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Ninotchka Rosca: The Day Manila Fell Silent Wed, 12 Sep 2012 22:25:24 +0000 Read More ...]]> The Day Manila Fell Silent
by Ninotchka Rosca

[Talk at the Bliss on Bliss Studio, Queens, New York City;  September 9, 2012;  third part of Re-Collection, A Commemoration of the Anniversary of the Declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines, the first two being an art exhibit and an installation/performance.]

Ironically, the most quiet day in Manila of contemporary times began with noise:  a loud pounding on the glass door of a penthouse apartment I was using at the time.  The friend who was hollering and shouting and bruising his knuckles on the glass, blurted out, as soon I slid the door open, “martial law na…[martial law already]”  A split second of silence;  then I pivoted and clicked on the radio.  Nothing but white noise.  Turned on the TV.   Nothing but a white screen and static.  Distraught friend said, “no TV, no radio station… everything’s closed down.”  We eyeballed each other.  The previous night’s last news item on TV flashed into my mind:  a still photo of a car, its roof collapsed, windshield shattered; a male voice saying that the car of the Secretary of National Defense had been attacked but he had not been in it… It was truncated news; I thought,  “what?  An empty car was bombed?”  As I was going to bed, I noticed that the government building behind our apartment building was all lit up:  floor after floor, from top to bottom, blazing with lights.  I said then, “something’s happening; and it’s happening all over the city.”

Now this friend stuttering about martial law triggered an avalanche of images in my brain.  This would become a habit with me ever after, this going into mental hyperdrive, correlating incidents and data, during crisis.  The cascade stopped with the face of a smiling Senator Benigno Aquino, as he said to me,  while we stood in the red carpeted foyer of the old Senate, “Marcos will not catch me lying down.”  I’d asked about Oplan Sagittarius, rumored to be the secret blueprint for martial law.  We’d all assumed that if ever, it would go into effect in November-December.  So I just teased the senator, calling him President Aquino.  It would be my last face-to-face with him.  In 1983, when he was assassinated, I muttered to myself, “I’d better fix my papers; Marcos will fall.”  I was in New York City by then.  I had filed for political asylum but it was just in stasis.

What is the point of this recollection?  It is to stress that martial law was personal… PERSONAL.  Everyone felt it, was affected by it, had an opinion, a thought, a feeling, about it.  The day it was declared, with a friend standing there, his hair practically on end, I remembered how, a week before, a minor journalist on the military beat had generously offered to check if my name and address were on an arrest order.  Young though I was, I wasn’t exactly naïve.  I gave him an old address.  Sure enough, the place was raided.

We moved quickly.  I had to find a secure telephone so I could find out what had happened, was happening.  Outside, it was so quiet, so quiet…  Manila had always been a noisy city:  music blaring from car and jeepney radios, from juke boxes;  television noises;  people yelling.  But this day, it was so very, very quiet.  Aboard a jeepney, there was only desultory human voices:  para, mama;  sa kanto lang…  No music; no talking; and we avoided one another’s eyes.  We were all beginning to be locked within; imprisoned as it were.  When the jeepney passed a newspaper building with its front doors barred by rolls of concertina wire, we all took a sidelong glance and averted our eyes.  We did not want to seem overly interested.  We were beginning to learn NOT to call attention to ourselves – a very strange thing for Filipinos who, to this day, love to strut and crow and flap wings.

Being a journalist, my first impulse was to call the National Press Club.  I asked for Tony Zumel, who was NPC president at the time.  The secretary — she was called Baby, if memory serves me right — upon hearing my name, switched to this unusually saccharine vocal inflexion :  “haaaay, hello, how are you…long time no hear” – which nobody but nobody used with me at the NPC.   I asked for Tumel, our nickname for Zumel; and she sang out, “Oooooh, he’s not here.  I don’t know where he is.”  Pause.  I asked, “military there?”  And she said, “Yessss…”  Nothing left but to say thanks, goodbye.

Years later, in 1986, with Marcos still in power, I’d be in the same building, looking for Tony Nieva’s office which was at the back of the NPC.  A young cigarette vendor asked what I was looking for;  I inadvertently said, “the office of Tony Zumel.”  His eyes glazed and he looked far, far, far away, seemingly at a caravan crossing the desert, and answered, softly, “ay, matagal na pong wala iyon…matagal na. [He’s been gone a long time. A long, long time.]”  I looked at him with wonder, a kid with an unbreakable connection to history.

It was personal.  It was not just a piece of paper with a signature, not just a voice making the announcement;  it wasn’t even the orders barked at rows of khaki- or fatigue-uniformed men.  It was an absolute threat, a palpable danger, a loss of self-power and security.  It endangered the usual, the common, the ordinary details of daily life.  Years later, Rodolfo Salas, then chair of the Communist Party of the Philippines, would tell me of how about 200 students ran for their Central Luzon guerrilla base, throwing his group into a tizzy — though it’s hard to imagine Bilog, as we called him, even slightly nervous.  “We had to feed them,” he said smiling, “and used up in one day our month’s supply.”  Bilog then instructed his unit to interview each student.  Those not under direct threat would return to town or city to help in the resistance.  Those with “serious threats” would be given the choice of moving elsewhere:  northern, southern Luzon;  the Visayas;  Mindanao.  He said that some who were not under direct threat chose to be sent elsewhere, willing to take on the very difficult task of opening new guerrilla fronts.

Romantic in the telling, it wasn’t, in reality.  The half-joke then was that if one survived for a year in the countryside, one was already a veteran.  Still, many chose this manner of struggle.  Because martial law was personal.

A lexicon grew for clandestine work, so that information could be imparted without naming the information.  Sunog meant raid, capture.  Nanununog meant someone was talking.  Nasunog meant someone had been betrayed.  And of course, at the end of every meeting, INGAT, which recently is translated as “take care.”  No nothing as innocuous as that.  It meant “be careful” out there.  And as if to underscore the intellectual underpinnings of the budding movement, the Communist Party was the Q, following the symbolic logic formula, if p then q.

Thus the struggle against martial law would begin – quietly, carefully, slowly, in a process of learning,, unlearning and refinement as it went along.  It was fought not only with guns, since even guerrillas could not survive without supplies and there were no deep bases as yet.  Supply teams were set up in Manila for various regions, because while there was food of a sort in the countryside, there was little by way of cash.  Certain things just had to be bought.  I recall at the time that the request for supplies for the Cordillera region, then called Montanosa, came to a measly 800 pesos a month.  For as long as I could, I gave all of it.

One early coup de plume would cheer the city of Manila, at least.  A poem, well written, was published by a magazine controlled by Marcos’s cronies.  Just a little poem but all the letters starting each line, when scanned downward, read:  Marcos, Hitler, Diktador, Tuta…  Via the grapevine, we learned almost instantly it had been done by Pete Lacaba.  The owners tried to have all the copies recalled but one was delivered to my residence, so I was fortunate enough to have seen it with my own eyes.  This kind of daring would set the tone for the struggle’s propaganda.

The first issue of Liberation came out in 1975, I believe.  The making of it had its comedic moments.   Since the cover had to be photo-stenciled, one young man went to a Makati Gestetner store, pretended to be buying a machine, and when the sales agent was distracted by a phone call, loaded the designed front page into the machine.  Remember that one had to apply for a license to even have a mimeograph machine.  Distribution of copies was done by a Volkswagen so old its driver door kept swinging open every 350 meters, as it were, revealing all the newsletter stacks on the backseat.  But by 1986, I was assured that copies were being inserted into Marcos’s election propaganda, distributed by his party for the election.  It was no longer the mimeographed version I was familiar with; it was printed, likely by the same printing presses doing Marcos’s propaganda and equally likely, paid for by the same budget appropriation.

The struggle learned how to struggle and in that learning were many, many stories – of rage and laughter, of loss and gains.  The death of Puri Pedro, murdered by a military officer, was a palpable pain over our neighborhood.  The escape of political prisoners, on the other hand, brought an almost carnival mood.  It is my hope that one day, all stories will be told, affirming that those who were imprisoned — 100,000 by the then Secretary of Defense own admission – can be named; that those who were murdered – 3,000 plus have been documented but more died in so-called “encounters” – can be named;  and those who disappeared – 759 documented, though there were more – can be named.

For on the day Manila fell quiet, it was not only noise, music, talk, chatter, the hum of a vibrant life, that martial law sought to take away from us.  Martial law sought to reduce the millions of names in the archipelago to the handful of the Marcos clan and cronies, denying millions the right to be, to exist, to be named.  Martial law reduced the entire population of the archipelago to the Marcos clan and cronies;  nobody else was of significance;  no one else’s desire, wishes, goals and dreams mattered.  Martial law sought to erase all of us, rendering us merely props on the stage where the supposed magnificent destiny of clan and cronies would unfold.  Martial law dehumanized us, rendered us NAMELESS.  We were all rendered non-persons.  The response was to take martial law as personal and to work for both an individual and collective democracy fascism couldn’t break.  This was done in the interfaces of life which couldn’t be policed, away from surveillance, in the days most quiet need.  From time to time, the little noises would break out into a huge yell – a noise barrage protesting the fraudulent Manila election; students banging on the door bars and window rails quickly installed at university campuses.

Forty years later, here we are, in a re-collection of those times, at a cool basement gallery, in a neighborhood of a city so different from the terrain where what we have re-collected occurred.  We are on the other side of the globe, though I’m pleased to remember the first reading ever honoring the murdered poet Emman Lacaba (at the Bowery church) and the first reading honoring murdered and imprisoned Filipino poets (sponsored by PEN American Center for which it was excoriated by the head of PEN Philippines) took place in this city – two events I was fortunate to help set up.

In our own fashion, in the Philippines, in the US and wherever we were, we dealt with martial law and the continued usurpation of the archipelago by the Marcos Clan and Cronies.  We learned as we went along, as martial law was a very new thing, we had no models of resistance to it.  But we learned, making as much noise as possible as we learned, and we learned very well indeed.

Which is why the national (official) reluctance to deal with martial law, to name it for what it was,  to extract justice for the damage it inflicted upon people and the islands – this reluctance has been so distressing.  The revision of history began almost at once, and it took the form immediately of denying the power of the people in the overthrow of the Marcos Dictatorship.  Instead, the overthrow has been ascribed to a few names – “heroes” – and supernatural elements.  Hell, if people hadn’t taken their courage in hand, all the “heroes” would have died under tank fire.  But so it goes;  the rich and powerful preserve their own construct.   Victims of human rights violations remain bereft of justice; those who imprisoned, murdered, raped, still walk untrammeled and often in power;  those who shared in the division of loot and turf continue to hold on to what they had stolen – even as the people, yes, the people, were being reduced to metaphorical observers in the narrative of the struggle against martial law.

Because of this national (official) reluctance,  the legacy of martial law continues:  the impunity of assassinations, murder and relentless violence, warlordism and turfism, the perverse view that public money is the private treasury of those in authority and the idea that the people are unthinking lumps of matter entitled only to lies and trickery.  How steadily amnesia has taken over minds and hearts – with those who should be in disrepute elevated to pedestals of respect.  Marcos Clan and Cronies are finger-painting daisies on a curtain being drawn over the putrid night of the martial law years.  Their egos, swollen with the unlimited self-indulgence of the martial law years, have not shrunk to proper proportions.  Only truth can do that;  only justice can do that.

