On Teaching Filipinx Lit to Non-Lit Majors

The above flier is for this semester’s class (which we’re 10 weeks into), and which I am already thinking about how to amend for the next round.

Is three novels too much? Especially when the first two novels are America is in the Heart, and Dogeaters, both of which call for copious amounts of scaffolding. Certainly, in the case of Bulosan, we first read a selection of his essays and poems from On Becoming Filipino, so that is appropriate scaffolding itself. With Dogeaters, perhaps I need to think about which previous writings of Hagedorn can serve as appropriate scaffolding for the novel. We did read, “Homesick,” and an interview in the Missouri Review. Still, the novel was challenging to access on its own. Anyway.

These two novels take up the entire first half of the course. “Everything else” must fit the second half. This feels disproportionate, though I get it when my (non-literary) colleagues tell me, “But those are canon,” “But those are historically important.” This is why I have been asking exactly why is Dogeaters historically important for undergrads in 2017 to be reading. And if not, then what is an appropriate substitute.

This class is an upper division course in a Philippine Studies Program (i.e. not a department). On the organizational chart, I think students can major in Asian Studies with an emphasis in Philippine Studies? I’m not sure. Anyway, so my point is that it’s a tiny little corner in any university, in the very few American universities in which Philippine Studies even exists.

This is why I worked really hard to get those CORE requirements for my Filipino and Pinay Lit classes. Even though students always voice interest in taking these classes, the largest and most insurmountable obstacle is the very real need to graduate in a timely manner, which makes taking electives in one’s personal interests impossible, unless these classes are associated with those university breadth requirements.

That said, the students who enroll in my classes are rarely (if ever) literature majors. I rarely get humanities-focused students. They are usually in accounting, business administration, nursing, et al. All of which are perfectly good majors, but then I have to shift their brains to talking about literature deeply and in detail, rather than the kind of cultural and historical sweeps to which students have grown accustomed.

Most of my students tell me on the first day of class that they have enrolled in my classes because they want to learn about Filipino culture. I always think it’s an amazing thing, that they would go about doing so via a literature class. I suspect this has to do with them needing to take classes fulfilling breadth requirements. And this is totally great; I am so relieved we got the classes plugged into the university requirements, though dealing with curriculum committees was my least favorite but necessary thing I’ve had to do in my capacity as an adjunct professor.

To add: not only must I teach literature, and all things literary. I must teach within a Philippine Studies context. Though I understand the term “Philippine Studies,” within the context of traditional area studies, what we do as a program is really more aligned with how we teach in Ethnic Studies (such as, how I teach Filipino Literature within an Asian American Studies Department within an Ethnic Studies College at SFSU). Interdisciplinary, community-based.

That said, last night, we did have a good poetics discussion, while reading To Love as Aswang. We talked about poetic lines, and the significance of poetic techniques in deepening and complicating emotional understanding. When, for example, we are reading the poems, “To Give It to God,” and “To Bless the Meek,” where we’ve got two disparate voices/speakers, are we working somehow in the figurative mode, even the way metaphor works, sticking two different things together for the reader to draw the connections between the two things.

And really, the above was my preferred method while writing/constructing To Love as Aswang, both the book itself, and the poem of the same title, the joining of multiple voices in one poem, in some kind of dialogue with one another. So my students talked about these voices, and the positions of the speakers in relation to the Filipina. Deep inside, self-representing Pinay voice? Or external, someone viewing from a distance, making assessments and assumptions of the Pinay, and these assessments and assumptions based upon whose claims?

We also had a good discussion about pronouns, specifically, the “they,” and “we,” in “To Violate Convention.” And especially when tayo/kami do not have specific English counterparts, then who constitutes “we,” in that poem? Are we a part of that “we”; in other words, are we as Americans so distant from our wars, complicit in torture and committing acts of human atrocity? Can we pick and choose which “we” we belong to as Americans?

And then we talked about “Sweetie,” and the alliterative-s in combination with the short, singsong lines. Tongue twister and nursery rhyme, appropriate forms/mediums when trying to get into a childlike mindset. But then the dissonance as the poem’s subject matter is so difficult. This is another way of thinking about the joining of different perspectives or voices in a single poem, in order to deepen and complicate a reader’s emotional understanding.

Let me back up and say that the text which preceded To Love as Aswang on my syllabus was Lysley Tenorio’s Monstress. This is a great book — to read, to teach, to talk about. The characters’ relationships with one another and with their social worlds are both complex and clear in their complexity. I had told my students before entering the book, to focus on the narrators and protagonists, and their position in relation to the stories’ central conflicts/problems. And then to think hard about the choices they make. One story that really held our interest as a group was “The Brothers,” and then just talking about why the author would title that story that way, when one of the siblings was transgender, and that the story was about rejection and possible, eventual (posthumous) acceptance. There was so much questioning of the mother’s strong sense of hiya, something that a lot of students — including many of Filipino descent — just don’t understand. While I refuse to believe that our communities have worked it out and moved past our hiya, this is such an interesting thing I’ve encountered.

I was able to take the theme of the monstress, the female monster, the wife who initially takes a backseat with her own ambitions to support her husband’s public career, but who changes into a woman in America, thinking of her own career. This is the monstress in many ways, the woman and wife who no longer puts everyone before herself. This was helpful in transitioning into To Love as Aswang, and the many ways our communities historically label women as monsters, when we decide we no longer want to comply with those rigid, self-denying social standards.

So anyway, thanks for reading this brain dump. I am exhausted. It’s week 10. Next week, we’re talking about Jason Bayani’s Amulet. I am looking forward to how my students receive and read these poems. For the most part, I think these literary discussions with non-literature majors is going pretty well.

#AswangPoetics, Redux

I’d had this wonderful vision in my head, of a cadre of fierce Pinay writers and authors taking this #AswangPoetics thing, and running with it. Where? Well, wherever they needed to go. That all these fierce Pinay voices would unleash themselves fearlessly into curses and prayers. That so much amazing and necessary work would be written, published, and shared.

Lots of things have ended up taking a backseat to the constant outrage of this administration and its nonsense, shenanigans, and corruption. Lots of folks have ended up publicly shutting down, because social media has made these times unbearable to be connected.

That was something I was hoping would not happen.

I am a poet, I am a citizen, and I am a witness. I am an educator, and I am a mentor. I am a worker. My work consists of asking questions. My work consists of questioning convention and institution, social standards and expectations, and power. I am thinking about “problem.” I am thinking about complexity. What is explicit and implicit in language.

I am looking inside most of all. I am examining my work. Why I work. What I work for. What do I believe. This is one of my only remedies to clickbait, disinformation, and internet outrage.

This is what I believe. That our power as Pinay writers and authors is in our bravery to write what needs to be written, how it needs to be written, free of apology and pander. And if it is scary, that’s because it’s supposed to be scary. It has always been scary to speak, to voice the unpopular viewpoint, and to fight for its space. People ignore you, and so you must amplify. People want to be obstructive and destructive (thereby wholly bypassing constructive and instructive), and so you must either find another way — your own way, or you must move that shit right out of your path.

This is what I have tried my best to do. This is what I will continue doing.


On Teaching Filipina Literature

Texts pictured above are this course’s required readings: [top row, L-R] M. Evelina Galang, One Tribe. Erin Entrada Kelly, The Land of Forgotten Girls. Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons!  [bottom row, L-R] Angeles Monrayo, Tomorrow’s Memories. Barbara Jane Reyes, Invocation to Daughters. Janice Sapigao, microchips for millions.

On Teaching Filipina Literature. On Curriculum Development.

Janice Sapigao’s microchips for millions, and my forthcoming volume, Invocation to Daughters are additions to this 2017 syllabus. I had originally included Diwata, but I think, even though we do begin the semester discussing women’s pre-literacy and where these women’s narratives reside and thrive, the poetics of Diwata were a lot more than I could handle teaching this time around. This may have been the first time I’d brought this book into a lower division course. By contrast, I was teaching To Love as Aswang at SFSU, for upper division Filipino Literature class there. The response was energetic, and I believe this has to do with the book’s accessible poetic lines.

So then, Invocation to Daughters, I believe, will be the better alternative, because its lines are similarly clean and tight. Although, I would love folks’ input: is Invocation “accessible,” do the lines “help” with/for an undergraduate (lower division) reader who is not a literature major?

I think once the discussion of poetic line is in effect, once discussion of relevant languages/languages utilized is also in effect, then we can read microchips for millions, and discuss Janice Sapigao’s use of binary code, in poems set in the belly of Silicon Valley’s tech industries. And continue with discussions of women and labor, consistent throughout the course.

So these poetics discussions, and discussions about the lyric “I,” the lyric “we,” the Pinay lyric “we,” I always reserve for the end of the semester, once we’ve gotten the hang of more accessible narrative structures. Narrative, period. After spending the semester immersed in Pinay prose narrative “I,” in Filipino Core Values, Pinay bildungsroman, Pinay hero(ine)’s journey. We discuss Pinay graphic narrative and visual self-representation. We discuss Pinay YA literature, and then in general, how many young, liminal Pinay protagonists populate these works. The cultural and historical significance of this. Young Pinays speaking, telling their own stories, some in secrecy, some risking social consequences.

I believe I under-assigned the last time I taught this class! That’s a first for me, though it was timely, since we were experiencing the collective trauma of the last presidential election. I had some space for adjustments and accommodations to the class discussions.

One of the major adjustments I made was to jump into “decolonization,” “patriarchy,” “white supremacy,” and “intersectionality,” a lot more abruptly than I normally do. What can literature and art do? What can we do now that we don’t live in an Obama “paradise.” How can we take what we learn in university classrooms, and take action in our own personal lives? As one of my students wrote, “Who is Pinayism accessible to?” In other words, outside of our university communities, can we truly practice Pinayism, including pedagogical work, mentorship, teaching folks about what it is, why it’s important to discuss critically.

