Sunday Spotlight: The Rituals & Routines of Creatives

Art + Creativity, Sunday Spotlight

I recently picked up Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work after seeing the cover at City Lights Bookstore, at San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, once the home of beatnik writers like Jack Kerouac. I’ve always been fascinated by the routines, rituals and creative practice of artists — from writers like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin to painters like Georgia O’Keeffe and Pierre Bonnard.

When you are moved by a particular book or a painting, it’s hard not to wonder about the life of the writer or the painter, what induced its genesis, how it was created. It is a curiosity out of admiration and a tiny hope of, perhaps, being able to recreate the process with one’s own work.

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The book contains a glimpse of the lives of about 161 artists — writers, painters, thinkers, philosophers — in a few pages detailing their routines and at times quirky habits while doing their work. I am thankful for Currey’s work on this compendium as it enlightens and entertains, in a way that calms the nervous and anxious writer’s heart.

I am always most curious about writers and I’ve featured a few writers here on my blog and in others. Reading and writing about them has always been a joy. After coming back from the Philippines, I read Bob Ong for the first time after it was recommended by a close friend. His book Stainless Longganisa is part-memoir/part-writing manifesto, and it is filled with references only Filipinos would understand — truly unmissable.

I’ll never forget Ong’s words on not letting the space alotted for our words go to waste. There are things to be written, ideas to be shared and ultimately, worlds that unravel between the writer and the reader. And there’s nothing quite like that intimacy, all on paper.

And then there’s Marcel Proust, the French writer whom I’ve actually never read before. I read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life and it was a detailed picture of the writer’s work and life, from the lavish parties he attended to the writing he did in bed. I have an illustrated copy of In Search of Lost Time that I’ve yet to open, and I think this will only nourish my understanding of his work.

I wrote about how reading the book can give birth to a different way of looking at the things around us, however grand or mundane. Proust was a sickly man, who was domestically helpless, who wrote with an adequate bedside lamp. He managed his day-to-day existence with hired help who fed and clothed him, as he wrote scrupulously.

There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt. In this profound effort it is our thought itself that we bring out into the light, together with his. (Marcel Proust)

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And then there’s Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, a book I read a couple of years ago. I was still living in Oakland at that time and Dillard was with me every time I crossed the Bay Bridge underwater, in the shuttle on the winding, uphill streets of San Francisco. I remember being mesmerized, enchanted by Dillard, who wrote about birds flying under her chair and locking herself in a cabin, devoid of the world so she can write.

Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair. (Annie Dillard)

Her practice consisted of avoiding appealing workplaces, so that imagination can meet memory in the dark. The work of Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds me of this, in his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The SympathizerDillard preferred to revel in her solitude, a feat in itself that sought to highlight the passage of time and how we spend our days.

Reading has always been, and will always be my first love. Writers also cannot stress this enough — that in order to write well, one must read a lot. Dillard mused on what constitutes a good life, what an appealing daily schedule looks like. It is her, who said after all, that how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less, time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life. (Annie Dillard)

I also just finished Stephen King’s On Writing: A Craft of the Memoir, as he documents his childhood and what has informed his writing throughout the years. He provides the reader an in-depth look on his experiences, life lessons and warns forthcoming writers of the perils of shortcuts and easy way outs; the book review will be out this Tuesday on Libromance.

At the core of Currey’s book and at the heart of Ong, Dillard and King’s routines is the act of putting pen on paper (or fingers on the Macbook) and writing away. Nothing is clearer and simpler than the act itself, no matter how many workshops one takes, or whatever fancy tools one uses (I got a trial version of Scrivener, a writing software, once to help me write a book only to discover that it made the whole process more daunting). The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said it best:

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. (Rainer Maria Rilke)

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All photos & infographics from this post are lovingly made by the cool folks at Info We Trust.

Against Martial Law Revisionists

Sunday Spotlight

The Philippines held its national election last May 9th and while election coverage has died down a week later, there are a few alarming revelations.

