Pinay Lit: Origins and Evolution of the Course

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

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

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

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

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 We will read these texts as literature, as historical document, as testimony.

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

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

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

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

#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.

For Everyone Who’s Asking Me for Fil Am and Fil Diasporic Lit, Who’s Asking Me for my Syllabi, This List of 30 Books is for You

As ever, community folks are asking me for Filipino Lit titles, and telling me they wish they could take my classes because they don’t know what/who is out there. So I thought I would compile this list of the books I have taught, or currently teach for my Filipino and Pinay Literature classes for over the past decade.

  1. Alvar, Mia. In the Country.
  2. Barry, Lynda. One! Hundred! Demons!
  3. Bayani, Jason. Amulet.
  4. Bobis, Merlinda. Banana Heart Summer.
  5. Bobis, Merlinda. Cantata of the Woman Warrior Daragang Magayon.
  6. Brainard, Cecilia, ed. Growing Up Filipino II.
  7. Bulosan, Carlos. America is in the Heart.
  8. Carbó, Nick, ed. Returning a Borrowed Tongue.
  9. Carbó, Nick and Eileen Tabios, eds. Babaylan.
  10. de la Paz, Oliver. Names Above Houses.
  11. Galang, M. Evelina. One Tribe.
  12. Hagedorn, Jessica. Danger and Beauty.
  13. Hagedorn, Jessica. Dogeaters.
  14. Joaquin, Nick. The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic.
  15. Kelly, Erin Entrada. The Land of Forgotten Girls.
  16. Linmark, R. Zamora. Leche.
  17. Lo, Cheena Marie. A Series of Un/Natural Disasters.
  18. Mabanglo, Elynia S. Invitation of the Imperialist.
  19. Mapa, Lorina. Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos, and Me.
  20. Monrayo, Angeles. Tomorrow’s Memories.
  21. Nolledo, Wilfrido D. But for the Lovers.
  22. Panlilio, Yay. The Crucible: An Autobiography of Colonel Yay.
  23. Poblete, Pati. The Oracles.
  24. Realuyo, Bino. The Gods We Worship Live Next Door.
  25. Reavey, Amanda Ngoho. Marilyn.
  26. Reyes, Barbara Jane. To Love as Aswang.
  27. Reyes, Barbara Jane. Invocation to Daughters.
  28. Sapigao, Janice Lobo. microchips for millions.
  29. Suzara, Aimee. Souvenir.
  30. Tenorio, Lysley. Monstress.
  31. Villanueva, Marianne. Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila.
  32. Wilson, Ronaldo. Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man.

So, this does not count the numerous books I have excerpted, such as Carlos Bulosan, The Laughter of My Father and On Becoming Filipino, or the literary works available in online journals. What this is is a good starting point. Next semester, for Pinay Lit class, I will have new titles (TBA) on my syllabus. I do switch them out or cycle books through. My decision making is based on reader/student response, and also, my interest level. Of course, most important is the availability of books, if they are still in print, or if they are cost prohibitive.

I will also be proposing another course/developing a new curriculum for Filipino American Literature in the SF Bay Area. I haven’t started yet, but it’s on my radar to submit next semester for a 2019 start.

So there you go. Here are 30+ Filipino authored books to go read. Sige na.

With Praise for the Work of the Poets

There has been an ongoing theme in many of my poetry and poetics discussions — one of transformation.

Much of this comes up as we talk about process, at the same time we talk about ways of resisting consumerism, objectification. Ultimately, we try our best to keep in proper perspective this thing called “market,” and “industry,” which is ironic given that little money actually changes hands in the poetry industry.

But it’s also very real that we have a perception of capital and “worth,” in this industry. We have hierarchies of value in this industry. We acknowledge those we perceive as having “cachet.”

So, where does transformation, and transformative experience “fit” in this industry.

