your writing. How do you do this. How do you tell these stories, and not appropriate them.

I’ve been thinking and talking about a lot of these things. I was recently interviewed for the NEA Art Works Blog, and one thing we talked about there was my assertion that there is no singular narrative that encompasses our ethnic experience. The same can be said of any individual person. Does/can a single narrative ever do justice to a human being’s entire life lived? My students and I talked about this at the end of the semester — how even a trail of official documents does not sum up the human being’s life. There are so many gaps, so much substance beneath the surface of a label or official status. There are different points of view. There is translation. And so then, how can one book speak for us all, and get it all right. What about the dissent, what about the contradictions, what about the silences and secrets. What about the non-verbal clues and cues.

I return to the discussions I have with my Pinay Lit students about the many ways in which women tell their own stories. That we must ask. That we must listen. Even when we hear something we don’t want to hear.

There is narration, and there is dialogue.

We do not own these stories, so do we have the right to tell them — this is a question that comes up a lot. One response — if we do not tell them, then who will ever know. Alex Tizon told a story (in an enormous venue), and because of this, Lola Eudocia becomes known to us.

I am still chafing from the terrible stuff our community has been processing in the wake of her story. I am overwhelmed with it, the responsibility to “get it right,” in which “right” means what exactly?

I think a large part of it has to do with position in relation to the subject. Are we speaking too much, too loudly, drowning out the voices of others. Have we left space for others to speak their piece. And have we opened up space for others to speak.

There’s this other story at the Philippines-based The Rappler, in which the writer interviews the surviving family members of Cosiang, which is what they called Lola Eudocia. Many things about this story are making me think. There is so much more in this story, including the fact that the writer of The Rappler article gives space for the surviving family members to speak for themselves, in their own native language — printed in Ilocano, with English translation in parentheses. Perhaps for The Atlantic that would not be an option, I don’t know. So I go back to “getting it right.” We get to read the questions they are asking, and the stories they know. There are so many other stories of Cosiang. We can only hope for even more stories, more points of view, more voices. And perhaps that will contribute to a larger picture, with more depth and dimension.

So I am thinking about how to go about “getting it right” in our own writings in/about our community. And for myself, for Invocation to Daughters, I am hoping I am getting my poems right. I can only say I am doing my best to make space for other voices. Which, of course, you may point out is a contradiction, given that this is a work of my authorship. I hope I have asked enough, and I hope I have listened enough. I hope it contributes to a larger picture of “us.”

I also understand why so many writers I know are so reticent, why their writings never leave their notebooks and their closest circles. The blow back is so painful. But we do have to try. Even if we fail spectacularly.

 

 

 

Processing through Alex Tizon’s story about “Lola” Eudocia Tomas Pulido

By now, everyone is talking about the late Alex Tizon’s story, “Our Family’s Slave,” which was just published yesterday, posthumously (Tizon passed away in March) over at The Atlantic.

I won’t plot summarize; it’s a lengthy story and well worth the read. It’s a difficult read. Folks are feeling defensive, indignant, triggered, confused. Folks are quarreling, shaming, name-calling, weeping and straight up ugly crying, but yes, they are (for the most part) reading this.

I am not writing this to chastise anyone for their response to Lola’s story.

First, yes. Lola has a name. Eudocia Tomas Pulido. Say her name.

I want to think through a couple of points of view here. I am a teacher of Pinay Literature. The core of my work is to center Pinay narrative, lyric, and epistemology. I am an author, and as Carlos Bulosan wrote in “The Writer As Worker,” “the writer must participate with his fellow man in the struggle to protect, to brighten, to fulfill life.”

I am struggling with Tizon’s story, and I start with language.

“Lola,” means grandmother in Tagalog. Eudocia Tomas Pulido was not the writer’s grandmother, though her role was to mother, and to serve. Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s story is a story of uncompensated reproductive labor, and it exists within the Philippine historical context of colonialism, feudalism, and patriarchy.

I had not heard the term “utusan,” to describe human beings. I know the word, “katulong,” who work in the homes of the wealthy and the middle-class. I admit my naivete, in not knowing of the “utusan.” I admit also, that I know little about the “katulong,” except that my extended family in the Philippines has always had “katulong” in their homes.