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Source: Al-Jazeera

Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte won about 39% of the country’s votes for president; hailed as ‘The Punisher’ by the Time magazine, the mayor of Davao (a city in the Southern part of the country) is known for his vigilante-style crime-fighting tactics. Prior to election day, he also made headlines after a video of him surfaced wherein he was recorded making a rape joke.

He is a complex character, but also a product of the country’s semi-feudal and semi-colonial society. His candidacy seemed ludicrous at times, but perhaps not as unbelievable as that of Bongbong Marcos, who was running for vice president.

Marcos has garnered 34.6% of votes for VP, a close number to Leni Robredo’s 35.1% with 96.13% of precincts reporting. The margin between the two candidates is small. In a country that has been riddled with election fraud in the past times, it is shocking to see Marcos’s rise in this election cycle.

Perhaps, a quick history lesson is needed: Marcos is the son of the former Philippine president and ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. who subjected the country to martial law from 1972-1986. Marcos, Sr. was ousted in 1986, following the People Power Revolution (also known as the EDSA Revolution). During his reign, human rights violations became the norm and the country’s economy collapsed.

Here are some numbers to get a full picture from a report that referenced Amnesty International‘s findings:

70,000 imprisoned 
34,000 tortured
3,240 killed 

It is also during the Marcos reign that the Philippine economy tanked, rendering itself a slave to neoliberal free market policies. Ibon Foundation states that Marcos’s rule was not just for personal political survival but for the restructuring of Philippine economy to foreign monopoly capital.

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Left: A young Bonging Marcos, next to his father Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. (Source)

The Marcos regime implemented the neoliberal economic policies demanded by the US-dominated International Monetary Fund and World Bank in exchange for a share in the foreign loans and comprador business opportunities.

Marcos and his cronies were allowed to directly control and profit from large portions of the national economy – sugar, coconut, bananas, tobacco, logging, mining, telecommunications, banking, construction, vehicle assembly, energy, shipping, pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, gambling, and others.

I was born a year after Marcos was ousted. I learned about his dictatorship in school, and my naive mind questioned why his family couldn’t just return everything they stole from the Filipino people. In my young mind — without the knowledge that I have now — I believed that his reign was a dark time in the country’s history.

Which brings me to bigger questions: how has his son managed to garner 34.6% of the votes? What was in the minds of 13,803,444 Filipinos as they shaded the box corresponding to Bongbong Marcos’s name?

As I scroll through my Twitter feed, hear of support for the Marcoses from colleagues at work and read about his VP campaign, I feel a crippling sense of fear. I came across a petition on Change.org calling for the Dept. of Education to rewrite Philippine history books and include the full story of the martial law era.

I also came across a working list of Martial Law literature on Facebook, believing that literature is one way of preserving the necessity of memorya lesson I gleaned from the writer Viet Thanh Nguyen.

After looking at the list, I went to the Filipino American Center at the San Francisco Public Library to find books that talked about martial law. I came across a few titles, some poems and passages of remembrance, of indignation.

The History of the Burgis by Mariel N. Francisco and Fe Maria C. Arriola is a history pseudo-comic book focused on understanding the bourgeoisie in the country, how they came into power and what can possibly be done to transcend their class status for the general good. It was published right after the People Power Revolution and dedicates a whole chapter to Marcos and his dictatorship.

It features stories like “Yes, We Have No More Bananas” which talks about transnational companies monopolizing crops like bananas and pineapples, with the Filipino farmer unable to afford what he planted with his own hands. It also paints a true picture of the country’s economic and political state under Marcos:

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Another book I came across was R. Zamora Linmark‘s book:

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Rolling the R’s is a novel that is “throwing new light on gay identity and the trauma of assimilation.” I’ve never read the book although I’ve heard a lot about it. I scanned the pages and came across a poem that befits the lesson I was looking for:

Requiem
Memory is a mosaic of tongues licking dirt, of lies
embroidered to protect the King of Marital Law.

