Looking with the Eyes of Teju Cole

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

It all started on Twitter — I was scrolling through my feed and noticed the most ingenious tweets retweeted by folks I followed, which called out to me immediately. They were by a certain Teju Cole, whose work nor name I haven’t heard before. Not long after clicking the “Follow” button, I became privy to the thoughts, words and photos of one of the most prolific human beings of our time.

What drew me even closer to Teju was his ability to make connections with literature, culture, art, politics, photography — and literally every facet of human existence — to give his readers (or fans) a perspective on life like no other.

I’ve been an avid fan since then, as I read his books Open City and Everyday is for the Thief. I was lucky enough to catch him at a reading in San Francisco too, as he talked about the trans-Atlantic slave trade while white people in the audience told their own stories of being in Africa. In his new book Known and Strange Things: Essays (Shop your local indie store), he wrote an essay called The White Savior Industrial Complex. 

I usually try to finish a book in a week or two but I stayed with Teju’s new book for about a month, as I processed each essay and its significance differently, in the context of a queer Filipino immigrant experience in the United States.

It was in these thought processes that I discovered how and why I kept close to his work — because of our shared histories as immigrants.

In his essay Home Strange Home, it felt like I was reading my own migration story at 17 years old. He was coming from Nigeria, and I, from the Philippines, at the rough and tender age where identities are questioned, challenged and formed:

The journey to Kalamazoo seemed like a journey of return, the opposite of exile. A direct flight from Lagos to JFK, followed by a daylong train journey across the Midwest, had brought me to the town where my parents were married, the town where I was born and baptized. I had no anxiety about legal documents. Picking up my Social Security card was an afternoon’s errand. I got a job at McDonald’s, and banks gladly loaned me money for college. But, my first evening on campus, as I wandered around in what seemed like intolerable cold, it suddenly struck me that everyone I loved on this earth was almost six thousand miles away. I was flooded with panic, like a young boy in a helicopter being pulled away from all he’d ever known. Seventeen years of invented memories abandoned me. A sob ascended my spinal cord.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve had the feeling of kinship with Nigerians, especially after reading Everyday is for the Thief and also Chimamanda Ngzozi Adichie’s Americanah. Maybe it is the fate of third world immigrants like myself to feel kinship towards other immigrants fleeing post-colonial societies, in search of better lives elsewhere.

My parents got back from the Philippines last week, after spending two blissful weeks in the homeland. Every time they go for a visit, they always come back electric and full of life. Along with that renewed zest is also a tinge of melancholy, written in their faces as they slowly readjust to life back in the States. I hug both of them and smell the sweet scents of home.

But because homesickness also has a physical element, it wouldn’t be a homecoming for Filipinos without balikbayan boxes. My parents had four of those boxes which contained gifts and goods from the country: dried mangoes, polvoron (plain and chocolate ones), specialty dried herring in mason jars, “French” corned beef, candies from sari-sari stores we used to buy as kids (Mik Mik, Haw Haw, Hi-Ho), lengua de gato (butter oats), 3-in-1 coffee mixes, garlic peanuts, special tamarind candy, delicacies from Baguio (chocolate marshmallows, chocolate flakes) and more.

I think my sisters, our relatives, family friends and I have enough goodies to tide us over until the next wave of homesickness hits. We can always eat our feelings.

While munching on one of the Pan de San Nicolas my dad absolutely adores, my mom handed me another package wrapped in plastic. I think they secretly waited until I ate some of the “heritage cookie” specially made in our province (Pampanga), which bears an embossed image of the St. Nicholas on the biscuit itself. My parents are unhappily aware of my Buddhist beliefs, gravely disappointed by my spiritual choices after having gone to a Catholic school for 14 years. Word has it that it has a “curative effect,” to be eaten while saying a prayer. I felt bad after literally biting the head off one.

I opened the package and in it were three glorious things:

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Habang Wala Pa Sila (Mga Tula ng Pag-ibig) by Juan Miguel Severo

Stupid is Forever by Miriam Defensor Santiago

The Duterte Manifesto

The first two books were from my dear cousin back home, Ate Tet, and the last book was something that caught my dad’s eye. I mentioned that I wanted these two books unavailable in the U.S. and sure enough, my family came through with my request.

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tag-ulan

minahal kita
walang payong na dinala.

– Juan Miguel Severo

I first heard about the poet after watching a spoken word piece that went viral. I’ve always loved spoken word artists — Kai Davis, Aja Monet, Saul Williams; and I’ve always admired Filipino poets — Bienvenido Lumbera, Joi Barrios, Jose Garcia Villa. It was a breathtaking experience to see both Tagalog and spoken word combined, to witness Severo’s work. The depth of his poems and the conviction of his delivery tugs at the heart. It was like being granted permission to access those parts of us we didn’t even know existed. And to top it all off — I’m an undoubtedly big fan of a Filipino teleserye called “On The Wings of Love” which featured the poet and his work consistently.

