To Break the Wall Between Self and the Future, with Carlos Bulosan

“I will be a writer and make all of you live again in my words.”
–Carlos Bulosan

My introduction to Carlos Bulosan, perhaps one of the greatest Filipino-American writers to have ever lived, is a little late. While most of my peers learned about Bulosan and read his work in college, I finished the book just a little over a week ago.

It is the year 2017, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. As the month of April nears its end, many of the preparations in the community are geared towards May 1st, International Workers Day.

I think about Bulosan and his words, and the significance of May Day as I write this. How a book that was written in the 30s of the last century — which detailed the simultaneous heartbreaking and back-breaking struggle of Filipino farmworkers in the Northwest, and Bulosan’s first encounter with fascism — is still relevant to this day.

America is in the Heart (Amazon | Indiebound) is presented as the autobiography of Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino peasant migrant from the Philippines to the U.S. While many facts in the book are refuted, it nonetheless stands as a testimony and a witness to the early experiences of Filipinos in the country.

The book is a sweeping account of his life, from growing up poor in the Philippines, in a small village in the northern islands. Allos, as he was referred to initially, grew up helping his father farm and his mother vend small goods. At an early age, Allos was becoming more and more aware of the conditions of people like him, which made up the majority of the Philippines — the peasantry.

Most of those who were young and able-bodied, specifically men, knew that in order for their families to survive, they had to get out and look for jobs elsewhere.

In the provinces where the poor peasants lived and toiled for the rich hacienderos, or landlords, the young men were stirring and rebelling against their heritage. Those who could no longer tolerate existing conditions adventured into the new land, for the opening of the United States to them was one of the gratifying provisions of the peace treaty that culminated the Spanish-American war.

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Early Filipino American farm workers, as in this 1936 picture of a musical get-together at Estalio’s labor camp. (Photo courtesy of Rosalie Marquez)

America became a dream for young Allos, and as soon as he was given the opportunity to board one of the ships that could potentially change his life forever, he immediately hopped on. Continue reading

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The Stories of Refugees, with Viet Thanh Nguyen

When I saw Viet Thanh Nguyen at City Lights Bookstore for a signing of his new book The Sympathizer (Amazon | Indiebound) back then, I didn’t know that I was going to be a huge fan of his work.

I started reading The Sympathizer which is one of those future classics I would reread at some point, or  one of those books I would highly recommend to folks. I was hooked. An excerpt from my book review:

The book is set in Vietnam in the ’70s, as South Vietnam (backed by the U.S. and its anti-Communist allies) falls to the Viet Cong (VC) or the National Liberation Front of the North. From beginning to end, the nameless narrator experiences and embodies tension: as the son of a poor Vietnamese peasant and a French priest, as an army captain and junior intelligence officer of a high-ranking General of the South when he was really a spy for the Viet Cong.

At his reading back at City Lights, he mentioned that before the book he had been working on a bunch of short stories for awhile. I think it’s safe to assume that he was referring to The Refugees (Amazon | Indiebound), which was released this year on February 7. Viet’s short stories have arrived.

Along with War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, I brought this book on my recent trip to the Philippines. On the flight to Coron from Manila, I cracked the book open eager to reacquaint myself with Viet’s work.

There are eight stories in the book and to my surprise, only one really resonated with me. I spent a lot of time trying to understand the book’s essence, trying to find the outright connections between refugees and the stories.

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Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp, 2014:”The Future is in Our Hands.” Created near the entrance of Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp, this piece emphasizes the need for displaced people to rebuild their communities. Local youth painted and wrote in the mural about what they’d like to see in their future neighborhoods, whether they’re able to return to Syria or must remain across the border for years to come. Project partners included local artist Ali Kiwan, Joel Bergner, AptART, ACTED, Mercy Corps and UNICEF.

Maybe it’s because we’re living at a time when the spotlight on refugees is heightened, as wars in nations like Syria are being waged. A little less than a year ago, I wrote about the refugee crisis and how writers and artists are responding. Since I’ve written that piece, the crisis has only gotten worse.