He was born. He is risen. He will kill again. And his
kingdom will have no end.

Memory is a 1972 machine gun fired one Sunday morn-
ing. Four bodies on the edge of a road. An act of sus-
pended drowning.

This is a cup of his blood, the new and everlasting
covenant.

Memory is a woman who howls wolf past curfew. Late
night dinner parties and spilled champagne.

She drinks it so that his sins may be forgiven.

Memory is a spinning bottle, a top with no base, a mad
pack of white dogs eating brown tails, brown dogs eating
spotted talks.

She breaks bread, gives it to his disciples, and says, Eat
this in memory of us.

Memory is an archipelago of closed-view coffins, eaten
calmly like sugared fingers of bread.

Lastly, I saw a title by Prof. Joi Barrios, a Filipino poet and activist who currently teaches at UC Berkeley. She has written poems and composed songs for GABRIELA, of which I am a part of.

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Bulaklak sa Tubig: Mga Tula ng Pag-ibig at Himagsik (Flowers in Water: Poems on Love and Revolt) is a wonderful collection of poems, of which most are dedicated to and inspired by the struggles of Filipinos and issues facing the country.

I landed on a poem dedicated to the student victims during martial law and the Marcos dictatorship, as well as to the students of Kwang-Ju Massacre in Korea:

Babang Luksa: To Shed the Black Cloth

Babang-luksa.
In my country,
we wear black
a calendar year
to mourn the dead.

Babang-luksa.”
So we call the day when
we shed the black cloth,
the day we let go, and turn
faces forward.

But how does a nation entire
move to quit grief?
How do we forget those slain in cold blood,
slain in the fight for power,
slain in the fear of
revolt?

How long must we mourn
our youngest children
struck down in struggle?
Who long can we refer
that it was not our hearts
pierced by bayonet,
torn open by bullet?
How long must we remember
what it means to remain?
When does ache ease
into memory of
the plucked and stamped out lives of youth?

You ask now:
Just how long will black cloth swath us?
Our love for the lost
is umbilical cord
that binds eternal,
we honor their memory
from the depths of our wombs,
as we become their mothers,
their forebears in the struggle.
Here we vow truly,
that only on the day of justice
will we shed the black cloth.
Only hustisya will call forth
babang-luksa. 

As I looked at the shelves around me, I held the power of literature in reverence. I believe in its capacity to transpose the gravity and significance of the Philippines’s history, so that Filipinos, specially millennials, can say Never Again with conviction to any entity that seeks to undermine our sovereignty.

Awe at the undeniable fact that I will forever be the son of a fiercely beautiful woman. Awe at knowing just how exquisitely she prepared me to live and write my way into this world. And yes, her absence hurts, but her presence – and I feel it more and more each day – her presence moves me forward. (Saeed Jones)

 

Every time Mother’s Day comes around, I always think of the poet Saeed Jones. His essay Infinite Ache: My First Mother’s Day Without Her comes to mind right away, after I read it for the first time a few years ago. Maybe it’s the way that Saeed wrote about his mother, or his grief, or the beauty of what she had imparted upon him, or the familiarity of nam-myoho-renge-kyo (the Nichiren Buddhist chant) but her being and his  writing had left an indelible mark in my memory.

In his poem “Mercy” from Prelude to Bruise, he writes:

Her ghost slips into the room wearing nothing but the memory / of a song…

 

I’m also reminded of Ayana Mathis’s book The Twelve Tribes of Hattiea book I read three years ago. After reading the book, I remember taking a nap and waking up thinking of Hattie, finding it impossible not to. The book unfolds with the lives of Hattie’s twelve tribes, or children, as I try to make sense of her hardness and her husband August’s softness. I remember Lafayette, steely and inaccessible, Franklin, whose narrative left me at odds with what I knew as the irrationality of war.

