Editor's Note: The letters of Carlos Bulosan to Dorothy Babb are excerpted from Selected Works & Letters by Carlos Bulosan (1982 ), edited by E. San Juan Jr. & Ninotchka Rosca, published by Friends of the Filipino People, Honolulu, HI . Dorothy Babb's letters are fictional responses commissioned by Our Own Voice and composed by Nikki Alfar.
| I do not mean that misery should be a prerequisite for the production of great art. I think the greatest art will appear in a happy world of free men, but this new world will not come without pain and struggle.
In the summer of 1937, Carlos Bulosan was confined with a tubercular condition at the L.A. County Hospital.
June 11, 1937
When you left the hospital I ate some of the candies and drank a glass of milk. You are kind to bring me these things, and if it is not for me, it is for the life of a man.
This morning I was reading Foma and it shook me so much. I like Gorky 's early works; the later books are not so strong as these. I shall be happy if you can bring me more. Gorky is great; it is very likely that his is a phenomenon, a kind of genius that has to appear in a country where he is almost needed. He was the product of turmoil in Russia, and his being a member of the oppressed classes signified that these classes alone could save the country from ruin. And they have; history will tell us that they can hold it. They have struck new directions, new magnificences for man. They will make mistakes, power will corrupt some, but the many will rise from their past. It is strange that so few average Americans know the history of this terrible oppression, or, for that matter, the history of our countries. They must learn.
And you must remember this: our country, or any country of the Western world, cannot produce a man like Gorky—raw, defiant, bitter, understanding, compassionate, beautiful—because the American people have to suffer deeply to know what life is like. I do not mean that misery should be a prerequisite for the production of great art. I think the greatest art will appear in a happy world of free men, but this new world will not come without pain and struggle.
I wish that our unhappy humanity had a common vision of a peaceful, creative future to hold in mind as a kind of beacon for hope and guidance in this warring world.
August 23, 1937
How glad I am to hear that you are doing and feeling better, if still not quite at your best. Sometimes I wonder if, as brave and talented and dedicated as you are, it is just too much to ask for perfect health in the bargain.
I am cheered enough to make very bad jokes, as you can see from the above.
I have been thinking about what you wrote regarding Maxim Gorky. I know this was a few months and several letters ago, but not all of us are able to read a book a day, as you do! In this case, while I had actually read Foma Gordeyev before lending it to you, it honestly didn't crystallize for me, until you mentioned it, that such fire might necessarily be dependent on suffering and a turbulent environment.
Is this, do you think, why Ernest Hemingway's work seems so much more passionate than that of many other American writers, because of his travels and tribulations? Not that I would compare the adventures of an itinerant journalist to the daily challenges of a citizen of Russia or, say, the Philippines; but I think, certainly, Mr. Hemingway's exposure to other cultures and ways of life has added depth to his body of work (despite his apparent dislike of women, I might add).
| However, I must take exception to your implication that there is little significant suffering here...the plight of the disenfranchised here can be as bad if not worse than it is in less prosperous nations!
In other words, I heartily support your contention that Americans need to know more about what goes on and has gone on beyond these fortunate shores. However, I must take exception to your implication that there is little significant suffering here—you, of all people, know from personal experience that the plight of the disenfranchised here can be as bad if not worse than it is in less prosperous nations! And there are smaller ways of suffering too, perhaps not as remarkable as poverty or oppression, but no less valid.
That said, I understand what you are saying: that we, as products of our past, cannot hope to shape a better future without examining the lessons of history. Not just the histories of our individual countries, but of our singular world. And of course, at the end of the discussion, I could not agree more.
How I miss holding these debates face to face, rather than on paper!
Hoping this letter finds you as well or better than the last,
September 14, 1937
How good it is to be strong enough to hold this notebook on my chest and write! I must rest often, but it is not so bad.
I am besieged by memories today. I am young and already I have lived several lives since my childhood in the islands.
Men look back to their childhood, especially when they are so old that they no longer have the faculties to penetrate the possibilities of the future, or even have the courage to examine the present. It is also characteristic of dying men to look back. Maybe this is my case, but I believe not.
