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Interview With Myself

Recently, I met with Jean Gier for a talk about the FilAm WebLog, and what the blogging experience has been like for her now that the FilAm WebLog has reached its one-year anniversary. Jean's house is set in a charmingly dilapidated post-WWII project neighborhood. One of her living room windows is taped over where a BB-gun pellet (or bullet?) has cracked the glass.

I am reminded that Jean's blog project brings her no revenue; it's been a labor of love that occupies her time between telecommuting jobs and teaching.

We talked in her study between sips of green tea and bites of red-bean dumpling that she graciously brought in for us from Ranch 99. The desk space in her study is piled high with books and papers. A copy of Lynda Barry's Cruddy sits next to a hard-cover volume of Samuel Pepys' Diary. Jean herself is dressed casually in baggy jeans and black t-shirt. There's an authentic Oklahoma U.S. 66 highway sign (stolen off the post?) in her room, and her computer is illuminated by an intimidating pink dentist's floor lamp which bent over us as if trying to get a look at my wisdom teeth. With a wry smile, Jean informed me that the blotchy-looking appearance of her wall-to-wall rug is due to the recent demise of the hot-water heater, which flooded half of the house. I am reminded that Jean's blog project brings her no revenue; it's been a labor of love that occupies her time between telecommuting jobs and teaching.

Me (M): So, it's been about a year since you started the FilAm WebLog. Have you learned anything new about Filipino/FilAm media and culture?

Jean (J): Oh, yeah. Lots. I learned that, far from my naive perspective of Filipinos on the web as a limited phenomenon, their involvement in the internet is getting larger everyday. And the quality of the websites I've seen has been incredible. Really good stuff out there. Of course, there's some crappy websites, too. But I enjoy seeing sites that "push the envelope."

M: Such as?

J: I was impressed by the quantity and quality of Filipino and Filipino American music sites. The musicians are really taking advantage of the internet's multi-media potential.

There are also some incredible and disturbing Filipino visual artists right now, and you can see their work on the Web. The one that sticks with me is Jose Legaspi. His drawings and paintings are very quiet and controlled, but at the same time, the violent and sexual content is really unsettling. I guess you could call it Filipino gothic. There's sort of a "cartoonish" aspect to the figures he paints, but used in an unexpected way. Manuel Ocampo's work is like that too, only the cartoon figures are juxtaposed with religious iconography; the result is simultaneously funny and full of rage. His work is very "in your face."

I had no idea of the range and talent that's out there among Filipino cartoonists. A lot of them are working for mainstream comix, but they are also producing their own stuff on the side. Gerry Alanguilan has a great website that features his work, as well as the work of other Filipino comic book artists, and the site also functions as a forum for discussion about the genre. Jessica Hagedorn and John Woo now have an animated cartoon called Pink Paradise, that can be viewed weekly on the Oxygen channel (I like that it takes place in Oakland, CA). And then there's Roque Ballesteros' award-winning animated Joe Paradise.

M: You mentioned in your "Manifesto" that you're interested in "hybrid" creations and cross-cultural stuff. Does "cartooning" form one of these hybrid "nodes"?

Cartooning is, has been, such a vehicle for stereotyping and representing Filipinos in certain ways. But Filipinos have also been using cartoons to subvert the status quo since the late 19th century.

J: Nodes, yeah. I guess you could call it that. Cartooning is, has been, such a vehicle for stereotyping and representing Filipinos in certain ways. But Filipinos have also been using cartoons to subvert the status quo since the late 19th century. I mean, a lot of Filipino artwork I see seems to comment on the rage that lies beneath shallow surface representation. By the way, Pusod house in Berkeley is featuring an exhibit of Filipino newspaper cartoons this month; I got that information off the web, too.

M: But, to get back to "hybrid" creations, why this interest in cross-cultural aspects of blogging, anyway?

J: Well, I think that cross-cultural hybridity is a characteristic of Filipino websites. We're pretty open about our influences. You don't see many references to "pure" Filipino culture anymore. At least, not on the Web. You see things like the Mexican-Filipino connection;. that comes up in various ways. I think of the Nican Mopohua website, which gives a history of the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe's presence in the Philippines. It was on the internet that I found out that there is a sprinkling of Nauhuatl throughout various Filipino languages. I guess the subversive aspects of the Virgin of Guadalupe—her connection to the earth goddess, Tonantzin, and her presence in subversive movements like the California farm workers' strikes interests me. I was reminded of the Virgin of Guadalupe when I went to Manila, right after Edsa II, and saw the "Virgin of Edsa" there in the center of it all, a focusing point for subversive (and sometimes not-so-subversive) acts.

The hybrid thing comes up in lots of different ways: journalist Emil Guillermo calls himself an "As-panic," because he wants to recognize the hispanic in him, but still recognize the Asian, too. And it's not all Hispanic/Mexican/Filipino, either. There's the African-American connection in Filipino American hip-hop. And then you come across websites that go into the history of the Buffalo Soldier regiment in the Philippines, and realize that the Afro-Filipino connection is not a new one.

M: So what got you started in blogging, and why do you keep on doing it?

J: Well, I had some time on my hands, because it was summer, and I had just completed my Ph.D. qualifying exam. I had been teaching a lot, and I wanted to do something completely different. I was trying to learn html, but at some point, I got more interested in the communicative and learning properties of the internet, and I couldn't wait for my programming skills to catch up. So I picked a fairly easy venue—the ubiquitous blog, because in creating a blog, you end up sort of creating your own library. It's a place where you gather and process information. The Filipino presence on the web interested me because Filipinos are so dispersed throughout the world—I guess the word is diasporic—and I wondered how they were using the internet.