…Hattie wanted to give her babies names that weren’t already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia, so she gave them names of promise and of hope, reaching-forward names, not looking-back ones. (Ayana Mathis) 

 

Recently, I read Tracy K. Smith’s memoir Ordinary Light wherein I was introduced to the incredibly intimate and tender relationship of a daughter with her mother. In a previous post about the memoir, I wrote about how Tracy’s writing opened up a new language for me, one I haven’t had the opportunity to create with my own mother.

I was calm and safe beside her, right at home. I didn’t think to call it beauty but beside her, I felt what the presence of beauty makes a person feel. (Tracy K. Smith)

I am grateful to these writers for their strength and their will to write their personal experiences and stories, no matter how harrowing or joyful, about mothers. My own relationship with my mama is a work in progress, a bond that I used to despise for a multitude of reasons when I was younger. As I get older though, I’m able to see her in a different light — who she is as a person, and who she was as a young mother then.

While the work of Saeed, Ayana and Tracy have touched something in me that is equal parts painful and healing, I am aware of my experience only as an immigrant daughter, kind of assimilated and openly queer. I revere Black motherhood, of which I have no direct experience but aware of the mottled heartbreak it comes with, in struggle and in relation to living in the U.S.

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I cannot fully know and I cannot fathom the well of pain felt by the mothers of Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Alex Nieto, Trayvon Martin, but I can surmise the depth of anger against institutions of state that have violently taken the lives of their sons.

What I do know is that it is the same institutions that have kept mother and child separate, an all too familiar scene at airports in the Philippines. The separation of the family is not an uncommon theme, as mothers leave their children in their home countries to care for children and families in the First World as recounted in this New Yorker article.

I think about struggles of mothers living abroad, the strength needed to withstand a foreign culture and the backbreaking work of minimum wage; the loneliness of an empty apartment after a day’s work buoyed by the promise of coming home one day; the daily misgivings of being undocumented, of being invisible and small in the face of the dollar; of the heartbreaking passage of time, of physical distance, of the increasing emotional distance, of being away.

Still, I see it — the smiles in spite of the callousness, joy in their eyes in spite of grief. I guess there will never be enough words, but always, an infinite ache.

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The featured image in this blog post, as well as the last two images are from Mamasday.org, a project of Forward Together, a multiracial organization for social change. Send a virtual Mama’s Day card using one of their beautiful creations!

Sunday Spotlight: Mama

Sunday Spotlight

May Day: Poetry for the Workers

Poetry, Sunday Spotlight
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Mural in Santa Mesa, Philippines

May 1st is International Workers’ Day, a symbolic day to commemorate, celebrate and continue the struggles of workers around the world. Currently, it is celebrated in 80 countries including Nigeria, Egypt, India and Chile, and it is also celebrated widely in the Philippines where a labor group has named themselves Kilusang Mayo Uno (May 1st Labor Movement).

It is not, however, an official holiday in the United States. In fact, Labor Day was moved to September prompting many to call the move a whitewashing. Unbeknownst to many is how the commemoration of the Haymarket Square Riot in Chicago back in 1886 is also central to May 1st:

On May 4, 1886, a labor protest rally near Chicago’s Haymarket Square turned into a riot after someone threw a bomb at police. At least eight people died as a result of the violence that day. Despite a lack of evidence against them, eight radical labor activists were convicted in connection with the bombing. The Haymarket Riot was viewed a setback for the organized labor movement in America, which was fighting for such rights as the eight-hour workday. At the same time, the men convicted in connection with the riot were viewed by many in the labor movement as martyrs. (Source: History.com)

To celebrate and commemorate the rich history of workers who have paved the way for humane working conditions, and for those who are still continuing the struggle, I’ve compiled some poems which offer depth, racial history and perspective of workers then and now.

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The first poem is from a Marxist collection of poetry, an anthology published for The Workers Party of America. I’ve never heard of this party before, although a quick search on Google shows that it was the “legal organization for the Communist Party of the USA.” Communist or not, the collection of poems stirs the reader, evokes strength as they “center upon the life, struggles and revolutionary movement of the working class.”

