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 We will read these texts as literature, as historical document, as testimony.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.

#APAHM #APIAHeritageMonth: Time for Some Author Introspection

APIA Heritage Month is drawing to a close. I don’t know that I accomplished much out there, in the big world, apart from surviving my last semester of teaching an enormous Filipinx Lit class. I did a cluster of book events, readings, which were difficult for me; my voice cracking and my being breathless throughout, and so I have been thinking about this difficulty.

Invocation to Daughters is a hard book. I have so much in it I am so emotionally close to. There is also a bluntly stated brutality in it that is hard to read aloud to audiences, and to discuss with students. This brutality is contained in what I worked really hard to make poetically sound, and even manageable. Yes, this is the power of poetry, to make appear manageable what is not … and should not be?

To Love as Aswang was also filled with brutality, but my emotional stake in the material was a lot less intense, mostly political and artistic questions. The reach of this book was considerably “smaller” than Invocation and so discussion felt contained. It has also appealed to a different kind of reader of poetry, perhaps someone who never considered themselves a reader or subject of literary works.

I don’t know that I had this kind of emotional difficulty with Poeta en San Francisco, speaking of farther reach. I was so young in the industry, and at a place where I could still be so brave, precisely because I was young, and the most difficult thing happening in my life at the time was student debt. I had a lot of energy to be “out there,” defending my shit and arguing hard on my own behalf. I had a lot of confidence in rallying “allies” as well. I thought fracas made my work cool, that it was a measure of its success.

Yes, bravery and difficulty are what I want to talk about here, and “success” too. I see when other writers and authors shrink from public view. Being in the public view is not safe. It’s almost counterintuitive , to put all your shit on blast, and appear perfectly comfortable discussing this with total strangers. For me, that’s all performative. You’re on a stage, enacting your public persona. There may be pieces of that public persona that approximate your true self (whatever that is), but it sure gets difficult over time to be in that performative space.

I am going to say, that for WOC, for Filipinx Americans in public, literary spaces, it takes a toll, all of this white supremacist, all of this patriarchal crap to which we are called upon to respond. All of this, how to make people care about this work, when we know that in life outside of literature, they will never give a fuck about people like us, much less, what we have to say when we are speaking on our own behalf.

It becomes even more exhausting when you are called to “battle” against, to answer to folks in your own communities, who disapprove of your work and its execution, and in life outside of literature, they’d just as soon avoid people like you.

So I am here, exhausted by this work, and the stupid lines drawn across our so-called POC and APIA communities, where we end up being on the side of wrong, for not staying inside socially acceptable lines, as per the Filipinos who chide me for my anti-colonial and anti-patriarchal anger.

While for a while I felt like I could open my personal me to the poetry, which the readers I was trying to reach seem to respond well to, I am now here, after I read, “The Day,” having had strangers in public spaces open up to me to tell me about their grieving, which is beautiful and difficult to do in crowded rooms of people I don’t know. I have also had strangers tell me to my face that I could have done more to keep my father alive. Who the fuck are you, telling me this to my face like you know me and my family. Fuck you and your armchair judgment. Why do you think you can do this. And this too, is the beauty and difficulty of poetry.

Perhaps these are ways of telling that the poetry is effective, and perhaps you will tell me I must weigh the “good” and the “bad.” That it evens out in the end, that it is a good problem to have, people in public talking about your work, talking to you about your work, responding to your work because they took the time to listen to you. I am inclined to agree, but I also know it’s wearing me down.

I have been asking myself whether I should want to continue sharing these deepest, most honest things in my work, and it is making me uncertain, where I want my next manuscript to go when it finally leaves my hard drive. What will it, and I, go through, once it’s in the world. I see why other writers go the route of the clever and the quirky as a kind of social protection. I see it, I get it, and I also hate it, seeing POC writers having to make themselves socially neuter as a strategy, or falsely transcendent, looking obviously disingenuous. I think this too, is the opposite of bravery.  I can’t help but think, might this also stunt the growth of the work.

I don’t have a tidy resolution here. I’m just in this space, and I don’t know yet what to do with it. I know readers in my community who want honesty and social relevance, not cleverness and artifice, and I love that about them. And I want to keep bringing it.

#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.

#NationalPoetryMonth: Brown Girl: A Glossary of Terms

Brown Girl: A Glossary of Terms

Internal Colonialism
In the story, children who bite their tongues eat a porridge of falsehood til they are fattened little piggies. In the story, ladies who say yes are locked in wrought, jeweled cages. They dance to the tune of Taylor Swift covering Earth, Wind & Fire, and they say, this is just fine.

They want to take this word away from you. They want you to explain why you look Asian, when your name is clearly Spanish. They want to bring you Jesus, even though they see your people nailing themselves to crosses on Good Friday. Moreover, they think they brought you light bulbs, feminine hygiene products, and feminism. They love your fine white sand beaches. They think your whole nation is one of military bases and air conditioned shopping malls, and fine white sand beaches made for them. They need you to clean their houses and raise their babies. They don’t even pay you minimum wage to change their elders’ adult diapers. They don’t accept that you are from Oakland. They don’t accept that you have a nation they did not name.

