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

dogeaters 1st editionI 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 …!


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.

Questions: Young Fil Ams and Fil Am Literature


Hey, so I have some questions. I feel I am taking a lot for granted right now; it’s been a couple of decades since first encountering Filipino American Literature and Filipino American authors, and there’s so much baggage I’ve worked out in these past two decades.

I remember first reading Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters when I was 19 or 20. I have had to read the novel three or four times until I was confident that I understood many things about it. I then remember finding her poetry book, Dangerous Music (San Francisco: Momo’s Press, 1975). That set me on this path towards and into authordom. What I told my Pinay Lit students last week was that having Jessica Hagedorn’s books introduced to me made me realize it was possible for me to become an author. It confirmed for me that there were not just Filipino Americans, but Pinays in this country getting published, writing books, and then I knew I could be one of them.

True story.

I say all this now because, prior to becoming an “emerging” writer, and even before that, prior to becoming an “aspiring writer,” I always suspected that writing was something I was pretty good at. I just wasn’t sure how to go about it. I know now that what I needed to do was read a hell of a lot, read outside of my own comfortable place, get myself educated, not just academically, but as a writer, cultivate, sharpen, challenge, build, refine. Become brave, thicken the skin, work on that bullshit meter. I learned that I had to claim the title and never make excuses or apologies.

Now that I am teaching young Filipino Americans, most of whom are likely not going to pursue writing as a vocation or career — which is totally fine — I am asking myself again, what are young Filipino Americans — not necessarily writers or artists themselves — generally looking for, when they decide to enroll in a Filipino American Literature course?

And then even more pointedly, what are they looking for when deciding to enroll in a Pinay Lit course? My students typically say that they grew up not learning anything about Filipino culture, much less, about Filipino literature (I still meet grown-up Fil Ams who have no idea that Fil Ams even write). My class becomes an entryway. The first few weeks of class, everyone is so wide-eyed. If you were to ask me to define “amazement,” it would be that look I see in my students’ faces as I’m standing in front of the classroom delivering a lecture.

It’s such a specific thing, Pinay Lit. It’s so specific that no one that I know teaches it in this country. I told my students that I took a Filipino Women’s Literature course at U.P. Diliman, back in the mid-1990s. Professor Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo was teaching a class titled, “Filipino Women Writing in English, in Love, War, and Exile,” in the Comparative Literature Department.

I thought, well, of course I would have to leave home, and fly across the ocean to another continent, in order to take a class this specific and special. It is one of the best classes I have ever taken; one of the best things about it was the fact that it was a Comparative Literature course, in which we actually engaged in literary discussion. Ah, a “pure” literature class, if there were ever such a thing, in which the literature in question happened to have all been written by Filipino women.

I loved exactly how normalized it was, Filipino women writing. Filipino women writers published. This was also quite liberating for me as an aspiring writer.

Clearly, Professor Hidalgo’s class has very much informed my own curriculum development, except that in this country, I am compelled to discuss this: that it should be a normal thing, Filipina Americans writing. Every culture, every community has its own literary traditions; Filipino/as are no exception. But for various reasons of imperialism, misogyny, white supremacy, institutional racism, language and cultural chauvinism, it’s a constant struggle to be recognized as legitimate creators of capital-L Literature.

I extend discussions of literature to include “narrative,” in which we discuss women storytellers and keepers of narrative, who fall outside of not just literature, but literacy. So then I am discussing privilege and disenfranchisement. I am encouraging pushing the boundaries on this thing called “knowledge.” And then I am discussing this thing called “authorship,” and its power.

How to cover all of those things substantially, while still teaching literature substantially.

I think, this is so much more complicated than we ever expected, when we Pinay writers decided to become writers; this is so much more complicated than my students ever expected, when they decided to enroll in Pinay Lit.

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

Fleshing Out the Pinay Anthology

babaylan (1)

I’ve decided the anthology I want to compile/edit will be published by PAWA, which is the org in which I’m invested. I want to continue giving it substance and depth, and contribute to building it up. We are planning on more publications, and we are looking at indie press book distributors as well. So I am fleshing out the anthology, and have decided not to make it open call. I know this decision will not be a popular one, but it’s the more manageable option. I already have a wish list of ~50 Pinay writers and authors, established, emerging, aspiring. I am sure not all ~50 writers will respond, and I am also hoping to follow trails of association and recommendation. Networks, yes.

