Multitudes, with Gordon Parks

This week’s inspiration: fashion, lifestyle and (most importantly) movement photographer, Gordon Parks.

It wasn’t until I started poring over Volume 26 of the Kinfolk magazine that I found about him, in spite of his magnanimous work behind the lens. Moved by the same current of wanting to document and expose what his own eyes saw, he taught himself how to use a camera he bought from a pawn shop.

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Source: The Gordon Parks Foundation

Years, decades later, Parks would be known for his body of work that documented the grit and beauty of black life that reflected his commitment to racial justice. He captured fleeting moments on camera, each a universe on its own. He documented poverty, rural and urban life, revealing the herculean efforts it took to complete seemingly menial tasks.

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Source: The Gordon Parks Foundation

At the same time, he also did many portraits and fashion shoots, a testament to his versatility in the craft. Throughout his career, he photographed Muhammad Ali, the Black Panthers, Ralph Ellison, Marilyn Monroe and many more.

I gravitated towards Parks because I found his work as a movement photographer and a fashion photographer compelling. In a time when most of us are encouraged to do one big thing, what he chose to do gave me so much hope. What I loved about him is that he believed in capturing beauty, that beauty is essential to everyday life.

I love that he was engaged in making that happen, and that it didn’t stop him from continuing his work no matter what he was engaged in — whether out in the streets or in a fashion studio.

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I can’t say that I am a former activist at the moment, just because my level of participation isn’t what it used to be. I’m at a point where my activism is constantly evolving, and it is looking more and more different each day. At the same time, I’ve never felt so invigorated in expressing myself through fashion, something I’ve considered superficial for a long time.

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Source: The Gordon Parks Foundation

What I’m slowly realizing is that I’m engaged in a double-sided effort: a spiritual transformation through reading, and constant visual transformation of my body as a means for growth. Thus, my renewed vigor for books and looks or concurrently: #booklook.

These two efforts — literature and fashion, have long been intertwined in my system from a young age. My love for reading books started early on, never forced, a natural inclination.

Fashion, on the other hand was a different story, something that grew out of being a morena in a country where colorism runs deep, a story between my mother and I.

Being the bookish kid with a flair for fashion was hard, because I felt like I was constantly being pulled in opposite directions. Whereas I cherished the world books built for me within, I was also giddy with experimenting with different looks to express my creativity. Eventually, I dismissed the latter and decided to focus on literature.

These days though, I find myself exploring these things again. Both pursuits require money, so I’m eternally grateful for used bookstores (like Green Apple Books in San Francisco) and consignment stores all over the city (Buffalo Exchange, Crossroads). Material considerations aside, I’m grateful to Parks for showing me that it is possible, that we don’t have to compartmentalize the ways we choose to express ourselves.

In the meantime, you can find a combination of these loves on my Instagram account. I’d love to know what you think: have you ever felt like you embrace contradicting things? How’d you struggle with them? 

V-Day Special: A Dose of Romantic Realism

No matter what you call it, February 14 is always either welcomed or dreaded every time it comes around. I mean, we can choose not to honor it at all and celebrate these other things instead: One Billion Rising (a global campaign to end violence against women), Singles Awareness Day (the anti-Valentine’s) or my personal favorite, doubling up on self-love.

But what’s up with this Hallmark-manufactured holiday that has pervaded our culture so predominantly? Is it just a perk of capitalism or is it really an honest-to-goodness celebration of love beyond the flowers, chocolates and fancy dinners?

Like it or not, there’s something about Valentine’s Day that induces a wellspring of well-meaning and well-intentioned actions. I went to my local grocery store last night to pick up a bunch of ingredients for a recipe and lo and behold — a section of the store was filled with red balloons, ornate flower arrangements and a queue of men/dads/uncles with something in hand. More than the material expressions of love, I think there’s actually more to the holiday than gifts or anything else. And it dawned on me: what it comes down to is a primal need for intimate and authentic connections with the people around us. 

It is in our human nature after all, to want and need these connections. I guess what conflates how we view and experience intimate relationships is the notion of romance. I’ve been thinking a lot about this since I read Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love (check out my 2-part book review here!), a fictional story about a couple and their relationship interjected with philosophical and psychological musings on love. When The Sorrows of Love book was published by The School of Life (also founded by de Botton), I knew instantly that it was something I wanted to highlight:

Love has, quite unfairly, come to be associated with being happy. However, it is also one of the most reliable routes to misery.

