What’s This Thing About Orientals Together On A Bus
by Barbara Jane Reyes
“Well, here we are, Orientals together on a bus.”
—Hisaye Yamamoto, Seventeen Syllables
“Oriental was a rug that everyone steps on, so we ain’t no Orientals. We were Asian American.”
“Asian American Literature” had already arrived. Just like José Garcia Villa wrote, “Have come, am here.” It arrived a long time ago. It was and is chanted by Native Pacific Islanders though “Asian American” does not explicitly include them. It was written on the walls of Angel Island detention centers. It was performed — spoken and sung — at labor movement demonstrations along the West Coast. Nobody rolled out a welcome mat. Everyone was too busy telling it to shut the fuck up; no one gave it permission to speak. They told it to go back to where it came from. By “back to where it came from,” they didn’t mean Watsonville, Walnut Grove, Yakima, Spokane, SoMa, the Fillmore, Delano, Locke, Temple, Kearny, or El Dorado Streets.
Cf. Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, as their Klingon war bird descends upon 20th century San Francisco, before the USS Enterprise crew find themselves shell-shocked on Columbus and Kearny Street, down the street from City Lights Books, a block away from the hole in the ground we once knew as the I-Hotel, now the Manilatown Heritage Foundation. Did you catch that? “San Francisco, I was born there.” It’s a small moment, unimportant to some; did you catch it? (Sulu be droppin #truth in baritone.)
“Asian American Literature” was dissected, its parts duly catalogued in the academy — sojourning and settling, nostalgia (grandmothers, food porn, melancholia, filial piety), emasculated males, and identity crises. I once spoke on a “Hyphenated-American” panel at AWP; when I told those in attendance the first thing I learned in Ronald Takaki’s Asian American History class my freshman year at UC Berkeley was to omit that hyphen, because omitting the hyphen indicates we are multiple things, people’s eyes were large as the plates on which I used to eat my Lola’s pancit. People scribbled in their Moleskines.
I never called either of my grandmothers “Lola.” Neither of them was known for making pancit.
Cf. Marlon Fuentes, Bontoc Eulogy. American scientists prodding the bodies of Philippine natives, poking their buttocks with sticks, documenting the inward turn of Igorot toes. American voyeurs donning their Sunday best, getting their rocks off watching natives perform fake authenticity, thus enabling other people to pimp their “authenticity.”
I have been thinking a lot about, asking myself who I write for. I keep coming back to the 19-year-old Pinay student who enters my classroom, and for the first time in her life, sees herself in a work of literature. This image of her many selves is complex, sometimes resilient and dignified, sometimes acting out because she is traumatized, and because she is not content with the limited options afforded to her. Sometimes these Pinay characters and narrators are clear and articulate, sometimes respectful, and sometimes, yes, they are royal bitches who need to be smacked in the mouth.
I have so many students who are these actual 19-year-old Pinays, for the first times in their lives, seeing themselves in works of literature. You see how wide their eyes get reading To Love as Aswang, where they learn about Sweetie, the internet avatar Filipina girl designed to catch online sexual predators. They cry when in Invocation to Daughters, they learn about a teenage Pinay from Washington, who commits suicide after her father shames her on YouTube. They learn about a young Pinay in Monterey County, whose husband cut her into pieces and dumped her parts in garbage bags. Some of my students step back as they approach shut down; this is too close, too real. This tells too much truth. This tells the “outside world” about our baggage. This shows us what the “outside world” thinks of us.
Rather than shut down though, they start asking questions. How come Filipinas are viewed and treated this way. How come I haven’t heard about these girls and women. How come they weren’t on the news. Who else do we not know about. This is what they want from “our” works of literature. This is why I write. This is for whom I write.
And so I push. I say, we can and need to do more, we need to check ourselves, not just teach the works of our literary coterie to MFA students. We need to get more of our work about us into the world, into the hands of more and more young and hungry readers farther outside of institutions, outside of our comfort zones. Let’s challenge expectation, I say, fuck institutions that would rein us in. They are not my priority. A fellow Asian American author then cut me off and tried to shut me down, mansplaining that just trying to teach the works of our friends is enough, that my way of doing things was “reckless, destructive, and dangerous.” And I was like, what the hell does that mean. And then I was like, unfollow, unfriend.
I’m the last “Asian American” author you’d want to ask about “Asian American” Literature. “Asian American” editors of “Asian American” publications, even the ones who specifically solicit my work, don’t publish me as much as Latinx editors do. My writing is never quite what “Asian American” editors are looking for. It’s ugly. It’s edgy. It could be that pesky Spanish colonialism that gave me my tendency towards art and rebellion performed con todo forma, and my unapologetic code switching. I was raised Catholic by generations of demonstrative Third World Catholics. All than Lenten darkness, all my clashing and warring against patriarchs and machismo (see above, re: “mansplained”), have unfiltered my filters, and have informed my aesthetics, tone, and volume. All those curses and prayers, countless novenas recited by the rosary clutching matrons of my clans, have insisted upon processions, wailing spectacles in my poems, these fucking Via Dolorosas and Agnus Deis.
Those are my poetic lines.