My grad students and I had been hinting at these things all semester, sensing that some works did something to us, and we tried our best to give that “something” words. Work that was “meaningful,” respectfully engaging its constituents, thoughtfully crafted and executed, had implications larger than what was presented on the pages, that had emotional resonances, such that readers came away from the work with more than when they entered it.

One of our senior faculty members came to visit our class, to observe my teaching this semester. We were reading Philip Metres’s Sand Opera that evening. Before our mid-seminar break, one of my grad students asked for their thoughts on Metres’s work — it’s an important distinction, our senior faculty member responded, the poet who transforms an experience, versus one who merely transcribes.

And all of our light bulbs went bright with our collective, “Aha.”

We already know of the kind of poetry that merely transcribes. We describe it as underwhelming and even pretentious. We describe the work ethic as lazy. I want to be generous though, and understand transcription as a preliminary part of the process. Yes, we do transcribe, the things we hear, words that strike us, that come from mass media, social media, popular culture, phrasings that make our ears perk up, clever bits of language we mishear or overhear in the world.

I keep a notebook full of these glimmers, intimations. Sometimes real gems of poetry come in these bits of brevity. Those are gifts.

And sometimes they remain just glimmers, with nothing added to them. Bits of untapped potential. Ephemera maybe, at best. Maybe the writer did not know, maybe the writer doesn’t know yet that the glimmer is just the beginning, and that in order for a glimmer of an idea to become poetry, the real poetic work must be done.

This is where I make my confession. I have a major peeve — those who pass off as the most profound poetry what are really just their clever bits of language and observation, transcribed onto the page like mass printing fortunes to stuff into cookies, those who think these fortune cookies are enough; poetry is that cheap, easy, and mass produced for immediate consumption and utility.

Poetry is art object, this I believe. Art objects, exquisitely crafted — here, I think of Jaime Jacinto, Fatima Lim-Wilson, Marjorie Evasco, Merlinda Bobis, Angela Narciso Torres. Just gorgeous to behold, and insisting on being rooted in our social realities. But it’s also true a lot of exquisitely crafted art objects are beyond our reach, inaccessible. That’s not necessarily my cup of tea, though also, “inaccessible” is a relative term.

There are found objects whose beauty and intricacies others have discarded/disregarded. The poet elevates this, transforms it into art or transforms our perception of it by offering different angles/views. Here, I think of the deceptively simple, street-level poetry of Al Robles and Tony Robles. And I also think of Amanda Ngoho Reavey’s re-purposed official documents, and Janice Lobo Sapigao’s rewriting of Silicon Valley. I kind of think of myself in this category as well.

And then there is kitsch. I won’t name names, because that would be mean. And it would be equally mean to not include these as a kind of poetry, though I am tempted. I suppose “kitsch” is also a relative term. But I feel like kitsch, stuff that takes up space, is akin to this transcription. Little risk has been taken.

As a palate cleanser, I will end with this poem from Fatima Lim-Wilson, from her collection, Crossing the Snow Bridge (Ohio State University Press, 1995).

The Dangers of This Craft
by Fatima Lim-Wilson

For your own good, do not claim to be a poet.
-Advice of a well-meaning friend.

How we sing, even as we are boiled alive.
Those who torment us strain to sustain
our last notes. In a landscape
of sameness, our crooked towers scrape
sensibilities, the well-trained eye.
Why, when starved, do we thrive?
Remembrance of childhood’s bread
rising. The taste of dulcified
droppings of air. Our well-
meaning friends beg us, please,
speak in the measured tones
of the mediocre. Show off
our mastery of muteness,
the ambidextrous virtuosity
of work-stained hands. Let
those knitting needles, heavy
handled axes fly. Why must
we hear voices? See the moving
parts of still objects? And so,
we insist we no longer see
through white-washed walls.
We confess our dreams of flying
have ceased. We scheme,
the miracle of money keeping us
awake. Our pleasure lies
in memorizing the exactness
of recipes. We are found to be
most eloquent when quiet, even
as we argue happily with the teeming
inhabitants opening doors in our heads.
We stare seemingly unmoved at the fire
of our burning books, all the while
enthralled, reading secrets in the flames.
They think they’ve killed us off
even as somewhere, everywhere, a child
recalls the beat of the ocean womb.
They dance upon our tombs, unaware
of how they have fallen
victim to the rhythm
of our singing bones.