Forty years after Manila fell silent, let us push away the cacophony of lies and sink ourselves once more into the quiet truth of that day.  Because as martial law was personal then, it is still personal now.

As they seek to perpetuate the legacy of martial law, we must perpetuate the legacy of those who fought it.  What can we, who live so far from the hard heat of a Philippine summer, the cool of monsoon rains, what can we do – we who are on the other side of the globe, in a strange city, in a strange neighborhood and who are now gathered today in a cool basement gallery, so very different from the terrain visited by martial law?

Many of you weren’t even born yet when Marcos was overthrown, much less when martial law was declared.  And yet here we all are, fighting NOT to be nameless in this neighborhood, this city, this state, this country, in the intricate workings of capital.

Through the years I have seen and been engaged in many big and small movements, artistic and political and often both; they waxed and waned, surged and ebbed, and petered out, even as our numbers increased.  Many poets, many writers, many painters, many sculptors of  Filipino descent worked and struggled in this country, trying to bring an awareness of what has transpired, is transpiring, in 7,000 islands on the other side of the globe.  And like a Sisyphean  task, we have seen the words we wrote, images we drew, figures we shaped, shatter and fade even as we continued to write, to draw, to sculpt.

There is a need for permanence to our work, a deep-rootedness, to mark it as of this place though prism-ed by events elsewhere.  We need to affirm that we are of this place and of this time, though our lineage may be elsewhere.  We need affirm our right to be here – to be visible and engaged in this country, to be as a branch of the banyan tree which, even as it issues forth from the mother trunk, seeks to sink its own roots into the alien loam.  By affirming our right to be here, our right to fashion a life and a destiny for ourselves here, by affirming our right and duty to make history in the time and place of our lives, by affirming our right to have a name, as it were, here, we defeat the original intent of martial law.  In the process, we also help create a genuine democracy for ourselves, our communities, our brothers and sisters of different colors and different ethnicities.   And that, as we did learn in the years following the day Manila fell silent, is the path to victory.

Thank you and, because dangers continue, INGAT– #

Ninotchka Rosca has two novels, two short story collections and four non-fiction books. Her novel State of War is considered a classic account of ordinary people’s lives under a dictatorship. She is a classic short story writer. She is also the author of the best-selling English language novels State of War and Twice Blessed. The latter won her the 1993 American Book Award for excellence in literature. Her most recent book is JMS: At Home In The World, co-written with the controversial Jose Maria Sison, who has been included in the U.S. list of “terrorists.” Rosca was a political prisoner under the dictatorial government of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. She was forced into exile to Hawaii, United States when threatened with a second arrest for her human rights activism by the Marcos regime. Rosca was designated as one of the 12 Asian-American Women of Hope by the Bread and Roses Cultural Project. These women were chosen by scholars and community leaders for their courage, compassion and commitment in helping to shape society. They are considered role models for young people of color, who, in the words of Gloria Steinem, “have been denied the knowledge that greatness looks like them.” Rosca has worked with Amnesty International and the PEN American Center. Rosca was also a founder and the first national chair of the GABNet, the largest and only US-Philippines women’s solidarity mass organization, which has evolved into AF3IRM. She is the international spokesperson of GABNet’s Purple Rose Campaign against the trafficking of women, with an emphasis on Filipinas.

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Serafin Malay Syquia: Politics and Poetry Mon, 26 Mar 2012 17:09:23 +0000 Read More ...]]> [Editors’ Note: We would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to Luis Malay Syquia, for graciously granting us permission to reprint the late Filipino American poet and activist Serafin Malay Syquia’s essay, “Politics and Poetry,” here at Syquia’s essay was originally published in Liwanag: Literary and Graphic Expressions (San Francisco: Liwanag Publications, 1975), edited by Emily Cachapero, Bayani Mariano, and Luis Syquia, and is one of the earliest Filipino American literary anthologies published in the USA. Having recently rediscovered Serafin Malay Syquia’s essay, we see that our literary and artistic communities have for a while now, struggled with the political in our art, and how to balance the political with concerns of craft. By reprinting Syquia’s essay here, we hope to reinsert it into the dialogues in which we continue to engage, regarding poets of color, political poetry, activism and poetry, and aesthetics. Consider this also an act against forgetting. ]

POLITICS AND POETRY, by Serafin Malay Syquia (1975)

To write a political poem is, to many poets and readers of poetry, counter-poetic, in that the political poem tends to be oversimplified, rhetorical and temporary. This argument is also justified with the statement that poetry must maintain a certain degree of distance from its reader. With this distance comes obscurity, an obscurity directly related to the length of the distance between the poet and his audience. A political poem then is often criticised for not maintaining the purity of its art.

I felt at one time that my poetry should not lower itself with politics, that my own personal view of life was adequate material for my poems. I still believe that to a certain degree. A poet must and can only write from his or her own personal experiences. Thus, a white poet who attempts to write of the black experience can only write indirectly about it. There is that distance then. Just as to say that many Third World poets who have neglected or rejected their roots for the accessibility of American and European literature, are also writing very indirectly about an experience that is very distant from their daily experience.

The commonality that bridges white and third world poets is politics. Politics defined as the outside forces and pressures that shape every human being on this planet. To face the reality of politics as the factor that governs our lives is a neccessary step in the development of a consciousness that transceneds an elitist concept of poetry. Poetry is the reflection of life and life is determined by politics. Yet, the word politics still produces anxiety because it often is synonymous with only newsprint, television faces and radio voices that seem so distant from our day to day lives. But politics is more than this impersonal media.

To write a nature poem describing the tranquility of the woods and the beauty of the bird and wind at the same time the trees are being cut down, birds being poisoned and shot and wind being polluted seems facetious at the least. This isn’t to say that nature poems per se are irrelevant. It may well be that the nature poet sees only beauty and tranquility in this sheltered wood. However, the times render this vision of beauty and tranquility harmful to both the poet and the reader if both agree that this is the way the world is.

The nature of the times requires, no, demands realism, both in politics and poetry. A people starving cannot be fed on pictures of gourmet dishes. A people with nowhere to live cannot live inside 21 inch television sets. To feed people obscure thoughts perpetuates the obscurity of such thoughts. If poetry is to reflect life as it is, it must concentrate on the symptoms of the sickness that have necessitated the various escapes that artists are forced to take in order to separate themselves from reality. Poetry should not nurture the symptom that created the sickness in the first place. It should help to cure the problems of the world by exposing and offering a sensitive response to the causes of the failures in society.

A political poem need not be oversimplified, rhetorical or temporary. For example, Hamlet is a very heavy political play. It dwells on ambition, the abuse of powers and other qualities that men are subject to. Yet, when Hamlet is read today, readers are awed by the durability of its topics.

The same holds true from many works of literature and art throughout history. It’s important to remember that art in any society is shaped by that particular society’s politics. So that if a country is in political chaos it would be misleading to read of tranquility and the magnificent silence emanating from a law and order dictatorship.

A poet is a sensitive craftsman who lives his craft and practices it with the experience and background that provides him the tools of his trade. This definition should erase the false concept that a political poem is pure rhetoric. If the poet is writing with integrity about anything from the plight of the masses to the flight of a bumblebee and communicates an understanding of either subject, then the complaint of rhetoric should be considered invalid for rhetoric is only that which does not follow through. It is mere abstraction. Poetry must communicate in order to survive because people must begin to listen and understand each other if this world is to survive.

Serafin Malay Syquia was born in 1943. He came to the U.S. in 1946, and died of a brain tumor in 1973. He was a writer/poet, editor, educator and community activist. Serafin, or “Serf” as his friends called him, edited and contributed to one of the very first Filipino American poetry anthologies entitled, “Flips.” His poems and essays have been included in many various anthologies and publications. Serafin was one of many 3rd World voices to emerge in the late 60’s – early 70’s who did poetry readings and one of the original members of Third World Communications, an artistic collective that included Janice Mirikitani, Alejandro Murgia, Buriel Clay II, and Jim Dong (founder of KSW) among others. He also worked in the International Hotel in Manilatown, SF. He was a founding member of the Filipino American guerrilla theatre group, “Ating Tao” at SF State. He received his Masters Degree in Poetry/Creative Writing from SFSU, worked with and in the Poetry-in-the-Schools program, and spent many summers working up in Alaska and farmfields of Central California. He was also active in the anti-Marcos movement, and when he was blacklisted along with other community activists by the martial-law era Philippine government, wrote a poem saying how proud he was to be on the list.  (Bio written by Luis Malay Syquia.)


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Rashaan Alexis Meneses: Barbie’s Gotta Work Tue, 20 Mar 2012 16:00:44 +0000 Read More ...]]> Barbie’s Gotta Work
By Rashaan Alexis Meneses

Unlike my mother who grew up in an old Army barrack tacked to the dusty farmlands of the San Joaquin Valley or my father who sometimes had to sleep in the chicken coop because his family’s house off of Franklin Boulevard in Sacramento was over-crowded with six other siblings, not only did I enjoy a spacious suburban room of my own, but I also had full governship of a pink and white miniature estate. At four feet, the Barbie Townhouse towered over my seven-year old frame. First released in 1975, my three-story edition boasted a blush bedroom suite with a lace canopied bed and matching pink armoire on the top floor. The second level living room afforded Barbie and her friends a cozy space to converse and enjoy tea while lounging on white wicker furniture. On the bottom floor, Barbie hosted small dinner parties and cooked in a cramped kitchen that lacked a stove, an oven, and a sink but offered instead a mini-refrigerator. The townhouse also featured a canary-colored pull-string elevator, which ended up stalling dramatic storylines. Between unspooling the pulley and positioning Barbie just right so her limbs wouldn’t catch as she was towed between floors, she eventually bypassed the elevator, so she could continue her arguments or flirtations uninterrupted.

At seven, in the privacy of my own room, I indulged my imagination for endless hours and acted out suspenseful sagas on a plastic and cardboard stage. Here I learned the art of story-telling and was forever bent on proving myself as a master narrator. My tools may have been crafted by Mattel and purchased at the expense of the long hours my parents worked, but the stories and characters were mine to manipulate. Stealing plot lines from General Hospital and Charlie’s Angels, Luke and Laura’s love affair was re-imagined and revised with my Miko Island Fun Doll, Barbie’s presumably Hawaiian friend though her ethnic origin was never explicitly stated on the glossy lipstick pink box. With tresses as black as mine, decidedly Asian eyes, and barely sun-kissed skin, my mother didn’t so much suggest I cast Miko as heroine in all my Barbie romances but rather championed her as prize-fighter in the endless battle for ethnic equality that apparently rankled even my own play-set, unbeknownst to me at the time. Dutiful daughter I was, Barbie was bumped into a supporting role, and Miko took center stage when she wasn’t twisted into lewd poses with GI Joe or Gumby, the work of my younger brother’s pranks. 