We Have Fed You All For a Thousand Years
Poem—By an Unknown Proletarian

We have fed you all, for a thousand years
And you hail us still unfed,
Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth
But marks the worker’s dead.
We have yielded our best to give you rest
And you lie on crimson wool.
Then if blood be the price of all your wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in full.

The next poem is by the Black poet Langston Hughes, a Harlem Renaissance figure whose work I’ve come to love. Although his work was deemed by many as controversial, the grit of his poems on workers has contributed to a body of literature that is often missing. He states that his poetry is for “workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July.

Open Letter to the South
Langston Hughes

White workers of the South
Miners,
Farmers,
Mechanics,
Mill Hands,
Shop girls,
Railway men,
Servants,
Tobacco workers,
Sharecroppers,
GREETINGS!

I am the black worker,
Listen:
That the land might be ours,
And the mines and the factories and the office towers
At Harlan, Richmond, Gastonia, Atlanta, New Orleans;
That the plants and the roads and the tools of power.

The next poem I chose is written by Joseph O. Legaspi, a poet born in the Philippines who migrated to Los Angeles when he was 12. As a Filipino myself, I found this poem of his — its details vivid, its theme familiar — an ode not just for his own mother, but for many immigrant mothers.

The Red Sweater
Joseph O. Legaspi

slides down into my body, soft
lambs wool, what everybody
in school is wearing, and for me
to have it my mother worked twenty
hours at the fast-food joint.
The sweater fits like a lover,
sleeves snug, thin on the waist.
As I run my fingers through the knit,
I see my mother over the hot oil in the fryers
dipping a strainer full of stringed potatoes.
In a twenty hour period my mother waits
on hundreds of customers: she pushes
each order under ninety seconds, slaps
the refried beans she mashed during prep time,
the lull before rush hours, onto steamed tortillas,
the room’s pressing heat melting her make-up.
Every clean strand of weave becomes a question.
How many burritos can one make in a continuous day?
How many pounds of onions, lettuce and tomatoes
pass through the slicer? How do her wrists
sustain the scraping, lifting and flipping
of meat patties?           And twenty

hours are merely links
in the chain of days startlingly similar,
that begin in the blue morning with my mother
putting on her polyester uniform, which,
even when it’s newly-washed, smells
of mashed beans and cooked ground beef.

The final poem featured tells the unfortunate and haunting story of Xu Lizhi, a Chinese factory worker who committed suicide. Lizhi moved from a Chinese province to the city where he worked at Foxconn, the company that manufactures iPhones. The Washington Post states that his poems are “a wrenching echo of the alienation and hardship felt by countless people in modern China and, for that matter, in other parts of the developing world. They lament the grinding ennui of the assembly line, the squalor of a migrant worker’s narrow, frustrated existence.”

(Untitled)
Xu Lizhi

I swallowed a moon made of iron
They refer to it as a nail
I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents
Youth stooped at machines die before their time
I swallowed the hustle and the destitution
Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust
I can’t swallow any more
All that I’ve swallowed is now gushing out of my throat
Unfurling on the land of my ancestors
Into a disgraceful poem.

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Together, these poems weave a historical and contemporary narrative of workers that has continued to transcend borders. Buried by the current political rhetoric and ignored by the loudest media mouthpieces of our time, it is ever more important to pay tribute to their struggles. To honor the workers who have tried to shift the shape of an unjust world for many, for those of us who were raised and taught by their calloused hands, we breathe in their history, and remember their beauty through poetry.

Sunday Spotlight: A Personal Cartography with the Work of Junot Díaz

Sunday Spotlight

This was the order of how I first fell in love with the works of Junot Díaz: The title This is How You Lose Her spoke to me as I dealt with my own grief, after the end of a four-year relationship. The last story in the book healed me, with its honesty and the courage of facing your own pain heart-on.

