Having Taught Bulosan and Hagedorn, I Taught Bulosan and Hagedorn Again

dogeaters 1st edition

I want to say, you get tired of the same old thing, and that you want to do something else. It’s true; you do. The fact that these texts, Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart, and Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, are requisite texts in Filipino Literature courses, gets redundant for me, but it can’t continue to irk me.

I have complained in social media, about how teaching these two books takes nearly half of the semester, leaving us another eight weeks to cover “everything else.” What is that “everything else,” and will any other text ever replace one of these two requisite texts? What are the politics of inclusion and exclusion? I keep asking who determines the criteria.

Shee-it. I am determining the criteria, and there’s no being coy or passive-aggressive about that.

Last week, I was talking to a Philippine Studies colleague, of different discipline. She was telling me that a while back, she referenced America is in the Heart in one of the classes she teaches, and was dismayed that students hadn’t read the book. I don’t know that it gave my colleague a ton of extra work, to try to bring the students up to speed on why that book is important to know, when moving into other courses — sociology, history — within our interdisciplinary program.

But that’s one thing. We are interdisciplinary, I teach the literature courses, and the content of our program as a whole should have some continuity through and between them.

Related: I was talking to another colleague in our program, about starting off every semester with Renato Constantino’s “The Mis-Education of the Filipino,” because in order to understand and critically discuss the art and literature produced in Filipino and Filipino American communities, it’s important that the students have a basic understanding of the colonial elements and impetus in our communities’ works. But the discussion of colonialism takes a damn long time before we can even get into the core content of our courses.

In my Filipino Literature course, Bulosan and Hagedorn have to be required. I won’t and can’t be mad about this anymore. You can’t discuss the “Flips” — Robles, Tagami, et al — without first getting a deep understanding of the “Manongs.” Hence, America is in the Heart. I suppose you could teach Bienvenido Santos’s short stories in Scent of Apples, but why read something written by a pensionado, an outsider looking into or imagining or transcribing the lives of the labor class Pinoys, when you have this novel written by someone who is of the labor class, whose roots are of the Philippine peasantry. Is this about “authenticity,” or “representation” for sake of itself? I’ll go ahead and say no, that it’s about introducing critical discussions about class struggle, proletariat literature (and language, and aesthetic), the literal exhaustion and frustration of pursuing the “American Dream.”

I am thinking of the narrator Carlos’s concern that his brother Macario’s political concerns seem more intellectual than actual.

I will also say that I hate it when discussions about America is in the Heart are firmly couched in sentimentality and ethnic identity politics — ethnic pride, ethnic authenticity.

On Dogeaters. You can’t read any hallucinatory balikbayan narratives or Manila narratives written by expatriate authors without referencing Dogeaters. You could teach Marianne Villanueva’s short stories in Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila to demonstrate the social changes before and during Martial Law. But there’s something about the form of novel itself, though there’s Gina Apostol’s Gun Dealers’ Daughter. But particular to Dogeaters, there’s something about the socially diverse and then the marginalized/invisible (it’s important to me that we talk A LOT about Joey Sands, and then to a bit lesser degree, Orlando/Romeo and poor Trinidad, and how their stories fit in this cacophony with Daisy/Aurora, Lolita Luna, Baby Alacran, Leonora Ledesma, et al.), and unintentionally unreliable narrators (Except Pucha? When she finally speaks for herself, do we have any reason to believe her?), and their selective and fallible memories.

Some things.

Is Dogeaters still considered a “difficult,” “experimental” text? Is it really a “postmodern” text? In what ways are we now more popularly accustomed to collaged, non-linear narratives and shifting, multiple narrators challenging/refuting Master Narrative, than we were when this book first debuted in 1990.

Is it redundant, or logical, to also teach R. Zamora Linmark’s novel, Leche, after teaching Dogeaters. I am going with logical.

Is it fair, is it enough to have one Filipino Literature course offering, given that we have one century of Filipino writing in English under our belt, given that works in translation have been around much longer and should also be included in Filipino Literature (I teach Elynia S. Mabanglo’s Invitation of the Imperialist in translation), and given that Ethnic Studies and area studies are now becoming increasingly diasporic.

Shee-it (again). In Filipino Literature, I could teach a whole semester of Carlos Bulosan. Or a whole semester on lyric poetry. Or short story. Or graphic novel. Or YA Lit.

Or Pinay Lit …!

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Some Thoughts on Poetry, Difficulty, Language

Belated thoughts here, on my last lecture in Pinay Lit, in which we read Janice Sapigao‘s microchips for millions, and my For the City that Nearly Broke Me. This thing came up about use of languages not “readable” or readily accessible to readers. In Janice’s work, it’s the pervasiveness of the binary code. In mine, specifically the piece, “Malaya,” it’s the Tagalog/Indo-Malay “mash-up.”  

First, we recognize that binary code is indeed a language. We agree that it is a language, and we agree it is a language used widely in Silicon Valley, which is the setting for Janice’s work. We also agree that while we cannot read it, someone (or something) does; many someones (and many somethings) read it, function in it. It is directly related to the affluence of this area, the Bay Area and Silicon Valley.