White Privilege
In the story, the hero is always light-eyed and fair-haired. The distressed damsel is as well. Of course, he is meant to claim her. Of course, they are meant to have the brightest babies. See them banish the dark from their domain. See them build their castles of light where our dark children play. Our dark bodies and tongues will be outlaw. Our dark gods as well. See the hero thrust himself upon his dark maidservants. See those dark maidservants silenced. See how wreched and ratchet, all their dark offspring. Hear the chorus of “not all white people.” Hear the chorus of “all lives matter.”

You know what annoys me? People who won’t see the through line from Joe Bataan to Bruno Mars. You ever wonder about the sound of a poet rappin’ with ten thousand carabaos in the dark? You ever eat fish and rice with your hands, off styrofoam plates, in a hole in the wall, South of Market Street? You ever roll down your windows while speeding down Highway 101, to smell the Pajaro River? What if that’s the poem, and you missed it, because you were looking for something roseate and effete.

Do you know yourself, Pinay? Do you name yourself, Pinay? This name was made here, born here, American as you, your SPAM cans, and your balikbayan boxes. American as the jeepney. American as your father’s favorite Applebee’s on Farwell in Fremont. Do you cringe when your people don’t translate — have you Googled “cultural cringe”? I fucking hate that term. Do you know that Prego® commercial daughter, pleading, “English please,” for her white lover, at a table full of titas and pinsans? That fabled Filipina hospitality, so much giving unto others until you are shoeless, penniless, mute and hollowed out. Hija, you ain’t Jesus, multiplying fishes and loaves.

Hella indigenous, which does not mean gone native. Kakayahan umunawa sa damdamin ng iba, for real. You know, like Ruby Ibarra and one hundred Pinays giving you resting bitch face. You know, like those syndicated, full color photographs, of boys and men in LeBron James and Steph Curry jerseys, thinned flipflops on their feet, one body together, shouldering a nation. One bamboo hut at a time. One set of lungs breathing. One heart. Isang mahal. Isang bagsak.

For AAAS: “Gaps” between Asian American Literary Scholars and Literary Community

So, I am on a panel this Friday re: the above-mentioned “gap” between Asian American Literary Scholars and Literary Community. So I want to step back from any emotional arguments that as an educator, I usually hear/am the recipient of: “I am an Asian/Filipino American writer; why don’t you teach my work?” Similarly, any “list” I put out there for a literary body, or even on my own website/blog is met with a “You didn’t include so-and-so,” “You didn’t include me.”

There’s a lot of assumption and expectation loaded into those statements/complaints.

I used to feel obligated to respond to each complaint, to explain in painstaking detail my process, my criteria I have for the works I ultimately select for course adoption. And I do believe it’s important to be very clear, transparent with criteria, parameters.

This is, I guess, the gist of my spiel for tomorrow.

I accept that the interests of the scholars and the interests of the artists don’t always intersect, nor should they necessarily intersect.

Our industry, specifically as American poets, is a fast-moving one. We can publish pretty rapidly. But even before tackling the relative velocity of poetry publishing, let me say I see in contemporary poets on my radar, how fast their/our poetics and bodies of poetry can also grow. Whether it’s because of being open to constant pop culture and social media exposure, or being open to the constant onslaught of new publication and new media, poetry, “Contemporary American Poetry,” grows and changes fast.

Is it just “what we do” as poets. I think of “taking the temperature,” of a current moment, what informs the current moment, what language is being used and changed in the current moment. How is this all linked to the larger condition.

I can’t assume to know what scholars do, and why they do it. Some work in historical recovery. Some work in specific historical periods and specific historical and social phenomena. Those kinds of scholarly works would not necessarily include contemporary poetics and contemporary literature.

I can say a few things about literary scholars who have engaged my work. To date, the work most frequently engaged, most currently engaged, is Poeta en San Francisco, a book which I wrote around 2003-2004, and which was published in 2005. Timothy Yu and Jane Wong are two Asian American literary scholars who have engaged this work. And perhaps it’s more accurate to say, literary scholars who are Asian American, for whom my poetry coincides with their research. I also think that because Yu and Wong are also poets in addition to being scholars, we have intersecting concerns. Thea Quiray Tagle is another scholar, though not specializing in literary scholarship, who is Asian American, specifically Filipino American, who has written about Poeta en San Francisco. Craig Santos Perez, a Chamoru poet and scholar, has also written about my work via interview and book review, and I feel like he has done so outside of his academic research’s scope, as a poet engaging another poet — i.e. as the way we practice poetry community and literary citizenship.

Since the publication of Poeta en San Francisco, over a decade has passed, and I have had three poetry chapbooks and three full length poetry collections published, all of which have built upon some aspect of Poeta. Who knows if my subsequent work will ever be so actively written about.

I know of only one scholar who’s taken on my body of work in some kind of trajectory — Martin Joseph Ponce, who had included Poeta en San Francisco in his Beyond the Nation: Diasporic Filipino Literature and Queer Reading. He has written about a substantial cross section of my work for the forthcoming American Poets in the 21st Century: Poetics of Social Engagement, after being specifically solicited to do so. I feel like this is a rare thing, this larger cross examination of the work of a living, mid-career, contemporary poet.

And so, I think what I am coming to is that what we two different parties do are wildly different things. Any expectation to be included without any consideration for the specifics of one’s work would be based on identity politics. And this will only take you so far.