What I envision is a collection of personal, non-academic essays by Pinay creative writers. What I mean by this is Pinay writers whose primary public work is creative, not people who write on the side, not people whose creative writing is hobby. My invitation to submit will go as follows (for now; i.e. this is a draft):

Dear Pinay writers,

I am writing to invite you to contribute work to an anthology of Pinay writers, to be published by PAWA, Inc. in 2015. It has been over a decade since the publication of Going Home to a Landscape (Calyx, 2003), and Babaylan (Aunt Lute, 2000). A new generation of Pinay writers is emerging, and established writers have continued to grow and expand their bodies of work.

As you may know, I created a course entitled, Filipina Lives and Voices in Literature, in the Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program at University of San Francisco. I teach or have taught some of your works. Some of you have guest lectured or shared your work with my students. After a few semesters of teaching this course, and from my own experiences as an author, I have come to know that too often in the world, we are talked about dismissively, for writing about women’s issues, or immigrant issues, or person of color issues. We are objectified, fetishized, rendered silent, assumed to have no voice. More often, we are ignored or omitted from conversations in literature.

In the spirit of Pinoy Poetics (Meritage Press, 2004), I have proposed to PAWA Inc. what I believe to be a much needed and illuminating collection of living, practicing Pinay writers, telling us in their own words why and how they write, for whom they write. I am interested in the non-academic, creative nonfiction, first person, personal essay. I am interested in the manifesto. I am interested in the ars poetica.

I am interested in fleshing out abstraction.

Here are some questions I have, and which will give you an idea of what I envision for this collection:

  1. Who are your women ancestors, your women literary ancestors, role models? Who are the mythical and/or historical women figures informing your writing? How have they informed your writing? What have they taught you about how to write about women’s lives, Pinay lives?

  2. How do you write about the body, within the context of feminism, womanism, and/or Pinayism, about the Pinay body, as mother, as colonial (postcolonial, decolonizing) body. Given patriarchy, misogyny, given histories of imperialism, invasion, Christianization. Given diaspora, globalization, economics. Given popular culture. Given legislation. In other words, given the state of the Pinay body, the woman body in the world.

  3. How did you find your voice? When did you find the courage to speak? What/who prevented you from speaking? What are the consequences of silence, and of choosing to break silence?

  4. Regarding work, work ethic, “women’s work,” motherhood (if applicable, the decision to be a mother, the decision not to be a mother, or if motherhood is beyond your reach). What are your beliefs/thoughts on writing about domestic spaces and domestic work, about personal, private, intimate matters, especially given that such subject matter can be ghettoized as “women’s writing.”

  5. Is your writing political? How specifically is it political? Why is it political, or why must it be political? For example, how are your aesthetic, linguistic, formalistic, genre choices deliberate, political choices as a writer who is a Pinay, a woman, a woman of color.

  6. How do you navigate the American publishing industry as a woman of color, as a Pinay, especially when your subject matter may not be on the radar or priority list of the mainstream. How do you navigate the publishing industry as a woman of color and Pinay, resisting objectification, resisting being tokenized or fetishized.

  7. Given all of the above, what do we as writers say to future generations of Pinays, about voice, about self-determination, about the spaces we have fought for?

I am hoping that amazing, provocative, thoughtful, specific, and impassioned writing will be generated from your reflecting on these questions.

Graphic narrative will be considered.

In addition to your essay (10-12 double-spaced pages max), you may also send up to 10 pages of a creative writing sample to illustrate/demonstrate what you’ve written in your essay; previously published works are acceptable, but we are unable to pay any reprint fees. Please make sure you hold the copyright to your work, and please provide us written permission to reprint.

Please email Word documents and a 200-word biographical statement to me at bjanepr at gmail dot com, with “Pinay Anthology Submission” in the subject line. If you have special formatting, please email PDFs.

Deadline: April 01, 2014.

Questions? Please email me at bjanepr at gmail dot com.

Salamat po!


If I could get in touch with Lynda Barry, that would be the most fantastic thing ever. Anyone?

Last thing, for now: this comes from conversations I’ve been having since Albert Abonado invited me to guest edit a special section of The Bakery. That was entitled, “Poetas y Diwatas,” a compilation of Pinay poets’ essays/personal statements and poems. Eileen Tabios, one of the contributors, suggested I think about an all Pinay version of Pinoy Poetics (Meritage Press, 2004).

Today in Margaret Rhee’s Class: Diwata and the Mythologized Female as an Alternative to the Dehumanized Female

[Image source: http://wolfberrystudio.blogspot.com]
[Image source: http://wolfberrystudio.blogspot.com]

Wow, so … awesome conversation in Margaret Rhee’s class at UC Berkeley this morning! Margaret is a fantastic teacher, and she is a fantastic teacher of my work! Where to begin. I guess, some highlights:

There’s this thing about the dominant narrative of the Filipina body in the world, that of a body in commerce. The OFW, the human trafficked. Here, I mentioned the article in the British media (would American media really write in a substantial way about this) about how, given Typhoon Haiyan, women and girls are the most vulnerable. That in these times of desperation and starvation, the girls are the least safe, and the first ones to go. They become capital, currency. To feed the family, when the family has nothing, what can they offer in exchange, but their daughters. It’s a tough choice, a terrible position in which to find oneself as the head of the family, and I do not discuss this lightly or flippantly at all, but that is the reality.