We tend to treat our sadness individually, as if it were unique and shameful. But, as this book explains, there are some solid reasons why love should be highly sorrowful at times. The good news is that, by understanding our romantic troubles and griefs, seeing them in their proper context and appreciating their prevalence, we will cease to feel so alone and so cursed.

This essay is not a study in despair; it is a guide to a more consoling, humane, and in its own way, joyful perspective on the complexities of love.

So what’s Romantic Realism and why do we need it? Here’s a gist of the book in photos:

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And in the spirit of this day — I’m giving away three digital copies of the book! Sign up for the blog by sending an email to hello@libromance.com or filling out the form below:

No matter what you do thought, make sure this day is yours and spend it the way you see fit, honoring what feels true and authentic to you.

From my bookish heart to yours,
Pia xx

What I’m Reading / Thinking / Feeling this February

Fresh off of a trip from New York City and I’m feeling all sorts of inspired + excited for this year’s opportunities and gifts!

I just wrote a piece on Hella Pinay about making 2018 the year of emergence, along with a couple of book recommendations that I hope can guide and enlighten. You can check out the full piece here, and share with a friend or two.

February is probably one of my favorite months, in anticipation of March (my birth month) where for the past couple of years, a lot of life-changing things have been happening. It’s also usually Chinese New Year (I’m not Chinese but have reverence for the occasion), Black History Month and duh, Valentines Day (which is always a good time to challenge/recreate/celebrate the different ways we love).

I know we’re almost halfway into the month already, but I’ve got a few more literary-ish things I’m hoping to publish in addition to weekly book reviews. I’m reading a bit slower than usual though, and usually I would berate myself for not keeping on track with my reading/publishing schedule but I learned a lot of good but hard lessons last year.

A few things coming up your way is a V-day special, books to celebrate Black History month and this month’s reading of course! I just finished Tom Hanks’s book of short stories An Unncommon Type and unexpectedly loved it. I’m about to dive into another set of short stories by Susan Sontag, so watch out for reviews of both of these. This week also, my review for Ana Simo’s Heartland will be out!

As I continue to open myself up to new experiences and things that make me want to cower in bed and hide, I find myself feeling lighter and expansive at the same time, each day a wave of goodness (even on the bad days). I can say that for the first time in my existence, I feel at peace with what I have, what I’m doing, what I’m feeling. Is this what being in your 30s feel like?!

Navigating a tumultuous political and economic reality can wear even the strongest spirit down, so for the past few months, I’ve been focused on nourishing my mental, emotional and physical health. And it’s worked wonders! Apart from living within the books I devour, I’ve also learned how to truly live in this world–to be ever present. At the end of the day, knowing that everything I chose to say yes and no to feels good in my heart (and gut!) gives me a sense of power and agency I’ve never really felt before.

This, in spite of continued attacks on women from heads of state (Trump & Duterte) — u got a domestic violence apologist/misogynist for your adoptive country with a macho-fascist for your homeland. Talk about being a Filipino-American queer woman at this time!

Still, we resist. We create. We thrive and continue to exist. I am grateful to feel rooted, grounded and centered like never before and it is my wish that every single one feels the same way. We need all of our strength and resilience as we fight to make our way in this planet, as we make room for many more. I love how I’ve been able to connect with so many folks through this Libromance and as always, thank you for supporting me and my blog! 🖤

That Big Love, with Paul Auster (A Book Review of ‘4 3 2 1: A Novel’)

The moment you turn the last page of a book, finally heaving a sigh of relief or perhaps some dejection at the end of a journey you wanted to go on, you become a different person.

It’s funny how I can always remember the empty feeling I’m left after finishing a really good book, a kind of piercing emotion that throws me off every single time. Such as when I read Exit West, during my lunch break at work. Having to walk back to my desk was a little disconcerting, having just spent so much time, all of it memorable with Nadia and Saeed as they drifted from one place to another. It almost feels like spending a lifetime with these people, as if these characters were people whose numbers I had saved on my phone, that I could call up on and check in whenever I want.

After finishing Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1: A Novel (Amazon | Indiebound) one evening, I had to take a walk. I could’ve settled for my neighborhood, a suburb south of San Francisco, but instead I headed to the nearest mall by my house. I felt like I needed to engulf myself in a sea of strangers.

The book is the story of a young man, Archie Ferguson, who lives four different versions of his life, a grand tale, a coming-of-age story.

On my short drive to the mall, I was thinking about the boy. In the eleven days that I spent with the book, not once did this character leave my mind. There’s the story, or stories I should say, the structure, and the character that struck me over and over again as I slogged my way through the brick of a book 4 3 2 1 was.

