I am seeing a lot of folks — educators and authors — checking in on social media. They want to know how are we all writing, being productive, working in these times. It feels apocalyptic, and given the word’s etymology — to uncover — yes these times are apocalyptic.
With teaching, I am always “taking the temperature” of the classroom. How hard can I push, or how gently in tone must I speak to say the things I must say. About Empire and Filipinos. About America and Filipinos.
As an educator, I strive not to be an evangelist or a fanatic, not to judge my students on their “wokeness,” or lack thereof. I negotiate and I nudge, towards thoughtfulness, critical and creative thinking, towards articulating complexity. I always refer to the texts and their authors, rather than my own agenda (and of course, being the professor, I have curated the selection of texts, so that’s where you may speak of my agenda).
As a less experienced educator in the past, I have aggressively pushed my own ideas with little regard for where folks are at, and that has only served to close some learners. Hopefully, these closures were not permanent ones, but I see how that is more damaging than it is a learning opportunity.
It’s in my own writings that I may push and shove as hard as I see fit. Even as I know my aim is to reach that Pinay readership, the ones I have been saying have never seen themselves in literature as protagonists and addressees, the ability to sit with a written, published work, gives even the reader space and time to work it out. I know there are authors whose works I was not ready for upon my initial reading. I know that as I matured, I know that over the years and decades, I have been able to return and return again to literature, finding new ways of reading.
I have been writing essays, many of which have been commissioned or requested by various editors. As I have been reading a lot of Carlos Bulosan’s essays in On Becoming Filipino, my essays, I suppose, approximate aesthetic statements, or manifestos. I get quite blunt in my essays. No reason to veil my own beliefs.
And then, with poetry, I know my own can be quite blunt, but we also have the strategy of operating in the figurative realm, which enables a reader to have a layered experience with a text.
That said, my latest essay, still in progress:
Let’s be clear on this: Xenophobia and racism are not on the rise just now in 2017, in the United States of America. Xenophobia and racism have been here, as our ongoing condition, and many of us APIAs have benefited from it.
What I would like to think is changing is our consciousness, and the willingness of some in our literary communties to address institutional violence directly in our literary work, in our use of language, and also in our literary career ambitions.
When I am most optimistic, I believe I see an eroding of reticence on the part of some in our literary communities, to interrogate our relationship to the State, to the Corporation, to USAmerican institutions and power structures that perpetrate violence and terror that are based in gender, sexuality, class, race, religion, ableism, ecology, immigration.
How may we foster in ourselves and one another a willingness to soul search, to ask ourselves why we have been so in denial, going about our lives and writing careers as if we have nothing to do with any of this violence and terror.
How can we critically examine why have we consented to the role of the well-behaved, respectable Good Colonial, resigned and relegated to apery, when we truly know this will not keep us and our loved ones safe.
How may we hold ourselves accountable, and do the hard work of calling out those in our communities who inflict these violences upon our own.
I would love to see more poetry and literature, more community-based grassroots publishing and mentoring arise from that critical self-examination, more prioritizing and centering resistance, dissent, and defiance. I have been returning to Carlos Bulosan frequently, to remind me to be present, engaged, vigilant in the world, to remind me not to take “American freedom” for granted.
“I read more books, and became convinced that it was the duty of the artist to trace the origins of the disease that was festering American life.” ~ Carlos Bulosan
“…the writer is also a citizen; and as a citizen he must safeguard his civil rights and liberties. Life is a collective work and also a social reality. Therefore the writer must participate with his fellow man in the struggle to protect, to brighten, to fulfill life. Otherwise he has no meaning — a nothing.” ~ Carlos Bulosan
You may want to argue with me, that poetry is personal, not political, that poetry is about beauty and beautiful things. And I would respond that resistance, dissent, and defiance are beautiful because when we stand up for what we believe is right, we expose our rawest, truest selves, and who and what we love most in the world are all laid bare. Because especially during the most volatile times, compassion, hope, and light are beautiful.
I would also add, that under the rule of tyranny, there is no luxury of neutrality, of just being.
“…always art is in the hands of the dominant class – which wields its power to perpetuate its supremacy and existence.” ~ Carlos Bulosan
“…in which to be is to to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor…” ~ Paolo Freire
So then, what does it mean to be an APIA author in these times? To learn well the necessary activist history of our forebears, to understand why activism and art have no tidy dividing line between them. To meaningfully resist white supremacy and patriarchy, to meaningfully resist the historical pressure and desire to conform to bourgeois ideas, which do not reflect our own lived realities, and therefore do not benefit our communities. More insidiously, they mean to undermine and erase our efforts at self-determination.
Finally, we must meaningfully resist appropriation by institutions that would skew and defang our words and work, via tokenism and celebrations of diversity, for example, for their own edification.
The work is daunting, and it is neverending. The smallest start is to read. Here are some recommendations: Tarfia Faizullah, Solmaz Sharif, Tony Robles, Janice Sapigao, Sarith Peou. Brandy Nālani McDougall, Rajiv Mohabir, Cheena Marie Lo, Bhanu Kapil, Craig Santos Perez, Aimee Suzara.
“a million brown pilipino faces
chanting: makibaka, makibaka, makibaka
makibaka, makibaka, makibaka…” ~ Al Robles