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Writing for America |

Arts and Culture

Writing for America

PENMAN - Butch Dalisay -
There was a big international con-ference titled "Sangandaan 2003" at the University of the Philippines last week, and I joined fictionist Jing Hidalgo and poet Jimmy Abad on a panel that discussed writing about, against, and for America. Here’s a shortened version of the paper I read:
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There are three perspectives from which one can write for America. You can do it from here, as a Filipino writer seeking to be published in the US. You can do it while in the US, as a Filipino writer just visiting or passing through. And you can do it because you’re in the US as a Filipino-American writer who daily has to contend with the reality of American life and society and American publishing.

The first option may have been the only one in the old days, when Manuel Arguilla or Sinai Hamada had to send their works by slow boat to Story Magazine, and presumably waited months for the rejection slip – or, in these two happy cases, for an acceptance. ("How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife" and "Tanabata’s Wife" appeared within months of each other in 1936.)

Over the many decades since, a Filipino writer – local, transient, expatriate, or immigrant – would occasionally get a poem or even a story published in an American magazine or journal.

Quite a few got their books published by major publishers. Long before Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War (Norton, 1988) and Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters (Pantheon, 1990), M. de Gracia Concepcion published a collection of poems titled Azucena in 1929, courtesy of Putnam. Jose Garcia Villa’s poems and stories were published by Charles Scribner’s and Viking; Carlos Bulosan was published by Harcourt Brace, Stevan Javellana by Little Brown, Celso Carunungan by Farrar Strauss and Cudahy, Emigdio Enriquez by Hill and Wang, and Wilfrido Nolledo by E.P. Dutton. The most recent wave of Filipino achievements in American publishing include such landmarks as R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s (Kaya Productions, 1997) Bino Realuyo’s The Umbrella Country (Ballantine, 1998), and Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son (Norton, 2001). (Thanks to Bert Florentino for most of this information.)

As the Americans would say, you catch my drift. We’ve had a long and fairly respectable history of publishing in the US, and continue to make our presence felt – a process helped along by the growth of Asian-American literature programs and by the emergence of the Fil-Am community from its traditional role as the so-called "invisible minority." On the other hand, we have yet to produce a hit of Joy Luck Club proportions and to get on Oprah’s book list. Our literary fortunes in America have been matched only by our political inability to cohere sufficiently enough to elect a kababayan to high office in more than a few states.

Of course, this leads to all kinds of troublesome questions: Should we even bother? Who in America are we or should we be writing for? Will Filipinos ever be read by mainstream America? And just who or what is "America" and who are "we" anyway?

When I went to the United States on a Fulbright grant in August 1986, America was interested in the Philippines once again as it had never been since the Second World War, and would not be again until today. Marcos had fallen; Filipino-Americans were covering themselves in Cory yellow; just before and especially after Edsa, American universities and writing programs were wide open to Filipino writers seeking a temporary refuge where they could collect their thoughts and write impassioned works against dictators and despots.

I belonged to a small wave of Filipino writers that included Fidelito Cortes, Gina Apostol, Ramon Bautista, and, a little later, Eric Gamalinda and Ricardo de Ungria. In one of the more remarkable success stories of its kind, Gina Apostol had written John Barth directly at Johns Hopkins – this was all before e-mail – and had sent him some of her stories; he responded with an offer of an assistantship. All of us were friends here, and all of us found ourselves scattered all over America within a year or so of each other. Some – Cortes, Bautista, Apostol, and Gamalinda – would stay on. It seemed a good time to be a Filipino writer in America. As I was finishing my PhD, around 1990, the big news was Jessica Hagedorn and the thumbs-up review she got from John Updike in the New Yorker.

But the friendliness and the enthusiastic reception we got from our sponsors carried, at least for me, an implicit condition: I felt under enormous pressure to depict and explain Philippine political realities in my work. As it happened, much of my writing was about this, anyway; I wrote quite gleefully about torture, rape, salvagings, nasty colonels, and flinty prostitutes. But I felt boxed in, and any effort at levity or something without coconuts and corpses in it seemed destined for disapproval.

I was encountering what many others before me and many others yet after me would discover: That the Filipino writer in America who seeks the appreciation of the American reader has a lot of explaining to do about who we are, where we come from, and why we so desperately seem to crave America’s attention.

And the easiest way to draw this attention was to bank on a variety of the same exoticism that – according to Lucilla Hosillos, whose study of Philippine-American literary relations remains the best sourcebook for what we know of this particular past – sustained much of American interest in Philippine literature for the first half of the past century.

The old exoticism drew on folklore and historical or pseudohistorical romance. As Hosillos notes, early American interest in Philippine literature was more anthropological and political than aesthetic in its intentions. It made America look good for Filipinos to be characterized as savages – but not too noble, if at all – whom Spain had miserably failed to civilize, and whom it was now for America to educate. American readers and politicians were looking for reasons in Philippine history to validate their invasion and occupation of the islands, and they found it in literature.