If you are reading this, you might want to shout at me; you may be judging me for “giving Tizon a pass.” I am not giving him a pass. I am trying to work through a lot of complex emotions and responses I am having to this story. If the kind of dialogues happening right now are an indication of a story’s success, then this story is a success.

I want to be clear on this: One thing that is apparent to me is that this story is Tizon’s story. I also believe Tizon could only write Tizon’s story, from his own point of view. This is not to say there is no possibility of honoring Eudocia Tomas Pulido, though I use the word, “honoring,” with some amount of reticence.

Does this story honor her? I am not sure. I think this story was Tizon’s way of working through the shame and guilt of owning a human being. There are readers who are saying Tizon did not do enough, and did not do it soon enough. There are readers saying he glorifies his own position as a master, paints himself as a benevolent master.

As a writer, I will say that we back away from writing because it is hard. Stories like this must be told. In my world, Eudocia Tomas Pulido would be able to tell her own story. But also in my world, we come to resent writers for not doing what we expect them to do, make the difficult understandable. We come to resent writers, not knowing exactly how difficult it is to do this. Some writers stop trying; the anticipated backlash already being a deterrent to even getting started. And then some writers try their best.

I believe Tizon tried. Did he fail?  If his reason for writing this story was to humanize Eudocia Tomas Pulido, maybe he failed. In my world, Eudocia Tomas Pulido would be able to tell her own story as a human being with a voice.

But as writers, should we then not attempt to write these stories?

I do not want to valorize Tizon; I will not say he is brave for coming forward with this story of modern day slavery in his own home. I do not want to valorize the master; to do so would be to valorize generations of class-based and gender-based institutional violences. I do want to give him credit as a writer, for attempting to tell this story.

As a teacher of Pinay Literature, in which we center Pinay voices which have been silenced, or squelched before the Pinay can even take a breath and think of the first words she may say on her own behalf, I want to think about whether there are any places in which Eudocia Tomas Pulido tells her own story, even if in flickers and small moments. If these exist, then they are not so small.

Alice Walker wrote in “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” of the many places women tell their stories, when they have been systematically denied access to literacy and education, much less any kind of autonomy, ability to make decisions for their own lives and destinies. I have been combing through this story for those places where Eudocia Tomas Pulido conveys her own narrative — which, of course, is filtered through Tizon’s narration. Tizon did not own Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s narrative, but it is through his filter that her narrative becomes known to us.

Eudocia Tomas Pulido was a human being who never had the opportunity to narrate her own story. Eudocia Tomas Pulido was a human being who never had the opportunity to choose her own path. I do not absolve Tizon and his family, for they were the central beneficiaries of her servitude. My sadness, the kind of mourning I seem to be experiencing stems from knowing Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s voice, her narrative will always be filtered through others with more power than she ever had.

I think also of Tizon’s mother, who, for lack of a better term, is the “villain,” of this story. I want to think about the relationship between Tizon’s mother and Eudocia Tomas Pulido. Did the mother ever experience the kind of guilt that Tizon appeared to experience? With my students, we discuss Pinayism, and the social, historical, and cultural barriers which prevent Pinays from connecting with one another. In this world, we are bred, conditioned to take one another down. What does it take to subvert this? A lot of work of seeing and understanding that the patriarchy needs us to never form solidarities with one another.

As a counterpoint, I have been thinking of the narratives I do present and discuss with my Pinay Literature students — those of Whang Od and Lang Dulay. I am thinking of the narratives of Mary Jane Veloso, Jennifer Laude, Izabel Laxamana, Norife Herrera Jones.

I think of the work so many have attempted, as journalists, activists, advocates, artists, and writers so that these Pinays’ narratives are centered, and may speak on their own behalf. I am thinking of Yay Panlilio Marking, Angeles Monrayo, Helen Rillera. I am thinking of Sister Mary John Mananzan, Marjorie Evasco, Xyza Cruz Bacani, Ninotchka Rosca, M. Evelina Galang, Jean Vengua, Melissa Roxas.

I think of myself as one Pinay advocate among these Pinay advocates, and as a work in progress in centering Pinay narrative, lyric, epistemologies. I think this work is hard. I think if we attempt it as we do, we will experience failure. I think this failure should not deter us from this work.

So this is what I am thinking this morning.

