“It is in our literature that our history is kept safe from revisions. For literature is our true memory, our country’s memory, the world’s memory of us. If we do not write our stories, who will? If we do not read them how will we know ourselves? Because it is in our literature that we pay full attention to ourselves, that we imagine and dream ourselves. As long as our literature exists, we will not disappear from our own thoughts, from the thoughts of the world. If history is our biography; literature is our autobiography, containing the memory of our spirit, the reflections of our existence, the promise of what we can become: literature is our attempt to understand ourselves, to recover lost destinations, to preserve the thoughts and feelings and hopes too deep to utter. Giving us roots and meaning and direction, our literature is what we are: what we were and what we can be.” – Linda Ty-Casper, 86, author of 16 books.
Four community and cultural events stood out for me this October 2017, also known as Filipino-American History Month, as they methodically reoriented Fil-Ams to their indigenous culture and the beauty of their heritage and traditions.
Notable are: the 4th Filipino-American International Book Festival, The Hinabi Project’s Weavers of Peace and Dreams: Textile Arts of Mindanao (on exhibit from Sept. 18 to Nov. 24 at the Mills Building in San Francisco), the Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture (FPAC), now in its 26th year of existence on Saturday, October 14 at Echo Park, Los Angeles, and the recent 25th anniversary of Kayamanan ng Lahi at the Ford Theater in Los Angeles.
These festivals have converged to assert the Filipino-Americans’ contributions in creating cultural assets here in America, using their social traits of bayanihan (a cultural value of teamwork, that it takes a village to harvest crops or move a house or even relief efforts after natural disasters) and their collective regard for kalinangan (a way of life with diverse cultural expressions).
Filipinos came from the Philippines and migrated to America since 1587, as citizens of colonized narratives (300 years of Spanish occupation, the American occupation from 1898 to 1907, then the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII), resulting in their muted imaginations as colonized subjects then.
When in America, they have to create their lives and use a decolonized consciousness, asserting who they are, replete with smarts, knowledge and abilities. Some merely survived, while others focused on community building, advocacy for better working conditions and better housing including the pursuit of the arts, photography, writing, literature, poetry, painting, dancing, and service to faith communities.
Lisa Lowe wrote in “Immigrant Acts,” that Franz Fanon directed our attention that one’s possession of a language, its syntax, its morphology, means to assume the culture, even to the point of the “paradoxical fluency of the colonized subject in the colonial language and culture.”
So to have fluency in American English meant fluency in this language and its American culture. She wrote that Fanon astutely names the internalization of the “superiority of the colonizer” and the “inferiority of the colonized subject,” while “it attempts to evacuate the subject of “native” language, traditions and practices.
At the 4th book festival in San Francisco, vibrant imaginations of Filipina and Filipino authors were in full bloom.
4th Fil-Am International Book Festival in San Francisco
The festival felt like a dream, once shared by then NVM Gonzalez, who was a Regents Professor at UCLA, when he was in Los Angeles in 1997. He wanted to see a gathering of Filipino writers in a literary conference.
“Limited to Filipinos in America?” I asked.
He smiled, the quintessential smile of NVM signaling you to politely vacate the communication space, paused and replied, “where ever Filipinos reside and write, but to come together.”
No longer a dream, Gemma Nemenzo, the pioneering founder of the book festival, along with Penelope V. Flores, and the festival committee, which includes in part: Michael Gonzalez (NVM Gonzalez’s son), Juanita Tamayo-Lott, Mila De Guzman, and the hard-working Lisa Suguitan Melnick, who all have made NVM’s dream a reality, with Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA), for the fourth time.
Ed Lozada, PAWA President, greeted the participants warmly, about 200+ on opening night and said, “For FilbookFest4, we have very talented and respected authors and artists coming from the Philippines, Singapore, Australia, Canada and the United States who have published in the last two and half years.”