My mentors incited me. Liturgies, Stations of the Cross, the rosary are forms! Go to Tagalog mass at Saint Patrick Church, Good Friday Spanish mass at Mission Dolores, la Virgen de Guadalupe procession! Read Murguía, Arteaga, Galeano! Juan Felipe Herrera, Jimmy Santiago Baca! Read Anzaldúa again, always! More Lorca! And so I wrote Poeta en San Francisco.
My husband, poet Oscar Bermeo, introduced me to the poetries of Julia de Burgos, Jack Agüeros, Miguel Piñero, Pedro Pietri, and Urayoán Noel. He gifted me with poetry by Victor Hernández Cruz and Adrian Castro. This was the poetry I did not know I needed.
I’m the last “Asian American” author you’d want to ask about “Asian American” Literature. Though I have been teaching and curriculum-developing multiple iterations of Filipinx and APIA Literature courses in San Francisco based-universities for over a decade now, I am not a scholar, and I do not write scholarly essays. I am a literary practitioner, I am an adjunct professor, and I am a hustler. You will see me rushing on public transit from my full time public health desk job to my enormous evening classes on the other side of the bay, crafting lecture notes, lesson planning, and grading between work projects and writing projects. I don’t have the luxury of time and mental space to theorize this field.
We are celebrating the 50th birthday of “Asian American.”
According to his 2002 obituary in the Los Angeles Times, Yuji Ichioka of the Asian American Political Alliance, a student org created in 1968, coined the term “Asian American.”
“Asian American” has its roots in activism and revolutionary movements. Since then, other terms have come into popular use—APA, APIA, Asian Diaspora—to reflect the growth, global movement, and changing politics of a community that is really many different communities, bursting at the seams with so many different, if not conflicting, ideologies and aesthetics.
“Asian American” could still be relevant, or useful, but wouldn’t it be nice—and smart—if folks who speak this term like the gospel actually knew where the term came from, and why it was necessary to speak this term into existence. I am in Oakland, combing through the FBI Vault for information. I’m proud to see my former professors’ names here. I’m proud to see my elders as young activists, fearlessly speaking of “Yellow Power,” and “Revolution,” in a time of FBI surveillance and infiltration. Even their art was surveilled.
“Asian Americans” allied themselves with the Black Panther Party and other revolutionary orgs of the 1960s—according to his obituary, Ichioka did not agree with Huey Newton’s politics, but publicly demonstrated in support of Newton at his trial nonetheless. “Asian Americans” were vocally anti-war, anti-colonialist, and anti-imperialist; they were disruptors, and I am proud to have been educated by those who came from these movements.
We expect the term “Asian American” to do so much, without having much common understanding amongst ourselves. I realize my own impatience with “Asian American” is complicated. There are its obvious ethnic limitations, i.e. reflecting the ethnic demographics of its 1968 activist population. There are its obvious limitations with national origin, complexities and diversity of each ethnicity, and political history—Chinese American is not “from China,” is not Taiwanese is not Southeast Asian is not Tagalog speaker is not Pacific Islander. There’s just too fucking much to stuff into “Asian American.”
In other words, fifty years later, “Asian American” is enormous and meaningless, which is why we push for disaggregation of our data. Why do we still expect the term “Asian American Literature” to do everything for us?
Remember when the Poetry Foundation’s “Asian American” poets list caused a national, emotional internet fracas. Resounding cries of “why wasn’t I included” broke my social media feeds. And thus was spawned a private Facebook group of “Asian American” writers, and a Google Doc for all to add their own names and their friends’ names, to submit to the Poetry Foundation. This ordeal made me more cynical. Why are we reliant upon institutions such as the Poetry Foundation to give us our worth and determine our meaning? Why do we give these others the power define us? Do we think this is the only way that we will become visible to our own communities? And isn’t this a problem as well.
Because “Asian American” has been appropriated and defanged, I am suspicious of and adversarial to contemporary “Asian American” canon-making. By whom and for whom is a canon of “Asian American” literature created? What is considered “acceptable” for this canon? Whose standards and criteria are these? Whose complexities do we decide to ignore or erase? For whose gaze must you write, and in whose language, by whose politics must you abide, what credentials must you acquire, in order to be considered for inclusion. We must question what kind of work, whose work, is omitted, and why. If we built our bodies of work from the ground up, if we built up our work in the communities we grew up in, rather than in our MFA programs and summer writing retreats, if we were to re-envision something other than canon-making institutions’ inclusion, what would it be.
“A political poem need not be oversimplified, rhetorical or temporary.”
—Serafin Syquia, “Politics and Poetry,” Liwanag (1975).
Al Robles wrote, “The best part of our poetry is our struggle, and the best part of our struggle is our poetry.” Do read his meditative essay “Hanging on to the Carabao’s Tail,” in Amerasia Journal (1989). Manong Al was among the best of us, because his poems came from the voices of the historically exploited and erased, to whom he listened so finely, and with so much respect. But you won’t hear Manong Al’s name mentioned in many national discussions of “Asian American Literature.” It’s scrappy. It’s “street.” It isn’t trying to be respectable. And yet, it is artful, infused with the rhythms of labor camps and field work, of taxi dance halls, of beatdowns and race riots, of aging, dreaming, and dying.
