Success and Failure in Po-Biz: What I am talking about

Invocation to Daughters, City Lights Spotlight No. 16.

I just posted two things on Facebook the other day. The first was about “success” in this industry: My idea of success is to write and publish what I want, where and how I want. To teach what I want, where and how I want. To live comfortably (not struggle to barely make ends meet), to have my own time and space, to have family who – for the most part – get it, and respect my space and aspirations, and who – for the most part – share my political values. To have my motivations be my own.

The second was about “failure.” Yesterday, I verbalized for the first time that I believe To Love as Aswang is/was ultimately a failure.

Some background. It took me an uncharacteristically long time to write Aswang.

A large part of this long time was about a kind of paralysis. A few years ago, I got myself confused. Whereas my idea of success had always been as I’ve written above, writing and publishing what I want, where and how I want, a few years ago, I found myself in a weird rut. I found myself writing in anticipation of editorial and reader rejection or acceptance. I found myself outside of myself, and it was a weak point, if not the weakest point at which I had ever found myself, taking a backseat to industry expectations totally outside of my control.

Poeta en San Francisco and Diwata, I had deemed as “successes” — Award-winning or award-contending work. And/or. Published by “prestigious” publishers of American Poetry. I found myself passively careening in that direction. The awarding. The prestige. I found myself suppressing and second-guessing what and how I wanted to write.

Here’s the thing though. I knew I wanted to write a Pinay-centric work. I did not know of anywhere in the industry that a Pinay-centric work could exist. I did not know any Pinay-centric spaces existed in the industry. There weren’t any. So then I didn’t know what to do with the work. In the revision and editing process, Aswang went through so many failed iterations.

I kept mitigating the intensity of my own poems. I kept smoothing out its jagged edges. I kept trying to make it “beautiful,” in service of others’ ideas of beauty. And lest you think this is about racism here, I also mean the kind of Filipino American reader who recoils at unflattering depictions of our own, and who subsequently reprimands me for being so angry, and for not focusing on the inherent beauty of our people.

In hindsight, it would be more apropos to say that Aswang went through a rather normal if not robust revision and editing process. But at the time, I was so uncertain. Of course, I put on a brave, stoic public face. Of course. I believed people believed I was “set,” in the industry.

Manuscript rejections happened in a way I had never before experienced. And mind you, I don’t submit any of my manuscripts to a lot of places. I’m not a manuscript submissions blitzer. If you want a ballpark figure for what “a lot,” means for me and my work, it means barely in the double digits. Seven to ten queries is a lot for me.

I reiterate: Pinay-centric spaces in the industry did not exist.

As a Pinay in the industry, it is implicit that you conform to industry standards.

And then Edwin Lozada at PAWA approached me and made a very generous offer. He said that when I got tired of the grind, of the rejections, if I wanted to just get Aswang published already, if I wanted Aswang to exist on my own terms, that PAWA was there for me.

I resisted for a short time, and then I finally said, Fuck it. Yes.

This is Pinay-centric space.

As production began on this work, I began seriously and rabidly writing Invocation to Daughters. I could never have written Invocation without the purge of Aswang.

All of this work coincided with my father’s rapid decline in health, and ultimately, his passing, and my grieving. I could not bring myself to make events happen. I could not bring myself to get myself “out there.”

Aswang sales are not shooting through the roof. Industry people barely acknowledge its existence; there is no literary prestige in this kind of Filipino American, West Coast, home grown operation. And the stereotypical non-book-buying Filipino American is still not buying this book. None of this is news.

It is my series of failures that brought this book into the world. It is my insistence on Pinay-centricity, #Allpinayeverything Poetics, #AswangPoetics, which the industry will never give a shit about, that made this book happen, and that made me write the poems in Invocation to Daughters — poems I wrote on my own terms. These are poems focused on Pinays that the world does not give a shit about, as long as these Pinays clean your fucking house, or pleasure you. As long as Pinays obey. These are, and have always been, my motivations for writing and publishing. I can’t compromise this. Not one fucking inch.

In the meantime, Invocation to Daughters is not some kind of endpoint for me. I’m not “done” yet. I do know I hit one of my longtime major markers; before I knew anything about anything in the industry, when I was a suburban Bay Area teenager who was secretly an aspiring writer, who would have rather died than shown anyone anything I had ever written, I wanted to be a part of City Lights Publishers.

They published Howl.