If we cannot read it though, then is it enough, for us as readers, to have that recognition which I just described? Does that make the appearance of the language in Janice’s text effective?

Consider also, that while we readers cannot read this language, do the low-paid, overworked immigrant labor force of Silicon Valley, who are central to Janice’s poems read that language? Or are they as “in the dark” as we are, not knowing what is being communicated in that language? And if they are in the dark as we readers are, which I suspect is the case, then as readers, does that help us create a more layered reading experience?

(Similar questions arise regarding my “mash-up.” Can you read it? Probably not. If not, then what do you “do” with the poem? What is this poem about then?)

And does the presence of these languages in these works make the works, “difficult.” And if so, then is this a “bad” thing, this difficulty? In our communities, where so many readers and community members expect and demand narratives to be handed to them in the most non-threatening manner ever, especially narratives authored by women, and especially narratives authored by “younger” women. This perceived poetic cleverness, what I call a willingness to handle difficulty, is a thing if not disliked, then definitely discouraged. Anti-rigor.

I am thinking more and more about layers in poem, and layers in bodies of poetry. I am thinking I can’t write any other way, if I mean to write what and how I mean to write. And it is a challenge to write a layered, multilingual thing that both immediately disturbs you, and also unravels itself over time with a lot of thoughtfulness, and for readers and editors, it seems to become a terrible inconvenience.

Virtual Blog Tour, Is Pinay Lit a Genre, and Tagging Others

From Vince Gotera: The “virtual blog tour” is an excellent, friendly way for writers, artists, and other creative folks to bring attention to their own work as well as that of others. It begins with an invitation from another artist or writer. Then in your blog you acknowledge the person who invited you, answer four given questions about your work and your process, and then invite three other people to participate. These people then do the same thing, referring their blog readers to the blogs of three more people, and so on. It’s a wonderful sort of “pyramid scheme” that’s beneficial for everyone: the artists and writers as well as the readers of their blogs. We can follow links from blog to blog and then we can all learn about different kinds of creative process and also find new writers and artists we may not have known about before.

The person who invited me to take part in the blog tour is Vince himself, a poet and educator, who, like me, hails from the San Francisco Bay Area. Now, though, he’s a landlocked Pinoy in Iowa. A more formal biographical statement is as follows: Vince Gotera is the Editor of the North American Review and a creative writing professor at the University of Northern Iowa. His collections of poetry include the forthcoming Pacific Crossing as well as Dragonfly, Ghost Wars, and Fighting Kite. His work has also appeared widely in magazines, anthologies, textbooks, and online venues. Visit his blog, “The Man with the Blue Guitar” at http://vincegotera.blogspot.com.

Allow me to introduce to you, his poem, “Aswang,” a Philippine mythological creature that continues to fascinate so many of us. Perhaps this excerpt may help you understand the fascination:

… and I saw his mother, a pretty mestiza widow,
her face hidden by hair hanging down
as she bent far forward from the waist.
A manananggal, the worst kind of aswang:
women who can detach themselves at the hips,
shucking their legs at night like a wrinkled slip.
They fly, just face and breasts, to prey on infants.
For a moment, a shadow like a giant bat
darkened the moon…

"Aswang," by Hellen Jo.

“Aswang,” by Hellen Jo. helllllen.org

I would like to think the writing we are doing stateside is contributing to the lore.

Vince has also written up some wonderful explanatory text on the creature and on the poem, so let me not say too much more, except that our aswang poems will be sharing space in the forthcoming anthology Kuwento: Lost Things (An Anthology of New Philippines Myths) (Carayan Press). Go read this poem, and allow yourself to be spooked. Though, please notice the stanzas that comprise this poem are in sonnet form. He has written about formalism, and his use of form as well.


Here are the four questions I’ve answered about my own work:

"Gabriela Silang," by Francisco Coching.

“Gabriela Silang,” by Francisco Coching.

1. What are you currently working on?

Many things — developing and teaching college classes and community workshop, and editing an anthology, all of which are centered around Pinay Lit. Pinay, for those of you not in the know, is a term we use for Filipina, or Filipino girl or woman. Some use it in casual conversation, as affirmation, and others have politicized it (shouting with fist raised: “Pinay Power!”).

I have also completed my own poetry manuscript centered around Pinay voice, writing on the Pinay body.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Is Pinay Lit a genre? Let’s go ahead and say it is. However conversational or politicized the usage of Pinay, I’ve been interested in some time now, in potentially Pinay-centered literary space, in writing, reading, and teaching. Can we push the discussion to where it’s most sharp, most difficult — regarding historical and social issues, and just as important, narrative, craft, language, form.