One Christmas, long before I had yet to grapple with my own mixed race confusions as a Chicana Filipina American, or Chicapina as our parents proudly call us, I asked Santa for the Barbie Kitchen Set. The Toys R Us catalog had tempted me well in advance with a four-sided kitchen that included a dishwasher where Miko could load her Barbie-sized plates, and knobs that actually turned at the sink and stovetop. Not to mention every single piece, from muffin tin to refrigerator bin, carried the heavy scent of fresh-baked cookies. The addition would guarantee successful wrap parties, which Miko loved to host after month-long film shoots and stage productions in which she managed to write, direct, and star as lead. Like me, she wanted to devote her life to the Arts. She could have easily followed the writer’s path since I was already familiar with the long hours spent at the desk with pen and paper in hand, but Miko and her friends wanted a more exciting and sociable life, so acting became the career of choice.

Spoiled as I was, Santa delivered my wish with an added surprise. Another package, my name tagged to it, remained under the tree. When I greedily tore off the wrapping paper, I hadn’t expected to find the Barbie Travel Agent Set, comprised of pink cabinets, a pink fax machine, and a pink desk tray where Barbie-sized pink folders slid perfectly into their own slots.

I remember turning back to my parents with a puzzled look. “This wasn’t on my list.”

“Barbie’s gotta work,” my mom answered.

“But she’s an actress.”

“She has to pay the bills.”

The conversation was over as far as my mom was concerned.

This latest mise en scene literally steered Miko out of the kitchen and introduced young girls, like me, to a wider world. Cardboard images of Tokyo, Paris, and London would surround Miko in her new employment and recast narratives on an international canvas. Now phone calls to Rome busied her time. Invoices from New York and faxes from Hong Kong stacked up on her desk. Miko and Barbie were expected to prove themselves on a larger more substantial scale. Their days of rehearsals and film shoots would have to be balanced with keeping a steady paycheck. 

That Christmas morning not only was I ushered into the tail end of Third Wave Feminism, when my ideals of womanhood became inextricably linked with gainful employment, but I was also unwittingly introduced to a family tradition and long cherished trait. Earning a room of one’s own, or, in this case, a well-equipped kitchen, required an unflinching commitment to labor. Miko was free to live an artist’s life, but she also had to pay the bills and prove her worth.

Despite the luxuries I enjoyed growing up, my father and mother made concerted efforts to instill in my brother and myself the values and ideals my grandparents brought with them from Mexico and the Philippines. We came to work, raise our families, and follow our dreams. This is everyone’s story in the United States. My family was no exception. I’d been told tales of my grandparents’ arrival and how they became adults by picking asparagus and canning tomatoes at the Heinz factory, but, to be honest, I’ve never really understood the hardships they endured to get where we are today. This is precisely what they intended. Each generation’s load is supposed to lighten, and more paths are expected to open. That’s the dream.

Under the most surprising contexts, I’m constantly reminded of the efforts my parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins have contributed for the sake of our family. In 1930, my maternal grandfather arrived from Limisawa, a small island in the Gulf of Leyte where Magellan landed and held the first Filipino mass. With nothing but a pail of adobo in his hand and in serious need of a warm coat, no sea breeze or monsoon could have prepared him for the San Francisco chill that greeted him in his new home. Before arriving, he had raised and supported his brothers and sisters by managing their small family farm in the Phillippines. With my grandmother working at his side as well in the States, my grandfather juggled three jobs while raising his children.

Born in California, my paternal grandmother shuttled across the Central Valley following the harvests as many Mexican migrant families do. She doesn’t count her adolescent days picking tomatoes and prunes as official jobs because every kid in her family and in the surrounding neighborhoods worked the fields. For my grandma, hop-picking was the perfect excuse to get out of the house and meet the young, military-rated 4F men who committed backbreaking labor on the hopyards. Instead of serving abroad on the warfront, these flat-footed, short-sighted, or paunchy men earned their manhood climbing tall ladders, straddling a network of wires, so they could tug down the twiddled branches, heavy with thick yellow pollen and laden full of green hops. My grandmother, her cousins, and aunts kept their feet to the earth, and, while the men worked above, they stripped the bines clean of their small, spongy blossoms. Filling the deep bins seemed to take forever as the sun burned above and the insects buzzed about in their ears. Arms and neck, face and hands were covered in pollen, and any food or drink tasted of bittersweet hops.

I officially joined the worker ranks my first year of college at UCLA where I slinged chow mein and dished orange chicken at a campus eatery. Yet, it was my summer job back home in San Diego that forced me to consider my place in the world, where I came from, and what I hoped to become. I initially had a difficult time landing temporary work because I wanted an office job that would bulk up my skills and pay rate. I didn’t anticipate that most employers expected long-term commitment. So, rather than serve shaved ice at Sea World or canvass petitions door-to-door for Greenpeace, which is what my options were dwindling down to, I did something I never thought I’d do or hope to do again. I lied. I removed from my resume that I was attending college in Los Angeles, and, come late September, would be heading three hundred miles north to study English and practice creative writing under a more serious and scholarly vein. To any prospective employer, with my newly revised resume, I appeared to be a recent high school grad lacking any lofty ambitions and just poking around for part-time work.

I finally landed a job that promised to school me as a professional and serve as stepping-stone to a respectable métier. As assistant to an Amway Independent Business Owner, my duties were to keep the books, track inventory, and fill orders. The extent of my knowledge about the company stretched as far as the fact that they sold an assortment of products that were supposed to rival brand names like Head & Shoulders, Kellogg’s Special K, and Cascade dishwashing detergent. Accusations of pyramid schemes and occult practices were hazy at best, if they even crossed my mind. I was just thrilled to have use of a car for the commute and more pocket money than accustomed at my disposal.

My summer employment found me walled up in the garage of an over-sized suburban house east of San Diego, an unincorporated town called Dehesa where the land is cracked and parched from the scorching heat of the sun. My employer, whose name I couldn’t recall now if my life depended on it, was a forty-ish Euro American woman fond of morning rounds at the nearby Singing Hills Golf Club, mother of three children, and part-time Amway distributor. Her husband, who I probably met once during my three-month post, was usually on his way to work by the time I clocked in, long gone to some corporate job that afforded his family a five-bedroom house with a swimming pool in the backyard. My workspace was a makeshift office in the garage. Well insulated and air-conditioned, protected from the broil outside, I had my own desk and fax with matching black file cabinets. Not quite Barbie’s Travel Agent set, instead of glamorous shots of world capital cities inspiring me I was surrounded by shelves of Amway cat and dog food, Amway nutrition bars, and Amway cleaning products, but, compared to what I earned serving fried rice, I was grateful for the chance to prove myself in this new capacity.

From nine to four, I filed receipts and filled boxes of orders, happy to keep to myself, so I wouldn’t have to reveal the dubiousness of my employment. Yet, as each day passed, I knew the time for me to reveal the truth edged closer. In my head, I’d practice different ways of breaking the news. Would I just come clean and tell the truth or should I fabricate some version of it, pretending, perhaps, that I’d just been accepted to UCLA. Did I even need to explain myself, or could I just quit with no questions asked? I’d never lied to anyone of authority before save for teachers and my parents but that was out of necessity. I wouldn’t dare miss the outdoor rave under the city’s busiest freeway, and, sometimes, Spanish class couldn’t compete with killing time in the back of Sean Anderson’s van. These non-disclosures of youthful rebellion rushed me headlong into a different ideal of womanhood that had nothing to do with dolls and everything to do with boys. The deception embarked on this occasion meant risking my intention to prove to myself, and the world, that I was an adult capable of earning my keep through honest work. Still, lying on the job could have its justification.

I reminded myself the tales my maternal grandfather told me when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. A Filipino immigrant from the Visayas, in the early forties, Felipe Abrigo Napala knew that because of his skin color and his recently arrived status in the States, he’d be assigned to work in the kitchen or swab the deck. He didn’t so much as lie when he told recruiters he was skilled as a carpenter but, rather, my grandpa predicted a future he aimed to realize. His supervisors in Damage Control on the U.S.S. Idaho soon found him out, but this was wartime and my grandpa was a quick study. They apprenticed him until he became a master carpenter and machinist. Indispensable, by the time he received his discharge from active duty after World War II, the Navy offered him two permanent positions at Sharpe’s Depot and the Naval Reserve in Stockton.

I was thankful my employer never got personal. Not once did she ask me about my ambitions, no inquiries about family, or what I did over the weekend. For a couple hours a day we reviewed orders and conferred about weekly tasks, otherwise, she stayed inside the house with the air conditioner on full blast and her kids blaring cartoons from the family room television while the sun sucked every ounce of energy from anyone who dared to step outside. I remained cocooned in the garage, safe with my secret, daydreaming how to will my own ambitions into reality as I organized boxes of shampoo and conditioner. Though Miko and her artistic exploits had long since been abandoned for boys, term papers, and hanging out with friends, I hadn’t given up my ambitions to become a writer. I just had no idea where to start.

What I remember most about my first job is the routine of it. The tasks may have been menial, but the custom of loading trunks with boxes of kitty litter and bottles of body wash anchored me with a proud sense of purpose and responsibility. I especially savored the time driving the long-winding country highway, a good half hour commute from my house, past yellowed willow trees, summer-withered fields, and dry creek beds. I got to see my childhood town as a budding, often floundering, adult. Travelling past working ranches where tractors sent up clouds of dirt as they tread through open field, occasionally, a blinding white and green-striped Border Patrol car would sneak up behind me, or I’d spot their jeeps lurking amid an overgrown bamboo hedge, and I’d remember that where I grew up was still very much the Wild West.

Up until that summer, I’d only seen this landscape through a child’s eyes. I hadn’t realized it as a place where generations of families raised sheep and managed apple orchards, and where other families dared to trek hundreds if not thousands of miles away for work and a new life. Stories seemed to offer themselves to me and after my shift, I’d retreat back home to my room and scribble away late into the night only to wake in the morning with pages of frenzied inspiration scattered across my desk. I’d rush out the door oblivious to my routine practice of the balancing act between Work and Art, which my mother had hinted to years before using Mattel toys as her props.

Summer eventually retracted its claws, and the heat eased a few degrees. My boss, harried and unusually busy with the advent of her kids’ fall semester, met me one morning, curlers still in her hair, her face stripped of rouge and eye shadow, and every wrinkle and worry-line that ever crossed her face, visible. After our regular briefing, she posed an unexpected question that was more intrusive than any inquiry I could have ever anticipated. All this time working together she could have expressed some curiousity about what classes I liked in high school or which favorite books I enjoyed but that afternoon instead she asked me to do her laundry.

Each neuron lit up. Every nerve cracked like the dry heat outside, ready to ignite into a firestorm. If it was any other question I could have felt like a flesh and blood individual with talents and intellect to offer, but there I stood as dumb and mute as a doll. I knew the situation was wrong even as she led me down the white-tiled hallway, the same path the maid usually mopped once a week but hadn’t this time because she was out of town visiting family. Loads piled three feet high waited for me in the washroom. The new responsibility could be considered a small promotion in one respect. I’d get to work indoors. 

