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

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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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Poems of a Half-finished Heaven, with Tomas Tranströmer

I remember reading Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things mystified by the poet he returns to over and over again: I turn to him when I wish to come as close as possible to what cannot be said. 

“Two truths approach each other. One comes from within, one comes from without–and where they meet you have the chance to catch a look at yourself.”
— 
Preludes, Tomas Tranströmer

In the compilation Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986 edited by Robert Haas, I dove right into his poetry as if getting to know a new lover.

It was a slow process as I read unfamiliar details of unfamiliar landscapes, unlike how I read poems by Rilke or Vuong. Reading their poems in the first few pages alone had me falling right into their depths. Their poems magnified their character.

Reading Tranströmer on the other hand was a lot like roaming vast and empty fields, until you chance upon a small house in the clearing — obscure but undeniably reassuring.

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I read each line and each poem dutifully, slowly getting used to his rhythm. But it wasn’t until I got to The Half-Finished Heaven was I finally able to understand why Teju turned to him.

It is in the small details of life, the tiniest gestures that we can draw the most essential. I loved how he was able to weave natural elements in ways that begets a deeper consciousness of our humanity, as he did in Stones (photo above) and in Late May (photo below). In poem after poem, Tomas made this evident.

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In his poem How the Late Autumn Night Novel Begins, he writes about wandering in a forest late at night, marveling at its peculiar beauty: “Next morning I see a sizzling golden-brown branch. A crawling stack of roots. Stones with faces. The forest is full of abandoned monsters which I love.”

Reading his poems was also at times a spiritual experience. Lulled by imagery and a deep appreciation for life around him, I was reminded of the little things that make for a fruitful life.

He was also melancholic in some, eliciting the kind of tenderness evident with Vuong’s poetry. In Answers to Letters, I could almost imagine the poet poring over what he had in his hands and both reminisce and resign himself to the ether.

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Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986 is a great introduction to Tomas’s work and I have so much gratitude for the translators and the editors who made the compilation possible.

It’s enough to compel me to delve deeper into his body of work.

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Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986
Edited by Robert Haas
April 9, 2000
Ecco (208 pages)

Economics as if People Mattered, Economics in a Spiritual Sense (with E.F. Schumacher)

“An attitude to life which seeks fulfillment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth — in short, materialism — does not fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited.”
–E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered

I’m not one to jump for the joy at the sound of economics, nor do I find the subject of economic progress appealing. I can, on the other hand, understand the necessity of work, of having a job in order to sustain one self. It is only from this perspective, this incredibly minute perspective that I was brought up in: life is about finding the right job and living comfortably until you die peacefully.

Until it’s not.

This perspective changed as soon as I became an activist. When you come face to face with the dire working conditions of your people, you want nothing but change. You know what the ideal world you dream up with others look like, but you don’t exactly know the specifics of what it takes to get to that world.

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“What becomes of man in the process of production?”

This, by no means, is really your fault. There are numerous institutions and systems at work.

When I read Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual last year, he wrote about how news cables were first laid on the ocean floor — in the service of economics.

Historically, the evolution of the modern news media has been closely linked to the need for market information on the part of capitalism’s banks, brokerages and trading houses.

The transoceanic cables laid between the United Kingdom and the United States in the mid-nineteenth century were jointly funded by financiers and news companies (Reuters, for one).

Most of the economic news we also receive for the most part fly over our heads: there is no section of the New York Times dedicated to economics as a whole, but there is a Business section. It isn’t too hard to guess which portion of the population it aims to serve — either the rich, or for those of us who see trade and job-making a way of life.

I haven’t heard of Schumacher before, but I came across a Brain Pickings post once called “Buddhist Economics.” Those two words together caught my attention. That same day, a friend pulled it out of her shelf and told me that I should read it. I took that as a beautiful happenstance. This book and I were fated.

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“The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom.”

This book was first published in 1975, about twelve years before I was born. Schumacher’s book was dismissed as wanky, crazy even to quote Gandhi and Buddha in a field ruled by statistics. His premise was simple: in a world where capitalism is god, we needed to face hard facts about the way we lived our lives.

We is the operative term; most of the major economic decisions made back then (and to this day) were beyond what the average citizen had a control of. In understanding the scope and essence of our economic lives, he referenced other concepts: peace, permanence, Buddhism, consumerism, nature as capital, materialism.

I started to get even more interested. As I get older, I find myself drawn to things that evoke a sense of spirituality. I found this in Small is Beautiful as he pointed out man’s irreverence and arrogance, reminding us — mere human beings — of our own impermanence. It was humbling.