This really does mean something to me. So already, a success.


What I am getting at. Something Oscar and I have talked a lot about is the kind of failure one must allow oneself to experience, in order to get to success. I am not boo-hoo-ing, as much as I am tracing a trajectory. Thinking also about the distinct lives of each of my books. Is it possible that Aswang is a bridge, a structure you take for granted even as you are stepping all over it to get to where you need to get to. And then a storm obliterates it, and then you are fucking stuck. And then that bridge becomes everything. The book has a lot of life ahead of it still. And so.

I am reaffirming that I am doing exactly what I mean to be doing. Failing my way towards the next success.

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.

Aswang Poetics, Continued

Continuing thoughts on Aswang Poetics.

Who created the word, “unfuckwithable,” because that’s so much of what this is about.

Whether it’s about having gender expectations pushed upon us, ethnic/racial expectations, any combination of gender and ethnic baggage we are expected to carry. To work primarily for the white gaze, to have the goal of pleasing the white gaze. There’s this wonderful piece about Ta-Nehisi Coates, discussing the imperative to please white publishers and white readers, versus writing from your own historical and critical perspective, from your own value systems, writing for your own people.

Regarding writing for the white gaze: We worry about our people creating a ruckus. We try to use shame — hiya — to rein them in. We experience that hiya ourselves, when we see our people acting out of line. We police them when they misbehave. We fear their unruliness will jeopardize our own tenuous good standing. How do we unlearn this. How do we liberate ourselves from this. Do we want to be liberated from this. Or is it our goal as a community to be respectable, on their terms, not our own.

Is class a part of this? This expectation to be a “Lady,” to exhibit gentility, to be genteel. I feel like this is class informed as it is also gender informed, the expectation that I do not speak out of turn, that I do not speak my mind, that I do not speak loudly. This expectation that I allow others to speak for me as a default. The expectation that I forego my own certainty, self-assuredness, and intelligence, that I subsequently accept and normalize bullying and victimizing and the myriad ways in which we are disempowered.

So then, being viewed in binary opposition, as part of an unwashed, unruly, ill-bred brown horde, or to be granted conditional acceptance as a good colonial.

I should say, this is all a process. Please do not think I am coming from a place of transcendence. This is messy. The work can be contradictory. I am well aware of my English, my credentials and achievements, how these are valued by whom. I am well aware of my American middle class comfort, how this shelters me from difficulty.

Bob Marley: Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds … 

Audre Lorde: … poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams ...

This is where I’m at today. Thanks for reading.


Why Aswang Poetics?

In 2010, my third book, Diwatawas published by BOA Editions, Ltd. The closing poem of Diwata is “Aswang,” which I wrote, inspired by Pinay poet Rachelle Cruz, who had been writing about aswangs for some time. There was, there has been something in the air, slowly coalescing among a few Pinay writers and artists. Or maybe there was something in the water we are all drinking.

At the end of 2016, I wrote the introduction for Rachelle Cruz’s forthcoming and excellent debut collection, God’s Will for Monsters. In my introduction, I recall what it is she said about her aswang. She wanted to know how the aswang would live in our time and place. Rachelle’s aswang is also laden by history, as much as she throws her middle finger up at it. Her aswang is troubled by body, by the handling of the Pinay body.

In 2010, Rigoberto González interviewed me for the National Book Critics Circle; here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

However, the book ends with “Aswang”–gesturing toward the indigenous women priests who were demonized for the wisdom that threatened those in power. Is there no hope then? Will this Diwata also be silenced, shunned and exiled for her visions? Or is this a warning from the other aswang, who awaits the days of reckoning? Is there a place for diwata in our troubled times?

Thank you so much for your reading of Diwata. You are right, in that Diwata does not primarily aim to critique colonialism or erase a colonial history, which is impossible to do. Rather, it foregrounds women who have resisted, survived, endured colonial invasion and dislocation. They have done so by being creative, by (metaphorically) shapeshifting, by passing down wisdom through the generations (through story, song, dance, tattooing, weaving, etc.), and by arming themselves and fighting.

I am heartened by my shapeshifting Aswang’s existence in our modern, urban America. The fact that she has the last word speaks to me of her defiance of colonialism’s patriarchal structures and world view. Her words are fightin’ words. She’s telling those who’ve demonized her that they are right to fear her.