While I filled up the washer and dryer and ironed and folded between loads, I tried to embrace one of my dad’s favorite words he practically branded onto me, diligence. Soon as I could walk, I had been charged with the duty of fetching clean diapers for my baby brother. There’s even a family photo of me on the job. One year-old, I’m rushing and stumbling, with diaper in hand, across the orange shag carpet of our late seventies living room. My brother and mother wait in the bottom corner of the frame. Responsibility, no matter the duty, was a call to action, a challenge for any and all family members to rise to the occasion and give her best.

I separated whites from the brights, uncomfortably handled my boss’ bras and her husband’s boxer briefs, while holding their children’s streak-marked underoos at arms length. I knew the situation wasn’t right and that household chores weren’t part of my job description. If I wanted to report a complaint though there was no one I could go to, no fall back or recourse. Yet, unlike many employees in my position, I’d be leaving in less than a month to start a new school year as a sophomore. I had opportunities that were just waiting for me to reach up and claim them as mine. No matter how uncomfortable I felt, one afternoon fumbling with someone else’s dirty underwear couldn’t stand to the years my dad spent shadowing his manongs, his uncles and elders, as they were trucked from peach orchard to walnut grove and bussed from vineyard to vineyard. From Fairfield to Lodi and Vacaville to Davis, he picked grapes and swept truck beds clean, long after the sun had slipped below the horizon. A few hours ironing threadbare camisoles couldn’t hold up to the year my mother stood at the factory line inspecting and bagging plastic utensils. These were honest jobs that supplied a steady paycheck and the honor of paying one’s dues.

Knocked down by the very person I trusted might help shape me into the working woman I was destined to become, after that day sorting and folding my boss’ laundry, I felt no remorse in deceiving her and savored the sweetest hint of revenge when I finally gave notice. I never told her about UCLA or my aim to be a writer, and she certainly never asked.

Since that first year of working, I’ve assumed over a dozen incarnations as employee. Each occupation pursued with the intent to balance writing with working. One of those positions included messengering for a film company in the heart of Hollywood. Hired as a runner for a trailer-house, I couriered reels, audiotapes, and digital edits throughout the City of Angels. At night, I’d churn out scripts short on plot and heavy with many of those lofty ambitions that stuck with me since childhood. The gig paid low wages and offered no benefits, but I was afforded both an up close and panoramic view to the town that shaped me into who I am today. I discovered exactly what made Los Angeles a global metropolis. When assigned to purchase cables, I talked to day laborers, who waited in the searing sun at the parking lot at Home Depot. On my daily runs zig-zagging between Sunset and Beverly Boulevard, I saw countless workers hefting bags of oranges and waving bright bouquets of flowers at passing cars. I followed the fleets of taco trucks that served as impromptu oases for business men with cell phones glued to their ears and watched women, like myself, who raced from one end of the city to another picking up supplies and dropping off deliveries. I drove alongside bus boys in their black and white checkered work pants as they biked through the Wilshire Corridor chaos, rushing to a late evening shift, and I admired the armies of domestic workers who filed off the poppy and gold-striped MTA buses that dropped them into Bel Air or Beverly Hills as silver sleek German sedans sped past them. Most people consider Los Angeles to be as fake and plastic as my Barbie Townhouse, but the truth is everyone works in L.A. It’s a city built on labor, and, because of the aspirations the City of Angels incites, Angelenos put their bodies into their work, balancing their fragile dreams with the reality of hard labor.

Watching those determined souls strive no matter the day of the week or what hour, wherever my glance happened to fall, the truth of my family’s legacy, our history played out before me in three million different ways. I’d never again take for granted my chance to go to college or the opportunity I had not to have to fold someone’s underpants because everywhere I look, I see someone struggling more and hustling harder. 

The Barbie Townhouse was dismantled by middle school, boxed and stored in the garage, and, later, lost in a shuffle of moves. In Miko’s lifetime she managed to acquire a working spa with hand-pumped jets, a remote-operated Corvette convertible that matched her canary-colored elevator, and a trousseau that would make any soap opera diva proud. She led a markedly different life from my family and the fellow Californians I know and admire. She was the glamorous, powder pink embodiment of our Golden State’s ideals, and she gave me license to ask limitless “what ifs,” leading me down a thousand paths of possibilities until I was mature and strong-willed enough to explore some of these potentials and ambiguities in the flesh.

Next to the Christmas tree that morning, amid a mess of torn wrapping paper and strewn ribbons with the Barbie Travel Agent box heavy and bulky in my little hands, I didn’t fully understand what my mother meant by “work.” I just knew it didn’t sound fun. Only years later would I appreciate the balancing act she illustrated with the help of Mattel. That room of my own may have been cluttered with the spoils of a second-generation suburban brat, but there I also horded the stories my grandparents shared and tried to remember the lessons my mother and father stressed to my brother and me. At the foot of that towering Barbie Townhouse, I shuttled Miko and her friends between home and work. It hadn’t occurred to me that paying the bills didn’t just mean making the rent, another notion that would take a decade to sink in, but keeping a steady paycheck signified the ritual of stepping outside that room to prove myself to the world and earn my place in it.

Rashaan Alexis Meneses earned her MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California’s Creative Writing Program and received her B.A. in English with a specialization in Fiction, Creative Writing from the University of California, Los Angeles. A former Jacob K. Javits fellow, a 2009 finalist for A Room of Her Own’s Gift of Freedom Award, she was recently nominated for a Sundress Best of the Net Prize. Her publications include UC Riverside’sThe Coachella ReviewThe University of North Carolina’s Pembroke Magazine, andGrowing Up Filipino II: More Stories for Young Adults published by PALH and edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard. An adjunct professor in Liberal & Civic Studies at Saint Mary’s College, she can be found at the following sites: and

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Jai Arun Ravine: Behind the Poetry of แล้ว and then entwine Tue, 02 Aug 2011 01:32:43 +0000 Read More ...]]> Behind the Poetry of แล้ว and then entwine
by Jai Arun Ravine

แล้ว and then entwine is a skin that once peeled from Ravine’s body took the form of language. Inscribed on pieces of rice paper, Thai lesson workbooks and notebook pages, this text hung on the walls of our apartment in Boulder, CO. แล้ว and then entwine is born out of Ravine’s divine and dangerous rite of passage from a half-Thai ballerina dancing in the hollers of West Virginia to a trans-shaman-prince-warrior in the form of Ram who dares to probe beyond the silence and speak hir mother (‘s) tongue. These words are not extended poem or anti-novel, but incantation. Ravine carried Ram to term and I helped coax the boi-child as midwife with the harmony of a shruti box and a congress of ravens. Pieces were conjured over a pot of simmering curry, stringy meats and steaming jasmine tea and in empty rooms where we danced to the sound of Thai vowels and embodied rock, rope and sea.

-Marissa L. Perel


Waitlisted (again), I went to the first class of Bhanu Kapil’s fall 2006 semester course at Naropa University with the hope that one of the three White boys ahead of me in line would drop out. (One of them did. That wasn’t enough, though.) I remember the trance-like state through which she led us in a writing exercise, and although I can’t remember it exactly, in my memory she told us to imagine the space between, to imagine a journey through that space, to draw the texture of that journey, to keep its notebook.

I drew this:

…which for me was both a rope and a river.

It became a seed.


I feel like I gave birth to this book. Strange, considering that I hate babies (…okay, except for cute Asian ones…) and, while Thomas Beatie wasn’t the only trans guy in the world to do it, I’ve never had any desire to be pregnant. I feel like I gave birth to this book because there are strands of the text I don’t remember writing so much as I remember how they came out of me, and the textural process of revision–knotting, un-knotting, cutting and tying to–once they were out.


In the Boulder blur between summer and autumn, 2006, I was wandering some residential side streets, sort of lost. From where I stood, it was one year after an Amtrak ride from West Virginia (when I carried two suitcases and some cigarillos and didn’t turn around to wave) and one year before the Penske Craigslist rideshare to San Francisco (when I drove at 3:00 AM past the lights over Laramie, spooked by the ghost of Matthew Shepherd). I turned around to see my future friend–the writer, performance artist and healer Marissa Perel (a.k.a. MVP)–standing in the middle of the street, smiling.

Several months later, in a cafe/bookstore on Pearl Street, MVP and I sat at a table near the front with a small curtained window. (There might even have been a glass vase with a flower in it.) Looking up from our journals, we said, Let’s live together!

Both of us had moved from the east coast. Neither of us owned real furniture. Our living room was bare for the longest time. We turned it into a dance studio for authentic movement. We turned it into an airport. We put altars on either side of the fireplace. We put up our writing on the walls. We drew goddess cards and drank red wine and ate curry out of acorn squash. We danced to Kate Bush. We put up a picture of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha on the window facing the parking lot and watched it fill with snow. It was where, every Friday morning in the spring, MVP gave me the critical mojo I needed before I going to teach class.

I miss that apartment. It was our raven haven. It was our school of embodied poetics. It was where แล้ว and then entwine was born.


On the third floor of the now non-existent Allegheny Books in Charleston, West Virginia, I spent junior high summers sitting on the floor in front of a section probably labeled “HISTORY – ASIA.” I looked for Thailand and found it was written by White people, illustrated in black and white photographs and printed in the 60s and 70s. Eventually I learned one to ten. I guess I didn’t need to count any higher.

When I decided to study abroad in Thailand in 2004, I decided I needed something to hold on to. I decided that this was basically my only chance to connect to a history, language and culture I thought was mine–I figured I had a right to it. But the other non-Thai, mostly White, American students in my program had other reasons–new experiences, fresh perspectives, to be exposed to different cultures, to go to Cambodia and see Angkor Wat–and often I felt they were fitting in more than I did. They were on their way to becoming advertisements for study abroad catalogs, promotional materials for tourism and instruments for US-Thailand public relations.

I traced Thai script in kindergarten workbooks. I read the signs I passed in red song taew taxis. I asked for sticky rice and meat on a stick and pineapple. But I discovered that this language failed me and fell short when I attempted to express myself to the aunt and queer cousin I had just met. Learning Thai was tied to a sunken past only partially legible in my face. As a queer, gender non-conforming, mixed race and diasporic subject, I wanted to stake claim to something concrete that could bind me to Thai-ness, that said I could belong. If biological family and bloodlines were insufficient…

…What claims can be made to silence?

The project that became แล้ว and then entwine developed from my need to imagine a historical relationship to Thailand, to invent a past and create a mythology, in order to figure out what that relationship meant to me in the present. I wanted a clear line from A to B to C–from Thailand to the United States to me–so I drew it. I wanted to put that line into my hands.


I started writing this text in the fall of 2006 during my MFA at Naropa. Just that August I’d read Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee and Myung Mi Kim’s Commons–two works and two authors that may have single-handedly helped me develop my poetical politics/political poetics. From them I learned what it means to “come into speech,” the effects of silence on the body, and what arises in the discourse between two languages/two nations.

I also finally discovered Padcha Tuntha-obas’ composite.diplomacy and trespasses. Up until then I didn’t know any other Thai poets, much less Thai poets who worked with Thai and English on the same page and were complicating notions of translation. For the first time I felt I was not alone and that my own work could be possible.