Jimmy Abad, a septuagenarian poet who teaches at the University of the Philippines, brought down the house with his poem, reciting all three from memory. The audience kept asking for more.
Even Tony Robles, a poet in the Bay Area, learned a lot from him: “Being in the conversation with Filipino poets panel (Jimmy Abad, Barbara Jane Reyes, Angela Peñaredondo) was a real treat. Mr. Abad’s insights were poignant and cut to the heart of why we engage in this endeavor, that is poetry. He posed the question, “When does one write at all?” To illustrate this in our collective human experience, he used Nelson Mandela’s word, “Ubuntu” (I am, because we are). We were being schooled by one who truly knows the path to grace in writing. He told us that writing must be “True to yourself before it can be beautiful.” What a beautiful way to articulate beauty. It was a privilege to be on the panel with him.”
What touched me was the audience’s applause for Abraham Ignacio, the “perfect fit” librarian of the Filipino American Center at the San Francisco Library. He was hired last August, and now at the forefront of this well-organized book festival. A perfect fit, as Abe has a passion for archival research, and is an author himself and a very committed Fil-Am community leader.
Abe said: “So this is our Pamana — past, present and future artists and writers, and public institutions like the library — continually enriching our cultural legacy so that our community can appreciate, celebrate, and pass on this wealth to future generations.”
A nice surprise is to find out that Penguin Classics has republished Jose Rizal, Jose Garcia Villa and Nick Joaquin for mainstream literary consumption, all currently available in the East Wind Bookstore in Berkeley and PAWA.
The festival attracted 64 panel participants, mostly authors, editors, poets, and publishers. It also included, a first for the festival, graphic/comic arts and a documentary was shown, “Komikero Chronicles, which traced the evolution of graphic artists in the Philippines, quite credibly, with a mosaic of master-artists voices, to a community of animation artists now based in America.
M. Evelina Galang, an author and a professor, captured the audience with her first-person account of interviewing 40+ lolas (grandmas), who were raped by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. Of the 40, 16 first-person accounts are now part of her book, Lola’s House, which took her 18 years to write. She had a persuasive message, “Come and Meet My Lolas,” using a video snippet of the rallies that she attended, the lolas she interviewed, with Charmaine Clamor, singing a Visayan lullaby in the background. Her book sold out and when it did, other books picked up in sales.
I was part of a panel with distinguished authors, led by Cecilia Manguerra-Brainard, who has written and edited 20 books. She moderated two hot off the press panels in the book festival. Her book excerpt illustrated how she wrote a beautiful scene, replete with carefully chosen words, colors, textures and delicate lace fabrics, reminiscent of French origins and of course, a relationship.
I shared, as the author of “Even the Rainbow Has a Body,” which Mike Gonzalez describes as “a collection of vignettes of 31 playwrights, musicians, photographers, writers and artists give testimony to the creative spirit of the Filipino, wherever they may be. Their stories remind us that artistry is not only about mastering the medium at hand, but is also made meaningful by acts of charity or advocacy.”
In this book, I shared how NVM Gonzalez released my writing voice when he gave me a writing assignment and a title that became my first published essay in UCLA’s Amerasia Journal, “A Man in the Outhouse: How Western Colonization Silenced the Filipino Imagination,” Vol. 25, No.2, 1999.
How he came to be my mentor is in my book, including how NVM revered Leonard Casper, whose daughter, Kristina Casper-Denham, (coincidentally was in the audience), read an excerpt of her mom’s writings, Linda Ty-Casper, quoted above.
“In 1961, Leonard Casper (Kristina’s dad) wrote a book of essays on modern Filipino literature. I shall demand that she (one of his students) reads this word for word. It is, in fact, rich in literary information. To read is to know, really know, our literature from the thirties to the sixties, and that would suffice for now,” NVM wrote to me, just before he passed away on Nov. 21, 1999.
* * *
Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 9 years now. She contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Mexico and 22 national parks in the US, in pursuit of her love for arts.