For what it’s worth, I think what Viet was trying to do with this book is give the word “refugee” and the concept of “refuge” a broader meaning. Beyond the plight of Vietnamese refugees which I’ve come to associate with his work, the book explores what it means to be a refugee.

My favorite is one called War Years, wherein the narrator details life as a refugee from Vietnam in the U.S. After opening a small grocery store in a small Vietnamese community with other families of refugees, the narrator’s mother starts to get visits from a certain Mrs. Hoa. Mrs. Hoa was making rounds within the business community, trying to raise funds for an opposition to the Communist government back home. People didn’t want to be on her bad side, because that would mean the end of your business. Continue reading

War and Turpentine

…I wonder, time and again, what it is that connects us to our grandparents in this ambivalent way. Is it the absence of the generational conflict between parents and children? In the yawning gap between our grandparents and ourselves, the battle for our imagined individuality is waged, and the separation in time permits us to cherish the illusion that a greater truth lies concealed there than in what we know of our own parents.

It is a great and powerful naivete that makes us thirst for knowledge.

For over a month, I carried Stefan Hertmans’s (translated by David McKay) War and Turpentine (Amazon | Indiebound) in my backpack as I traveled from San Francisco to Pampanga, Philippines.

I started reading the book just as I was getting ready for a trip to the homeland, slowly getting to know Hertmans’s grandfather, Urbain Martien. It was inevitable then, that my thoughts slowly warmed to the memories of both my grandfathers, Emilio Cortez and Cornelio Galang, two significant figures of my childhood.

Hertmans’s novel (if it can be called that because it is so much more), is an ode of tenderness, memory and intimacy to an equally tender hero of the author’s heart (towards the end, mine as well) and of the First World War.

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Stefan Hertmans with a portrait of Urbain Martien

For more than thirty years I kept, and never opened, the notebooks in which he had set down his memories in his matchless prewar handwriting; he had given them to me a few months before his death in 1981, at the age of ninety. He was born in 1891. It was as if his life were no more than two digits playing leapfrog.

War and Turpentine (Amazon | Indiebound) is not your typical war novel, nor is it historical fiction. For Urbain was not just a Belgian soldier, held by the crutches of destruction of the First World War; he was also a delicate painter — a dreamer, a creator, an impassioned lover, a believer of all things beautiful.

His life in the battlefield was book-ended by his life as a painter, from A childhood spent watching his father create murals to later years when he would sit and paint for hours, in the quiet of his old age.

His grand passions were treetops, clouds and folds in fabric. In these formless forms he could let go, lose himself in a dream world of light and dark, in clouds congealed in oil paint, chiaroscuro, a world where nobody else could intrude, because something — it was hard to say what — had broken inside him.

More than his paintings, and more than his war years (1914-1918), I was struck with Urbain’s sense of the world. In spite of a childhood ravished by war and poverty, his recollections about his family, particularly his parents, contained a kind of impeccable gentleness. His was of a contemplative, quiet temperament. Continue reading

Writing to Live, Living to Write

There was a time when I was seriously obsessed with the lives of writers: I read accounts of how they spent their time, I did a lot of research to find out who their influences were and I swore to see every documentary there is detailing their lives.

I wanted to know everything about them and all of that was just me being extra, because I wanted to get the secret formula of how to be a legit writer.

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By: Wendy McNaughton

And then I came across this:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

— Somerset Maugham

That, along with reading more books made me realize that really, you just have to do it.

But then there’s the idealistic + romantic side of me which yearns to have days like this, five out of seven: wake up and meditate, sip coffee while writing my morning pages, transition to “real writing” (whatever that means), walk + run + be outside, have a decent lunch, edit in the afternoon, see friends/be social in the evening.

