Navigating the Heartland, with Ana Simo

Book Reviews, Fiction

If 2017 was finally the year that ushered in feminist science fiction fabulism, let 2018 be a stronger contender for more releases of the same kind!

Last year, I read two notable books in this category and reviewed them on the blog: The Power by Naomi Alderman (one of the best books Barack Obama said he read that year) and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. Folks may have casted this book as a dystopian read but come to think of it–a world where women held a tangible, lethal power over men? More would argue that that’s actually utopian.

I remember these books while I was reading Heartland by Ana Simo, a copy that Restless Books sent to me late last year. I didn’t know much about Simo, but after reading that the New Yorker was born and raised in Cuba and participated in early women’s and gay and lesbian rights groups, I felt an instant kinship.

Heartland is the dystopian tale of a queer Latina from Elmira County who loses her ability to write and is only comforted by the fact that she will gain some semblance of her old self by committing murder. A likely but unsuspecting target: Mercy McCabe, who has recently broken up with the love of our narrator’s life, Bebe.

If this plot doesn’t interest you, consider this: how all of these things were executed, down to the would-be murderer’s schemes/thought processes/details are hilarious. Meandering between establishing an identity as a queer woman of color, as a writer, as someone worth remembering, Simo’s prose simultaneously probes and tickles.

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War and Turpentine

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

…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.

 

My family home in Apalit, Pampanga (Philippines)

It must’ve been the year 2000, a few months before my elementary graduation. I was sitting on my “study table,” a wooden contraption with shelves, drawers, a pull-out chair and a fold-out desk trying to figure out what poem to write for my school’s literary journal.

In my eleven year-old mind, I’ve written so much about trees and the “beauty of nature” that I was running out of topics to write. Writing poems about nature back then, was my one true forte. I grew up in a house surrounded by greenery: acacia, banana, tamarind, coconut, jackfruit, mango and bamboo trees dotted our fields, while a variety of santan and gumamela flowers crowded the stairs of our house, with tomato, bitter melon, chili, squash, calabash gourd, cucumber plants and other varieties filled the northern section of our garden. I had an orchard of poems.

I certainly didn’t want to write about love, because I knew I didn’t really know much of it, no matter how many love poems I’ve read. I’m not entirely sure how I was able to resolve that situation but it’s one of the earliest moments of my lifelong affair with poetry.

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

— Audre Lorde, Poetry is Not Luxury

These days, I don’t write much poetry although I still read a lot of it. There are so many poets whose work I swear by that I’ve dedicated parts of my body for these lines to be tatted on: Audre Lorde, Wislawa Szymborska, Hafiz, Adrienne Rich, Tomas Tranströmer, Ocean Luong, Nikky Finney, Lorena Barros, June Jordan, Danez Smith, Juan Miguel Severo, Warsan Shire, Saeed Jones.

I’ve also written so many posts on this blog about the work of beloved poets: The Inevitability of Ocean Vuong’s Poetry, Poems of a Half-Finished Heaven with Tomas Tranströmer and The Poetics and Physics of Hugot, with Juan Miguel Severo.

 

A page out of Juan Miguel Severo’s book, Habang Wala Pa Sila

I can remember most of the most memorable — beautiful and painful — moments of my life through poems with the likes of Cherríe Moraga’s The Welder and Warsan Shire’s For Women Who Are Difficult to Love. Everything in my life, it seems like, is punctuated by a poem.

April is National Poetry Month and I’ve been thinking about my relationship with poetry, although I don’t write much of it anymore. Some of the last poems I’ve written were back in 2014, written while riding jeepneys in the Philippines. I’ve also been featured in one of the earliest online poetry collections of Nayyirah Waheed, the very first installment of Salt on Tumblr. I read some of my poems at a Sugarcane reading event in Oakland, where I workshopped my poems with a bunch of amazing queer, women of color for months.

Maybe I’ll find my poetry groove back one of these days, but my love for reading poetry has never stopped.

There’s the writer, who is appealing to her unconscious, to her profound sense of unknowing. And then there’s the reader, who, as the poem comes into being, as I say, as one word puts itself after another, is trying to figure out what the impact of those words in that order might be from a position of knowing. Right? And it’s the negotiation between these two, the unknowing and the knowing, that, crudely put, would represent the positions of the writer and the reader. So if the first reader of the poem is the writer herself, in a strange way the poem is, indeed, only finished, only completely — becomes completely what it might be when that other person comes to it.