That fall I took a “Food as Metaphor” fiction course with Indira Ganesan. This was where all the meaty connections between hunger and language, learning and eating–the mouth, the mother, the river–began to take shape. Working with lines of dis/connection in family trees and genealogy diagrams, I wanted to show that the inheritance of silence was palpable and suffocating.

Everything I wrote that fall I fed into this project: the creation of a notebook that dreamed–re-imagined–my mother’s immigration. I wanted desperately to hold on to something, even if I had to make it up. That’s how much I needed it to make sense. That’s how much I literally wanted to make complete sentences. I was tired of fragments and the endless fragmentation of being; I was tired of line breaks and arbitrary spacing–I wanted paragraphs. I wanted a narrative. I needed to make a map.


In an interview with Lantern Review, Craig Santos Perez talks about the page as ocean in relation to his multi-book project, “from unincorporated territory: “I imagine the blank page as an excerpted ocean filled with vast currents, islands of voices, and profound depths. I imagine the poem forming as a map of this excerpted ocean, tracing the topographies of story, memory, genealogy, and culture.”

Perez talks about words rising up from this ocean/page like archipelagos, with all that is still submerged. I think about this kind of weaving in relation to my interaction with the apartment wall on which my book emerged. Because I was thinking of my project as a journey, as a long poem, as a map, I needed a surface large enough to allow me to see all the points at once–to see the source and conclusion simultaneously. Using the wall helped me visualize the text in relation to its parts, to get a sense of the whole.

The way I walked to and from this wall makes me think of Perez’s ocean. I stuck printouts to the wall with sticky tack and walked back. I walked up to the wall to re-write and revise and then walked back. I cut up parts of the text, added a note, diagram, picture or drawing, and then walked away. I walked up to move parts around and rearrange sections and then walked back. One day Nora Cox gave me a Chiquita pineapple tag that explained how to cut a pineapple in four steps. I added it to my wall:

This back and forth, discursive action also applies to the ways I used translation. I looked up traditional Thai poetic forms and modeled my own writing after them–translating from English to Thai to English forewords and backwards several times. Utilizing my dictionaries and worksheets from 2004, I used the direct translation as an anchor and then swam out, back and out again, drifting with the current. I also experimented with making the English text foreign and strange by translating it in and out of itself in the same way.

Because of this discursive motion, I have a very tactile relationship to this text and to its mythology. Like drawing the image of the rope/river, I needed to make this journey as visual, as three-dimensional, as possible. MVP and I made a song to “sweet bones” and sang it during a graduation reading. I made collages on rice wrapper. I wrote the text from the LOY and DTERN sections on rice wrappers.

In a performance I did at Naropa with MVP in 2007, I read the text from the wrappers, then cracked them or placed them gently into a bowl of water. I made a trail of rice kernels. I put soaked wrappers on my forearm and read the text off my skin. MVP accompanied on wrapper handling and shruti box. During an evening in which everyone else stood behind a podium and coughed, I got in trouble for bringing bowls of water on stage, in precarious proximity to electricity.


Toward the end of writing this manuscript in the spring of 2007, I was starting to question a transgender identity. One of the reasons it took me a while to revisit the work was because being Thai was entwined with a kind of femininity I was beginning to disidentify with. While I had surrounded myself with literature written by first and second generation Asian American women and other women of color (like Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior), I was starting to recognize a familiar and depressing pattern concerning immigration, fracture and mothers. I was beginning to disidentify with the immigrant mother and daughter dynamic I had mythologized in my text.

Being gender non-conforming in the San Francisco bay area presented its own challenges that seemed to function outside my relationship to being mixed race and Asian American in the bay. My preoccupation with gender pushed my preoccupation with Thai-ness away for a while. I stowed the manuscript away and even packed away my Thai things. I didn’t want to look at them.

During the 2007 Summer Writing Program at Naropa, in the final week of my study there, I took Myung Mi Kim’s workshop and signed up for a one-on-one session with her. I gave her parts of the manuscript to read. She said, “I think you’re holding on too tightly to the text.” She said to give it some room to breathe, to make some gaps. I knew where she was coming from, but at the same time I didn’t want to. I was told that when I was born the umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck in such a way that for a few seconds I wasn’t breathing. For me this text was about holding on too tightly, was about making complete sentences with periods, was about writing a narrative strung together in one line, on one rope, was about choking.


I went to Thailand for the second time this past March and April, and through a residency at ComPeung made my short experimental film on Thai trans-masculinities, Tom/Trans/Thai. I was prepared to pass as farang (white/tourist); I was prepared to say “khrap” (the male participle required for polite speech). Every so often a Thai person would ask me, in Thai, “Where do you come from?” and depending on how I felt that day I would say either “Phrathet America” or “I’m half Thai, my mother’s Thai.” Sometimes they would then ask, “How come your mother didn’t teach you Thai?” and I would say “She didn’t” (or, actually, “never taught”) and they would say “Good luck” and I would say “Thank you” and walk away with my banana smoothie, my DVD, my t-shirt.

I know now that I can never belong to Thai-ness completely, no matter how much I write that connection into being. There are parts I take and parts I leave. This time around I found myself in Thailand in small ways, like having a fabulously gay dinner with the Thai Transgender Alliance, getting a beer at the 7Eleven and having the best conversation of my life with another half Thai trans guy, and watching boys in tight jeans and high tops dance in front of the MBK.

Knowing the rope is there, I let it go. Writing แล้ว and then entwine taught me how to let go. And then, and now, and so, I do.

Jai Arun Ravine is a mixed race Thai American writer, dancer, video and performance artist. They received an MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University. Ze is the author of แล้ว and then entwine (Tinfish Press, 2011), the chapbook Is This January (Corollary Press, 2010) and The Spiderboi Files. A Kundiman fellow, hir short experimental film Tom/Trans/Thai recently exhibited at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center, Thailand. Find Jai online at

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Ching-In Chen: 52 Condensed Pages of a Collaged Manifesto {Side B} Wed, 27 Jul 2011 06:08:58 +0000 Read More ...]]> How will you begin?
      — Bhanu Kapil

The way a snail crawls out of her shell,

cross boundaries almost as soon as I drew them.

               a strong believer in the Chinese saying “a thousand-mile journey begins with a single step,” I spilled out into the world. Could not tell the difference between me and the painting I saw that day,

     what was me, what was the painting. These days, I begin

with a sound.

               a thanking of the four directions, water, earth, air and fire.

                                             The world is whim; the sun rises every day to date.

               swallows a door each time, deeper.

                              If the whether is settled, the how is accidental. Some mornings, I begin
with email.

Is your life good? What do you do with it, and how do you feel about that?
      — Sesshu Foster

I tamper with it until it blows up in my face and I realize

            I could have sat with it and listened. Sometimes

                  sole provider for my adult daughter and her daughter              I want

to only be responsible for myself. Last night,

      the sounds of an animal, likely a coyote, scratching

against the window, knocking on the wall. This morning the smell

            of medicinal herbs, bark and root being cooked by my mother, I stay

      umbilical corded to my families.

working three jobs for a basement studio apartment that frequently flooded and barely affording to feed myself, I’ve learned from my mother how

      to laugh at my job, to laugh at the holes in my shoes and then duct tape them shut,

                        I am angry that life is unnecessarily hard and I am lonely.

I write, often in my bed/ livingroom. Dance when I turn on the radio or commune beneath black strobe-ing lights without liquor. And when he says that his accomplishment is as much his as it is ours, I think of how I like all my doors ajar.

            My life borrowed. Woke up

and ate dim sum and eggs and broiled cabbage (which my mom assured me was good for my digestive system), then I washed it down with orange juice. I rise into the sky, fly across county lines. This makes me feel like a slow learner, the kind that would exasperate an average teacher.

      I have to return it in the same condition it was given to me, clean, innocent and pure.

… in the company of language that has been met with potential erasure; what happens in that kind of collaboration between the impossibility of utterance and finding the means by which to utter?
      — Myung Mi Kim

I am having a very hard time understanding this sentence. So, let me try

      to translate. Each time surprises.

            a reclaiming of first sound and new sound

So much hope at one time; now, he can’t pin-
point one place his life could’ve turned to right

                  Creativity and civil disobedience.

the hopes that, in remaining unchanged, changed
him for the airier, the air about him

Lots of days I prepare for the possibilities of uttering. just in case. I walk thinking
there is always “a case” holding the wall around the corner, trying to sell me
something I don’t need or take from me              the Psalms full of wishes

      for comfort, protection, revenge: good
      returns for faithful waiters like him.

                  knife needing a handle and a wood block.

                        how deeep the wound.
                        the abuse of our mother. Alcoholism. Ancestral memory
isn’t always an easy collaboration what Louise Glück says
               in her poem, “The Red Poppy”– I speak / because I am shattered.

How many generations does it take to heal? Two, three, twenty? By writing through a rupture, can one hope to get across it?
      — Pam LuHow do we navigate these buried maps? How do we locate our own native meridians? How do we measure our own time and space?
      — Craig Santos Perez

      Lately thinking
about time in more of the African religious way, where time is present

                        at the back of your head and I am walking backward into

our internal compass, discerning the landscape of our world below the surface of what we’ve been told,

      I do not trust maps. My intention to deconstruct my white privilege        No map can lead you to your meridian.

            delivered by those bent on controlling where I travel. My aim to become lost.
the body unable, immediately, to divert itself from the usual, historical repetitions. Humans spent 3000 years measuring things, and every measurement we have ever made has been inaccurate.

                  Conversation over food. easier to navigate together. Late night baking. Every measurement taken with the heart. Backyard gardening. Directing most/all of my anger at men.

      My uncle had his uncle draw a map of the old estate. Marking where his grandfather buried bags of silver.

                              Each vein is an edit.

            Here, under this tree. There, by the stone.

      by the gray hair, by the books collected, by who has been born and who has died.
My uncle tried twice to recover them, once in the eighties, once in the nineties. But the land had changed. The mountains witnessed his digging back into time.

      In my fury—I am more woman, more a part of things, more articulate and unafraid.

In the nineties, after the second failed attempt, he started a business. We measure our story by the number of other stories we run into, collaborate with, collide with.

                  we cannot locate ourself by ourself.

Last I heard, his business was successful, and he was wealthy, so he climbed Mt. Everest.

What if lineage is a line of lit fuel?
      — Michelle Naka Pierce

                                    I love my herbs textbook.

the general description of each herb, its functions, dosage, its action in combination with other herbs, its properties compared to other herbs. My dad died from cancer three years ago. Then the historical commentary. Who wrote what about this herb in which century.

How they disagreed, and argued about how to use this herb. At night, the ripples of wind.
                                          Lines being blurred, being bent.

                        Even knowing that each wave erases what came before

                  Hopefully, some lucky seekers will arrive there:

Before he passed, my uncle held ceremony in our living room. In that circle my dad said, among other things, “I am the first born child of a first born child.”

Standing in sand with water carving every grain around and under your feet. The textbook makes no judgment, only presents the arguments over the centuries.

                  be a segment, extending it, helping to light it.

The readers get to decide what they think, who they side with. Well I am the first born child of a first born child of a first born child. That is a line of lit fuel.