He [Schumacher] reminds us that economics has only become scientific by becoming statistical. But at the bottom of its statistics, sunk well out of sight, are so many sweeping assumptions about people like you and me — about our needs and motivations and the purpose we have given our lives.

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“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed.”

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The Metaphysics of Reading the News, with Alain de Botton

“Whatever happens in our classrooms, the more potent and ongoing kind of education takes place on the airwaves and on our screens. Cocooned in classrooms for only our first eighteen years or so, we effectively spend the rest of our lives under the tutelage of news entities which wield infinitely greater influence over us than any academic institution can. Once our formal education has finished, the news is the teacher.
–Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual

The proliferation of fake news lately, especially heightened during the U.S. presidential election, had me scratching my head in confusion: so people actually fell for it?

In a podcast by Planet Money, they tracked down the “Fake-News King” Jestin Coler who makes profit off of the ads he ran on fake news articles and website. Once you see it from that perspective, it isn’t impossible then that this would exist. What’s the golden piece of nugget in this story? Coler said it himself:

Like, there is a demand for this product. People want conspiracy. Like, people want fake news that confirms what they already believe.

If you think that fake news is problematic, it may be the real news that actually falls short. This I learned after reading Alain de Botton’s The News: A User Manual, an exploration and analysis of the news we consume (and are given) on the daily: political, world, economic, celebrity, disaster, consumer.

When I was still a high-schooler back in the Philippines, I remember participating in news writing workshops and contests where the bare bones of news writing were taught. I even won a contest at some point and considered pursuing journalism in college for a minute.

But I knew journalism wasn’t for me, because what I saw published in the news lacked the kind of creativity I wanted to infuse in my work. Turns out, I’m not alone in this thought.

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We consume news in various methods and from different platforms — news alerts straight to your inbox, articles on your Facebook timeline, 140-character tweets on your feed — that it’s impossible not to drown in all that information (or misinformation). The question that de Botton asks is: is the news we are given presented in a way that warrants our attention? Does it elicit something more than passive indignation, a quick (nasty at times) comment or a mere glance enough to compel us to action?

Central to the book is the way news is presented to us and the way we contextualize the information we receive. Take political news for example: we are given the facts, the political actors, the ramifications. If today’s headline underscores a politician’s incompetence, it is not hard for an ordinary citizen to be enraged. It is easy for us to point fingers, to dismiss the politician and/or the system as stupid or not working when in reality, there’s actually much that we don’t see.

What is the role of mainstream media then, when it presents us political news?

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He also delves into foreign or world news, of which we all have become accustomed to in the form of war, disaster or tragedies which need more than #Prayfor_____ posted on our social media accounts.

An understanding of human nature is what’s needed, de Botton explains: “Foreign news should find ways to make us all more human in another’s eyes, so that the apparently insuperable barriers of geography, culture, race and class could be transcended and fellow-feeling might develop across chasms.”

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A Guide for Living Our Best Lives, with Kahlil Gibran

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Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is one of those rare books that proves to be timeless and brimming with wisdom, one that instantly gives you clarity upon reading it. Call me late to The Prophet-party, but I’m glad that I read it at the most opportune time possible. As I sift through the mess of 2016, reading Gibran’s classic work gave me so much perspective beyond our current times, propelling a leap inwards towards the self’s center.

The book is the story of Almustafa who was set to sail out back to his birthplace, after living in Orphalese for more than a decade. But before he leaves, he engages in a discussion of life and the human condition with a group of people. This becomes the essence of The Prophet, a compilation of 26 prose fables on love, marriage, pain, work and other matters of life we hold dear.

We’re living in a time where our lives are complicated by economic, political, psychological and social factors, not in the way that strengthens our resolve as human beings but geared towards a profit-seeking, environmentally-destructible and individualist paradigm. It is no wonder that even with the rise of social media, we feel disconnected more than ever — misunderstood, disillusioned, isolated.

How do we then make sense of our need to flourish in the short time that we have in this world, given the unforgiving frailty of our human faculties? Gibran seemed to have the answers.

On love & marriage — the message is this: a delicate dance of just enough is enough for love. More than bell hooks’s book All About Love which I touted at one point as my bible, I think Gibran’s message resonates because it acknowledges our humanity while respecting our beloved’s.

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This inquiry is central to so many of our lives — the desire to love and be loved. And when we do find our beloved, the path to healthy relationships at times can be thorny. Although we spend the majority of our early years in school, we are never taught how to relate in intimate relationships healthily. Our education comes in the form of prominent figures in our personal lives and what we see in the media. In this matter, Gibran also has some words. Continue reading