— Paul Muldoon, A Conversation with Verse

Here are a few of the poetry books I’m reading this month:

Tuwing Ikatlong Sabado compiled and edited by Juan Miguel Severo
(Amazon | Goodreads)

There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyonce by Morgan Parker
(Amazon | Indiebound)

Look: Poems by Solmaz Sharif
(Amazon | Indiebound)

Check out the Academy of American Poets’ 30 Ways of Celebrating #NaPoMo, listings and other events here. Write a poem, get a book of poetry for a loved one or read with me! Happy National Poetry Month!

A Lifelong Affair with Poetry

Poetry, Soul + Spirit, Sunday Spotlight

Still on the same frequency after publishing this post because I just came across this gem — Don’t Be a Dick: Colum McCann’s Advice to Young Writerswhich had this essential quote:

Trying to write without reading is like venturing out to sea all by yourself in a small boat: lonely and dangerous. Wouldn’t you rather see the horizon filled, end to end, with other sails? Wouldn’t you rather wave to neighboring vessels; admire their craftsmanship; cut in and out of the wakes that suit you, knowing that you’ll leave a wake of your own,and that there’s enough wind and sea for you all?

— Téa Obreht

So read with me! Currently: America is in the Heart (Amazon | Indiebound) by Carlos Bulosan, and an ongoing read/lesson/roadmap in creativity, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (Amazon | Indiebound). Got book recommendations? Drop me a line!

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In other news, I just finished watching the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why. It’s powerful stuff, yo. First published as a young adult book by Jay Asher, the series revolves around 13 tapes that a teenager made and disseminated after her suicide. While the show tackled issues like rape, bullying and toxic high school culture, the biggest thing for me is that it opened up the discussion around mental health in the mainstream.

The series isn’t perfect, and can at times misrepresent many facets of suicide, but it’s worth watching. There are tons of local and national resources out there too, like Lifeline and The Trevor Project. I also came across this thing called bullet journaling specifically for keeping up with your mental and emotional health.

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Had the most scrumptious toast and a lavender latte from Home Cafe. Go visit them in San Francisco!

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And if you haven’t read my recent fiction book reviews, here they are:

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What can I become quite good at that’s really difficult for a computer to do one day soon? How can I become so resilient, so human and such a linchpin that shifts in technology won’t be able to catch up?

Seth Godin

#GetLit: A Libromance Round-up

#GetLit

The Sagacity of Susan Sontag: On Love, Queerness & Writing

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

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Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts–like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.

Nothing is the same after reading Susan Sontag. Her diaries and journals to be exact, as I have yet to read any of her books or essays. It all makes sense now — Teju Cole’s ephemeral praise of the writer, Maria Popova’s (of Brain Pickings) inspiring tributes.

There are a number of affinities that I feel like I share with Sontag — desolation around marriage/relationships (well, mine is evolving, but you get the point), living in simultaneous awe and bewilderment in the Bay Area, embarking on a slightly self-effacing trip to Puerto Rico. In two distant entries, I felt a trickle of bemusement as she wrote about meeting Filipino poet José Garcia Villa (known then as the “Pope of Greenwich”), a fondness as she wrote about reading Bataan and Corregidor.

I have profound devotion to a few writers (Baldwin, Moraga) and poets (Finney, Finney) and this may be premature, but Sontag is getting to that list. She affirms what I love most about writers: the multiple ways their work transcend time and space and reach readers like me.

I got a used copy of  Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 at Green Apple Books and the rest is history.

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I don’t give a damn for anyone’s aggregation of facts, except in that it be a reflection [of] basic sensitivity which I do demand…I intend to do everything…to have one way of evaluating experience–does it cause me pleasure or pain, and I shall be very cautious about rejecting the painful–I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly…everything matters! The only thing I resign is the power to resign, to retreat: the acceptance of sameness and the intellect. I am alive…I am beautiful…what else is there?

Peace & Food

Sunday Spotlight

Build a team of people who work together, who care and who learn and you’ll end up with the organization you deserve. Build the opposite and you also get what you deserve.