You ask everybody you know: How long does it usually take to get over it?
There are many formulas. One for every year you dated. Two years for every year you dated. It’s just a matter of willpower: The day you decide it’s over, it’s over. You never get over it. (from The Cheater’s Guide to Love, This is How You Lose Her)

I looked for Drown next. And there, nestled in the annex of Green Apple Books was an old copy, its yellowing pages looking golden. I settled into a story called Boyfriend one evening, drawn to the perspective of an outsider looking in the story of a couple breaking up. Wanting to cross lines, to be there for someone else’s heartbreak, to hold another person’s pain in the hopes of dealing with my own. I had a similar experience when I read one of Saeed Jones’s poem Blue Prelude later on, from his collection Prelude to Bruise.

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Art by Kate Gavino (Last Night’s Reading)

And then there came The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a historical fiction of epic proportions about love and war in the Dominican Republic. This is where I got my introduction to the horrors of Trujillo and history, the wars we try to win every day within ourselves, the complexity and pain of family.

You don’t know what it’s like to grow up with a mother who never said a positive thing in her life, not about her children or the world, who was always suspicious, always tearing you down and splitting your dreams straight down the seams. When my first pen pal, Tomoko, stopped writing me after three letters she was the one who laughed: You think someone’s going to lose life writing to you? Of course I cried; I was eight and I had already planned that Tomoko and her family would adopt me. My mother of course saw clean into the marrow of those dreams, and laughed. I wouldn’t write to you either, she said. She was that kind of mother: who makes you doubt yourself, who would wipe you out if you let her. But I’m not going to pretend either. For a long time I let her say what she wanted about me, and what was worse, for a long time I believed her. (from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao)

Díaz’s work has stayed with me ever since. Some time ago, he and Toni Morrison engaged in conversation at the New York Public Library on race and writing, which is worth watching repeatedly.

And then I came upon another gem, an Asymptote interview of Díaz. He delves into the complexity of language, the intersection of history and literature, an perhaps more importantly for me — how one can fully live inside a novel for days, for weeks.

As compensation for how difficult life was for this young immigrant in Central New Jersey in the seventies, I buried myself in literary worlds. I was reading voraciously by the time I was seven. A more omnivorous reader, I don’t know if that would’ve been possible. I would read all the biographies of famous Americans. Books on the Rockies. Books on how to build a campsite. I would read everything by Arthur Conan Doyle. I read the edited children’s editions of Edgar Allen Poe. I just tore through everything that my little elementary school library had. I fell in love with books that transported me far away from my world, which for me was very stressful. The library for me represented—or was—what the World Wide Web must mean to people of later generations. In many ways it was a plane, a passport, a lens, wisdom, and experience. (from An Interview with Junot Díaz)

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Art by Kate Gavino (Last Night’s Reading)

I know I’ve been drawn to Díaz repeatedly because there are so many parallels to his experience and mine. Immigrant, wanting to get a grasp of history of self. Writer, wanting to get a grasp of language. Reader, holding on to words for survival.

Sunday Spotlight: Filipino Literature

Fil/Lit, Sunday Spotlight

The month of April is National Literature Month in the Philippines or #BuwanNgPanitikan and in its honor, I thought of doing this Sunday’s feature on the literary work of Filipinos.

I grew up with mostly American literature and found it incredibly difficult to engage with Filipino lit. Although my first language is Tagalog, it was much easier for me to read and write in English. José Rizal, the journalist/poet/writer and national hero of the Philippines, would’ve surely scoffed at this.

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One cannot omit Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, two important pieces of literature that awakened the country’s consciousness during the Spanish colonization. Both of these were required reading when I was still in school. I have some faint recollection of the texts, mostly remembering the female characters of María Clara and Sisa. The former is the mestiza heroine of Noli Me Tangere, embodying the Filipino “feminine ideals” while the latter embodies the kind of hardships mothers go through for their children.

I was introduced to Jessica Zafra when I was younger, although I can’t remember any of her work. I might have read a book of hers (maybe Twisted?) but I think my mind was stubbornly glued to American lit, finding it more interesting at that time.

