Multitudes, with Gordon Parks

Art + Creativity, Soul + Spirit

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? 

Happy 420! Here are 15 writers who’ve gotten baked, via Electric Literature. Please smoke responsibly and be safe out there. But more importantly, this:

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Mass incarceration and racial disparities spurred by the “war on drugs”

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A proper homie roll call is in order: two of my friends, My-hanh Lac and Sunshine Velasco are doing amazing things and these two brilliant queer women of color deserve a shout-out.

My’s film BUDAI debuted at the Brava Theater last Friday, a short docu-film on her experience as a young refugee from Vietnam. Twelve minutes on a captivating story, along with a gorgeous cinematography had me screaming for more! Also, her film is in Cannes!

Sunshine’s work on the other hand will be exhibited at the SOMArts Cultural Center on April 22nd, at a benefit for the art gallery. Pièce de RESISTance: A contemporary renaissance ball to support SOMArts will feature her photography on femmes, wherein a friend is also one of her subjects. If you’re in the Bay, don’t miss it.

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I’m loving this Raised Fist by Børge Bredenbekk (Norway).

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Teju Cole has been on mind recently, as I sift through more photos from my last trip to the Philippines. I also finally opened another folder of photos from 2014, from another trip to the homeland.

I noticed that most of what I had taken with my camera weren’t “action shots” — not a lot of people or activities but instead, of minute details of the country’s everyday life. An empty soda bottle. A storefront. A row of dog bobbleheads. And for each photo, I can remember the exact moment from almost three years ago.

“…stillness, in photography, can be more affecting than action.”

–Teju Cole

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Maybe it’s because I started this week with Teju, but it’s incredibly heartwarming to see my post from Sunday get so much love. Thank you to everyone who has read, shared, commented and written to me about Postcards from the Philippines. It’s still a work in progress. It gives me tremendous strength that in moments of grief, I am not alone.

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It was an act of faith, and faith would not be faith if it was not hard, if it was not a test, if it was not an act of willful ignorance, of believing in something that can neither be predicted nor proved by any scientific metric.

— Viet Thanh Nguyen

I came across Viet’s piece on The Los Angeles Times wherein he talks about writing. This week, I wrote and published a book review on his newest book The Refugees.

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This week’s new find is a homemade marshmallow swimming, or sinking in a cup full of latte goodness. Still eating my feelings.

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The Titanic II, a vegetarian breakfast empanada from Hollow in San Francisco, and Elle Luna’s book “The Crossroads of Should and Must.”

And sometimes, dancing it all off with friends.

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San Francisco Dyke March Benefit at El Rio, SF. 

#GetLit: 4/20 and Homies

#GetLit

It’s been exactly one month since I got to the U.S. from the Philippines.

The first few days back almost negated the entire three weeks I was there with my family, in really confusing and frustrating ways. Jetlag and homesickness were daily themes, as my sisters and I tried to console and comfort each other. We looked at photos, relived memories. Each new detail we discovered about our trip brought us immense pain and also joy. We would laugh, and then cry. We made pacts, we changed our plans.

For us, there was only one thing that became prevalent: we needed to be back home as soon as we can, in Pampanga.

I started to think about all the photos I took — most on my phone, some on my Instax. I’m missing a lot of the photos too, and I pray to all the gods that they’re just hiding in bags or notebooks somewhere, not lost.

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Since this trip was our first back as a family after migrating to the U.S. in 2004, it was life-changing. We went to different places, famous landmarks, touristy areas and old spots we used to go to when my sisters and I were younger.

And as I always tend to do every time I feel vulnerable, I started thinking of folks who have stirred me with their words.

In Balucuc, close to my hometown Apalit, we had lunch in the middle of rice fields on a Sunday. I thought of Tomas Tranströmer’s book of poems Preludes.

 Two truths approach each other. One comes from the inside, the other from outside, and where they meet we have a chance to catch sight of ourselves.

— Tomas Tranströmer

I come from a family of farmers, on my father’s side. I remember some days when I’d come home from school with the front of our house turning into a makeshift rice-drying areas, with men raking in newly harvested rice, gently back and forth. I thought of my grandfather.

Our house too looked different. I thought of Teju Cole quoting Marcel Proust, in Known and Strange Things.

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Proust in a letter, “We think we no longer love the dead because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.” Objects, sometimes more powerfully than faces, remind us of what was and no longer is.

-Teju Cole

Teju resonated with me so much, in so many different times. How funny that you can convey a feeling in several ways, whether that’s in Tagalog or German.

The German word for homesickness is “heimweh.” Legend has it that Swiss mercenaries from the fifteenth century onward, dispersed throughout Europe to fight foreign wars, were hardy soldiers susceptible to few weaknesses. But they missed home with a deranging intensity, longing for the high elecution of their cantons, their clear lakes, their protective peaks. This feeling they called, in their Swiss German, heimweh.

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J’ai besoin de beaucoup de tendress. (I need a great deal of tenderness)

I wrote in a journal, just as I remember Susan Sontag doing in As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh. I was with her when she said that “the ultimate fantasy is the recovery of the irrecoverable past.” Seeing my friends brought all the feelings, as well as a deep well of gratitude for these connections.

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In Baguio, my sisters and I thought of summer vacations when we would indulge in strawberries (the only time we could), go on a boat at the lake, look at our parents at a different light amidst the fog.

Secretly we are all looking for ways to continue our childhoods — the hurt, the pain, the love, the fear, the shame.

— Susan Sontag

img_4684In Boracay, I took photos for posterity more than anything else. Once again, lines from a favorite:

Photography is inescapably a memorial art. It selects, out of the flow of time, a moment to be preserved, with the moments before and after falling away like sheer cliffs.

–Teju Cole

And of course, if there’s one person I should quote when it comes to the art of traveling, it’s Alain de Botton.

A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is the desire to hold on to it: to possess it and give it weight in our lives. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.’

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I’m still floating, at times dreamily, thinking of home. I guess I’ll never really be able to anchor myself where my feet are planted, because once you know where you’re supposed to be, you don’t stop until you get there.

Postcards from the Philippines

Sunday Spotlight

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.