It may be that I shall never again see my country, but I feel strong and powerful and immortal in the thought that I can still remember fragments of my childhood. I know that the years somehow made me love my country more.
When I was young I was told of a story called, "The Man Without A Country," but I wonder whether men with a country realize how poignant it is to be without one. I have been in the United States for five years, and it seems that although I love this country as much as any native—born American, I shall always feel strange and lost and forgotten. I have often been lonely. But in my loneliness I like to console myself by remembering incidents of my childhood in the Philippines .
Today I want to write you about one of the incidents I remember most vividly.
When I was seven years old . . .
September 22, 1937
| He was a teacher in the Philippines; in the United States he is a common laborer. But he still has the old nobility and dignity with which he can varnish his soul.
Thank you for that affecting anecdote regarding your youth in the Philippines ! Whenever you relate a memory of your childhood home, it almost seems to me as if, at some point, I had been there myself; as if I were truly acquainted with the coconut trees, your father's grass house, your family farm. It is a gift you have for description, I believe, that allows the reader to so empathize and imagine.
It is certainly not me, as you have so flatteringly suggested! I know perfectly well that I am not creative, though I will admit to being a constant letter—writer, at the least. But anyone with reasonable fluency in a language can string some sentences together with a little thought and effort; whereas not everyone can make the reader see what they saw and feel something of what they felt, as you do so well. I urge you not to disparage your own skill! As I am sure you know, there are those in this world who will be happy to do that for you; why make it easier for them?
As for me, I am getting more than enough rest myself, which is to say that nothing terribly exciting has happened lately and my tasks have not gotten any more demanding than usual. I suppose that is hardly something to complain about, but I suspect that this daily humdrum would have me languishing in the doldrums if I did not have your letters to look forward to! Not to contradict what I wrote earlier about getting enough rest (I mean it!), do, please, keep them coming.
October 3, 1937
At two o' clock this afternoon my brother, Aurelio, was here. As we often do, we thought of home and our childhood and reminded ourselves of the early chapter of our lives.
My brother spoke of his student days—the happiest of his life, so he said. He was a teacher in the Philippines; in the United States he is a common laborer. But he still has the old nobility and dignity with which he can varnish his soul. Sometimes I wonder if he is happier than I because he finds peace in every little thing he does. And I look at myself knowing there will never be peace for me.
My resurrection of the past has been different from his because I had neither a college education nor a peaceful childhood. But I remembered an unforgettable fragment of my childhood and I told him. The story took place when I was ten years old, and living with my father on the farm.
Some distance from our house was a clearing which my father and I had been cultivating. One night he told me that we were going to plant coconuts in the clearing, and a few days later when the nuts arrived by cart from our home in town, we hurried to do the planting. My father dug the holes with a crowbar and I dropped and covered the nuts with fresh earth. I marveled at his strength because I had barely finished covering a nut when he had dug a new hole. When I worked rapidly and reached him, I leaned against my spade and admired him as if he were a god. At intervals he stopped and wiped the sweat from his face and neck with the back of his hand. He said to me in his melancholy voice, "In seven years they will be bearing fruit. You will be seventeen, and you can go to Manila and enter college. You will be a lawyer!"
Then he worked rapidly again, and at sundown we gathered our tools and prepared to go back to the hut. When we reached our grass hut, my father prepared dinner, and I went to the village well to fetch water for our carabao, chickens, hogs and dogs. When I returned the food was ready and we ate like two comrades. Soon after dinner we went to bed. My father slept soundly. I could not sleep; I kept thinking of our coconuts and my brothers who were in town going to school, to dances, while my father and I were working for them and their ambitions. I finally dozed off, happy with the thought that the first day of those seven long years was ended.
| ...while some things, like coconut trees, may be left behind in our lives, those that truly matter, such as the ones we love, inevitably find us again, in one way or another.
The day before I sailed for America, I returned to have a last look at the coconut groves. There they were, all green and lusty, waving their palms in the bright April sun as if they knew that I was going away forever. I wept. But my elder brother laughed at my tears because the coconuts were no longer ours.
Please, dearest D, don't ever leave me.