So then, what I am talking about here is the dominant narrative of dehumanization.

I am thinking about the mythological females in Diwata, and as mythology as an antithesis, one alternative to the narrative of dehumanization. These mythological females are powerful, as powerful as the natural world itself. Many of these females become myth through an act of disobedience. Against parents’ wishes. Against social order and expectation. There is gravity and consequence to their moral choices. In “Why Girls Do Not Speak,” one of the poems I talked a little bit about, we see a father who knows well his daughter’s fate, if he does not intervene. He opens up options; she too can hunt, and train as a warrior.

But there is consequence. When she performs the act of bringing her father’s ashes to the sea, when she comes across the young ladies of her community who have been given as brides to the foreigners, when she presents these young ladies the possibility of return, not only is she allegedly unrecognizable to them. They claim not to want nothing to do to her.

So the transgression, on the part of her father, from which she benefits, results in her being rejected by her own womankind.

Change happens, and as an agent of change, your community may really truly hate you. They may be threatened or afraid of you. They may want nothing but distance from you.

So much wonderful conversation, but let me end this by talking about some thoughts on art making, and poetry making. Or: on the work of the artist. I realize more and more, that the thing that’s important about the work of being a poet is the ability to have vision, and to be able to articulate that vision. Margaret and I, and one of her lovely students, had a wonderful post-class discussion, in which she brought up the “orient,” “dis * orient,” and “re * orient,” sections of Poeta en San Francisco. Margaret said it best: where so much academic discourse centers around the “de-,” the work of the artist is in the “re-.” Reorient. Reenvision. Recast. Reconstruct. Revise. Something different. Something forward thinking. This, I believe, is the optimism of the artist, and the appeal of art. To reenvision is to move onward, to present other possibilities.

This requires creativity. Various creativities.

So this is where I am at today. Taking art making, poetry making very, very seriously. Thinking about art making and poetry making as world making. What does this mean for my manuscript recently recast as Trigger Warning, I am not exactly sure yet, but it means something. Also, I am grateful for scholars and educators and poets like Margaret. This is community. This is how community happens.

Recent and Upcoming Events: Poetry Writing Talkstory Process

This week I am scheduled to speak in Margaret Rhee’s Asian American Literature class at UC Berkeley, as she has once again assigned Diwata. I am always grateful for those who teach my work! I don’t know exactly what she and her students are discussing about the book, but I told Margaret that lately, I’ve become more and more interested in the narrative of the disobedient girl, the girl and/or woman who breaks the rules, the transgressive female narrative that obviously runs through my work. In what ways do they transgress — for really, the fact that they speak or even set foot outside of their homes can be breaking the rules.  Why do they transgress, whom do they disobey, what figures of authority, what social rules. And hence, why? And what are the consequences and outcomes of transgression? How do these acts of transgression contribute to world-making?

This is where we talk about diwatas, muses, myth making. And of course, about feminism! Reconfiguring Pinay heroines to question and act against patriarchal norms. How my heroines do it, with much risk to themselves, and how writing against patriarchal norms is a continual challenge to me as an author. Because it’s not only about writing against Western standards and expectations, but also questioning Filipino American standards and expectations. Doing this, there are consequences. Something about airing dirty laundry or exposing cultural baggage and ugliness, when we are always expected to show only “the beauty of our culture and our people.” But whose standards of beauty? And what if those are colonially defined? And what if those are also narrowly, anti-intellectually defined?

Remember Manuel Ocampo’s “Free Aesthetic Pleasure Now!” exhibit.

So those are some thoughts for this week.

Last week, I visited Valerie Soe’s Asian American Studies Community Arts course at SFSU, and this sure was something! We discussed my poem, “A Little Bit About Lola Ilang,” from Diwata, and we talked about the art of storytelling. So then: voice and POV, the particulars of any specific POV, how that speaker uses language, how they speak is determined by to whom they are speaking. In other words, how does storytelling in intimate settings determine the storyteller’s language, inside language, codes, shortcuts, known givens. Digressions. How this is different from “official testimony,” narratives in historical and academic texts. But even before that, how does one enter or create a storytelling space? And here we discussed centering exchange and offering, versus centering tools/devices for documentation, having these set literally in between us and our storytellers.