– Seth Godin, Function

I’m going through a lot of shifts and changes lately at my economic work, as well as in my organizing (with the Filipino community here in the San Francisco Bay Area). A reminder like this helps me refocus on what matters: building deeper relationships with the people who care.

And when I think about people who care, my heart and mind goes out to people who have been working tirelessly for issues that go beyond themselves. Recently in the Philippines, 14 political prisoners were “temporarily released.” These political prisoners are also peace consultants of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) who were jailed on trumped up charges, in violation of guarantees that have already been in place to protect them.

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I am grateful for their release so the peace process can now be continued in the Philippines, between the NDFP and the Philippine government. If you would like to support the peace process in my homeland, check out JustPeacePH!

In other news, peep this.

Literally mouthwatering isn’t a misnomer, but a fact made possible by Egg in Brooklyn:

For about five years now, we’ve hosted the Tables of Contents dinner series at Egg in Brooklyn, cooking many-course meals inspired by great literature.

In cooking the TOC dinners at Egg, we’re consistently amazed by the power—creative, nostalgic, emotional—of translating text into food. If you’ve never cooked and eaten a dish from a favorite book, do it. Nearly any great book has moments of food in it, not just because characters have to eat, but because our relationship with food exposes so much about our identities, cultures, time, and place.

– Lithub, The Ultimate Literary Ten-Course Meal

A Series of Simple Joys, with Elizabeth Strout

Book Reviews, Fiction

I read Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton in a span of two days. It was hard to put down, for many good reasons.

Lucy Barton’s story is not grand by any means. She’s laying on a hospital bed in Manhattan for the most part, as she recounts experiences, relationships and various moments in life.

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There aren’t any unexpected plot twists, nor any breathtaking events that unfold. What you have is this instead: the clear voice of a woman, with an unhurried perspective on life.

I’m a fan of books that weave the political with the personal, books that explore spirituality, philosophy, history and literature. Of the most recent books I’ve immersed myself in, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman and Alain de Botton’s On Love: A Novel.

Lucy’s story wasn’t as wild, or philosophical, or as political as I’m used to but her voice stayed with me for a few days after I finished. She wrote about reading a lot, something I discovered after looking at all the pages I marked and went back to. Just like me, she grew up in the company of books. And just like me, she dreamt of being a writer.

My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my one work was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel alone!

The stark simplicity and honesty of her voice struck me as genuine and whereas in other instances I would be uncomfortable, I was with her.

I say this because as a queer brown immigrant from the Philippines, it’s rare that I am able to find connections with those who enjoy (whether they are aware of it or not, whether they are complicit or not) privileges that have caused the oppression of others.

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Writers with Day Jobs

Sunday Spotlight


I’m finally reading J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; I couldn’t stay with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life any longer as I eyed Rowling’s latest masterpiece scrupulously begging to be read. I’m slowly working my way through Yanagihara’s 800-page tome, but a few calculations here and there made me realize that I would need at least another 12 days to finish the book. I had to put the book down.

I dove right into the Rowling’s eighth book after nineteen years. The script format takes a little getting used to, but the story carries on. I still remember reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when I was in elementary, awash in wonder and curiosity. Although I’m only on page 30, I have a renewed sense of giddiness and excitement.

In a The New Yorker article, contributor Jia Tolentino writes:

Without set decoration, it cleanly shows the moral imagination of the “Harry Potter” universe, in which goodness is circumstantial and endings are never guaranteed.

Finally,  a New Harry Potter Story Worth ReadingThe New Yorker

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From the series “Day Job” by Natalya Balnova

I came across Natalya Balnova series called “Day Job” which featured illustrations like the one above (more here). And then there’s this wonderful piece on ten writers who quit their day jobs: Arundhati Roy, Toni Morrison, John Green. As a writer and (a community organizer) with a day job (although my schedule also calls for night time flexibility), looking at these illustrations, reading the article give me infinite hope.

There were some sentiments that I echoed with from Virginia Woolf’s book A Room of One’s Own wherein she specified the types of conditions women needed to have in order to write. I think what she failed to say, beyond the material conditions she specified (400 pounds a year and one’s own room), is the kind of mental, social and psychological space women needed in order to write.

