On Teaching Filipinx Lit to Non-Lit Majors

The above flier is for this semester’s class (which we’re 10 weeks into), and which I am already thinking about how to amend for the next round.

Is three novels too much? Especially when the first two novels are America is in the Heart, and Dogeaters, both of which call for copious amounts of scaffolding. Certainly, in the case of Bulosan, we first read a selection of his essays and poems from On Becoming Filipino, so that is appropriate scaffolding itself. With Dogeaters, perhaps I need to think about which previous writings of Hagedorn can serve as appropriate scaffolding for the novel. We did read, “Homesick,” and an interview in the Missouri Review. Still, the novel was challenging to access on its own. Anyway.

These two novels take up the entire first half of the course. “Everything else” must fit the second half. This feels disproportionate, though I get it when my (non-literary) colleagues tell me, “But those are canon,” “But those are historically important.” This is why I have been asking exactly why is Dogeaters historically important for undergrads in 2017 to be reading. And if not, then what is an appropriate substitute.

This class is an upper division course in a Philippine Studies Program (i.e. not a department). On the organizational chart, I think students can major in Asian Studies with an emphasis in Philippine Studies? I’m not sure. Anyway, so my point is that it’s a tiny little corner in any university, in the very few American universities in which Philippine Studies even exists.

This is why I worked really hard to get those CORE requirements for my Filipino and Pinay Lit classes. Even though students always voice interest in taking these classes, the largest and most insurmountable obstacle is the very real need to graduate in a timely manner, which makes taking electives in one’s personal interests impossible, unless these classes are associated with those university breadth requirements.

That said, the students who enroll in my classes are rarely (if ever) literature majors. I rarely get humanities-focused students. They are usually in accounting, business administration, nursing, et al. All of which are perfectly good majors, but then I have to shift their brains to talking about literature deeply and in detail, rather than the kind of cultural and historical sweeps to which students have grown accustomed.

Most of my students tell me on the first day of class that they have enrolled in my classes because they want to learn about Filipino culture. I always think it’s an amazing thing, that they would go about doing so via a literature class. I suspect this has to do with them needing to take classes fulfilling breadth requirements. And this is totally great; I am so relieved we got the classes plugged into the university requirements, though dealing with curriculum committees was my least favorite but necessary thing I’ve had to do in my capacity as an adjunct professor.

To add: not only must I teach literature, and all things literary. I must teach within a Philippine Studies context. Though I understand the term “Philippine Studies,” within the context of traditional area studies, what we do as a program is really more aligned with how we teach in Ethnic Studies (such as, how I teach Filipino Literature within an Asian American Studies Department within an Ethnic Studies College at SFSU). Interdisciplinary, community-based.

That said, last night, we did have a good poetics discussion, while reading To Love as Aswang. We talked about poetic lines, and the significance of poetic techniques in deepening and complicating emotional understanding. When, for example, we are reading the poems, “To Give It to God,” and “To Bless the Meek,” where we’ve got two disparate voices/speakers, are we working somehow in the figurative mode, even the way metaphor works, sticking two different things together for the reader to draw the connections between the two things.

And really, the above was my preferred method while writing/constructing To Love as Aswang, both the book itself, and the poem of the same title, the joining of multiple voices in one poem, in some kind of dialogue with one another. So my students talked about these voices, and the positions of the speakers in relation to the Filipina. Deep inside, self-representing Pinay voice? Or external, someone viewing from a distance, making assessments and assumptions of the Pinay, and these assessments and assumptions based upon whose claims?

We also had a good discussion about pronouns, specifically, the “they,” and “we,” in “To Violate Convention.” And especially when tayo/kami do not have specific English counterparts, then who constitutes “we,” in that poem? Are we a part of that “we”; in other words, are we as Americans so distant from our wars, complicit in torture and committing acts of human atrocity? Can we pick and choose which “we” we belong to as Americans?

And then we talked about “Sweetie,” and the alliterative-s in combination with the short, singsong lines. Tongue twister and nursery rhyme, appropriate forms/mediums when trying to get into a childlike mindset. But then the dissonance as the poem’s subject matter is so difficult. This is another way of thinking about the joining of different perspectives or voices in a single poem, in order to deepen and complicate a reader’s emotional understanding.

Let me back up and say that the text which preceded To Love as Aswang on my syllabus was Lysley Tenorio’s Monstress. This is a great book — to read, to teach, to talk about. The characters’ relationships with one another and with their social worlds are both complex and clear in their complexity. I had told my students before entering the book, to focus on the narrators and protagonists, and their position in relation to the stories’ central conflicts/problems. And then to think hard about the choices they make. One story that really held our interest as a group was “The Brothers,” and then just talking about why the author would title that story that way, when one of the siblings was transgender, and that the story was about rejection and possible, eventual (posthumous) acceptance. There was so much questioning of the mother’s strong sense of hiya, something that a lot of students — including many of Filipino descent — just don’t understand. While I refuse to believe that our communities have worked it out and moved past our hiya, this is such an interesting thing I’ve encountered.

I was able to take the theme of the monstress, the female monster, the wife who initially takes a backseat with her own ambitions to support her husband’s public career, but who changes into a woman in America, thinking of her own career. This is the monstress in many ways, the woman and wife who no longer puts everyone before herself. This was helpful in transitioning into To Love as Aswang, and the many ways our communities historically label women as monsters, when we decide we no longer want to comply with those rigid, self-denying social standards.

So anyway, thanks for reading this brain dump. I am exhausted. It’s week 10. Next week, we’re talking about Jason Bayani’s Amulet. I am looking forward to how my students receive and read these poems. For the most part, I think these literary discussions with non-literature majors is going pretty well.

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.