For #APIAHeritageMonth, Drafting My Keynote Address for UC Berkeley Pilipinx Graduation

Image: Illustrator Wendy MacNaughton and writer Courtney E. Martin. https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/05/15/focus-wendy-macnaughton-courtney-martin-poster/

The theme for this coming Sunday’s UC Berkeley’s Pilipinx American commencement ceremony is, “araw,” which means both sun, and day. I admit, I have been at a loss for a “message,” I may impart upon young Pilipinx American college graduates. Part of it is my exhaustion from teaching and working, but a larger part of it has to do with the need for quality time with young people for exchange, and for dialogue. And a larger part of it has to do with a certain cynicism that the current political moment has got me in. How do you tell young people to fight for what they believe in, when we are living in the now that we are living in. What longterm good are inspirational memes and their vapid clichés.

I am combing through my own essays and interviews for glimmers of sunlight. I am clicking through so many literary websites to see what others are saying. I found the above image over at Brain Pickings, and this is helping me tremendously.

Perhaps I start by recounting this experience to the new graduates. It is challenging to find these moments, these glimmers of light during such cynical and corrupt times. We lose our faith. We want to crawl inside of ourselves and into our own darkness, at first to escape, and then, to heal, and then to incubate. These moments, these rites of passage are acknowledging that we now enter society as grown-ups, and decide how we are going to work. We have to reaffirm our belief systems; do we really believe what we have been saying we believe, in the vacuum of the academic institution, in which consequence is intellectual. How do we become thinkers and doers in the real world, and can we become agents of social change in that real world?

The work is day-to-day, and we can fall into the drudgery of the longest days. It is more often unromantic, bureaucratic, and it feels the obstacles and setbacks are more frequent than the successes. This is where we must put our work ethic to the test. Changing the world, changing our communities, changing our families, is a glacial, incremental process, every day a new setback, another closed mind we must attempt to open, another person sitting in darkness, to whom we must bring that light. People will resist, they will dismiss you. They will tell you, you are young and so what do you know — you with your fancy new college ideas, what place do they have in the real world, where people struggle, go hungry, become homeless, lose their loved ones, and so they have no time for your ideas. Or they may not recognize that they have been sitting in darkness (they’ve been there for so long); they’re just fine where they are.

So that’s where I am this morning. Contemplating light, and change.

For #APIAHeritageMonth, Considering my Fil Am Immigrant Family History

It feels more than appropriate to begin this #APIAHeritageMonth post by saying, “Yes, my parents were right.” Of course they were right. I was too young and stubborn to listen to them, until I wasn’t.

By “right,” this is what I mean. When I was in college, I was floundering. UC Berkeley was challenging, and though I was as academically prepared as I could be, having been on the honors and AP track in my private high school, I wasn’t emotionally ready, and I wasn’t mature enough yet to be self-motivated, and I wasn’t disciplined enough yet to be on my own.

I resented my parents for stressing their hard work ethic, their grind, and their ideas of success. I was a dreamer and a rebel. I saw what my American classmates had, conversational, casual, chummy relationships with their apparently easy-going and permissive parents. My classmates seemed to have what I saw as leisure time and super chill parents who would ask them how they were doing.

I had a perpetually stressed out mother, who worked full time and managed to raise four of us, and a father so uptight, I thought he’d bust an aneurysm when he was in his 40s. They didn’t seem to want to understand “American” ways, all the things I thought were cool about how my friends could behave and speak in their parents’ homes. They talked about their feelings; my parents didn’t have time for that. My father would get so indignant at our uses of American slang/idiom when directly addressing him. When I was young, I could never imagine ever telling him to chill out, or not to have a cow. Answering back always erupted into WWIII; he wasn’t into my American sass mouth one bit.

I felt like nothing I ever did was good enough. They always wanted me to do more. I hated this. Sometimes I rebelled. Sometimes I tried. I failed a lot. I hated this. I always thought American parents were more understanding of failure. That they would just say, it’s OK, honey. Just try again.

And when I was in college, living far enough away from my parents for the first time ever, I was a freak out in a skinny girl’s body. I couldn’t discipline myself to get to an 11 am class on time. I got a D in calculus (why the hell was I even taking calculus anyway). I had the worst GPA ever. I stopped showing up to class altogether. I wasted a ton of time and money. I couch surfed a lot, having no desire to move back home, nor the means to pay rent. I wrote poetry. And some of my friends thought I was pretty bad ass. It was romantic. And it was unsustainable.