These days, when I hear of writers and that kind of luxurious space, I can’t help but think that what I’m wishing for is too bougie.

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From the series “Day Job” by Natalya Balnova

Class privilege has always been something I try to be aware of, although a lot of working-class writers have made it work. Perhaps creating that space does not even require leaving your day job, specially if it sustains your physiological needs.

While I’m in no position to leave my day job at the moment, what is important though is this: always make time for your writing.

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The value of my book and myself had changed, even if the book remained as invaluable to me as when I wrote it. I had a tremendous passion for this novel. It aimed to destroy the American perspective on the Vietnam war, which influences how most of the world sees the country. My book was to be the Vietnam war novel for everyone who thought they knew what this war was about, as well as for everyone who didn’t want to read a book about an exhausted subject.

– Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Guardian

I read Viet’s book a few months ago, riveted by The Sympathizer’s prose and the sagacity of its characters. It was my first time reading about the Vietnam war, in a perspective that was aligned with my own. At a reading at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, Viet expanded my perspective even more as an Asian-American writer, and once as a young refugee in San Jose, California.

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Every moment springs from a moment in the past. Part of the point of my book is being able to look at the legacy of slavery both in Ghana and America and what it has left us, so we can know that the moments we are living in the present, and the racial tension we have today, don’t come out of nowhere. It is all rooted in these things that happened not just hundreds of years ago, but also 20 years ago, and 10 years ago.

– Yaa Gyasi, The Fader

More recently, I delved into Gyasi’s Homegoing, an incredibly powerful read that spans generations of the Trans-Atlantic trade. While I was reading the book, I was also witnessing a recurring wave of police brutality and state violence in the country against black people.

I’m grateful for the work of these two writers and the way they shape, create and tell stories from the past, stories that continue to live.

Stories That Live

Sunday Spotlight

#GetLit: On Art & Generosity, With Seth Godin

#GetLit

The internet is a connection machine. Virtually every single popular web project (eBay, Facebook, chat, email, forums, etc.) exists to create connections between humans that were difficult or impossible to do before the web. (Seth Godin)

Coming of age with the Internet has both ups and downs, but I’m one to take advantage of its offerings specially when it’s in the service of learning, reading and writing. The advent of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) was like Christmas for me, as I scoured the first few listings of available classes online. The best part? They were all free.

A MOOC is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. Made possible with the Internet, it enables different ways of learning regardless of distance and style. As an introvert who is infinitely curious about the world, this was good news to me. Websites like Coursera, edX, +Acumen are all testaments to new and generous ways of learning.

When Seth writes that the internet is a connection machine, he is also referring to the connection economy which is based on two principles: art and generosity. Art is not merely a painting, but “a human act, a generous contribution, something that might not work, and it is intended to change the recipient for the better, often causing a connection to happen.” Generosity on the other hand is replete with kindness and trust:

When someone takes the time to share a finite resource, one that they cannot hope to be repaid for, generosity happens. (Seth Godin)

Combine works of art with generosity, genuine connections happen. As a writer, Seth’s insights are worth remembering; they are good principles to use and guide the work. MOOCs are examples of art and generosity, and of which we can further enable the process of making art and expanding our own capacities for generosity.

Here are a few of free, online courses on literature and writing:

Modern & Contemporary Poetry 
A fast-paced introduction to modern and contemporary U.S. poetry, with an emphasis on experimental verse, from Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman to the present. Participants (who need no prior experience with poetry) will learn how to read poems that are supposedly “difficult.” Available from Coursera, starts September 10, 2016

Storytelling Fundamentals: Character, Conflict, Context, Craft
A class for creative writers (both aspiring and established), and everyone who wants a deeper understanding of what makes a great story so captivating. You’ll leave this class armed with a tried-and-true framework for writing your own fictional short story, and inspired to put pen to paper. Available from Skillshare

How to be a Writer (A MOOC for kids!)
Writers put words together to tell stories and describe ideas. Language is our tool, and communication our goal. We try hard to be observant, honest, and insightful. Available from DIY

For a list of classes by Seth, check here (not free, but worth every penny).

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Do you know of any free writing courses? Share them in the comments below!