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

Image: Pacita Abad.

What is Aswang Poetics? Well, it’s not a new thing. As I’ve been engaging in discussions with fellow Pinay writers and authors, and with Pinay students, there’s something about this creature that appeals to us as American Pinays.

In 2017, I would love to get a working group blog going, in which we flesh out what Aswang Poetics is, or can be. For now, notes:

  • Poetics, on the art of writing poetry. Or, thoughts on how and why elements of a text elicit certain (emotional) reader response. So then, the construction of a work itself, form, parts, purpose, complexities, before even getting to “meaning.”
  • Re: decolonization. Something about poetic voice, authorial voice, speakers and narrators whose ability to self-reflect upon her/their historical circumstances. Something also about relationship to the literary industry. Something also about our relationship to readers and audience. Examining our relationship to the White Gaze.
  • Re: Pinayism. Something about our relationships among ourselves. Something about our speakers, narrators, characters, and their relationships to one another as self-identified Pinays. Something about their position in relation to center and margins, and their/our relationships with those who would subsume us.
  • Re: our relationship to Judeo-Christian Western value systems.
  • Re: treatment of gendered social behaviors, speech, subject matter.
  • Historical continuity of Pinays as monstrosities! Transgression, witches, hags, all-in-all examining what it means to be well-behaved (see above, re: gendered social behaviors, et al).
  • So then, this is about our being woke against patriarchy.

This is not new. But it is needed. I am personally tired AF of being expected to make nice, to sit the fuck down, to shut the fuck up, to defer to everyone else when I know that I know what I am talking about. I and we are constantly told we are not authorities on anything except the things we are told to master, in the service of patriarchy.

That’s all I have for now. I will get the blog up soon, so we can write.

Letters to a Young Poet, Pinay Style 3

A few weeks ago, I wrote this: “I keep thinking, God what if I had had a professor much like my 45-year old self — some tattooed, gray-haired, foul-mouthed Pinay professor — when I was 18, 19, 20. What would my younger self have asked her. What would my younger self need from her. What would my younger self be experiencing, sitting in the classroom with her at the podium, with her asking me what I think, with her hearing me..”

Today, seven of my poems, including these “Dear Pinay” poems have been posted at The Brooklyn Rail.

Dear Pinay,

You ask me how it is I came to poetry. You want to know how I came to bring words together to become a poem. I want to tell you about my girlish handwriting in pink, strawberry scented ink. I want to tell you about typing my words on a manual typewriter, its carriage return, no correction tape. I want to tell you about liquid paper, about drafts upon handwritten drafts, about the smell and feel of so much cream and Florentine marbled stationery, about cutting class and taking a good part of the afternoon to choose a writing implement. I want to say I was waiting. So much ache. So much breaking. I want to say so much silencing and time.

Dear Pinay,

Remember those diaries we were gifted as young girls, pale pink and floral, golden curlicue embossed. Remember that tiny golden lock. Remember wanting to crawl inside. Remember how not speaking yielded so many secrets. Remember how you’d write and write, like if you didn’t write, you would just die. Remember how you safeguarded that key with your life.

Dear Pinay,

When I was 19, my poems were so coated with honey, so precious. My language was not really my language; it was sugary, airy, so fancy. When I was 19, I blew my paycheck on a Waterman Laureat mineral blue fountain pen. I chose ink cartridges in Serenity Blue. I transcribed my finished poems into a matching hardcover, blue marbled, perfect-bound journal with gold leaf edged pages. I loved the feel of that scratch — gold plated nib onto paper. I loved how each page air dried before I turned the page or closed the book. Dear Pinay, nobody ever read my poems. But then again, that wasn’t the point.

I have been thinking about what comes next. I have always made a connection here, a connection there, when teaching. This semester, it’s been almost entirely about making connection. Yesterday evening after Pinay Lit class, I was chatting with some of my students, and I told them this was the semester I had decided that I needed to communicate to my students what is at stake for myself. Why am I so invested in this work. My previous M.O. has been to be as professional as can be, as stoic as can be. Part of this is my own defense mechanism as a WOC who is an adjunct professor, wary of such stereotyping as emotional, personal, subjective. How these things are regarded in our culture as feminine, thus as inferior to stoicism and professionalism. I never wanted to appear underqualified, unable to command respect the way so many dudes with half my teaching experience and less than half my publication cred can afford to command respect.

Yes, that’s problematic, the expectation, and then the fact that I had acted upon that expectation.

But as I’ve witnessed my students in the past going through their own processes with potentially emotionally difficult work, I don’t know that I’d done enough in the past, not to mitigate the difficulty, but rather, to be reassuring that the process is important, if not necessary.