First, there was the story of Archie Ferguson, actually, the many stories of Archie Ferguson from his grandfather’s descent in New York City up until his youngest son’s marriage to the beautiful Rose Adler, Archie’s mom. Getting to know his parents’ story and his birth, his childhood in its many variants was interesting, because this way, you get to know Archie four more times as intimate as you normally would in a typical novel. Who he was was pretty consistent, a mild-mannered child whose internal world was filled with characters from the books that he read, who was incredibly drawn to the people in his childhood, people who revolved around him that he couldn’t seem to let go off. This was a common thread throughout his life, no matter which version I was reading.

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Second, the structure is seamless, as if there were events from another version or distinct scenes that would continue on to the next one, as if the four stories was one whole epic called The Book of Terrestrial Life. This is such a masterpiece in its entirety, a labor of love, except for a few quirks and the early deaths that made me wonder if they were intentional or quite frankly, if Auster just got lazy. (I mean, I’m struggling to write only one book but here’s Auster with four different versions of the same story, four books all in all). I like that he really kept it consistent, that Archie was Archie through and through, with the kind heart always looking for the big love that he always dreamt of. Continue reading

Loving in Ireland, with John Boyne (A Book Review of ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’)

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Before I picked up John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Amazon | Indiebound), I must confess that I barely knew anything about Ireland. The most I’ve read about the country and its history was from Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire, wherein he mostly talked about how a crop, the infamous potato, from a historical, political and epistemological context in the country.

The book centers around Cyril Avery, an Irish gay man who survived. Emphasis on the last word because he did, in every essence, survived everything he went through from being carried in his mother’s womb in the beginning of the book until its last page.

I was traipsing in the Riviera Maya when I started reading the book so that probably made it a little harder for me to get acclimated to. While I was burying my feet in the warm Caribbean sand, it occurred to me that The Heart is probably not the best beach read (whatever that means). But I forged ahead, certain that Boyne had an important story to tell with Avery.

And boy did he! I wasn’t prepared for the kind of violence in the book, even though it’s the kind I’ve known throughout my life even as a young girl in the Philippines. Ireland in 1945 following the declaration of a free Irish State in 1922 was largely influenced by the Roman Catholic Church. Spain brought Catholicism to the Philippines in the 1500s as part of conquest strategy, while Catholicism in Ireland dates back to the fifth century with a history rich with violence itself.

This violence brought on by the Catholic Church: from Cyril’s mother’s exile from her town after getting pregnant out-of-wedlock to the pervasiveness of homophobia in Irish society which resulted to violent deaths. It wasn’t surprising then when one of the characters, whose lover was murdered by his own father on accounts of being gay, would say this:

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This Body Is, with Roxane Gay

My dad’s signature greeting to family relatives, friends and people he meets has always been, roughly translated from Tagalog: “Looks to me like you’re getting skinny!” It doesn’t matter if it was the first time my dad has ever seen the person, or if they’ve just seen each other the day before.

Cue a hearty laugh, a grateful smile, a relieved sigh; the greeting always yields the intended effect. At an early age, I knew that being skinny was a compliment. It was a good sign. If one was gaining weight or on the heavier side though, one could expect a frown, a hushed tone, a look that implies shame.

So I knew my dad was on to something: losing weight = looking good = feeling good. It’s a brilliant formula, but only if you were actually losing weight. But that doesn’t matter.

When I picked up Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Amazon | Indiebound) by Roxane Gay, I only had the faintest notions on what it was about. All I know is that I have to read Gay’s work — from An Untamed State to Bad Feminist (I’ve yet to read Difficult Women) as she’s become one of my favorite writers (in spite of that tweet suggesting Lebron join the Golden State Warriors).

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Gay’s book is about hunger in many forms: that adolescent need to fit in and be wanted, a yearning to speak the truth without pain, the comforting solace of food, the promise of safety, to being desired and desiring other bodies.

At the core of Hunger is how Gay has turned to food and literature among other things to keep herself safe, after being raped by a group of boys when she was younger. She didn’t know how to tell her parents for fear of hurting them, so she buried the painful truth and built herself an armor of defense, a fortress for one.

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In a culture run by capitalism, the need to cater to the male gaze and the unending dissatisfaction brought about by the media and so many industries to turn a profit come first.  Continue reading

An Intimate Look of How Plants View the World, with Michael Pollan

My grandfather was an avid gardener and the house I grew up in the Philippines was surrounded by an orchard of fruits and vegetables, flanked by different kinds of flowers, plants and trees.