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Law school is quite easy. It’s like a stroll in the park. Pero Jurassic Park.

– Miriam Defensor Santiago

The next book Stupid is Forever by this renowned politician in the country is “a collection of jokes, one-liners, pick-up lines, comebacks and speeches delivered and/or curated by the beloved Senator.” I’ve always looked up to MDS even as a kid, as I watched her on TV deliver impassioned speeches in Congress, in awe of her intellect and outspokenness. She ran for president during the most recent election season in the Philippines and lost, the frailty of her health a huge concern.

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I don’t care if I burn in hell as long as the people I serve will live in paradise.

– Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

Last but not the least (and also unexpected) was a copy of The Duterte Manifesto from my dad. My dad likes (or loves) to challenge my political beliefs, specially when it comes to politics in the Philippines. He knew I would find this book interesting, notwithstanding its title very similar to another very popular manifesto out there. Duterte is an interesting figure, rife with contradictions but I’m watching and learning. If anything, this book promises to be an intimate rendering of the president. In the introduction, it was signed (translated from Tagalog):

“From my humble hacienda larger than the terrain/estate of (bleep),”

– Senyora Santibañez (the main antagonist of an old Mexican
telenovela aired in the Philippines)

I can only surmise that Senyora is alluding to Hacienda Luisita, owned by the former President Aquino’s family, a site of decade-long struggle and resistance of the farmers against their landlords.

These three books in no means capture the state of Philippine society as a whole, but they draw a picture of popular culture that is reflective of different parts of Filipino society. I’ve always trusted books more than television, finding poets and writers more credible (even while they’re making jokes!).

I’ll be spending the next few weeks immersed in these three literary pieces of which I will duly be reporting back and writing about in this blog. Now that’s what you call healing.

Pasalu-book: Gifts from the Motherland

Fil/Lit, Sunday Spotlight

1. smoke above the burning bush
2. archnemesis of summer night
3. first son of soil
4. coal awaiting spark & wind
5. guilty until proven dead
6. oil heavy starlight
7. monster until proven ghost
8. gone
9. phoenix who forgets to un-ash
10. going, going, gone
11. gods of shovels & black veils
12. what once passed for kindling
13. fireworks at dawn
14. brilliant, shadow hued coral
15. (I thought to leave this blank
but who am I to name us nothing?)
16. prayer who learned to bite & sprint
17. a mother’s joy & clutched breath

alternate names for black boys, Danez Smith

There’s something about the way I found out about Alton Sterling‘s death Tuesday night: through a hashtag on Twitter. Sterling was a 37-year old man from Baton Rouge, Louisiana who was pinned down by two white officers wherein one of them fatally shot him.

Clicking the hashtag led me to the video of his gruesome and unjust death, as those recording the whole incident screamed and cried in disbelief. It was jarring. The scrolling came intuitively, as I read varied testaments of emotions, photos of protests and articles about the murder of black people by the police. One link was a Washington database of people killed and shot by the police in 2016. Sterling is the 114th black man listed.

His crime? Selling CDs outside a convenience store.

The next day, Philando Castile was shot to death during a police traffic stop in Minneapolis — all of it captured by his girlfriend on video as well.

At the last BET Awards, Grey’s Anatomy actor and human rights activist Jesse Williams gave a searing speech about the need to organize and mobilize for black lives. He memorialized Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Dorian Hunt. He called out whiteness. He called for action.

We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil – black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is though… the thing is that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.

For the full transcript of the speech, click here.

To stand with black people is to recognize how deep racism still runs in the country. To stand with black people is to defy the culture of violence perpetrated by the state, by the police. To stand with black people is to understand the pervasiveness of white supremacy. To stand with black people is know that the roots of their oppression are the same roots of global imperialism that continue to oppress people from the Third World. To stand with black people is a fight for humanity. To stand with black people is to be ready when coal meets spark and wind.

* * * 

Moved to action? Here’s how:

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Donate to Alton Sterling’s children’s scholarship fund
Donate to Philando Castile’s family
Get involved with the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

For Alton, For Philando

Sunday Spotlight

july-4th-448

Cue the fireworks, fire up the grills, get the hotdogs and burgers ready. Fourth of July in the U.S. has been synonymous to picnics and cookouts, marking the sweet start of summer.

I remember a few hard facts from my political science classes: that the 13 American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain this day, that the United States of America was born and instituted by the Continental Congress, that it is a day for celebrating the country’s independence.