But I’m not Marcel Proust, as much as I love him, because I did not grow up rich therefore I have to worry about feeding and supporting myself. Which is where Manjula Martin’s book comes in handy — Scratch: Writers, Money and the Art of Making a Living (Amazon | Indie Bound) — as I try to make sense of what it means to be a writer, beyond the writing part.

Scratch is a collection of essays and interviews edited by Martin, a different kind of a backstage pass on how writers “make it.” And when I say “make it,” I don’t just mean once they’ve been published, but how they manage their day-to-day existence. Like, how do they pay their bills? Do they go on vacations? Do they have enough food?

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By James Gulliver Hancock

What I love about this book is that the writers take us further deeper — the struggle of physiologically, mentally, emotionally supporting themselves while bravely and painstakingly committing pen to paper. Continue reading

Reading Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time”

When Zadie Smith writes “Nowadays, I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own,” she was writing the essence of my own soul.

I’ve long been a fan of Zadie, although I’ve never actually finished any of her novels. I remember attempting to read NW but alas, to no avail. I felt disconnected with the story, although I relished the pieces she wrote for The New York Times and The New Yorker. But when I first heard of her new book Swing Time (Amazon | Indie Bound), I knew I had a chance to read Zadie in a whole other way, the same way that Roxane Gay said that her life story would be in good hands if Zadie wrote it.

Swing Time (Amazon | Indie Bound) is story of two young brown girls in London, with dreams of making it big as dancers. One is the narrator of the story whose life becomes front and center in the book, while the better dancer, Tracey, evidently disappears from the main narrative only to reappear at crucial points of the protagonist’s life.

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Ballerinas by Carlos Sanchez

It’s not uncommon for me to ride hard for the story’s main characters: I fell in love with Ifemelu and Obinze in Adichie’s Americanah, felt for Cora in Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and celebrated the nameless narrator of Nguyen’s The Sympathizer.

With Swing Time, I found it hard to even cheer for the protagonist. I found her lacking in personality, but still eager to read on to see what would anchor my time in her. I never reached that point until the final pages of the book. Continue reading

The Urgency of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Review of “The Souls of Black Folk”

Reading W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (Amazon | Indie Bound) in these times is not only necessary, but also critical. Apart from this list of resistance literature I compiled earlier this year, this classic originally published in 1903 bears a resounding message of hope and of liberation. At the same time, it also outlines what has been done, what has worked and what hasn’t as he explored the state of black Americans’ road to liberation.

As a non-black immigrant from the Third World, understanding the struggles of black folks is rooted and grounded in the collective struggle for justice, liberation and self-determination. My survival is bound with those of others — those who have suffered from European imperialism down to its newer, more toxic form, U.S. imperialism.

I admit: the book was a challenging read for me because I wasn’t used to his diction and style of writing. But form aside, all fourteen chapters are explicit in illustrating what emancipation looks like — from raising self-consciousness, the formation of the Freedman’s Bureau, the importance of education, the role of religion and the church and a pointed, materialist analysis of black leadership.

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Source: Amistad Murals by Hale Arpacio Woodruff

He started with an examination of identity, of being black in the U.S.:

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,–this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

When I read this, I immediately thought of what’s happening today with the recent Muslim ban. Many folks are leaving their home countries because of war and economic hardships, eager to start a new life in the U.S. These are parallels, as over and over again, we see how history repeats itself. Ravaged in your home country, you flee to places with opportunities only to be spurned and rejected. Continue reading

Living as Sparrow, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer in Communist China, with Madeleine Thien

“One thing I have learned, dear Sparrow, is that light is never still and solid and so it is with love. Light can be split into many directions. Its nature is to break apart.”

I’m not sure where I should start after reading Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Amazon | Indie Bound) but here are three things I know: 1) reading a story that challenges your own political ideology is tricky, 2) it takes a great storyteller to illustrate the complexity and intimacy — really, the humanity — of the other side, and 3) that the author was fully able to transcend point no. 1 and effectively accomplish point no. 2.

(Note: Spoilers ahead.)