Can we do this in spaces where those who identify as Pinay are both encouraged and emboldened to speak and push their writing, without the kinds of gendered, racialized pressures exerted upon us by our Filipino male community members who want to tell us what to do and what to think, by our white women colleagues who want to save us and speak for us, by our oblivious American classmates who just don’t give a shit. Can we do this without descending into an uncritical Kumbayah. Can we create a strong foundation on our own terms, welcome and maintain rigor, be empowered and articulate wordsmiths. I hope we can.

3. Why do you write/create what you do?

Much of my interest in Pinay lit is not just in the fact that I identify as Pinay and a Pinay author, but in my general observations and experience interacting with other Pinay writers. There’s so much fear, reticence, and timidity that I want to understand and dispel, not because all of us should be shouting and showing our teeth, bearing machetes and fists (though, isn’t that some kind of fierce, wonderful image), but because of how that fear hinders us from writing our stories and getting them into the world.

4. How does your writing/creating process work?

I am always online! The internet has become a place that concerns me, as much as the geographical places I’ve been writing about. I’ve been trolling Filipina bride websites for advertisements and testimonies (from brides and “clients”), and news stories about Pinay OFWs. Perhaps it’s morbid, but I am always looking for narratives about these women and girls being bought, sold, and broken, and I do this because I want to know what is happening to them in the world, and why. I don’t want to pretend none of this matters to me. I also don’t want to pretend that what happens to them also is happening to me. But I need to write about these women and girls. I’ve been crafting poetic lines, trying to flesh out narratives, to humanize the sound bytes and statistics I’ve been gathering. I need to find their resistances. I need to know that they fight back.


Now, as for the four bloggers I am tagging — yes, I’m only supposed to tag three, but these four are good:

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is a Filipina writer living in the Netherlands. She attended Clarion West in 2009 and is an Octavia Butler Scholar. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of online and print publications including Clarkesworld Magazine, The End of the Road anthology, Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond, Philippine Genre Stories, the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthologies and We See a Different Frontier. Her Movements column appears regularly on the online magazine, Strange Horizons. http://rcloenenruiz.com

Rashaan Alexis Meneses: Born and raised in the seismically fractured and diverse landscape of southern California, Rashaan Alexis Meneses was recently awarded 2013 fellowships at The MacDowell Colony and The International Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland. Current publications include a personal essay in Doveglion Press, short stories in New Letters, Kurungabaa, UC Riverside’s The Coachella Review, University of North Carolina’s Pembroke Magazine, and the anthology Growing Up Filipino II: More Stories for Young Adults. http://rashaanalexismeneses.com

Anthem Salgado founded professional development program and web resource, Art of Hustle, providing training and consulting for creative entrepreneurs, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. His experience spans 15 years across industries that include arts, education, nightlife, cultural and community affairs, and more. He focuses on marketing, helping maximize on audience development, referral building, and income generation opportunities. http://www.artofhustle.com

Melissa R. Sipin is a writer from Carson, CA. She won First Place in the 2013 Glimmer Train Fiction Open and her writing has been published/forthcoming in Glimmer Train Stories, PANK Magazine, Fjords Review, 580 Split, and Kweli Journal, among others. She cofounded and is editor-in-chief of TAYO Literary Magazine. As a Kundiman Fiction Fellow, VONA/Voices Fellow, and U.S. Navy wife, she splits her time writing on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and blogs at www.msipin.com. She is currently working on a novel. http://msipin.com/blog

The Writer Is Also a Citizen

stage five

[Photo credits: Center for Art + Thought]

With Noël Alumit, Rachelle Cruz, Giovanni Ortega, and Chris Santiago, I just participated in a wonderful literary community event down in Los Angeles yesterday afternoon: The Writer Is Also a Citizen was the closing event for the exhibit, I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story, at the Japanese American National Museum.

From the JANM website:

I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story was created by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and curated by Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center Initiative Coordinator Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis. The exhibition is supported by a generous grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, and is a collaborative initiative with Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES).

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Fil Am Fiction: Reading and Rereading Hagedorn et al

gangster of love 0603-ManilaNoir-2 monstress

I did say once or twice that teaching Filipino Lit class would start to get repetitive in terms of what I’m reading, though I have to say I have been enjoying all of this reading and rereading. There is something about returning to a text 20 or so years later, and reading it not necessarily with new eyes, but with more emotional and intellectual maturity. Knowing or understanding more, not just about the field of Filipino and Fil Am Lit, but about the world.

Last semester I revisited Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, and happily found that “postmodern” texts were no longer an immovable block, which students would resist or be unable to access. I thought about and experienced how young readers have become much more sophisticated in their readings of non-linear, multi-vocal, multilingual texts, that popular culture — in part, through science fiction, graphic novels, and comics — have opened up young readers to these non-linear and even quarreling/self-contradicting narratives. Also, these students have had much more access to multicultural literature that I ever did when I was their age. Also, teaching in Bay Area urban centers’ universities brings me into diverse classrooms full of students who are open or willing to be opened. I have also rediscovered that discussing the morally questionable (or morally compromised, or morally challenged) is great! Without judging, trying to avoid imposing our sets of values on different characters, we try our best to understand why they do what they do to themselves and to one another.

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