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I also vaguely remember reading Andres Cristobal Cruz’s Ang Tundo Man May Langit Din (Even in Tondo There is a Heaven), a Tagalog novel about poverty and violence in one of Manila’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Again, my experience was the same — I found it hard to engage with the text, much less comprehend the essence of the book.

The single piece of literature that spoke to me at that time was a book called Tibok: Heartbeat of the Filipino Lesbian, an anthology written by queer Filipino women writers. I was immediately smitten. The stories, essays and poems spoke to me on a personal level. That copy belonged to my English high school teacher and a decade later, I finally got my own.

I am fortunate that in the Bay Area, there are resources that people can turn to for Filipino literature. There’s the Filipino American Center at the San Francisco Public Library with its trove of fiction and nonfiction materials. In the recently established Filipino Cultural Heritage District in the South of Market of San Francisco is also an indie bookstore called Arkipelago. It is a community-based specialty bookshop that I could get lost in for hours. And there’s PAWA, Inc. (Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc.), a space that encourages Filipino American art and literature.

It wasn’t until I moved to the U.S. that I became more interested in Filipino lit. The San Francisco Public Library and Arkipelago aided and nurtured that interest. My politics also influenced the kinds of literature I sought; I stayed with Amado Guerrero’s Philippine Society and Revolution, I was smitten with Bienvenido Lumbrera’s Poetika/politika.

To contribute to the conversation around #BuwanNgPanitikan, here are my own “Pira-pirasong Panitikan” (literary pieces) from Filipino lit I’ve acquired over the years, à la Rappler style (as seen above).

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As this month and the celebration of Filipino lit nears its end, the resolution to keep reading and engaging with it remains. It is a continuous process of deepening one’s self, and a life-long journey that grows one’s roots even further. There are numerous literary greats that are not mentioned here, of which I’ve yet to discover. As Manuel Briones, another Filipino writer states:

The end of the Filipino writer, although he employs foreign materials, should always be to harness and unite these in the native manner so that the resultant piece becomes a perfect work of our own literature; developed in the treasury of the national soul.

Do you have Filipino literature recommendations? Leave them in the comments below!

 

 

Sunday Spotlight: James Baldwin 

Sunday Spotlight

I read everything. I read my way out of the two libraries in Harlem by the time I was thirteen. One does learn a great deal about writing this way. First of all, you learn how little you know. It is true that the more one learns the less one knows. I’m still learning how to write. I don’t know what technique is. All I know is that you have to make the reader see it. –James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78 (The Paris Review)

The words of James Baldwin — essayist, novelist, poet, playwright and social critic — has always stayed with me ever since I read Giovanni’s Room. Reading Baldwin is a little like reading parts of yourself that you’ve never discovered, the kind that ignites and widens your emotional capacity to care, to grieve, to give what you thought you didn’t have in order to immerse yourself in the beauty of his work.

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I held Giovanni’s Room close to my chest after finishing it, aware that my body is mildly trembling, previously racked with sobs. The weight of his words coupled by a clarity that can only be articulated in Baldwin’s way pierces to this day.

I have never reached you. You have never really been here. I do not think you have ever lied to me, but I know that you have never told me the truth — why? Sometimes you were here all day long and you read or you opened the window or you cooked something — and I watched you — and you never said anything — and you looked at me with such eyes, as though you did not see me. All day, while I worked, to make this room for you. (Giovanni’s Room)

His poetry and essays have also influenced me as I continue to seek my own ways of writing, of being able to impart my experience as a queer immigrant. I read The Fire Next Time as the black community continued to face increasing state violence, bearing testament to the truths he has long written. With the murders of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin, Baldwin’s A Letter to my Nephew came to mind.

