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 We will read these texts as literature, as historical document, as testimony.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

40 Pinay and Pinxy Books for Gifting!

Hello all, I have crowd sourced many Pinay and Pinxy, non-binary identified writers and students via my trusty social media, to see who they are reading, whose books they recommend and support, especially as we are thinking of gifts for our friends and loved ones. Here are 40 titles which we have collectively come up with:

  1. Alidio, Kimberly, after projects the resound.
  2. Alvar, Mia, In the Country.
  3. Asuncion, Hossannah, Object Permanence.
  4. Barrett, Kay Ulanday, When the Chant Comes.
  5. Barry, Lynda, The Good Times are Killing Me.
  6. Bautista, Michelle, Kali’s Blade.
  7. Bobis, Merlinda, Accidents of Composition.
  8. Bobis, Merlinda, Locust Girl: A Lovesong.
  9. Brainard, Cecilia Manguerra, The Newspaper Widow.
  10. Buell, Evangeline Canonizado, Twenty-Five Chickens and a Pig for a Bride.
  11. Cruz, Rachelle, God’s Will for Monsters.
  12. De Jesus, Noelle, Blood: Collected Stories.
  13. Galang, M. Evelina, Lolas’ House.
  14. Ibardaloza, Aileen, Traje de Boda.
  15. KABUWANAN: An anthology of works by women komikera.
  16. Kelly, Erin Entrada, The Land of Forgotten Girls.
  17. Kelly, Erin Entrada, Hello Universe.
  18. Llagas, Karen, Archipelago Dust.
  19. Mapa, Lorina, Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos, and Me.
  20. Melnick, Lisa Suguitan, #30 Collantes Street.
  21. Miscolta, Donna, Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories.
  22. Molina, Feliz Lucia, Undercastle.
  23. Montes, Veronica, Benedicta Takes Wing.
  24. Newhard, Christine, Amina and the City of Flowers.
  25. Newhard, Christine, Kalipay and the Tiniest Tiktik.
  26. Ortuoste, Jenny, Fictionary.
  27. Peñaredondo, Angela, All Things Lose Thousands of Times.
  28. Pimentel, Sasha, For Want of Water.
  29. Reavey, Amanda Ngoho, Marilyn.
  30. Respicio, Mae, The House That Lou Built.
  31. Reyes, Barbara Jane, Invocation to Daughters.
  32. Rutledge, Renee Macalino, The Hour of Daydreams.
  33. Sapigao, Janice Lobo, microchips for millions.
  34. Sapigao, Janice Lobo, like a solid to a shadow.
  35. St. Jo, Westley and Remé Grefalda, Blue.
  36. Tabios, Beatriz Tilan, Dawac and Other Memoir-Narratives.
  37. Tabios, Eileen R., The Thorn Rosary.
  38. Tabios, Eileen R., Manhattan: An Archaeology.
  39. Ty-Casper, Linda, A River: One-Woman Deep.
  40. Vengua, Jean, Prau.

Processing through Alex Tizon’s story about “Lola” Eudocia Tomas Pulido

By now, everyone is talking about the late Alex Tizon’s story, “Our Family’s Slave,” which was just published yesterday, posthumously (Tizon passed away in March) over at The Atlantic.

I won’t plot summarize; it’s a lengthy story and well worth the read. It’s a difficult read. Folks are feeling defensive, indignant, triggered, confused. Folks are quarreling, shaming, name-calling, weeping and straight up ugly crying, but yes, they are (for the most part) reading this.

I am not writing this to chastise anyone for their response to Lola’s story.

First, yes. Lola has a name. Eudocia Tomas Pulido. Say her name.

I want to think through a couple of points of view here. I am a teacher of Pinay Literature. The core of my work is to center Pinay narrative, lyric, and epistemology. I am an author, and as Carlos Bulosan wrote in “The Writer As Worker,” “the writer must participate with his fellow man in the struggle to protect, to brighten, to fulfill life.”

I am struggling with Tizon’s story, and I start with language.

“Lola,” means grandmother in Tagalog. Eudocia Tomas Pulido was not the writer’s grandmother, though her role was to mother, and to serve. Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s story is a story of uncompensated reproductive labor, and it exists within the Philippine historical context of colonialism, feudalism, and patriarchy.