It is the story of an inter-generational  Chinese multi-family, a sweeping epic of politics, love and music. It is an intimate look at how the characters dealt with living in Communist China before, during and after the Great Proletarian Revolution, the demonstrations and the massacre at Tiananmen Square, all the way to Canada for a life of quiet and refuge.

What enamored me even more with Thien’s masterpiece is how at the intersection of these families is a piece of delicate literature, the mysterious “Book of Records” which has been passed down from generation to generation. It was an exhilarating and heartbreaking read, the kind that stays with you for days. Even now as I write this review, I can still remember certain scenes in my head: Sparrow at the Conservatory and then at the factories, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer on the run, Big Mother Knife on the train back home to Ba Lute.

The book begins with Marie, a ten-year old girl who lives in Canada with her mother. After learning about her father’s (Kai) suicide in Hongkong, she grieves and recalls the most tender moments with him. Soon, the family of two receives a visitor, Ai-Ming, the daughter of Kai’s old friend, Sparrow. It is through Ai-Ming that Marie learns about Communist China, the friendship of their fathers and one of the reasons why Ai-Ming left.

Ai-Ming hesitated for a long time before answering. Finally, she told me about days and nights when more than a million people had come to Square. Students had begun a hunger strike that lasted seven days and Ai-ming herself had spent nights on the concrete, sleeping beside her best friend, Yiwen. They sat in the open, with almost nothing to shelter them from the sun or rain. During those six weeks of demonstrations, she had felt at home in China; she had understood, for the first time, what it felt to look at her country through her own eyes and her own history, to come awake alongside million of others. She didn’t want to be her own still river, she wished to be a part of the ocean.

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In a time when protests are erupting all over the country against Trump’s fascist regime, there were moments when I identified with Ai-Ming and her generation’s struggle for democracy. At the same time, she was living in a much different context, with an entirely different form of government. What was clear to me though was the power of people, (specifically students) en masse to mobilize against the state, a ripple in the fabric of Ai-Ming’s generation heard throughout the world.

But the story started way before the massacre, the protests and the hunger strike at Tiananmen Square. The story started right after the Communist revolution in China, when the Party led by Mao Zedong gained control. Revolutionary fervor was high, and Thien gave a glimpse of this vividly through a family living in Shanghai. There was Big Mother Knife, a matriarch, married to Ba Lute who was a Party cadre with their children Sparrow, a gifted composer and the younger brothers, Flying Bear and Da Shan. There was Big Mother’s sister Swirl, her husband Wen the Dreamer and their daughter, Zhuli. And there was Kai, a friend of both Zhuli and Sparrow. These characters all take center stage at some point in the book, overlapping and seamlessly weaving into one another. But first, a few basics.

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Heart Work: Within & Beyond Activist Communities

People are fired up, ready to organize.

I felt the energy of folks in Oakland last Saturday at the Women’s March and it reminded me of the first time I ever attended an action (an anti-war protest at San Francisco’s Civic Center). That was back in 2006, about a decade ago. Since then, I’ve been a part of various movements — from Palestinian liberation and BDS groups, anti-war movements and international non-profit organizations until I found my political home in GABRIELA USA, a grassroots, anti-imperialist organization of Filipino women.

While I’ve witnessed many victories and forward motion, I’ve also had my fair share of burn out, of adopting different ways of taking care of myself (some worked, some didn’t), of witnessing destructive and harmful behavior. What I’ve learned is that in spite of committing to radical intentions and revolutionary ideals: we’re all (and still) human.

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Which means we are prone to making mistakes, f***king up, hurting those we love unintentionally, and possibly replicating harmful ways of living, loving and relating. Just because we are community organizers and activists doesn’t mean we are immune to the frailties and vulnerabilities of the human condition. It is in this vein that I started reading The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (Amazon | Indie Bound) edited by Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.