Pinay Lit can be hard, precisely because Pinays never get center stage unless they are beauty queens, and while I adore Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach (that’s Miss Universe to you), I still classify that place on center stage as one defined by Western and surface notions of beauty. A spectacle. The way I frame it, the place on center stage that Pinays have in Pinay Lit is a hard one, because it requires historical, cultural, and epistemological excavation. It requires critical reading, critical thinking, the setting aside of imposed colonial worldviews, and/or a willingness to consider and participate in the process of decolonization. Not just one that remains in academic abstract, but on a very fundamental level, in who we are and who we decide to become.

Dear Pinays, this is some difficult soul work and intellectual work that I see grown folks around me incapable and unwilling to do; I see in a lot of them a surface appreciation for this thing called diversity and pride in cultural identity (Look! Filipinos doing something. Look! Filipinos being beautiful.), and then that’s it. Then a retreat back into the echo chambers of their lives. Now then, with classrooms full of young people such as yourselves, I push way past that surface, way past that comfort. That’s my job. It can be scary and uncomfortable, and I wish I had recognized sooner that I could be reassuring by highlighting my own long and difficult process and personal stake, what I’ve had to fight with and against. How I manage to barely persevere. That the work is ongoing and total, continuous. And sometimes you can’t go back to bliss and naivete.

How, once you’re woke, you continue the work of staying woke, encouraging wokeness in those around you, and then deciding what to do with your wokeness.

So then, what do I do next.

Letter to a Young Poet, Pinay Style 2

Source: AP News Photo

Yesterday evening in Filipino American Literature class at SFSU, I taught my book, To Love as Aswang, for the first time. There was definitely something about the energy in the classroom, in the pockets where the Pinays and WOC congregate together. An appreciation, inquisitiveness, a hard processing of all of the book’s voices, existing in some kind of harmony and disharmony. A willingness to delve into these voices and POVs, to slog through the ugly and violent and painful. To sift through it and make sense of it. I kept thinking, and I keep thinking now, of how these young women would answer my 18 questions in “To Proceed, You Must First Understand.” How may I bring them into my poetic world, as this vital connection has been made. I see as well, the young men of color, thinking, really thinking hard about what all of this means, for us as we try to be a cohesive community. The world is such a fucked up and difficult place, our place and status as Filipinos and POC is a terrible and complicated thing to process, is there any good to be had, sitting in a classroom talking about it. What good is art, lit, and poetry. Does/can poetry “fix” any of this. I don’t have an answer. Back when I thought I had the answer, I was really just putting my own arrogance and narcissism on display. But I am so pleased that most of us are on board with the willingness to acknowledge, to think about the difficulty.

To Proceed, You Must First Understand.

I will also add that in Pinay Lit class at USF, we finished reading and discussing M. Evelina Galang’s One Tribe, and I feel like this is the best discussion to date, that I’ve had with my students, since I first started teaching the novel some years ago. We kept ourselves focused on Pinayism, and this thing that many Pinays know from lived experience — that we have been so silenced and marginalized for such a long time, it has always been expected and demanded from us such that it has become our norm and default. And subsequently, when we do have the focus turned back upon ourselves, in a deep and critical way, when we do find ourselves in a forum in which we are seen and heard for who we truly are, for how complex we are, we freak the hell out. We want to hide, and push that away. We want to dissociate, crawl back into the shadow and continue being ignored.

My students have always struggled with/about the literal and figurative endings for the characters of Las Dalagas, lifted into the sky in their homemade craft, into the hurricane. We struggled through a tough conversation on death, liberation, release. We talked through the experience of being young Pinays, newly armed with knowledge that is meant to empower us. What if that knowledge has come too late to save us? What if there are too many practical gaps between our lived experiences, and what that knowledge promises us? Is our prior ignorance ever a better alternative?

Since yesterday, I have also been thinking more about some brown girl, the next manuscript after Invocation to Daughters. I’d had ideas of what it needed to feel rounded out, given more texture and dimension. Today, I feel as though the thing it needs, and the thing I need, is to continue with the letters, my epistolaries, to the young Pinay poet, whoever she is. Surely, I am thinking of my students; I keep thinking, God what if I had had a professor much like my 45-year old self — some tattooed, gray-haired, foul-mouthed Pinay professor — when I was 18, 19, 20. What would my younger self have asked her. What would my younger self need from her. What would my younger self be experiencing, sitting in the classroom with her at the podium, with her asking me what I think, with her hearing me.