But then the work breaks down again: how do you recombine these “parts” — these fragments — that were disseminated under brutal conditions?
      — Bhanu Kapil

      If you trust the person you whisper to,
learn codes, new patterns, new techniques, learn to shape shift, learn the ways of trickster

                  because that person is outside
            the gate, and can relay your cosmos to the book maker,

quilt making made from scraps of cloth or stew made from left over meat and vegetables or what happens in the act of revision – fragments can make a whole.

Inseminations recombine fragments, and as such. This feels like a contraction. 40,000 acres somewhere in the Brazilian forest that have been given to corporations this year.

                                    you still must
                        sit still on the rough bench and wonder

about the editors. Stanley Kunitz said that the heart breaks
            and breaks, and it breaks

                  by living.

How long can I sit and be attentive when the world is blowing up?
      — Myung Mi Kim

The image of the tree that remains intact while simultaneously being on fire. What is a self-portrait, other than an attempt to breathe between shifting your bones?

                                    28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds
            both potently attentive and in constant chaos.

The opposite of destruction
      can’t be construction but rest, runners
who, relaxing, run faster. I live
                        in a world of blowing up.

to be on the street and mobile, and here in the garden, with this breath, on the page?

What is the recombinant energy created between languages (geopolitical economics, cultural representations, concepts of community.)?
      — Myung Mi KimAre your feelings somebody else’s ideas?
      — Sesshu Foster

      Plenty, yes. I hope
as I pass them from my body, nothing gets stuck…that it all translates
                  to you, the writer,

      just as thunder is not mine. My life is never my own.

Down the burning lineage, I feel the fishermen, Marcos-protesters, abandoned children, the “tomboys,” porridge makers, adoptees, judges, cancer survivors, writers, striking a match, the clack of lined-up dominoes on the sidewalk of my blood.

                  No small wonder that I feel damaged at times.

What word could mark the change in me? What word could help me get to the other side?
      — Tina Bartolome

It took us about ten notes to slide into a harmony. What word keep me, what word cling?

      Why? Beloved. Why? Focus. Why? Listen. Why? accountability

      Many of the questions I still have no answers to In the discordance, some held and some gave. What word free and now need prune?

            I do not want to do things alone anymore.

What are the consequences of silence?
      — Bhanu Kapil

Everything that has happened,
      having an opinion, and wanting
to say it,

            for as long as we could imagine.

      I love the peace, concentration, and light that silence affords me.

not the same as waiting for the fire.

      Silence out of anger

potentially preserve relationships if only used as a holding ground

      Forever on the verge but never honoring enough forward momentum.
Better to jump into a volcano. Auntie says, you don’t need to know their names. Mother says, you don’t need to know their names. I can hear your heart beating in my throat.

                  How such a decision does not have to equal silence.
can be a holding of the thought, the knowing for a time when it can be used by others. Fewer burns.

                              The sunlight is so bright up there.

Ching-In Chen is the author of The Heart’s Traffic (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press) and co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (South End Press). She is a Kundiman and Lambda Fellow and part of the Macondo and Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation writing communities. She has worked in the San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside and Boston Asian American communities. Ching-In currently lives in Milwaukee and is involved in union organizing and direct action.

Collaborators/Participants: Todd Wellman, Constance Lee, Aimee Lee, Lily Wong, Vincent Toro, Carina Farrero, Kyla Searle, Monica A. Hand, Susu Pianchupattana, Serena W. Lin, James Autio, Vanessa Huang, Shiaw-Tian Liaw, Porschia L. Baker, Nan Ma, Noel Pabillo Mariano, Stacia M. Fleegal, Joy Mariama Smith, Rona Luo, Evangeline Ganaden, Jie Tian, Dalila Paola Mendez, Kimberly Zarate, Anne Coyle, Rachelle Cruz, Stephanie Hammer. Translation assistance: Monika Maria Schultes, Cheng-Hsing Chen.

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Ching-In Chen: 52 Condensed Pages of a Collaged Manifesto {Side A} Tue, 19 Jul 2011 05:01:20 +0000 Read More ...]]> *
Dear lovelies:

You are receiving this invitation because the fabulously and variously talented Barbara Jane Reyes and Oscar Bermeo have asked me to submit a poetics manifesto for Doveglion Press.

(For more on what a manifesto entails, go to: or check out the amazing manifestos of my writing peers)

As I’ve been thinking about what makes up my poetry and creative work, I have always been surrounded by strong community and collaboration, pulling from what’s around me, the work of my peers and also the lineage of artists who have come before.I wanted to write this poetics manifesto using, altering, collaging, sampling remixing the words and fragments of you who are in my life.  If you got this e-mail, perhaps you have collaborated with me in the past, or you belong to one of my communities, or are in the constellation of my life, or I am curious about you.  Whatever it was, your energy surfaced for me in this moment.In pulling from the lineage of artists who have come before, I am following in the footsteps of:

Doug Kearney —
Myung Mi Kim —
Orlando White —
Claudia Rankine —
Cathy Park Hong —
Gloria Anzaldua —
Larissa Lai & Rita Wong —
Noah Purifoy —
Catalina Cariaga —
Layli LongSoldier —
Betye Saar —
Juan Felipe Herrera —
Akilah Oliver —
Kimiko Hahn —
Sharon Bridgforth —
Lily Hoang —
* Check them out if you haven’t before:-)

I am also thinking of Bhanu Kapil’s brilliant book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. Over many years, she asked a series of South Asian women she met randomly (on the street, in the airport, in the subway) a series of 12 questions, recorded them in notebooks and then wrote a beautiful hybrid book which “contains words, lines, sentences, fragments, stories, phonemes and images taken from those notebooks.”  This audio clip features Bhanu Kapil talking about the origins of The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers and reading from the project:

So what does this mean for you?  If you would like to participate, please respond with a YES.  I will then send you 12 open-ended questions.  You can answer in whichever way you are moved to — off-the-cuff, improvisationally, in deep meditation, whichever feels right to you.


How will you begin? — Bhanu Kapil

I have been thinking about stairs, leaving
one place moving
with fingers on the home row, or by removing
an article of clothing.  In order to get close to flying,
slowly.  With my thumb
on the record player, listening very closely to the whispers.

Is your life good? What do you do with it, and how do you feel about that?  — Sesshu Foster

The ice rink today had good
ice.  The mirror in the Target changing
room told me to keep
doing important things.  In the past
I have lived in very toxic
places.  If you don’t know much

about orchids, all conditions
correct, most important they need to be left

alone.   Here:

I am always searching for the perfect
green mango of my childhood, and I come close
in Asian stores, even the jarred, pickled ones
imported from my country, and then I go home

and know that I can never find it anywhere else. …………………I memorize formulas, I weigh herbs, I interpret over the phone, I do intakes, I feel you where it hurts, and where it does not hurt.  I feel myself where it hurts.  Colonized for 500 years, I now own a master key to the collective shackle. I help children remember the name

they had before they were given a name.  Given the space to chisel words onto the surface of sky,

I am occasionally afforded a disco break.  I watch the cars go by this Midwestern suburb.  I tap needles down your back.  It’s getting easier these days.  I feel surprised, how much I do not miss

what I left behind.  I talk

to the same person everyday.  We sleep and wake up, and I like the way

it smells, our sleeping and waking.

… in the company of language that has been met with potential erasure; what happens in that kind of collaboration between the impossibility of utterance and finding the means by which to utter?   — Myung Mi Kim

We each a self induced Mandala
intersection of six languages – five
broken, one which “pass”
as fluent – but none fully
home.  Travel
start with grief and despair, glimmers of meaning
seeded in you from the very beginning.  Practice, revelation,
groping towards fluency, amnesia that comes with loss.

A circular narrative unstrung

What we say builds us
To live is an act of erasure

I don’t know.

Sit down by a fire.

Breath brew, air whisper

to dust oil lamps
he bought at antique stores. He wipes them clean.

There is a word for this. I think. Anomia. A severe problem with recalling words or names. Or dysnomia.

Only ten minutes pass. He sees his carving
someone must love someone just enough to dig without shovels.

How many generations does it take to heal? Two, three, twenty? By writing through a rupture, can one hope to get across it?  — Pam Lu

unannounced, sometimes by invitation, sometimes as a gift

If you are expecting me to surrender my wounds, I won’t.  Fever
leads to immunity.

part of the fabric, I am not an artist who loves solitude.
And yes, one can row a boat across a canal putting pen to page, I’ve crossed

time with my hands bound, only to realize that time itself is a fog of circumstance. I wandered. I once saw myself making rope, shaping bullwhisps.

His mother asks him if he’s with anyone. But he has all sorts of projects that doesn’t involve making babies; babysitting, for example.

to write something that will heal
all fourteen generations of my father’s traceable genealogy, I don’t know

if I can meet that ambition.


You the only hope that will make it happen.

How do we navigate these buried maps? How do we locate our own native meridians? How do we measure our own time and space? — Craig Santos Perez

With a wounded, bleeding finger, sheet metal, ramen noodles, wool socks, sheet music, old books and letters, fragments of half-knit

things. Sometimes

like walking in a room full

of empty chairs and knowing which chair
will be the right one, not because
you can see where
sitting still will take you, but because you can imagine who
will speak how, where the best place to see a piano player’s hands is, how

far forward the rest of the listeners will sit. Knowing something is out there, deeper than your feet, deeper than potatoes, maybe deeper than the frost line. We locate

them after living for a while, missing things, piecing things together, asking questions, feeling sick in different parts of the body, losing things and people, going to strange places, being a stranger and a shadow.  I am furious.

Not sure how to navigate that all the time.
The ways that “manners and politeness” have paralyzed me.

closing our eyes, picturing our spine.  Despite using a level and copious amounts of tape measure, I could not make everything seem completely right.  Take a parabola (or mountain or a bowl of rice or breast or wave). Let Pleasure be the point, this apex, where the curve changes direction. Call this point Equilibrium. All other points is Pain: bees on the ground, car-alarm mockingbirds.
Somehow the ground of the building is crooked, and the painted line up top is skewed.  My body is cluttered with doors I spit out and open one after another

to you after another.

What if lineage is a line of lit fuel? — Michelle Naka Pierce

Then many of us are on fire.

Gasoline.   I am a trough of gunpowder.  I am carbohydrate.

Pour flames. (This is me acting before i think.) Pour more flames and let that which doesn’t elevate be burned and its ashes conceive new trees; new beings. (Now I’m thinking.) If the lineage consumes too much, then walk away, build a safe space, study the heart of the fire that’s too consuming, but more importantly study your own, decode it, take what you need to continue and contribute to the lineage. She should only approach, while hearing her own waving flame.

My paternal grandmother will someday come to me from her dead place and invite me to butter the turkey with her, our small hands inserting pats of gold under tight skin. She will cry instead of making small talk.

If you are fuel, you cannot also be water, as much as you might want to be already ashes.

But then the work breaks down again: how do you recombine these “parts” — these fragments — that were disseminated under brutal conditions? — Bhanu Kapil

A. Steal two turntables and a p.a. system from your uncle’s garage.  Slowly, with my thumb on the record.  (see first question)
B. Rig a lamp post to get yourself some juice.
C. Put up flyers at the bodega, the rec center, and the 6 train.  Paste and light them up.
D. Wait for the crowd to gather.
E. Pump the music and bump until the cops break up the party.
(See: Kool Herc, KRS-One, and Afrika Bambaataa)

But we had such ordinary love between us: coffee, walking the dog, cocktails, making meals, having friends over. I understood love to mean wanting our tessellated days to continue.