The book is a compilation of essays, personal accounts, poems, guides and strategies for confronting abuse, rape and intimate partner violence within activist communities from all over Northern America. Many of the pieces were written by people who founded and/or worked with nonprofit organizations. They wrote about the ways they’ve dealt with violence from a macro-level perspective, to dealing with violence from folks in the same community.

There are three major things that I learned from the book: 1) the rise and implication(s) of the nonprofit model as a means for social change, 2) abuse faced by people who are differently-abled and 3) the mechanics of community accountability practices.

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Reading for Resistance

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.

— James Baldwin

On Trump’s inauguration day, we filled the streets in protest. The following day, we marched with an estimated 3 million women around the country. While there are no protests or marches happening today, the writing on the wall is apparent: now is the time to organize and mobilize against Trump, against fascism, against U.S. imperialism.

My feet are still aching but my heart is achingly fully. Two marches in two days is a new record for me but I intend to keep on going, for as long as the world I live in resembles the oppressive reality of the present. Today, an offering: reading for resistance.

Recent acquisitions: a lot of classics (that I should’ve read a long time ago), a book on mindfulness and a relatively new novel.

I’m finishing up Juan Felipe Herrera’s Notes on the Assemblage (Amazon | Indie Bound) and it couldn’t be more timely as he writes about the struggles of black and brown folks through poetry. He writes poems about immigrants and workers, odes to working-class heroes, and letters to intimate figures in a way that commemorates and affirms their work and influence.

Doing the work that’s needed at this critical time can only be strengthened by reading the kind of literature that aids the struggle for justice and liberation. Books that expand our consciousness, drawing from important lessons of the past.

To survive, democracy needs a truly radical, truly independent press more than ever before. We need to create a culture in this country in which reading and resistance go hand-in-hand.

— Howard Zinn

Haymarket Books compiled a list of books to make 2017 a year of resistance and it includes revolutionary literature that would continue to inspire us in the struggle. Here’s a few from the list:

Literary Hub also came out with a list of recommended reading by writers for the next four years, with recommendations from poets like Ocean Luong and Eileen Myles.

A local bookstore in San Francisco, City Lights Bookstore, also came out with their own pedagogies of resistance. What I love about this list is that it is more inclusive, with resources for organizing in the queer community.

I’m thinking of compiling all these resources in the blog at some point and make it an evolving list. The next four years is going to be a rough one, and we’ll need all the help we can get. If you have other resources, leave them in the comments below!

For now, read and resist!

Filipinos for Export and Their Stories, with Mia Alvar

About 6,000 Filipinos leave the Philippines each day, off to countries around the world in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families. Off to any place where any currency except the Philippine peso is stronger, where dreams of living large are bigger.

In the 80’s, the term “Overseas Filipino Worker” or OFW became a real thing. They were touted as the modern heroes of the country, as they raked in dollars or euros or riyals all bolstering up the country’s GDP. Remittances became a huge boon.

This is the premise of Mia Alvar’s book In The Country, a compilation of nine short short stories of family, love and migration — and also of neoliberal economic policies.

The book begins with a short story titled The Kontrabida, a word which translates to “villain.” Images of Miss Minchin (from Sarah, Ang Munting Prinsesa) and Angelica Panganiban as Madame (from Pangako Sa’Yo) immediately popped up in my head. I’ve watched enough telenovelas to understand the depths of crazy there is in a kontrabida character, so I was expecting a grandiose tale of the bida or the “hero” at the end of the story victorious, the kontrabida slighted in some way.

But that wasn’t the case in this story. It revolves around a family of three: a son (Steve) who works as a clinical pharmacist in New York City, his ailing father in the Philippines, and his mother the caregiver who also vends household items from their sari-sari store. The best part about it is that you can’t really tell which character is the kontrabida, each with their own ghost from the past.

For years there’d been no question of how much she leaned on me, like any mother on her overseas son. It never dawned on me how much I’d leaned on her: to play her part, stick to the script. Her saintliness was an idea I loved more than I had ever hated him.

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By Jose Ibay

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