A favorite one when I was growing up was a flimsy flower tree by the foot of the stairs that led to our house — it was tall, but light enough for me to shake gently so that my sisters and I can pretend that it was raining (the dew drops filled in). On sunny afternoons, I would give the tree a gentle shake, its flowers falling slowly from its branches and the three of us would sit in wonder, in awe of the falling pink petals.

I was thinking about that tree, and these things in my childhood as I read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire (Amazon | Indiebound). The book has brought up a lot of different emotions and memories for me on nature, on food, on my complex history with these things; it even prompted a post on my personal history with food earlier this week.

The Botany of Desire is a book about the plant’s eye-view of the world — specifically the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato — and how each of these things have been shaped by human desires. What seems to be at first a process of domestication, Pollan explores how humans can actually be objects of these plants’ desires for survival.

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Malus Domestica

A is for apple. A is for America(n). How many times have you ever heard of the phrase “as American as apple pie”? The apple has been an essential part of American lexicon — wholesome, healthy and sweet. These attributes, specially sweetness, has elevated the symbol of the fruit, actually a native of Kazakhstan to a symbol that most of us identify with. Continue reading

Experiencing Nature Through Feelings, with Alexander Von Humboldt and Andrea Wulf

“…he believed that a great part of our response to the natural world should be based on the sense and emotions. He wanted to excite a ‘love of nature’. At a time when other scientists were searching for universal laws, Humboldt wrote that nature had to be experienced through feelings.”

To understand Alexander Von Humboldt, as told brilliantly by Andrea Wulf in The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World (Amazon | Indiebound) is to see the natural world in relation to everything — philosophy, art, music, poetry, politics and most of all, ourselves.

It was no surprise that I stumbled upon the book again, after hearing about it two years ago in a piece from The New Yorker. I walked into Book Tree in Oakland for the first time and there it was. I thought it was only fitting since it was Earth Day that day (April 22), a day to demonstrate environmental protection around the world. It wasn’t until after reading the book that I found out that Earth Day also falls around the birth anniversary of John Muir (April 21), the American naturalist and environmentalist greatly inspired by Humboldt.

Since then, learning about Humboldt became a wild ride — his life was a rich tale of discovery, of curiosity, of connecting, of giving. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a man whose sole purpose in life was to find out more about the natural world and weave it seamlessly with other disciplines.

Humboldt wasn’t interested in classifying plants for the sake of research alone, nor was he scaling mountains and measuring height and altitude to make money with his discoveries. He was interested in making connections and seeing how every thing was interrelated.

Humboldt was assembling the data he needed to make sense of nature as a unified whole. If nature was a web of life, he couldn’t look at it just as a botanist, a geologist or a zoologist. He required information about everything and from everywhere, because ‘observations from the most disparate regions of the planet must be compared to one another.’

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Illustration by ATAK

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Teach Me How to Hygge, with Meik Wiking

It all started with a trip to the annex of Green Apple Books in San Francisco. The bookstore in the Inner Richmond district of the city has become a haven for me, and I’ve gone for the past 11 years. But it was about three years ago when I picked up a copy of Kinfolk, a lifestyle magazine based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

As soon as I picked up the magazine and started reading it, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm. I remember driving home to North Oakland and settling in a brown, wicker papasan with a cup of tea, eager to dive into the magazine. I would savor every page, each photo and story, because reading it had a calming effect on me.

Since then, I’ve owned every issue. There are also a bunch of issues strategically placed in my room, so that I’m always reminded of that feeling. It wasn’t until lately that I realized what it was that made me so enamored with Kinfolk, so drawn to its mere presence — the Danish concept of hygge.

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More hygge, less hassle. (Source)

Hygge (pronounced as hoo-gah) is a Danish word which has no direct translation, but it roughly means “cozy” and it pertains to a kind of lifestyle that the Danes have adapted, and has influenced the way they view or arrange their homes, their offices, down to creating the kind of atmosphere that is hyggeligt (as in, hygge-ful); to a feeling of being at home within ourselves and in the society, a moment to let their guards down. It also comes from the Norwegian word meaning “well-being.”

About a month ago, I came across Meik Wiking’s The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living (Amazon | Indiebound) and decided to get into it. But instead of the good ol’ way of holding a physical copy, I got an audio book through Audible. Within the two days that I listened to the book, I learned about the hygge lifestyle: its origins, how to hygge at home, in the office and outdoors, what makes for a hyggeligt time and how my obsession with Kinfolk, candles and books finally make sense.

What freedom is to America, hygge is to Danes.

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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