For immigrants like myself, this holiday is a glorious three-day weekend, a welcome respite to the drudgery of the 9 to 5. The same goes for my family and many immigrants; it is a chance to breathe a little longer, prepare for the toiling weeks of labor ahead. The truth is, the holiday reinforces what many come to this country for: to achieve the American Dream. I am reminded of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poem:  

The old men who have lived here stare at us,
from deep disturbed eyes, sulking, retreated.
We pass them as they stand around idle,
leaning on shovels and rakes or against walls.
Our expectations are high: in the old world,
they talked about rehabilitation,
about being able to finish school,
and learning an extra good trade.
But right away we are sent to work as dishwashers,
to work in fields for three cents an hour.
The administration says this is temporary
So we go about our business, blacks with blacks,
poor whites with poor whites,
chicanos and indians by themselves.
The administration says this is right,
no mixing of cultures, let them stay apart,
like in the old neighborhoods we came from.

Immigrants in our own land

Or maybe it’s the fact that I’m reading Yaa Gyasi’s book Homegoing, which revolves around the lives of generations of slaves from the Gold Coast — from their childhood to their time of capture, from the dungeons where they were imprisoned and then aboard the ships which sailed to America, from the plantations to a semblance of freedom for a black man and his family in Baltimore. I read about Esi and Ness and Kojo and remember that the struggle for black folks still isn’t over, even after slavery has been abolished. I remember Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd.

The day is not only limited to the U.S., as the fourth of July is “Republic Day” as it is also the same day that the Philippines won independence from being a U.S. colony (July 4, 1945). The history of this holiday is wrought with irony (it is called “Filipino-American Friendship Day”), but I think the late great historian Howard Zinn could not be any more right:

We invaded Cuba in 1898 to liberate the Cubans, and went to war in the Philippines shortly after, as President McKinley put it, “to civilize and Christianize” the Filipino people.

As our armies were committing massacres in the Philippines (at least 600,000 Filipinos died in a few years of conflict), Elihu Root, our secretary of war, was saying: “The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the war began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness.”

Howard Zinn’s July 4 Wisdom Stands the Test of Time

Last June 30th, the Philippines just inaugurated its newly elected president, Rodrigo Roa Duterte. While he is being vilified by the Western media because of his vigilante-style tactics of fighting crime, there are a lot of things worth noting: his cabinet appointments to specific departments (labor, agrarian reform and social welfare) were all from progressive-left and his willingness to resume peace talks between the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front (Read: 10 Things to Know About the Peace Talks Between the Communists and the Gov’t of the Philippines). I’m hoping that this president won’t be a U.S. puppet unlike his predecessors.

Any talk of independence would not be complete without the history of Native Americans, whose culture and population were decimated upon the arrival of the British and the establishment of the colonies. It seems like the celebration of independence in the Philippines on July 4th (before it was moved back to June 12th) was preceded by what happened in Native American communities:

More than 12,000 American Indians served during World War I, and after the war, the American flag began to be given a prominent position at American Indian gatherings, especially those held on the 4th of July. This symbol of patriotism and national unity is carried into powwow and rodeo arenas today. It is extremely important to note that before the Reservation Era, when most Indians saw the American flag coming toward their villages and camps, it symbolized conflict, death, and destruction.

Indian Country: Do American Indians
Celebrate the 4th of July?

The U.S. is currently engaged in three wars, along with missions of militarizing parts of the world where it sees fit. What is imperialism Obama-style? 800 military bases around the world.

While I am a U.S. citizen, aware of the benefits I receive by living in this country, I struggle with all of these contradictions everyday. To live in the belly of the beast and to belong to the Filipino diaspora is a compelling reason enough to act, to understand the political and personal stake.

Just yesterday, Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate and writer Elie Wiesel died at the age of 87. May his life, words and work be an inspiration to those of us who refuse to forget, to those of us who live with our histories and to those of us who are committed to the struggle.

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Elie Wiesel (1928 – 2016)

 

Sunday Spotlight: Some Meat for the Fourth

Sunday Spotlight

Can Buddhism & Activism Ever Co-exist? 

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

The wave does not need to die to become water. She is already water.

On my 29th birthday, some gifts to myself: saltwater, deep presence and a connection to the world around me.

I was finishing reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s (Thay, as he is referred to endearingly) You Are Here as this day came and it couldn’t have been perfect timing. As one gets older, certain things become clearer. In an age when social media and the connection it provides is prevalent comes a time when one feels even more distracted, frustrated and worse, isolated.

These things have prompted me to challenge and question not just how we consume social media but ultimately, how we spend our days. After all, writer Annie Dillard said it best: how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.

The Courage it Takes with Sunil Yapa

Book Reviews, Fiction

It’s a little weird to read the chants you’ve been yelling at protests, rallies, in meetings and conferences centered around social justice. I saw these on the text of Sunil Yapa’s book Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, a book set in Seattle amidst the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) protests.

Weird because I’ve been stepping back on my participation in social justice endeavors lately, and reading about some of the characters in the book feels like déjà vu. Most of it too real, too familiar. I feel a certain tiredness in my body that I’ve been trying to keep at bay but sometimes, the spirit needs to rest.