I remember once, some years ago, I and other authors came as guest speakers to Willie Perdomo’s VONA Poetry class. A couple of the questions from students that I remember, and the discussions that stayed with me were as follows:
Why do you want to write books? Why is writing and having books published important to you? For me, my initial reaction was, why is this even a question? One of the other guest authors, Roger Bonair-Agard, responded by saying, “because it’s tradition.” Yes, this made all the sense in the world to me then, and it continues to be one of my go-to responses. I did think hard about why this tradition is important to me. Here’s my go at it:
As young people who think we have a knack for telling story, for composing verse, we inherit so much of this from our families. I don’t know if it’s because we have a particular “ear” for story, or sensitivity for where and how stories are being told in our families and by whom, but I think/I believe we grow up with something pulling (or pushing us) in that direction.
I remember all my little notebooks full of ditties and rhymes. I don’t know if this was actively encouraged, my keeping these notebooks, but it was surely not discouraged. Regular visits to the library and the bookstore were definitely encouraged. We had some books in the house. Not really “high literature,” but I don’t think that part mattered so much.
I just knew I came from a family who did read some books, and who did actively, enthusiastically make kuwento.
When I started to feel simultaneously attracted and frustrated by canonical literature in middle school and high school, I don’t know that I was feeling “pushed out” of the world of books and high literature, but I do remember trying so hard to find ways in. I don’t remember being particularly “good” at English class. I wanted to be an insightful reader, and to say deep, profound things about what I had read. I wasn’t there yet.
And when, in college, I found myself immersed in literatures of folks of color, immigrants, feminists, indigenous communities, things really clicked. I understood. I learned to articulate those deep profound things I’d always wanted to. I wanted this. Whether it was books by Amy Tan, or Maxine Hong Kingston, or Leslie Marmon Silko, or Gloria Anzaldúa, or Jessica Hagedorn, or Carlos Bulosan, or Audre Lorde, I wanted that. I was hungry for that.
Tracing some of these authors’ lineages brought me to The Beats, to Whitman, and so forth. And I was opened. I wanted that. When I finally connected with other aspiring and emerging writers of color, one thing we had in common was that hunger. We struggled to find our way into multiple literary worlds. Some of us struggled to better our craft.
The books I was reading became increasingly diverse (ethnically, aesthetically, etc.). I didn’t know much about the publishing industry, but I did know what poetry books I was actively seeking out and drawn to — poets whose books were published by New Directions Publishers, poets in translation published by Copper Canyon Press, and the City Lights Pocket Poets. I also knew that a lot of my literary Manangs and Manongs were getting published by Kearny Street Workshop. When Jaime Jacinto’s Heaven is Just Another Country dropped, I was there on the mic, a young college drop out serving as guest poet dropping some spoken word, thinking, I too could one day do what Jaime had just done.
When I was selling my first Kinko’s produced DIY chapbook out of my backpack at Bindlestiff Studio, before I ever went to grad school, Jaime Jacinto, along with Eileen Tabios and Marianne Villanueva, were there to receive it and to encourage me to keep at it.
A few years ago, I was in Seattle, and Jon Pineda and I were finding our way to a Seattle Filipino American literary event. We were talking about what our publishing prospects were, and I told him about City Lights. We both went, they published Howl. And then we had a fan-boy/fan-girl freak out. Though, today, I would also say, they published Juan Felipe Herrera. They published Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters. They are here, on the Left Coast, in San Francisco, the place which has defined me and my poetic voice and political values, and the city whose shadow I always felt concealed me. Right next to Manilatown. Boom. I am telling you where I would like to place myself in literary tradition.
Yes. Wanting to become a writer of books has everything to do with tradition. And everything to do with our love for the object called the book. Its thick card stock matte covers and thick off-white/cream stock interior pages, super clean serif font for the body text, spines’ perfect binding.
Keepsakes. Gifts. You always take them with you.
My home is filled with them. My ceilings are nine feet up. my walls are entirely covered with book shelves.
I was educated by veterans of the Third World Liberation Front, mentored by Kearny Street Workshop elders. I have made my home where the Black Panthers were birthed. I am here, in Oakland, working for the health of a growing, changing Chinatown community, especially its children, girls, and women. I am educating young Pinays to find their voices, and not to be afraid of how capable they are of working towards social change.
All of this is why I am an author of books.