I had not heard the term “utusan,” to describe human beings. I know the word, “katulong,” who work in the homes of the wealthy and the middle-class. I admit my naivete, in not knowing of the “utusan.” I admit also, that I know little about the “katulong,” except that my extended family in the Philippines has always had “katulong” in their homes.

If you are reading this, you might want to shout at me; you may be judging me for “giving Tizon a pass.” I am not giving him a pass. I am trying to work through a lot of complex emotions and responses I am having to this story. If the kind of dialogues happening right now are an indication of a story’s success, then this story is a success.

I want to be clear on this: One thing that is apparent to me is that this story is Tizon’s story. I also believe Tizon could only write Tizon’s story, from his own point of view. This is not to say there is no possibility of honoring Eudocia Tomas Pulido, though I use the word, “honoring,” with some amount of reticence.

Does this story honor her? I am not sure. I think this story was Tizon’s way of working through the shame and guilt of owning a human being. There are readers who are saying Tizon did not do enough, and did not do it soon enough. There are readers saying he glorifies his own position as a master, paints himself as a benevolent master.

As a writer, I will say that we back away from writing because it is hard. Stories like this must be told. In my world, Eudocia Tomas Pulido would be able to tell her own story. But also in my world, we come to resent writers for not doing what we expect them to do, make the difficult understandable. We come to resent writers, not knowing exactly how difficult it is to do this. Some writers stop trying; the anticipated backlash already being a deterrent to even getting started. And then some writers try their best.

I believe Tizon tried. Did he fail?  If his reason for writing this story was to humanize Eudocia Tomas Pulido, maybe he failed. In my world, Eudocia Tomas Pulido would be able to tell her own story as a human being with a voice.

But as writers, should we then not attempt to write these stories?

I do not want to valorize Tizon; I will not say he is brave for coming forward with this story of modern day slavery in his own home. I do not want to valorize the master; to do so would be to valorize generations of class-based and gender-based institutional violences. I do want to give him credit as a writer, for attempting to tell this story.

As a teacher of Pinay Literature, in which we center Pinay voices which have been silenced, or squelched before the Pinay can even take a breath and think of the first words she may say on her own behalf, I want to think about whether there are any places in which Eudocia Tomas Pulido tells her own story, even if in flickers and small moments. If these exist, then they are not so small.

Alice Walker wrote in “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” of the many places women tell their stories, when they have been systematically denied access to literacy and education, much less any kind of autonomy, ability to make decisions for their own lives and destinies. I have been combing through this story for those places where Eudocia Tomas Pulido conveys her own narrative — which, of course, is filtered through Tizon’s narration. Tizon did not own Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s narrative, but it is through his filter that her narrative becomes known to us.

Eudocia Tomas Pulido was a human being who never had the opportunity to narrate her own story. Eudocia Tomas Pulido was a human being who never had the opportunity to choose her own path. I do not absolve Tizon and his family, for they were the central beneficiaries of her servitude. My sadness, the kind of mourning I seem to be experiencing stems from knowing Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s voice, her narrative will always be filtered through others with more power than she ever had.

I think also of Tizon’s mother, who, for lack of a better term, is the “villain,” of this story. I want to think about the relationship between Tizon’s mother and Eudocia Tomas Pulido. Did the mother ever experience the kind of guilt that Tizon appeared to experience? With my students, we discuss Pinayism, and the social, historical, and cultural barriers which prevent Pinays from connecting with one another. In this world, we are bred, conditioned to take one another down. What does it take to subvert this? A lot of work of seeing and understanding that the patriarchy needs us to never form solidarities with one another.

As a counterpoint, I have been thinking of the narratives I do present and discuss with my Pinay Literature students — those of Whang Od and Lang Dulay. I am thinking of the narratives of Mary Jane Veloso, Jennifer Laude, Izabel Laxamana, Norife Herrera Jones.