Some brutalities are unspeakable, and we shouldn’t force ourselves to speak of them.

So if we were each in our silent, cordial, distrust of each other, we were stubbornly ordinary in our love. On a trip to San Diego, we made several U-turns, but we arrived in the end. When on the 5 freeway I said look, ocean, she handed me her hand lotion; we were each of us at least two people in our preoccupations.

no division between wave and ocean.

We laughed our way back into one bodies.
We grow together and whole again after the breakage.

How long can I sit and be attentive when the world is blowing up? –-Myung Mi Kim

This depends on how well you are trained.
my kali instructor Gura Bautista spoke about life as concentric circles.
And if you survive, that’s not fair — if you ask a Buddhist this question, you may get a real answer.

What is the recombinant energy created between languages (geopolitical economics, cultural representations, concepts of community)? — Myung Mi Kim

His mother lives in Hong Kong with his brother.

behind a bright red velvet curtain with broadway tunes, Chinese opera, jazz, voices yelling at a rally, fists raised, and girls with glasses using electronic devices to Wikipedia questions about their origin.
The most he does is to call his mother twice a week and his brother about once a month.

Das unheimliche ist verborgen.

visits maybe once a year ……….saves money for her retirement.

I heard today that a saxophonist died.  He thinks he can do more, and more; isn’t it weakness to be unwilling

Are your feelings somebody else’s ideas? — Sesshu Foster

These feelings
…..demons, skeletons, baggage and other decaying dead weight that find their way and anchor themselves in
I borrowed them from the library and will return them with all late fees paid once my name is transferred from energy to artifact.

If I go to Taiwan now, I’d be arrested to fulfill two years of mandatory military service, being told what to do, push-ups maybe, in a language I don’t understand.

I believe in recycling.  I have no feelings besides those programmed into my robot matrices.

If I go back to Japan, I would hate how street signs aren’t as large and red as I remember them, the road from our San no Maru Danchi apartment flat to Najima primary school not as long.

I can’t live without you, lover.  Or I would hate wanting Fukuoka to be something else. What of feeling after break?

If I go live in Hong Kong, I’d be neither resident nor visitant, port and floating. If I stay here, I shall be provincial in all its glorious dialectic toward universal by pressing against the individual.  I’m crowded with ideas.

How to touch a native feeling?  But who really knows? Right now I’m stuck to Gloria Anzaldua poster on my wall.  Tomorrow, perhaps an earthquake, or ICE knocking at my door. Tomorrow perhaps an illness or lottery. Tomorrow a remembered pain or new limb.

What word could mark the change in me? What word could help me get to the other side? — Tina Bartolome

Give me words, please.

Belisa Crespusculario of Isabelle Allende’s Eva Luna stories.  I always wanted to be that super hero.  Ani minikway dah makadaymushkikiwaboo.  Since I don’t know which side you are trying to get to, it is a difficult question to answer.

And then kinnickinnick, of course.   🙂

What are the consequences of silence? — Bhanu Kapil

An unmade bed,
the firing squad,
an island annihilated by a pipeline,

Somebody else will ask all the questions which will be written with indelible ink on scrolls stained with tea, to make them look ancient.

Then again so can danger.
Your stomach rumbles.

a razed jungle,

Somebody else will present your answers and frame them in non-reflective glass.

exploding tea kettles,
the extinction of ritual,
a rave review in the New York Times,
a question festering into a cancer,
a water supply privatized,
a magnificent mural adorning the Westside,
The Patriot Act,
an apology,
and lovers remembering together that
they are the center of the universe.

When you raise your hand, somebody will call on you, and your answers will be broadcast, but not in your name.  You will wish that instead of raising your hand in the air, you had simply held hands with the black-haired girl, wearing glasses, sitting next to you.  She is listening:

Ching-In Chen is the author of The Heart’s Traffic (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press) and co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (South End Press). She is a Kundiman and Lambda Fellow and part of the Macondo and Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation writing communities. She has worked in the San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside and Boston Asian American communities. Ching-In currently lives in Milwaukee and is involved in union organizing and direct action.

Collaborators/Participants: Todd Wellman, Constance Lee, Aimee Lee, Lily Wong, Vincent Toro, Carina Farrero, Kyla Searle, Monica A. Hand, Susu Pianchupattana, Serena W. Lin, James Autio, Vanessa Huang, Shiaw-Tian Liaw, Porschia L.  Baker, Nan Ma, Noel Pabillo Mariano, Stacia M. Fleegal, Joy Mariama Smith, Rona Luo, Evangeline Ganaden, Jie Tian, Dalila Paola Mendez, Kimberly Zarate.  Translation assistance: Monika Maria Schultes, Cheng-Hsing Chen.

[Photo credit: Sarah Grant]

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Progress Report 2 Fri, 15 Jul 2011 16:29:21 +0000 Read More ...]]> Dear Friends,

We are experiencing technical difficulties, and apologize for the delay in posting here! We were on a roll too, with our weekly essays from our excellent authors. But fear not, we’ll be back on track very soon, with essays from Ching-In Chen (a two parter), Jai Arun Ravine, book reviews by Craig Santos Perez, reprinted work by Julie Thi Underhill, Serafin Malay Syquia, Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, and more.

Furthermore, a collaborative print publication is in the works, and we’re totally psyched about this!

Gracias y Salamat for your patience, understanding, and support.

[Baybayin font source:]

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Jean Vengua: On Stewardship and Curation Tue, 05 Jul 2011 20:55:14 +0000 Read More ...]]> To be a Filipino American writer, whether or not one is aware of the historical and political implications, is to dip into a stream of writing and speeches produced by Filipinos from just before the beginning of the 20th century, through the 1920s and 1930s, up to and through World War II.

The authors include, for example, Sixto Lopez and Clemencia Lopez, whose passionate speeches moved the Anti-Imperialist League and New England Women’s Suffrage Association; editors and contributors to the Filipino Students Magazine, who railed against the exhibition of Filipinos at the St. Louis World’s Fair; and the publishers, editors, and writers for the myriad Filipino newspapers and magazines published on the West Coast in the 1930s, whose incisive and often angry editorial prose on labor and civil rights spurred strikes in the agricultural fields. There were many more writers than those I mention here, and their work in periodicals was published not only on the West Coast, but also in the Mid-west, in New York and Washington D.C., and likely any area to which Filipinos migrated, and stayed for any lengthy period.

Our literature has evolved from letters, editorials, essays, short stories, and poems published in periodicals, and even from testimonios, in the case of Filipinos whose personal experiences of vigilante attacks on the labor camp near Salinas were written and published in the Philippines Mail.1

The early writings of Filipinos published in the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century were in turn part of the stream of journalism and literature published in the Philippines within U.S. colonial communications and publishing infrastructures. Their work was created in an atmosphere of provisional “freedom” and constraint through surveillance which, I believe, affected the early published efforts and writing of Filipinos published in the U.S., in some cases with devastating effect. This relationship needs to be further explored.

Without the support of U.S. Filipino2 publishers and editors in the pre-WWII era who used their newspapers as venues for budding, as well as more experienced writers, Bulosan—and many other Filipino writers from that period—may never have gotten published at all. The editors were, in a sense, our first curators.

Why does it matter that many of these editors and publishers were also writers? How will our view of Filipino American literature and arts change, if we read the passionate political editorials of D.L. Marcuelo, Luis Agudo, Juan Dionisio, M.G. Alviar, Aurelio Bulosan, and youthful Filipina writers such as Helen Rillera and “L.A. Pinay”? Why do they matter, and what are the implications of this journalistic-literary genealogy? All these and other questions can only be answered if we continue stewardship and curation of the early periodicals (newspapers and magazines) published by U.S. Filipinos.

I’m referring to curation not only in its functions of preserving and archiving, but also in terms of what Lorcan Dempsey summarizes as “selection, organization, and presentation.”3 This involves the effort to find and develop audiences for texts, making sense of them in ways that will be valuable for readers, libraries, and booksellers. This can include criticism that taps into the larger literary history of Filipino writing in the U.S. and elsewhere. Unless we are involved in a continuing process of archival research and curation, we will be participating in the erasure of our early literary history in this country.

Some Filipino American researcher/curators—Alex Fabros, Dawn Mabalon, Jess Tabasa, Reme Grefalda, Lala Lacuna, among others—began years ago to collect photographs, interviews, books, and newspapers of historical significance for Filipinos in the U.S. Others, like E. San Juan, Jr., have drawn on Filipino newspapers found in university archives and individual collections in order to understand and articulate contextually certain aspects of Filipino writing in the U.S. since the 1920s, especially in relation to the work of familiar writers such as Carlos Bulosan and Jose Garcia Villa.

Still, there hasn’t been enough inquiry and excavation done to bring to light the work as writing in the early periodicals. I fear this is because there is an underlying assumption that there isn’t much there, and, if there is something, it’s “only” newspaper articles and journalism. The periodicals are seen as important historical and sociological documents, but—as “literature,” nothing of worth.

There are certainly enough U.S. Filipino newspapers and magazines catalogued in university archives and county historical societies to present a significant amount of material to be gone through. Furthermore, references to periodicals that aren’t catalogued suggest that there may be more out there hidden in personal collections and in public library newspaper archives, if they still exist at all.

Deeper research and study of these works will likely change our perspectives of Bulosan, Villa, Santos, N.V.M. Gonzalez and others, and allow us to see our contemporary writing and spoken word in a larger, richer, and more complex historical context. How many Filipino writers are aware, for example, that one of the more important critiques of Bulosan’s work before the mid-century, was written by a Filipina, Nelly X. Burgos?4

The early writers need to be taken out of the mist; their names should be spoken in classrooms, their work read, and their significance and relation to current Filipino American writing argued and discussed.

Though our contemporary writers and artists are increasingly finding ways to use the media to make their presence heard, this is not the case for early U.S. Filipino writing. Is this any surprise, given our history of invisibility in the U.S.? Part of the problem may be the “unsexiness” of “literature,” in comparison to spoken word, hip-hop, dance, or the visual arts. We may not always appreciate some of the biased opinions voiced by Filipino writers in the 1930s. And yet, how fascinating it is to read—within its historical context—of a play about Jose Rizal’s martyrdom, written and staged by a Filipino women’s club, with participation of many members of the Filipino community; how moving to read—during a period when striking laborers were harassed by vigilantes and police with impunity—that some 2000 attended and were moved to tears by the play’s symbolism of courage and sacrifice.5

“Curation” has recently become a buzzword, and its use is already being capitalized as knowledge organization for pay. In an era overwhelmed by information on the internet—much of which consists of increasingly superficial content—it’s important to approach this work with a more fundamental curatorial value: to “curate” is to manage, oversee, and even to guard and protect that which we deem valuable.

