I spent last Saturday in Salinas for "A Conversation of Filipino Writers: Past and Present," an event organized by the now-legendary writer and local educator Oscar Penñaranda (so dapper in his barong Tagalog!). It was held in conjunction with the exhibit "Filipino Voices: Past and Present," which is on display at the National Steinbeck Center through this weekend, I believe. If you miss it, don't worry: this Fall it will be moving to the War Memorial Building in San Francisco. Here's a write-up from the San Francisco Chronicle. Many good folks, including the wonderful Jean Vengua, put a ton of work into this project and it shows and shows and shows.
I had been wanting to see the exhibit, but Salinas is a 90-minute drive and I'm a whiner so I needed a bit of a push. Said push came in the form of an invitation to participate on the morning panel, which was going to be a discussion about pre-1965 Filipino American writers with the central question being: Hey, why is Bulosan the only writer from that era that anyone ever talks about?
I felt a little weird about the invite, mostly because I couldn't figure out why I was invited to be on the panel. First of all, I'm not an academic or an educator and second, I'm not an academic or an educator. So I let the message languish in my inbox until one morning I woke up and thought why not? As in why not venture out of my comfort zone? Why not state my thoughts and opinions about pre-1965 Filipino writers? Why not take a 90-minute drive to Salinas? Why not what the hell oh la di da di da.
I immediately plunged myself into Carlos Bulosan, Bienvenido Santos (my favorite), NVM Gonzales, Wilfred Nolledo, Jose Garcia Villa, and—on the off-chance that I might be able to slip them in to the conversation somehow—Paz Latorena and Estrella Alfon. So this was unspeakably enjoyable to me, all this time spent reading. As it turns out, I did get to say a little about each of these writers: yay! As for the central question of why Carlos Bulosan seems to garner all the acknowledgements and name recognition, I just spoke my mind:
1) people are interested in his writing and his life, what with the inches-thick FBI file, his blacklisting as a Communist, and his work in the multi-ethnnic labor movement.
2) and then his end was distressingly sad: he died in Seattle from malnutrition and tuberculosis.
3) unlike some of the other writers, who came to the United States as pensionados (students) and went on to study at some of this country's most prestigious universities, Bulosan arrived here as a worker who then hobbled together an alternative education for himself, reading and studying widely on his own. I'm impressed by this; this sticks with me.
4) in my opinion, he's the least talented of this group of writers, but he can be engaged with on so many different levels, which is why he maintains his iconic standing.
The other folks on the pre-1965 panel were my buddy multi-genre writer Tony Robles, poet Lou Syquia, and novelist/playwright Cecilia Gaerlan.
Here's a blurry photo taken at the end of the day. With me are a few of the hardworking SFSU students (so young, so young...) who organized much of the goings-on. They were an enterprising bunch, and I suspect we'll see and hear much from them in a few years! Also pictured is the ever-delightful Marianne Villanueva, who I hadn't seen in so very long: