A Lifetime of Looking, with Lisa Ko (A Book Review of “The Leavers”)

Book Reviews, Fiction

Days after reading Lisa Ko’s The Leavers (Amazon | Indiebound), one question lingered in my mind: can we really spare our loved ones the most gory, painful thing in our lives in order to save them–whatever “saving” looks like?

The story is written in the same format Arundhati Roy’s latest book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, where you find out more and more about the characters, the bulk of the story and really, the depth of the plot as you go on. But I guess that’s a major driving point in the book, the search for elusive truth. As with our lives, tbqh.

The Leavers is a book about a Chinese immigrant family in New York, a mother and her son, as they struggle to make a new life for themselves away from home. And almost like every immigrant family I know, both Pei-lan/Polly and Deming/Daniel go through the process of navigating cultural shifts and managing personal transformations.

From learning how to survive as an immigrant (all the bureaucracy, whether above ground or not), the tenderness between mother and son grows with each new discovery. Each day that they are together, specially when Polly has the rare day off, the duo ventures out into the new world they’ve made for themselves.

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Amidst reveling in the simultaneous grandeur and details of the Big Apple, poverty, the struggle to assimilate and immigration woes descend upon the family. And it only gets worse.

#GetLit: On Dreaming & DACA

#GetLit

I stand for the Dreamers. 

Back in 2010, I stood in the humid heat of Washington, D.C. as I got ready to lobby for the first time ever. As a young immigrant myself, I couldn’t imagine what those like myself had to go through, on top of being undocumented.

Life for newly immigrated folks is never easy. It is even harder when you don’t have the ability to go to school or get a job because of your immigration status. That day, I resolved to fight for immigrant youth even harder, specially my undocumented familia.

Back then, it was the DREAM Act: Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors which aimed to provide qualifying undocumented minors conditional residency and after awhile, permanent residency. This bill first proposed in 2001 would have enabled undocumented youth who entered the country before 2007 to be eligible to go to school, qualify for scholarships and grants, and have employment opportunities.

But since we’re living in a fascist, racist, white supremacist, xenophobic, transphobic and toxic place of a state, all of that was wiped out with an announcement from Jeff Sessions on September 5th on Trump’s orders.

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Source: The Nation

So what’s next?

It feels like every day is an entirely different struggle, Trump dropping the next bomb to distract and divide us all in different issue groups.

In the meantime, I’m grateful and beyond empowered to support the #DefendDACA movement across the nation. Here are some resources to know and have while this is happening.

At the end of the day, I will #DefendDACA until the DREAM Act — which includes a path to citizenship — is duly approved by Congress. I’m just hoping that that actually comes to fruition, in spite of a regressive and reactionary-controlled Congress.

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In other news, I published my book review for Tuwing Ikatlong Sabado this week! Check out my highlights from this trove of Filipino spoken word poems:

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If you’re looking for literary resources and books on immigrants and refugees,
here are a few from the blog:

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West 
Mia Alvar’s In the Country: Short Stories
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer 
Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds

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.

#IAmAnImmigrant: My Story in 5 Books

Sunday Spotlight

The fact that I
am writing to you
in English
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
My subject:
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else.
(Gustavo Perez Firmat)

My parents dreamt of going to America, and my grandparents did as well. When my grandfather’s brother joined the U.S. Army as an intelligence officer, those dreams were suddenly within reach.

It took about 15 years for my family’s U.S. petition to be approved and fast forward to April 2004, my family moved to Daly City where my mother learned to love the fog.

I was the rebellious daughter, hesitant immigrant. That 17-year old who refused to accept her new reality as she clung to international phone cards hopeful that she could live a life back in the Philippines through her own means, albeit 6,000 miles away.

Of course, I turned to books. Serramonte Public Library in Daly City (or “Little Manila”) became my refuge, while clutching Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga’s The Bridge Called My Back close to heart:

The struggle is inner: Chicano, indio, American Indian, mojado, mexicano, immigrant Latino, Anglo in power, working class Anglo, Black, Asian–our psyches resemble the bordertowns and are populated by the same people. The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the “real” world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.

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That was over a decade ago and still, the poems, stories and essays from the anthology still resonate with me. I am always reminded of those first few days and weeks of my newly immigrated self, as I first learned about Immigrant Heritage Month celebrated this June.

I’ve been seeing the tag #IAmAnImmigrant on Twitter a lot and I’ve read some stories on its website, welcome.us. The experiences of other immigrants are not different from mine, but reading about their stories brings different selves to the forefront, no matter the length, time and effort of assimilation.

I remember Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and feeling so affirmed as I followed the story of Ifemelu, a Nigerian immigrant in the U.S. Just as I was disoriented at my first college class at San Francisco State University, I shared Ifemelu’s sentiments:

But she was uncomfortable with what the professors called ‘participation,’ and did not see why it should be part of the final grade; it merely made students talk and talk, class time wasted on obvious words, hollow words, sometimes meaningless words.

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I started working at Borders Books and Music a couple of years later and in spite of the extensive walls of fiction books, I gravitated to the Political Science alcove. As a queer immigrant, I had a lot of questions and I was hungry for answers.

One of the books that was consistently on the bestsellers’ list was Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It wasn’t until I read Zinn’s book that I felt like I finally understood the historical and political context of the U.S., seeing my new host country in a different light.

What struck me as I began to study history was how nationalist fervor –inculcated from childhood on by pledges of allegiance, national anthems, flags waving and rhetoric blowing– permeated the educational systems of all countries, including our own. I wonder now how the foreign policies of the United States would look if we wiped out the national boundaries of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of all children everywhere as our own. Then we could never drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or napalm on Vietnam, or wage war anywhere, because wars, especially in our time, are always wars against children, indeed our children.

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The longer I stayed in the U.S, the more I knew. With that knowledge came realizations about how the personal and political are intertwined, that the immigrant story is not just a personal choice for most but a situation brought about by many factors: geopolitics, economic situations and others that are for the most part beyond an individual’s control.

Lorde’s poetry, her books Zami and Sister Outsider helped me articulate my own struggles as a queer woman of color, while giving me the kind of resilience I needed transcend the harsh realities I faced.

When we define ourselves, when I define myself, the place in which I am like you and the place in which I am not like you, I’m not excluding you from the joining – I’m broadening the joining.

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And then there are books like John Perkins’s Confessions of an Economic Hitman, a title that called out to me from the front display table while I was still working at Borders. It reminded me of my grandfather’s books in the Philippines whose shelves were lined with mystery thrillers, memoirs and spy novels.

Perkins’s book details his life as a consultant engaged in helping U.S. intelligence agencies  and multinational corporations “blackmail and cajole foreign leaders into serving U.S. interests.” All of it was appalling to me. I couldn’t believe what I was reading, but I knew that it was the truth.

Reading about these things as an immigrant gave me the perspective I needed to situate myself in the work that I knew needed to happen: my activism with a women’s grassroots organization, GABRIELA. Perkins stated that there were efforts by U.S. intelligence to kill this project, but he still pursued writing Confessions. 

This book was written so that we may take heed and remold our story. I am certain that when enough of us become aware of how we are being exploited by the economic engine that creates an insatiable appetite for the world’s resources, and results in systems that foster slavery, we will no longer tolerate it. We will reassess our role in a world where a few swim in riches and the majority drown in poverty, pollution, and violence. We will commit ourselves to navigating a course toward compassion, democracy, and social justice for all.

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Featured image and all artwork featured on this post are made by the incredibly talented Favianna Rodriguez.