My parents finally left me alone, and it was cool, because then I could just work my crappy part time job, write, party, smoke, and drink. And I thought it was such an edgy, rebellious life of struggling to pay rent, being an artist, and scraping up nickels with my friends to afford to split $2 nachos in the student union. And my parents let me be, until they could no longer bear it.

They wanted to know what the hell I was doing with my life. I evaded them, wouldn’t come home for weeks at a time. When I did see them, I could see the disappointment in their body language. I was kind of a failure to them. I was always broke. I was a dropout. But I was writing poems! And I was so cool on the mic! And I was living according to my own rules! Fuck the Man! Fuck the Establishment! This life of glorified, self-imposed artist poverty, screwing the system!

And I thought they were so rude, so rigid, so old school, for thinking I was a failure, for thinking my ass should go back to college. I wanted to yell at them; I was following my dream! What the fuck did they know about dreams and romance!

Well.

Here’s where the gift of age, experience, and hindsight kick in.

What did my parents know about dreaming and romance? Didn’t they leave everything behind, when they were in their early 20s. Didn’t they get on an airplane, to come and live in a foreign country, on another continent. Didn’t they know there were no guarantees. Didn’t they know coming here to work, and to raise their children was a gamble, probably the riskiest thing they had ever done, weren’t they throwing caution to the wind as they did. Didn’t all they have was an idea, a dream of what it might be like.

I am thinking of this old photograph, not the one above, but a colored photo of my young parents, with me and my older sister. I must have been about four. My sister would have been six. My parents would have been in their mid-20s. We are in Reno, at a motel, posed by the motel swimming pool. We are on a road trip. We are on a family vacation. This would have been two years after my sister and I immigrated. My parents had already come before us, found employment, saved money, and so by the time my sister and I were here, we moved from a Daly City one room apartment into our first home in Fremont, and my sister was enrolled in a private school.

Imagine the kind of grind that takes. My mother used to tell us that we had to work twice as hard as American kids did. I resented this; I also knew it was true.

My younger sister, who is now an executive in a media company that turns these homemade snapshots into enormous, lasting historical documents, tells it like this (though she wasn’t born yet), when she presents this image to company shareholders and clients: this image is important and historical because it documents the persistence of these two young immigrants, to make something out of nothing. To make a life here, for themselves and their children. How precious is this kind of vacation time. It’s almost like a celebration of their “making it” here.

So then, yes, my parents did dream. They dreamed of a life. They made it happen. And here we are.

I thought about this a lot, during my father’s last days. What kind of life did he lead here. Was it a meaningful life. Did he accomplish what he meant to accomplish in his life. A life full of travel, and art, always surrounded by friends and loved ones, always sharing what you had, always celebrating something in the most lively manner possible — this kind of wealth. While I miss him like crazy, what keeps me going is that, while our family has never been perfect, while we’ve all had our share of disappointments, and while we fought like hell, almost everything he and my mother wanted for us, we got, and we have.

At his wake, people I didn’t know well at all, were coming up to me and my sisters, nodding with approval. To me, they would say, “Ah, so you’re the professor,” or “Ah, so you’re the poet.” This is how my father talked about us to his friends and relatives. And rather than make this about status (which I know some of you will want to do), let me just say that this is how proud he was of us. This is how he talked about us; he approved highly of the people we became after each of us found our own way — this was so important to him, that everybody knew it.

All of this to say — I have something in my eye — what my parents gave us transcend material things. My sisters and I work our asses off because this is the wealth we inherited from them. Most of all though, I think the best part of all of this is thinking about change, and malleability. That it happens in ways you can’t always detect, but before you know it, you are doing things your way, and your traditional parents aren’t so traditional anymore, and not having a cow about you being a poet, about being tattooed, about being a smart mouth. Or maybe they are still traditional, but now, because you are determined, doing things your way, the resulting successes, and the fact that you are happy with your work and your life — these are what become most important to your traditional parents.

My first Invocation to Daughters event will take place on his two-year death anniversary, and it’s bittersweet as all hell. Because this book is exactly what I wanted, and exactly what I worked for. And because of this, he would have approved. And I also didn’t know that his approval meant as much to me as it does.