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.


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.

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.