The last words of “Aswang,” are “Blame me.” Writing the poem was a rush. I love how “fuck you” she is. She’s brave, much more so than many of us can ever be; we are so hemmed in by respectability politics, we think we have so much to lose, and perhaps we do, depending on whose value systems we’ve bought into. She’s old, she’s endured, she’s fought. There’s so much bullshit she will not take. Here, I don’t mean personal acts of bullshit, though as we know, those can be informed, framed, sanctioned, normalized by patriarchy and white supremacy. She frightens you, she pisses you off, and she means to. Those value systems do not serve her; those value systems objectify and demean her.

In 2015, my fourth book, To Love as Aswang, was published by PAWA, Inc. This felt like the logical next step from my previous book’s ending, to take that historically and socially monstrous Filipina female, and grow her voice to contain multitudes, to ask the Pinays around me about themselves, and pass their words and worries through the prism of aswang. I don’t know whether I was explicit about it when I asked other Pinays to share; I don’t remember whether I told them that I believed we were that monstrosity, and that that monstrosity was only guilty of being monstrous because she was fighting for her humanity.

The poems in this collection began to take on cleaving, not because of the voices splintering, but because the voices were all speaking simultaneously. I needed to find a way to give these voices space, to show these voices as distinct, rather than to allow the voices to blend altogether, no longer to be heard. How could these voices provide their own melodies and harmonies, even if speaking in contradiction. The line became very clear to me, that is, the poetic line needed to be clean, and so there are poems where you see the chaos of many voices speaking, and you see how those can be sorted, how each voice can then sing, chant their genealogy, beatitude, psalm, or lamentation.

To Love as Aswang was an exercise in poetic kapwa, “shared humanity.” That humanity, constantly under attack, must be preserved and upheld, by any means necessary. Recognizing, practicing kapwa can be essential, crucial here as insurgency. Is this praxis? Not entirely, not yet, but it begins the process of bringing to light our epistemologies, and doing so collectively. I would like to think that critical dialogue, that circles of women, like war council, can return to our own families, communities, and work, can  bring something back with them, and enact. Aswang poetics has informed the ways I approach and seek to empower young Pinays, and young people in general in my classrooms.

Certainly, my writing is now very directed. I know who I am writing for, and it bears repeating that my ideal reader is that young Pinay who has never seen herself in literature, only superficially represented as an acquiescent wordless body for patriarchy. This young Pinay is at the beginning of envision possibility for herself, but she isn’t exactly sure yet where to begin. She is beginning to ideate what Pinays really are capable of. I am not here to give anyone discovery (this feels like someone else’s world view, not mine). Think Audre Lorde’s poem, “Coal.” Think of what would be birthed from the darkness within, given pressure/compression and heat, given time.

What is Aswang Poetics?

How does one become “woke.”

Some continuing thoughts from yesterday’s Aswang Poetics post.

For my own career as an author, I have said this many times, but it always bears repeating. The more I focused on my own political and ethnic specific work, and the more I wrote towards/for my imagined reader — the young Pinay who’s never seen herself in literature, the young Pinay who’s hungry for something she hasn’t yet figured out what it is but it is fierce, affirming, articulate, in your face, full of love — the less I worried about who I (folks who I imagined had more “power” than I) was pissing off, the more “success” I have been able to find.

It feels like Aswang Poetics would be an entire curriculum leading to praxis. Epistemology. Decolonization (discussing Internalized Oppression, for example). Pedagogy. Indigeneity (including Filipino Core Values). Pinayism. Feminism and Womanism. Literature. Literary Criticism. Poetics. Rigorous Craft/Writing and Process Workshops. Seminar/Talks on Gender, Patriarchy, White Supremacy, and the Publishing Industry, on confronting, demystifying, and disrupting these things. Actions such as Pinay-centric publications, and Pinay-centric events. Creating these events re-imagining the use of space, the dynamic with the reader and “audience.” Publications that rethink our relationship with gatekeepers, “status” and “prestige,” and the means of production.

Making Kuwento. Kuwentuhan.

This does indeed feel like ongoing work. I keep flashing back to my undergrad years, lectures and seminars on American Imperialism, so many great literature classes, taught by folks like Barbara Christian. Reading and discussing Anzaldúa, Silko, José Rizal, José Martí, Edward Said, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Jessica Hagedorn.

Seriously, how does one become woke, how one works with others in the process of all becoming woke. How can this be just like making kuwento, with hard/intense decolonization happening. And food.