The world in which we live, work, and write is messy, and it is full of injustice and violence; it needs us to bring our ruckus. We are at our best when we are scrappy; when we are noisy and unruly, unashamed of profanity, irreverence, and taboo.
Some of the most interesting works of “Asian American Literature” thrive in the world of indie publishing and micro presses, where you will find our authors experimenting, prolific, testifying, refusing to conform to any single “Asian American” canonical representation or well-behaved institutional standards. They have flipped their well-appointed writing desks and throw chairs. They write protest poems, performance texts, redactions and erasures, disaster capitalism poetics, polyglot, hip-hop, graphic narrative, comix, spec fic, YA lit, 21st century remythologizing, they genre and gender cross, bastardize, lyricize, holler, diatribe, pray, protest, decenter, transgress, decolonize, wail in lament, invent language, code switch like a motherfucker. As Tina Bartolome has written, they “mess with hegemony.”
I have taught MFA workshop and seminar at Mills College and University of San Francisco. My MFA students are diverse in culture, ethnicity, economics, migration, and gender identity. They dislike navel gazing and coyness. They dislike cleverness for sake of itself. They appreciate experimentation when it is useful, when it reveals something big, something urgent, something at stake. They loved Truong Tran, his use of the prose poetry form, his expansion (explosion?) of the line, his poetry’s queerness. They loved Rajiv Mohabir’s polyglot, folk, talkstory “chutney” poems of The Cowherd’s Son.
More regularly, I teach Pinay and Filipino Literature classes at University of San Francisco, and Filipino and Asian American Literature classes at San Francisco State University, where I find huge classrooms full of students from almost everywhere in Asia and everywhere in the world, who couldn’t care less who got their MFA where, and who studied under which sizzling hot NYC poets. They don’t care about AWP, the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, and other canon-making American institutions into which we clamber and clamor to gain entrance. They care about seeing themselves in literature, and they care about resonance.
My students are the children of refugees. They are English language learners. They grew up translating for their elders, in shopping centers, in banks, in doctors’ offices. They are nursing students and bank tellers. My students are workers and working parents. They are hustling multiple gigs to pay for college.
We read Tomorrow’s Memories, the diary of Angeles Monrayo, and the Op Eds of Helen Rillera, which Jean Vengua has recovered and reprinted. These are “non-literary” (or “extra-literary”?) Pinays writing themselves out of the previous century’s historical invisibility, though they shouldered all the community’s and family’s reproductive labor. We discuss the epistolary, where and when women and girls even have the time, space, and permission to write.
We read Corpse Watching, the TinFish Press chapbook of the incarcerated poet Sarith Peou, and Monica Sok’s essay, “On Fear, Fearlessness, and Intergenerational Trauma.” We discuss what and how the next generation inherit what they do, as we also talk about what the survivors in their own families do not talk about. And as we make the clear distinctions between immigrant and refugee statuses, they get how dishonest it is for news media to insist upon labelling the current waves of refugees “migrants.”
We read Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese, and have to confront Cousin Chin-Kee. Is this how Americans see us? Is this what we think of our ethnic selves? Why have we insisted on internalizing this archaic image of the “Heathen Chinee”? How do we make peace with Cousin Chin-Kee?
When students tell me they have never read a book authored by someone of Filipino or Asian descent, I think, by college, especially with upperclassmen, it’s already almost too late. Many sit silently wide-eyed in my classrooms, and then, at the end of the semester, hug me, thank me profusely, and do not want to leave. This tells me the work has resonated.
In addition to working full time, in addition to adjunct professor gigs, in addition to writing my own books, I have carved out time to work with the San Francisco-based non-profit Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA), curating free local events for writers at community venues such as Eastwind Books of Berkeley, owned by Harvey and Bea Dong; the blackbox Bindlestiff Studio, “the Epicenter of Filipino American Performing Arts”; and the South of Market Bayanihan Center, which also houses the Pinay-owned independent bookstore Arkipelago Books. We co-produce events with the librarian of the San Francisco Public Library’s Filipino American Center, and with the Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program at University of San Francisco. We also hold events at the Philippine Consulate, where the Consul General opens each event with a formal welcome speech.
We do this work as volunteers, and oftentimes, with no budget but some private donations that come in every now and then. We do this because there has not been a consistent space for Filipino writers since Bay Area Pilipino American Writers (BAPAW)—Shirley Ancheta, Jeff Tagami, Jaime Jacinto, among others—ceased to exist, despite our large numbers in the San Francisco Bay Area. We have made ourselves look tremendous, using social media. We’re really a small group of folks who work full time, mostly as educators, who meet regularly and plan shit, usually sitting around a table of lumpia and plates of pancit.
This “literary address” is part of a series of 20 addresses commissioned by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the Association for Asian American Studies. Penned by leading Asian American (and in this case, Pacific Islander) poets, writers, playwrights, graphic novelists, and literary scholars, the addresses assess the state and future of Asian American literature and offer a wide-spanning re-imagination of its place and consequence.