So it’s an intense class. it’s unapologetically feminist and Pinayist. I know a lot of students enroll in these classes because they claim to know little about being Filipino, and think of literature as a “way in.” Perhaps it is. Perhaps the “way in,” must always be intense like this.

Pinay Poetics, Persisting, Persisting, Walang Hiya

What I’m doing these days.

Well, I am starting to get itchy, restless again. Either from my addiction to jumping into shit and doing, related to my aversion to folks who are (culture that is) perpetually talking about what they’re planning to do. Or because where we’re at as a nation is vile, trashy, intolerable. Being an educator, and being in a field that is about coaxing people into creativity and thoughtfulness means something I should not be taking for granted or squandering.

I have been editing (curating) e-chapbook anthologies of political poetry; I — and many others — have been trying to open what “political poetry” is, what it means to write from a place of political consciousness, from a place of critical and historical awareness, from a place of personal inquiry and intersectionality. So far, one poetry e-chapbook anthology of Pilipinx political poetry, one of women’s political poetry with one more on the way. I want to take this  e-chapbook format to PAWA.

I like this “small” venue, and in general, I like the “small” poetry venue, the DIY ethic, independent of institutional prestige. I like the kinds of intense convergences of aesthetics and poetics that can happen there. Perhaps the term is cross pollination. But am also thinking of the metaphors I’ve been using for my students to understand some elements of the postmodern — mosaics, collages, fractures and fragments that force you to step far back to assess and understand the larger, more apparently cohesive picture.

I have poems and essays forthcoming in a whole bunch of diverse maybe even disparate types of publications both print and internet based, and it’s a matter of patience. I am grateful to be sought after by editors, to have my words mean something especially during such political difficulty. I was told that my bluntness, my clear calling out to the community to be accountable to one another is welcome. Yes, I am grateful, and I also think, finally, and if only this appreciation for my brand of honesty lasts.

Abigail Licad of Hyphen has just written high and critical and personal praise for Poeta en San Francisco, over a decade after its release, and I am reassured that my work is doing good things, reaching the people it needs to reach.

Invocation to Daughters is due for release in November, and its book description continues to floor me. It’s a tall order. I’m up for it. Can poetry matter. I have to believe it can.

Poem for Today: Carlos Bulosan, “Song for Chris Mensalvas Birthday”

Something I often think of, as a poet, this binary social attitude that poetry is both frivolous, excessive, then that poetry is so necessary, especially in times of strife and turmoil, such as now. As poets, we are tasked with taking the temperature of the room, and putting it down on the page with eloquence. And then as poets, we are accused of being too little in the world, too much in our own indulgent heads, not doing anything of social relevance because we are seen as sitting in our safe little writing studios, agonizing over muses and love. In the academic world, we aren’t seen so much, because we’re not perceived as doing any heavy lifting like those who toil over producing factual, institutionally sanctioned bodies of work.

If we are regarded, it is with disdain for being so “poetic,” elliptical, flippant, somehow un-serious because of the relative brevity of the poem, because of tone, because of the artfulness of the genre. And because of the oft-made error that even many academics make, that the “I” is not lyric and expansive, but personal and individual, hence small. And that the love poem is always a poem of personal and self-serving eros, certainly not of larger social significance, even when we are talking about Filipinos, guided by kapwa.

“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality… We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.” ~ Che Guevara.

That said, today’s Valentine’s Day poem is “Song for Chris Mensalvas’ Birthday,” by Carlos Bulosan.

Song for Chris Mensalvas’ Birthday

How many years did we fight the Beast together,
You in your violent way, in your troublous world,
I in my quiet way, with songs of love?

Over the years we fought apart and together,
Scarring our lives, breaking our hearts,
For the shining heart of a heartless world:

For the nameless multitude in our beautiful land,
For the worker and the unemployed,
For the colored and the foreign born:

And we won, we will win,
Because we for truth, for beauty, for life,
We fight for the splendor of love…

They are afraid, my brother,
They are afraid of our mighty fists, my brother,
They are afraid of the magnificence of our works, my brother,
They are even afraid of our songs of love, my brother.

So on this day of your birthday,
I am happy that the glissando of time has compacted,
At last,
Our early promises in that faraway city of our youth,
That I alone can totally remember,
That I alone can destroy with stroke of my hand:
So joy to your world and all that lives in it,
Joy, joy to your coming years,
Joy to your unrelenting heart and mind,
Joy to your brown hands that suffered so much,
More than mine did, having suffered another terror,
The terror of the mirroring soul:
Joy to your wife,
Joy to your children,
Joy to your friends,
Joy, joy, joy,
Joy to all the world,
And for all this joy let me have one little joy
To guide my mind that remembers her always,
The quiet little one that moved my heart
To remember, always to remember, the song of love…

They are afraid, my brother,
They are afraid of our mighty fists, my brother,
They are afraid of the magnificence of our works, my brother,
They are even afraid of our songs of love, my brother.