The language and subject matter of “A Little Bit About Lola Ilang,” while historical, is also so intimate that it brought at least one of the students to tears. And this got us talking about where stories are in our families and in our midst, but how they are still untold. How we need to learn how to ask (hence, offering and exchange), and we need to learn to listen very finely, rather than treating our elders coldly, scientifically, as “interview subjects.”

Part of this talkstory session being so emotional also had to do with at least one student saying she has never read anything about “us” in books before. I then told the class that as a poet and as an author, it’s very very important for me to get that process right — the listening, the paying attention to nuance and specifics of language; the writing of each poem and then the entire collection; the work of finding editors who are great readers of this work and who are champions of this work; the importance of production and distribution. For me, this is what’s really high stakes with getting it right in this industry.



Teaching, Reading, and Teaching Reading


[I’ve just added Serafin Malay Syquia’s  essay, “Politics and Poetry,” which was originally published in Liwanag, to my Filipino American Literature, Arts, and Culture syllabus for next semester. Things to think about as we handle political and socially relevant, balanced with non pandering, and with aesthetic considerations.]

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet with two Filipino American graduate students, Rose Booker and Conrad Panganiban. They are both in the Creative Writing MFA program at SFSU. They will be my two right hands next semester at SFSU, where I will be teaching Filipino American Literature, Arts, and Culture. We talked about reading. We talked about challenging students to be active readers, to read critically. I told them about some of the great conversations I’ve been having with my USF Filipino Literature students, especially as we’ve just finished reading and discussing Manila Noir, a text populated by variously morally reprehensible human beings, citizens and denizens of Manila, characters intent upon doing harm, or doing nothing at all. We discussed the choices that the characters make, given their world and their position in it. We discussed the dark, and what occurs in the dark. What is hidden, what is invisible, who is invisible. What do they do about their invisibility? We discussed moral decay and entropy. Is there “value” to reading stories which are rife with violence and depravity, which do not end happily, and which do not portray “our people” positively?

How do we teach students to read outside of their own value systems? How to question assumptions? How to read characters, the world the characters occupy and the rules of that world, their relationships’ complexities, their intentions/motives. How to read the author’s construction of that world, and of those characters or voices or consciousnesses? How to assess the characters’ trajectories? How to handle their languages? When reading poetry, again about language — how not to take it for granted? How do we teach students the purposes of poetic form, the use of page, the use of imagery, and tone? How to foster discussion of a text, evaluation and assessment of a text, citation from a text? How then, when firmly grounded in the text, to link it back to the world, both what students know about the world, and are challenged in not knowing?

How do we encourage reading and discuss aesthetics and aesthetic choices within the context of social and political relevance?

How in art, no one thing is expendable. How this is like a car engine — each piece a working piece, each piece with purpose.

How do we read?

When did you learn how to read?

Of course, I do not mean, “when did you become literate.” Rather, I mean, who taught you to read critically? Who taught you to ask questions of the text?

(Related: can we read in an academic setting, and still have enjoyable reading experiences?)

Last night, I read this essay, “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading,” from The Chronicle of Higher Education. There’s a lot happening in this essay, but I admit to being saddened by what the title alone is telling me. I admit also to being disappointed that people do not necessarily read for deep meaning and deep understanding. Mostly, I am disappointed to know that many have not been taught to read critically. So my hope of students entering texts with curiosity, engaging texts, my hope of “cultivating readers” — is that idealistic?

A few things. Perhaps it’s my work as an author that has made me not fear text, that has made me not handle it as a distant object, and conversely, not to handle text with disdain and loathing — well-crafted text derided as bourgeois artifact, whose creators must be shamed for having aesthetic concerns. That reductive “art for art’s sake” thing, an accusation that was leveled against Jose Garcia Villa, for example, with little regard for how art, or capital-A Art, and its struggles with aesthetics, can be very much rooted in the real world, and possibilities for communication. Or a critique of that! For real, how seemingly impossible it is to communicate with even those we think of as our community!

Language and text are my working materials. Just like clay, wood, stone, acrylic paint, oil paint, watercolor, film, body.

Language is difficult, but so are clay, wood, stone, acrylic paint, oil paint, watercolor, film, body.

Language is difficult, especially for those who have had languages colonially imposed upon them, and this is all the more reason to foster critical reading in our community. But how to do this and not have it feel like a chore or strictly academic exercise. And how to do this and not have text be pandering, condescending, simplistic.

Final note for now, on how I select texts and materials for teaching. As above, not pandering or condescending. Not descending into sentimentality. Not dwelling in identity politics or overtaken by theory or rhetoric. And every piece of material I bring into my classroom, every single thoughtfully constructed piece of art and literature, is socially, politically, culturally, and/or historically relevant.


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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