Filipina American Literature: Reading Recommendations 5

You can find previous recommendations here: List 1 | List 2 | List 3 | List 4.

It goes without saying. I am a professor of Filipina American Literature, and thus my work entails reading, teaching, and digging for Filipina American Literature. There are lots of Filipina American literary authors, some less known than others. Most often, Filipina American authors find themselves subsumed and/or marginalized by larger groups which claim them when convenient, and which forget and erase them when inconvenient. Sometimes, I find these amazing gems, deep cuts many of us would otherwise not know existed. I say all this now because as with any damn thing on social media, there is push back. Enough, some are saying.

Really? Enough what?

That said, as I am a busy person (I have three jobs), I have called for reinforcements, fellow Filipina American authors, Arlene Biala and Veronica Montes.

Virginia Cerenio, Trespassing Innocence.

I have written about this book before. Here is what I said: “This is a very important collection that often is omitted from discussions on Filipina poetry in this country. These are poems of cultural and political awakening. A second generation Filipina American, the speaker of these poems has come of age, and continues to find her voice in a very turbulent time.” I have always loved this collection. I realize it’s now stereotypical to call a work “gritty,” when it comes from the “grassroots community.” I mean it as a compliment. It’s urban, in which I mean specifically, San Francisco I-Hotel second generation Pinay, circa 1970s-1980s, so it is indeed “street,” activist; it’s got a Flip politic and aesthetic, and a genuine empathy for her elders’ now aging generation of labor. The emotional tone of this work is appropriately poignant and defiant.

Sasha Pimentel Chacon, Insides She Swallowed.

Insides She Swallowed received the American Book Award in 2011. Recommended by Arlene Biala, Poet Laureate of Santa Clara County. This is stunning work, poems that hit you from all sides. Chacon’s poem “Blood, Sister” is to me a revelation in fate, family and diaspora. The articulation and distillation of objects and seemingly simple actions explored to create weaving and fluid talk story, deep honor songs, is what I love about her poetry. So looking forward to her upcoming book “For Want of Water” which was just selected for the 2016 National Poetry Series Open Competition to be published by Beacon Press.

Barbara Jane Reyes, To Love as Aswang.

Recommended by Arlene Biala. Barbara Jane Reyes’ To Love as Aswang (PAWA, Inc. Publications, 2015) is an invocation to all women, particularly to Pinays. The work as a whole is informed by many Pinay narratives and composed into a mantra that resonates deeply within the body. This mantra is a Lola’s heartbeat and lullaby, it is full of longing, pain, rage, power, reckoning and resistance.

This work is essential to our narrative. For instance, the poems about “Sweetie” described as “a digital decoy designed to trick perverts into thinking they’re having webcam sessions with a real live 10-year-old Filipina.” (Jezebel.com, November 5, 2013). As difficult as these poems are to take in, the rhythm that is felt throughout the entire book acts as an amulet that protects us from becoming despondent, guiding us instead toward empowerment. The collection is a catalog of the many stories that make it necessary for us “to love as Aswang” if we are to rise above daily human suffering and injustice.

Marianne Villanueva, Mayor of the Roses.

Recommended by Veronica Montes. Marianne Villanueva’s prose is precise and unflinching, often eliciting a gasp from this reader. In these stories we hear the first-person voices of several middle-aged pinays, women who are becoming increasingly invisible to those around them, and even to themselves. “Sometimes, because I’d lived apart so long,” says the narrator in the title story, “I couldn’t quite be sure of who I was.” Many of these characters move through their lives as acute observers rather than full participants. We recognize fragments of ourselves here, but Villanueva’s work also creates a sense of space that invites us to imagine agency and the possibility of change.

It’s Filipino American history Month! Do you know who the women writing in our community are?

This is #3 in a series of posts for Filipino American History Month. Here are links to List #1 | List #2.

The purpose of these reading recommendations is to assert our Pinay presence, and our important role as Pinays in documenting our history. Literature and the arts are places where our narratives are humanized and personalized. As a teacher of Pinay Literature, as a teacher of Filipino American and Asian American Literatures, I am always amazed at how affected readers are, by a story written in the first person POV, when that first person is a Pinay. They are similarly affected by Pinay lyricism, the ability of a Pinay poet to lay bare her deepest and most complex thoughts and beliefs.

I have made it a point to teach literary device — element and technique — to my students. I have always feared that doing so would bring resistance; it’s like pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, so that you see it isn’t magic after all. But I am pleased to say that students have been into it; they write back to me that it’s helpful, breaking down stories’ components, or characters’ roles by archetype. Or by thinking more deeply about figurative language. I tell them, think of literary technique as ways in which the author tries to help you deepen or heighten or make greater your understanding. They wonder how much they’ve missed in their previous readings, not taking this into account before. We get way beyond the idea of literary device as “tricks,” or surface decisions.

That said, here are more reading recommendations!

Aimee Suzara, Souvenir.

In this collection of poems, the speaker gives us a Filipina immersed in Americana. Think Pinay in Middle America, cowboy boots, Madonna, middle school sleepovers. As Filipino immigrants, didn’t we kind of anticipate we’d be fully steeped in these quintessential American images, and ways of life, where “real” Americans aren’t sure where we’re from. They suspect we’re kind of like them, but they also know we’re not. And there’s more. What about the images of other “Others,” in America. And here is where we get to the dark and obscured American history of turn of the century zoo-keeping POC, Bontoc Igorots and other indigenous, “tribal” folks, for the purposes of what? Americans see their “dark other,” and are repulsed by what they see; surely, modern Americans are nothing like these “primitives.” Surely, Americans are more evolved, more civilized. So what does that mean for our modern day Pinay in middle America?

Barbara Jane Reyes, For the City That Nearly Broke Me.

I’m allowed to recommend my own work, no? I choose this chapbook, published by San Antonio based Aztlán Libre Press, because of its Manila/There, Oakland/Here theme. The collection is split down the middle, and the speaker negotiates that same split in herself. Witnessing the violence of the American inner city, is this what our immigrant forebears ever imagined would be awaiting them here? And then returning to the city of her birth, she becomes a tourist, and outsider, also fighting her own fear of the Third World whose myths are perpetuated by her own immigrant parents, and a fear of a culture she no longer feels strongly connected to.

Catalina Cariaga, Cultural Evidence.

It’s been a while since I read this, so bear with me as I try to recall. Cariaga does some super effective things with the page. Poems here are visually spare, and you come to realize your feeling of unease is both due to subject matter (dog meat, OFWs, et al), and very much due to how much white space these poems employ. You’re stuck there, wondering why all of this “blank” or “empty” space is messing with you emotionally — silencing, erasing, being described by others from afar, clinically, “objectively,” anthropologically. You also have to sort through a lot of “noise,” sound bytes, advertising, to find the Pinay OFW lost in the static.

Rina Ayuyang, Whirlwind Wonderland.

A graphic novel! What I love most about this work is how remarkably “normal” our narrator/heroine is. American life for Filipinos can truly be “normal,” no? We grow up as the American children of immigrants, we go to school, we love our big and crazy families, we struggle to learn “where we came from,” and we fill our everyday lives with minutiae, purchases, schedules, commute, emails. We watch football. We struggle with identity. And that’s our American lives.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more!