My Year (Or Two) Of Reading Poetry

I have been meaning to sum up my past couple of years of reading and teaching full length volumes of poetry, in both MFA settings, and undergraduate Philippine Studies and Asian American Studies settings. Part of this is thinking about what works elicited strong response, what works presented some good challenges, poetically, politically. So here goes, in alpha order.

  1. Jason Bayani, Amulet. This poetry is a sometimes unexpected seaming together of high poetic diction and traditional poetic form, intense spoken East Bay, Fil Am, and Hip hop colloquialism. I like it because it speaks to the inhabiting of multiple worlds our community’s poets must deal with on the regular. There’s little taking or putting on airs here; it just is, and that is great. My undergrads and I love the familiarity of Bayani’s voice, poetic and not so poetic spaces. Whether my undergrads realize it, there’s a confessional element to Bayani’s poetry, which is something to which they gravitate. When I first taught this book in Fil Am Lit classes at SFSU and USF, I had a lot of students who came from Fremont, and so this collection was so easy for them to anchor themselves to, and hence, dig into its emotional content. For such a masculine work, we discuss, it is indeed quite emotional.
  2. Safia Elhillo, The January Children. This collection to me, is really well-organized and well-contained. As a “brown girl,” I read this work as an antithesis and antidote to the unfortunate over-simplicity of Rupi Kaur. Elhillo is comprehensive, in carving out the confusion and ambivalence of being a citizen of in-between spaces, not “African” enough, not American enough, not black enough, too brown, mixed up with mother tongue and adopted/imposed tongue. The series of poems to Abdelhalim Hafez serve as a place for revising and perfecting her ideas on beauty and gender expectation. Here, her speaker pleads her case; this is how she may be the ideal groupie to the heartthrob celebrity, i.e. this is how she may be beautiful and dutiful. I like this both sincere and ironic voice. The questioning is genuine and must be so. And sometimes, most times, answers and resolutions aren’t easy.
  3. Cheena Marie Lo, A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters. A group of my undergrads in Filipino Literature really took to this work, especially around Lo’s repetition of “Poor black…” for driving home what should be the obvious point of who was most affected by Hurricane Katrina, which is something Americans as a whole take for granted or do accept, but only in the abstract. Other undergrads in this class were so curious and disturbed about Lo’s use of decontenxtualized numbers and data. What was this about? For them, there was a certain amount of openness about this being death tolls, property damage, et al. That Lo’s decontextualization made a point about dehumanization. My grad students were more critical about the position of the speaker, so far away, like most of us, sitting at our computer screens and watching events unfold via social media. I kind of think this was the point. Anyway, I am drawn to Lo’s work for its deceptive sense of order amidst disorder.
  4. Layli Long Soldier, Whereas. Here, my students and I talk about the importance and the uselessness of language and grammar, even at its most precise. Akin to Philip Metres, Long Soldier examines that language of official document, in this case, the uselessness, the emptiness of the congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans in 2009. For me, for many of my students, the anchor of this collection is “38,” which drives home Long Soldier’s acutely critical commentary on the specificity of grammar, and on selective historic omission. Some of the concrete poems were originally lost on me, and when I look at them again, I still think I may be missing something. For sure though, this work is effectively stark in its depiction of native impoverishment, and there’s a tone of hopelessness that I can barely manage. It is an emotionally difficult read.
  5. Philip Metres, Sand Opera. This work pushes the limits of what a poet can do with page, pushes the poem into actual physical space. My grad students and I loved that about Metres, who offers multiple ways of reading, through erasure and redaction, which push us as readers to figure out how to fill in those disturbing spaces. How else are we able to read about torture, and how else may a human being write about it. What is an “appropriate” and adequate response. How to take on this impossible task, how to encounter and engage the official documents, and still maintain and centralize this threatened humanity. We discussed the position of the speaker, an American of Arab descent, an American citizen, a resident of the middle of the USA, the father of a USA-born child of Arab descent; what is at stake for this person. Everything is at stake for this person.