I'm pretty rooted in the U.S. because I was born here, and didn't travel much in my youth, but even Filipino Americans can't entirely escape this network of far-flung relations. You get to know so many Filipinos who have a global, even nomadic, existence. So I got curious about how they were using the internet. Was it helping to solve certain problems? Was it creating problems? What "shape" was Filipino identity and nationalism taking on the Web?

M: What are some of the solutions and problems that stand out for you?

J: Well, obviously, Filipino workers outside of the Philippines are no longer so isolated from family, friends, and social and political events taking place in their home country. They form message boards and discussion groups, and they can communicate on a daily basis—if they have access to computers. That's a big "if," because poor Filipinos don't have access to the knowledge or the expensive equipment. But they've also developed an alternative to communicating via computer: text messaging. I think that the internet is also helping to eliminate barriers and prejudices between Filipinos living in, or born in different countries. It's helping us to see that there are still a lot of aspects of "Filipino-ness" that we can all identify with, despite geographical/cultural differences.

The problems I've seen have already existed for a long time, even prior to the Internet: sexual exploitation of Filipino women, and men too. And stupid stereotypes of Filipinos are still evident on some websites.

The problems I've seen have already existed for a long time, even prior to the Internet: sexual exploitation of Filipino women, and men too. And stupid stereotypes of Filipinos are still evident on some websites. Last year, I came across a website on live crucifixions in the Philippines. Although it purported an "anthropological" interest, on the front page there was a link to another page on the same website featuring "wild monkey love." That old colonial or post-colonial urge to treat Filipinos as if they were some kind of wild beast on exhibit still exists. I wrote to the webmaster of the site and complained, and he said he was going to take the site off the web.

M: Has anything surprised you on the web?

J: The most surprising thing was just how innovative Filipinos are in their use of technology. I don't mean specifically for economic gain or pure entrepreneurship—but for political use. Rene Ciria Cruz's article on "Abilidad" gave me the first inkling. Then, I learned about texting when I went to the Philippines just after Estrada's ouster, which as you know was effected largely through cell-phone messaging, chat rooms and internet sites. Then I started coming across alternative news and activist sites, like Bayan, PCIJ (Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism), Balik Kalikasan, and the open-source journalism site, G|I|N (the Guerilla Information Network) which, interestingly, is backed by a group of IT entrepreneurs, CEOs and other Filipino professionals).

M: I'm going to digress for a minute... Don't you think it's a bit egotistic to be interviewing yourself?

But look, pinoys and pinays have had a lot of trouble getting published in the American mainstream press. I'm located in the U.S., so that's my legacy as a writer. We've always been pushed aside. So we've had to find other ways to get the job done.

J: Oh, no doubt. After all, I'm a writer. To survive as a writer, you have to have an ego. But look, pinoys and pinays have had a lot of trouble getting published in the American mainstream press. I'm located in the U.S., so that's my legacy as a writer. We've always been pushed aside. So we've had to find other ways to get the job done. We got published in the small press, in magazines and pamphlets. We spread information by word of mouth and rumor. We published our poets in Filipino newspapers because nobody else would publish them. (I'm talking about Filipinos in the U.S. now, where it has been really hard for us to be seen and heard within the white majority.) In the 1920s and 1930s, various Filipino-edited newspapers in California published Bulosan's work, and the work of Filipino poets that we no longer hear about.

Now we've got the internet, and there are alternative news sites springing up, like G|I|N and PCIJ, and "subversive" sites like the Estrada "diaries," and so many sites devoted to writers and artists—sites like Our Own Voice.

If you take a look at the interview genre, you can see that it's been a vehicle for establishing writers within the elite. It helps to maintain the mainstream publishing status quo. So, given that context, why not interview myself? Santiago Bose is actually my precedent here. He resurrected Frida Kahlo, had her do an interview with him, and published it on the web. I mean, she's dead, for godssake. But one of the great things about the internet is that you can take certain aspects of publishing and play around with it, have fun with it. I'm not saying that mainstream publishing doesn't carry any weight—it does, and it still determines vast differences in money-making capacity for writers. But on the web, we can question some of these things in a more public forum.

M: You know, one thing that you've brought up a number of times in this discussion is this idea of subversion...is it something you look for in a site?

J: Well, maybe I've been looking for it, I don't know. No, it's just that the most interesting sites, the most arresting and innovative sites, seem to have that quality—of subverting, of questioning, and taking action, often in unexpected ways—through satire (I'm thinking again of the faked Estrada diaries) or through the use of cell phones, or IT entrepreneurs starting up "guerilla information" networks...

M: That sounds possibly questionable...

J: Well, only time will tell. On the web, nothing's static. The thing about being a blogger—it gives you kind of a global perspective. In one night, you can find out what's happening with Filipinos in Manila, in Paris, Australia, and in bum-f__k America. Actually, I do feel that there is something of a renaissance happening in Filipino culture globally right now—so much of it, in the arts, for example has that subversive and innovative quality, lately. There's a sense that it's fueled by many years of frustration and even rage. I think of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi figures in Manuel Ocampo's paintings, and Slapshock's screamed lyrics in "Agent Orange Man":

"I shine the pain's penetrating to my spine
Unexplainable it can't be defined
They're hating me stabbing me playing me
Still I deal with the hate of the enemy
I'm hunted by fear when you speak and you mimic
Terrorize my mind like I'm Johnny Mnemonic"*

There's a lot of anger, but we're becoming aware of it on a cultural level.

Anyway, on the web, I get to see all of this unfolding. Actually, it's been a moving experience.

*From "Agent Orange Man" by J. Garcia. Slapshock 4th Degree Burn. OctoArts/EMI Music Inc. www.titikpilipino.com/lyrics/agentora.html

© Jean N.V. Gier

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