Why I Turn to Lit and Art When Times Are Hard

“Hard” is an understatement.

I am inspired by fellow APIA author Neil Aitken’s recent post on the value of art in these times.

Last semester, during the elections, I was teaching Pinay Literature at University of San Francisco, and Filipino/a Literature at San Francisco State University. In Pinay Lit class, I definitely felt myself step up my intensity, especially immediately post-elections. Taking the “pulse” of the classroom informed me to do this. My students were in need, not necessarily of comfort or safety, but of a space where they could think it out and talk it out. I was very happy to open up my classroom space in this way. I was also in need of talking and thinking space. An elder poet and educator recently told me that arts and poetry, that our classrooms must be sanctuaries; we must be able to provide these spaces to our students.

So, is it “soft,” to think of arts, literature, and poetry as talking and thinking spaces? I think not. Daily atrocities are informed by historical and cultural illiteracy, deliberate manipulation in the form of unsubstantiated irrationalities, and constant, unadulterated bullying. Folks succumb to the exhaustion, the despair, and yes, to the bullies.

I have been thinking that “sanctuary,” need not be spaces where we retreat from our gross national realities. I am thinking more and more about my “sanctuary” spaces as fortification, in which we fortify ourselves with knowledge, with wisdom. How else is resistance work sustainable, if we deplete ourselves beyond usefulness. How do we practice “self care,” and not have “self care” be a cliché. How can we practice both self care and resistance.

This brings me to the question of resistance. What is meaningful resistance, as teachers, as poets, as artists, as students. It certainly is not enough to engage in social media outrage. There are only so many internet petitions we can sign. Perhaps it’s not always possible to engage in acts of civil disobedience and public demonstration. Perhaps we, you are afraid. There is good reason to be afraid.

I have been turning to literature, as as a way of nudging folks towards some kind of action, but mostly, because the misinformation we are being violently force fed (is that redundant?) is not only detrimental to democracy, but straight up meant to deceive us into passivity, compliance, and consent. There is also this denial against things one does not know because one has not bothered to read, to do the mental, the intellectual work. As an educator, I seek to disrupt this.

I turn to literature again and again, as a place to remember hope — I keep thinking of Nick Joaquin’s “A Heritage of Smallness,” in which he dresses us Filipinos down majorly — we think so small, we aspire to so little, we are not great, and we’ve just accepted our sad lot. Well, damn, you wanna say, I give up, you are right, we’ll never accomplish anything meaningful, others know better than we do. But then Joaquin writes, look though, there have been people in our history who aspired towards greatness. A man wrote a novel that inspired an already ready to go populace, an entire nation of people resisting empire.

A literary work, a Filipino of letters propelled a revolution.

So this is where I’m at this morning. Nothing is easy. But we persist.


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