I think of the work so many have attempted, as journalists, activists, advocates, artists, and writers so that these Pinays’ narratives are centered, and may speak on their own behalf. I am thinking of Yay Panlilio Marking, Angeles Monrayo, Helen Rillera. I am thinking of Sister Mary John Mananzan, Marjorie Evasco, Xyza Cruz Bacani, Ninotchka Rosca, M. Evelina Galang, Jean Vengua, Melissa Roxas.

I think of myself as one Pinay advocate among these Pinay advocates, and as a work in progress in centering Pinay narrative, lyric, epistemologies. I think this work is hard. I think if we attempt it as we do, we will experience failure. I think this failure should not deter us from this work.

So this is what I am thinking this morning.

Critical Pinayisms: Panel of Pinay Artists and Writers at SFSU

Critical Pinayisms. Photo by Valerie Francisco-Menchavez.

Thank you to Maria Vallarta for curating this fantastic panel of Pinay/Pilipinx writers and artists for the National Association for Ethnic Studies Conference at SFSU.

My co-panelists were Angela Peñaredondo, Melissa Sipin, and Karen Villa, and all of us discussed our processes of critical thinking, about practice and praxis in our respective genres. There is so much here, so rather than rehash the amazing and important work each of us is doing, I wanted to talk about a question from Professor Valerie Francisco-Menchavez, about the burden of representation, the reticence and difficulty in telling stories of Pinays — lives and bodies — that have endured trauma, some that have not survived. If you look closely at Valerie’s photo above, you will see in the bottom panel, a list of names that I wrote on the white board:

Jennifer Laude

Izabel Laxamana

Norife Herrera Jones

Julieta Yang

Mary Jane Veloso

I told the attendees/audience to Google these names. And I said a few things about each of them. These are some of the Pinays who inhabit the pages of Invocation to Daughters.

Some background: when I was in college in the 1990s, the names were Flor Contemplacion, and Sarah Balabagan. Filipino women who had fought back against their abusive employers and suffered the consequences of doing so. I told the attendees that when I was an aspiring writer, there were so few Pinays publishing; a full length book authored by a single author who was Pinay was so rare, and so when Jessica Hagedorn became known to me, her very existence made my career as a Pinay author possible. And then some years later, Catalina Cariaga’s book Cultural Evidence was published. Her poem, “Excerpts from Bahala Na!” had Flor Contemplacion at the center, as the speaker sifted through media sound bytes, advertising, emails, and ethnographic text, for any tiny bit of information about Flor’s fate.

I am part of this continuity of Pinay authors, artists, and scholars, working to sift through both the noise of mass media, and its sensationalized and biased reporting of these Pinay lives and/or deaths. If they are reported at all.

To the list of the Pinays I provided, we may add the two Pinays who were central to Karen Villa’s work:

Jacqueline Toves

Abigail Tapia

The challenge is always going to be in the telling. There will probably always be disagreement about how. But it is always necessary that telling happens. This is a point I will not negotiate.

Valerie’s question ultimately came down to how we tell these stories without perpetuating the victim narrative, the suffering Pinay stereotype. In response, Angela talked about complexity and nuance, we all agreed it was about honoring their humanity in our work. I discussed the stereotype being that of erasure, silence, and invisibility. Are these Pinays’ stories ever even told in the first place? I said also it becomes about perspective, and direct address. Asking, addressing. Placing these Pinays in the center of the narrative not as objects to be examined and spoken about, but as people to be asked, to be spoken to as humans are spoken to.

I think this is something we can “get away with” in creative work. We can speak to our “subjects,” cast them as heroines, open space for them to speak.

I am thinking of Valerie’s question some more, and am troubled by the assumptions of thesis and dissertation advisors to caution our Pinay scholars about perpetuating victim narrative, especially when there’s so much erasure and invisibility, and young scholars really trying to figure out how to do right by these Pinays. There’s the horrible truth of their experiences that must be spoken, and we must get past our fear of, aversion to unpleasantness — here, I would like to add the discussion of the ugliness that was a common thread in all our presentations. And as we hone our skills as writers, as we become much more adept at craft, we can better handle this terribleness with compassion and sensitivity — otherwise the work becomes suffering porn and cliché.

Do we own these stories? I don’t think I do. Their stories don’t belong to anyone but them. We are all just doing our part in their telling.

#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.