With funds disappearing and academic publishers litigating to charge fees for access to books, journals, and interlibrary loan, our ability to locate the material may become more difficult. As time goes by, more of the fragile print materials will be lost before becoming microfilmed or digitized. Printed on cheap paper stock made during the economic downturn of the 1930s, the Filipino periodicals are literally falling to pieces while archivists search for funds to purchase acid-free containers and other preservation materials—hoping, in the meantime, that each turn of the page will not cause complete disintegration.

Locating primary documents now is important, and preservation is just as important as digitization. I have seen original copies of the Philippines Mail newspaper;6 viewing the pages in full size, with ads and articles juxtaposed as the editors originally placed them is crucial to our understanding and interpretation of the early writings. While microfilm “preserves” documents, they also frame them in ways that hinder full viewing and interpretation. In a way, they even contribute to the “invisibility” of the documents.

University collections had been making inroads in collecting Filipino periodicals prior to the Bush administration (U.C. Berkeley and U. Washington are stellar examples). But as the government became more involved in the wars in the Middle East, and as the economy began its inevitable crash, funds for archiving, libraries, ethnic studies departments, teachers, and staff have been withdrawn.

Thus, while it’s important to make change happen within existing institutions, it’s also time for us to be the curators and disseminators of our own histories, literature, and arts. There is enough material out there to allow for many scholars to find their own curatorial niches. Are there more Filipino newspapers and magazines in New Orleans? Chicago? New York? Alaska? Kansas? Mexico City? Was your uncle, aunt, or grandfather an editor who boxed up old newspapers and hid them under the bed?

County historical societies, public and private collections, as well as university libraries are good places to start. Filipino curators, researchers, and writers need to meet and discuss strategies. We can’t wait for universities and other institutions to catch up with us. We are low in their list of priorities now; they have other fish to fry.

[1] I use the word in Spanish consciously, as a nod to the important scholarship that has been done on testimonios in the Americas.

[2] U.S. Filipinos: A term used several times in newspaper headlines by Filipino writers during the pre-WWII era to describe themselves.

[3] Lorcan Dempsey, “On the discrimination of curators and curations…” Lorcan Dempsey’s Weblog, Dempsey is Vice President, OCLC Research and Chief Strategist.

[4] Nelly X. Burgos, Philippine Commonwealth Times, Sept. 25, 1941.

[5] “2000 Are Inspired By New Feature Of Salinas Rizal Fete,” Philippines Mail, Jan. 8, 1934.

[6] Accessed at the Monterey County Historical Society in Salinas, CA.

Jean Vengua has a Ph.D. in English from U.C. Berkeley. Her Ph.D. dissertation can be accessed online at ProQuest/UMI. Jean has taught at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and Gavilan College. She is the author of a collection of poetry, Prau, and a chapbook, The Aching Vicinities. With Mark Young, she co-edited the First Hay(na)ku Anthology, and The Hay(na)ku Anthology Vol. II. In the mid 1990s, Elizabeth H. Pisares and Jean Vengua formed Tulitos Press and published and edited The Debut: the Making of a Filipino American Film by Gene Cajayon and John Manal Castro, and The Flipside, by Rod Pulido. Her poetry and essays have been published in many journals and anthologies. She currently lives and works in Elkhorn, CA, near Salinas.

Find her online at,, and

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Reginald Dwayne Betts: A Line From the Nicest MC Tue, 28 Jun 2011 16:24:07 +0000 Read More ...]]> “The only psalms I read was on the arms of my niggas”
Jay Z

I borrow from hip-hop all the time, if not content than approach. I write a rhyme sometimes won’t finish for days,1 as the line goes, which is to say I revise. I rework, re-see, re-think. And right now I’m reconsidering how I think about poetry and hip-hop. For a long time the musicality in hip-hop has been, primarily, considered a function of the track. MCs have the benefit of possibility: you can be a lyricist or you can be hot garbage over a dope beat. I’ve said it myself. I’ve long thought poets had no such luxury, but I was wrong. It all starts with denial – if I say that there is no poetry in hip-hop, then I don’t need to look for how the words in hip-hop make music, and therefore I am never threatened by the skill of an MC. But more than that, I don’t look at the ways poetry can mirror mainstream hip-hop’s tendency towards nihilism and apathy. It all boils down to how the art pushes the artist to say something, and how the art offers the artists masks to hide from self and society.

My ink so hot it burn through the journal.2 There is poetry in hip-hop, a very obvious manipulation of the sounds in words to help convey meaning. The dopest MCs have a fluency with rhyme, rhetoric, and figurative language. Used to speak the king’s engalish, but caught a rash on my fingertips, now I speak just like this.3 You can hear it, the reliance on rhyme that would be called conservative if a contemporary poet showed such favor. But the MC knows what the poet has forgotten, the musical landscape of the words is a product of how the words are arranged – and rhyme, metaphor, simile, anaphora, etc., etc., etc. are not stylistic ticks. The dope MC creates the musical landscape and lets it function as the wave the meaning rides on. So I steal, because the youngins don’t bob their heads and memorize the words just because they are in love with the death and violence and materialism that many of the songs on the radio advocate. They nod their heads because the poetry of hip hop offers them something that contrasts with the prose of their lives: the lectures, the movies, the conversations amongst each other. The music is a break, and opens up a space for something different to happen in their heads. So I steal. Bucka bucka bucka bucka bucka bucka. Onomatopoeia, alliteration. I want to manipulate schemes and tropes – those mountain sized categories of rhetoric.

They trying to censor the influencer just makes me sicker, influenza; I abide by their censorship, soon as they ride I get back on my nigga shit.4 Ask Lupe Fiasco if MCs care about audience, if they are concerned with making a discernible sense. Ask the members of NWA that you can catch up with; ask Luke. Even at its worst, rarely do you listen to a hip-hop album and walk away at a loss for what the artist was saying. Or maybe more to the point, maybe you never walk away from the dopest, most skilled rappers albums wondering what was going on. I want a poem like that, a book like that – something that is infused with what I think about the world. When we talk about classic albums, their status as masterpieces cannot be divorced from the material content of the songs. It is never solely about rhyme, solely about the beat – it is all about the way rhyme, beat, and lyrics form some kind of landscape of commentary and art. I have a running list in my head of the times that poets have told me that the poet must please self, that they must write with the perfect reader in mind. I’ve always wondered about that. I have never been a perfect reader. I skip pages, skim – I come to the page without the history of American literature always at hand. I come to the page to argue, to learn, to be seduced. What exactly is a perfect reader? Imagine being an MC, walking into an arena with even a meager two thousand people in attendance. You hear them screaming, you hear them chanting. There is a woman with fifteen ear piercings standing next to a young cat with a suit on. There is no way to predict what each of these folks want, no way to predict a perfect listener. So what does he do – he spits like one person is listening and has to get it – and that one person fits the legal standard for liability, a person that would react in the same manner as someone else with reasonable intelligence in the same situation.

Eight million stories to tell.5 I just want to tell a few, and tell them well. As a lover of music, I’ve learned that narrative is king. It’s what drives us, explanations, excuses, professing of love – they all start with a story. I used to know this girl named Mary Jane. What up kid, I know shit is rough doing your bid. Dear sister got me twisted up in prison I miss ya. It’s all narrative, it’s all hunger to say something and say it well. It’s no surprise to me that MCs rely so much on those two broad categories: scheme and trope, to get their points across. Maybe MCs aren’t aware that schemes are figures of speech, rhetorical strategies that change the standard word order or pattern; maybe they do not know that tropes are rhetorical strategies that change the general meanings of words – but they used them. I think of myself as a kid playing the dozens. I had no idea that “you look like a monkey’s uncle” was simile. The point, in the end, is that you can listen to the best of MCs and see their strategies, and understand what their saying.

I’m like Che Guevara with wings on I’m complex.6 That’s what I’m chasing. Complexity as a poet. Maybe when I said the poet was reaching for prophecy I was wrong. Think about it – if nothing else, the MC embraces failure, embraces their mistakes. I understand that the speaking is proof that they made it through these hard knock tales – but at its best, this speaking is something more. It is a way to narrate the hero’s story, and maybe hip hop’s most arrogant in the trope of rapper as hero. I never said I had wings on nigga I get my by any means on7 – which is to say this hip-hop thing is a professing of one’s history, filled with jewel and indictment. I go to hip-hop because of the nakedness in the livest MC. And the refreshing honesty. Think about Tupac on “Life Goes On.” Think about Jay- Z on “Song Cry.” And of course there is no need to be sentimental. There is a fierce nihilism in hip-hop, there is a ridiculous amount of materialism. Still, I go back to the well, because as a poet I learn from the audacity and from the amount of exquisite execution needed to pull off some of this work, especially when the MC, the artist, is more caught up in the compromises of fame than any poet will ever be. And the MC knows it. I ain’t invent the game, but there ain’t no reason why I be buying expensive chains.8

Ask Joan Aleshire. Borrowing from Stephen Yenser, she speaks of “gossip (fact, data, raw material),” and “gospel (parable, pattern, truth).” In discussing Lowell’s “Dolphin,” Yenser argues that where there is more gossip than gospel, the pattern, the meat of experience is hidden. Specifically, she’s talking about the lyric poem, and Yenser is talking about Lowell, but what is an MC if not the epitome of a confessional and lyric poet. And gospel is different from prophecy. The prophet lives in his time and carries no mirror. He talks of your flaws, not his – but he who spits the gospel is reflective. And the gospel lasts longer. Prophecy dies when that moment is done, and prophecy only becomes lesson if it gets woven into gospel. I’m stealing a line from the nicest MC, often. Cause I get it – the poet has to move toward gospel, away from inanity, bells and whistles.

Then again, I steal from MCs because they, at their best, are conscious of their words and conscious of the meaning making of their songs. Right now Lupe Fiasco is getting run in the media for calling President Obama the biggest terrorist. Okay, not the most precise political critique – but what you find, what I admire, is that there is a forming of a critique. There is a nakedness that acknowledges that the role of MC is both entertainer and prophet – and to see who loses, we must see who speaks. On this one, Lupe loses points. Not because he can’t criticize the president, but because his one liner lacked the punch of his illest verses, verses that use trope and scheme to pack much more thought and insight than one would expect in such a short space. They don’t want to censor the influencer because he might say the President is a terrorist – any idiot can say that. They want to censor all us influencers because the best of will recognize “a penny from heaven is the same as a semi from the second,”9 and work to convey that in a thousand different ways, until a thousand different things in our society change for the better. Hip-hop, correctly, takes flack in the community – but it is flack that comes because of the artist role as entertainer and prophet, as seer. I want a poetry that embraces that role.

1. Mos Def, “Hip-Hop,” Black on Both Sides.
2. Mos Def, “Mathematics,” Black on Both Sides.
3. Mos Def, “Hip-Hop,” Black on Both Sides.
4. Lupe Fiasco, “Jedi Mind Tricks.”
5. Mos Def, “Mathematics,” Black on Both Sides.
6. Jay-Z, “Public Service Announcement,” Black Album.
7. Jay–Z, ibid.
8. Jay-Z, ibid.
9. Lupe Fiasco, “Failure.”

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father. The author of the memoir, A Question of Freedom, and the poetry collection, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, Betts is a 2010 Soros Justice Fellow and a 2011 Radcliffe Fellow.

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