  6. Rajiv Mohabir, The Cowherd’s Son. It was fortuitous that I did have a student of South Asian descent who was able to point to Mohabir’s use of language, a specific dialect from a specific part of South Asia. This student was also able to explain Mohabir’s knowledge of Indian epics, via a vital and lovely talk story, via the speaker’s grandmother and elders, not formally schooled, comprising the labor class in the West Indies. This kind of specificity enabled us to go in on the creole to compare and contrast different versions of story, given the contextual translations Mohabir provides. It’s amazing how much we are able to understand, if intuitively, and really love about the voice of Mohabir’s speaker, and his insistence of centering his family/home language and narrative.
  7. Amanda Ngoho Reavey, Marilyn. I love this work. My undergrads definitely needed some guidance through it, but Reavey’s inclusion of official documents really helped them; it gave them a way to see how one loses their ties to ethnicity, and so then they can begin to appreciate the work and struggle of Reavey’s speaker. So much of teaching Fil Am Lit is about identity, and this work pushes way beyond conventional community expectation on the identity question. I encourage them to think of themselves as mosaics, to think of each tessera that comprises them, to think of what happens to the whole when so-called small pieces of them are taken away and replaced with other things. How may a person reassemble themselves, and what does that new picture look like. And what if it doesn’t resemble the original.
  8. Tony Robles, Fingerprints of a Hunger Strike. I am part way through reading this, and I have yet to teach it in near-future iterations of Fil Am Lit. I love the tonal shifts, as we see with Tony Robles’s lines, abrupt and clipped, in repetition, then flowing, reflecting prose. I love Robles’s voice, and the surface simplicity of his verses. He gives us a ton of things to think about, especially about our own privilege, and how we may freely move through this embattled San Francisco that is going extinct, when others cannot. Perhaps it’s an obvious statement to say that Tony Robles writes in the tradition of Manong Al Robles. But now we have to think critically about what this means, for a Frisco Pinoy poet to move through his city, to witness very keenly, to be necessary scribe and mouthpiece, to act for the people.
  9. Janice Lobo Sapigao, microchips for millions. One common element between Sapigao’s and Reavey’s works is the visual element. In Sapigao’s case, we are looking at maps, we are looking at binary code/language, and we are looking at microchips. One of my undergrads pointed out, this is a kind of poetic imagery, but with literal image. Yes. When we look at maps of toxic clouds covering Silicon Valley, do we think of ourselves, our homes, our families in proximity to it. I do. Additionally, there is a young speaker here, trying to reconcile the much touted glamour and wealth of Silicon Valley, with the overworked, aging immigrant mother. This is a work of a Pinay daughter centering, exalting the immigrant woman workforce, who have been systematically discouraged from fighting for their rights as workers. These are the people who have made Silicon Valley as great as it is, and so let us not erase the toll this work has taken on their bodies, their exposure to toxins and radiation. Another student says, there is revolutionary potential in this work.
  10. Javier Zamora, Unaccompanied. There is some beautiful lyricism here, that works its way (logically) towards starkness, what I think of as an anti-lyrical conclusion. The memory and the trauma in this work is gut-wrenching, gut-punching, and exhausting, necessarily so. There’s little room for nostalgia, which I think is also a reader expectation for the works of migrants and exiles; among American readers, there’s little idea of what “refugee” means, the gravity of the word. And so I read these poems, looking for light and beauty wherever I can, hoping for these things for Zamora’s speaker; in the homeland and in the fleeing is so much terror, and even the mangoes and the estuaries fill me with fear. I don’t know how else to explain it.