To be loved, baby, hard at once and forever to strengthen you against the loveless world. Remember that. I know how black it looks today for you. It looked black that day too. Yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other, none of us would have survived, and now you must survive because we love you and for the sake of your children and your children’s children. (The Fire Next Time)

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In Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, poet Nikky Finney penned the introduction and spoke of Baldwin’s poetry and his position as a poet: “He wrote with an engaged, layered, facile hand. The idea being explored first clinched, then stretched out, with just enough tension to bring the light in.” While I was not familiar with his poems, it wasn’t hard to see what Nikky was referring to. There was courage in his poems, and a reliable language that lets us witness the ease of complicated things.

At the dark street corner
where Guilt and Desire
are attempting to stare each other down
(presently, one of them
will light a cigarette
and glance in the direction
of the abandoned warehouse)
Love came slouching along,
an exploded silence
standing a little apart
but visible anyway
in the yellow, silent, streaming light,
while Guilt and Desire wrangled,
trying not to be overheard
by this trespasser.
(Guilt, Desire and Love)

When All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin by Douglas Field came out, I got my hands on a copy in order to know more about him. From hanging out with Jewish Trotskyites in New York at a young age to participating in a May Day rally, he became more of a human being to me more than an idealized icon.

What intrigued me though as I finished the first few chapters of the book was Baldwin’s own complicated definition of himself — from a revolutionary to a writer. The FBI even kept a file on him, as they deemed his writing dangerous. His conversations were frequently tapped and he was constantly followed, as Hoover equated any radical work as communist propaganda.

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The Bureau’s attempts at literary analysis suggests the ways in which agents struggled to read and interpret literature that was not plotted in line with conventional American ideals: works such as Baldwin’s, which deviated from acceptable parameters and tackled themes of homosexuality, race or violence were deemed alien or subversive. –Douglas Fields, All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin

Field also goes into Baldwin’s radicalization as well as marginalization as a black, gay writer in the Civil Rights era. Cheryl Clarke writes that it was not easy for the middle-aged, queer Baldwin to gain membership in a movement that homogenized political views and identity categories. Still, he continued to write with Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone with Christopher as the main character — his ideal for the late 1960s: “a young and beautiful black man who combines tenderness with aggressive political action.”

Last Christmas, my sister gifted me with an essay collection of Baldwin’s later novels. The gesture warmed my heart. I admit that it is ambitious for me to even write about Baldwin because of the scale of his work, the depth of his influence but just as Field acknowledged in his book, it is truly an honor.

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Baldwin passed the same year I was born. Writer Toni Morrison wrote a tribute for him at The New York Times, citing three gifts that he had given her: language, courage and tenderness. I read this tribute frequently, along with Nikky’s introduction as much as I come back to his work often.

To Baldwin, and to a reverence for his being and his work, an eternal celebration from Toni:

Yours was a tenderness, of vulnerability, that asked everything, expected everything and, like the world’s own Merlin, provided us with the ways and means to deliver.
I suppose that is why I was always a bit better behaved around you, smarter, more capable, wanting to be worth the love you lavished, and wanting to be steady enough to witness the pain you had witnessed and were tough enough to bear while it broke your heart, wanting to be generous enough to join your smile with one of my own, and reckless enough to jump on in that laugh you laughed. Because our joy and our laughter were not only all right, they were necessary. –Toni Morrison, Life in His Language (The New York Times)

Sunday Spotlight: San Francisco’s Big Book Sale 

Sunday Spotlight
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San Francisco Big Book Sale, Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason

It’s that time again for one of my favorite sale events in the Bay — the San Francisco Big Book Sale! This bi-annual event is put together by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library around Spring time and in the Fall, wherein donated books and media are sold for $1-$3 each.

My first BBS was back in 2011 and I came on the last day of the sale where coincidentally, all books were on (an even bigger) sale for $1 each. I was so overwhelmed with the quantity and accessibility of the sale that I must have bought around 50+ titles. Bibliophile gone wild.

I admit that I haven’t been able to go through all of those books and I’ve also donated most of them. This time however, I planned on being more intentional.

Hello warehouse of my dreams.

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