Much of the early American period was spent on modeling local work on American and British schoolbook regulars such as Longfellow and Tennyson. But the emergence of such radicals as Jose Garcia Villa – whose elevation to Edward O’Brien’s Honor Roll among America’s best short story writers put him in a class of his own among his compatriots, whether Stateside or back home – not only energized the local literary scene but also introduced a new aspect to American appreciation of Philippine literature. We were offering up not just our experience, but our English, our use of their language.

Much has happened since then, to make an understatement, in both the US and the Philippines. The American population – and therefore also the American literary market – has grown much more ethnically diversified. Whatever edge we had or thought we had as America’s own misbegotten, English-speaking kids has long been lost to Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Caribbean, African, and Commonwealth writers in the US – who, ironically, are probably much less conflicted about their place in America. Now we have to fight for our own space in the American consciousness – both academic and public – and the first order of business appears to be getting read and appreciated first by Filipino-Americans before anything and anyone else.

It’s not an easy thing in a culture that’s never really taken to buying and reading one another’s books, whether here or there – especially given the self-critical content of much of what’s being written today by Filipinos in America. I don’t suppose you can find too many feel-good stories, if any, here, of the kind that the two-generation Fil-Am family will keep lovingly on their bookshelves or coffee tables, reread, and share with their neighbors.

But it’s precisely these stories and novels with a ragged edge – the horrors of home, the immigrant blues – that America probably wants to buy, or needs to see. Chalk it up to the demands of what I’d call the new exoticism, which draws on the Third-World quaintnesses and grotesqueries, the staples of magic or marvelous realism, the Fear Factor and Survivor element. We could, of course, always fall back on Garcia Marquez’s "impossible reality," and argue that daily Filipino life is bizarre enough, and that we need not make any extraordinary effort to be exotic. What else are we supposed to write about? What else can we write about?

A lot, I happen to think – stories about love, hope, kindness, and survival, alongside or on top of the more usual stories of alienation, despair, sorrow, abuse, and betrayal, many of them grounded on or reduced to the fact of being Filipino. It can happen. Linmark’s Rolling the R’s is a lot of fun, apart from everything else it is. This awareness – this need to come up for air – is slowly but surely emerging among Fil-Am writers who probably feel more locked in than we, here, do. I can sense a growing weariness among some Filipino-American writers like Eileen Tabios and Barbara Jane Reyes about having to deal with ethnicity as the alpha and the omega of their work.

"I think of Tess Uriza Holthe or Brian Ascalon Roley, their books getting published, distributed, and reviewed in a big way," Reyes wrote me. "As Brian’s book was recently criticized and then defended on this listserve tells me F/Pil Am’s (as they should) have different criteria by which their/our literature is judged…. Tess was also similarly lambasted by F/Pil Am’s searching for the ‘authenticity’ of her representation of F/Pilipinos. Whether or not these criticizers were interested in how she wrote, I don’t know."

I think we’ve gone past the stage of seeking American acceptance as a form of validation of our literary talent. We know that we can write, and may even feel rightly annoyed that the world doesn’t know about it. Now we want to be heard on our own terms, in our variety of English, as one of many global claimants to the language.

But the homegrown Pinoy writer’s dream of making it big in literary America survives, if only or largely as a naïve fantasy, propelled by the notion that, like a Chinese factory worker producing everything from Egyptian museum replicas to US-branded DVD players, we can churn out a Tom Clancy blockbuster from our entresuelo in Sampaloc. Why not, we say – we know the language, we’ve seen the movies.

Hardly a semester goes by without at least one student of mine producing, in fiction writing class, a story set in Boston or Manhattan – not from a Filipino point of view, as a Bienvenido Santos or a Carlos Bulosan might approach the material and its challenge, but in complete denial of the obvious fact that this is a story written by a Filipino pretending to be an American and hoping to get published in the New Yorker or optioned by Hollywood. The results are predictably pathetic, not only because of the almost inevitable failure of language and sensibility, but because of the sheer silliness of the ambition of the thing.

Even for those Filipino writers best positioned to crash into the American literary market are having to settle for what Bert Florentino calls "the niche audience of Filipino and Fil-Am compatriots in the US and the diaspora. This is my audience now."

"I would be happy," Bert adds, "if [our writers] can be patronized by our professionals, nurses, UN workers, i.e., the latter waves of immigrants from the ‘60s. All they read now are the Filipino tabloid papers published in all of the US which are heavy with stale news from Manila and ads for lechon and turo-turo and balikbayan boxes but short on Philippine literature, art, and culture, at present limited to the last two to five pages of a 78-page tabloid weekly."
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It’s a sobering reminder that, for 21st century Filipinos, writing for America really still means writing for Filipinos about Filipinos – and maybe that’s not such a bad idea.
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Send e-mail to Butch Dalisay at

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