October 6, 1937
Dear Sweet, Silly Carlos,
What in the world would possess you to imagine that I would ever leave?
Firstly, I have found, in this life, that a true meeting of minds is a great deal more difficult and rare than fiction would have us believe—when found, therefore, it is not something lightly thrown aside, certainly not by me. Second, I simply do not possess your pioneering spirit. It is not in me to leave everything I have come to know and seek whatever fortune I may find on distant shores. Yet while I may lack that sort of enterprising courage, constancy, as I have mentioned in the past, is one of my more positive attributes.
That said (and I trust I have made my point), how marvelous for you to have received a visit from your brother! I believe it is always stimulating—if not necessarily always comforting—to reunite with family. Despite the melancholy memories evoked by Aurelio's visit, I am confident it did not escape you that while some things, like coconut trees, may be left behind in our lives, those that truly matter, such as the ones we love, inevitably find us again, in one way or another.
I must confess that I was somewhat troubled by your mention, over the telephone, of the many poker games that were played during the duration of your brother's stay. I only hope that you were joking with me and not truly considering gambling as a means of escape from your current financial situation. Your lucrative successes against Aurelio notwithstanding are to my mind, an extremely unreliable and quite unsavory way of making a living. Gamblers, to the best of my admittedly limited experience, tend to be a grasping and deceptive sort—whether it is that kind of person who is attracted to gambling, or whether gambling makes people so, I am not certain. What I am certain of is that it is a poor lifestyle on which to waste your talent and intelligence!
Does it seem as if I am perpetually admonishing you about something, from letter to letter? Please understand that it is only my concern for your well-being that drives me to speak my mind—if I did not know that you particularly appreciate such forthrightness, I might be more reticent in my opinions. But I have a detestation of gambling that I would rather not conceal; though if I have mistaken what seems to me your newfound passion for a simple enjoyment of an innocent pastime, then I apologize. I certainly see no harm in a friendly game of cards, provided it is not taken too seriously or cunningly.
How I have gone on! Do go back and read my first few sentences, please; and be assured that, gambling or no gambling, my high regard for you has not changed. I am not going anywhere.
| You should have seen how they protected me from sin and debaucheries. Because in Filipino society there is a by-path on which these "unfortunates" walk and often meet the "educated" ones, I soon discovered the college students, graduates, newspaper workers.
October 9, 1937
I received your letter and I want to answer some of the questions you raised.
First, I did not say that I have a passion for gambling. I said it was the easiest way out for me. I hate it as much as you do. I tell you I learn easily, and I could have been a great gambler if I had wanted to be a parasite and a cheat and a liar. If you had known me then you could have known that I hated it. But I didn't gamble during all my life in America. Let me explain—
When I landed in Seattle, I was met by a swaggering countryman, a dapper Filipino, who sold me to an agricultural labor contractor for $7.50. There were seventy-five of us, all under twenty-five years old, who were cheated this way. I worked for a month under this unforgettable deal. At the end of the month the contractor vanished one night with all our money. I starved on that farm; then I escaped to become a dishwasher: $7.00 a week. I ran away from this second job at the end of three weeks and starved again. I drifted to Santa Barbara where I worked for almost three months in a bakery. Then I came down to Los Angeles. I was out of work again. I found the members of the outer fringes of society: hoboes, tramps, gamblers, prostitutes, etc. I was absorbed by them. In spite of all that had happened I was still innocent. You should have seen how they protected me from sin and debaucheries. Because in Filipino society there is a by-path on which these "unfortunates" walk and often meet the "educated" ones, I soon discovered the college students, graduates, newspaper workers. Because one thing leads to another, I was soon thrown into one lap of radicals, progressives, social workers. I become one of them, not by adaptation but by gravitation—the general process from an ignorant farm worker, city worker, student, to a class-conscious individual.
Come to see me this week.
October 14, 1937
How dreadful it is to recall that there are people in this world like that contractor you suffered under when you first arrived! And yet, how wonderful it is that there are also people like the ones who helped you and protected you; as well as people like you, who, in spite of everything, manage to rise above their circumstances and make something of themselves. "From farm worker to city worker to student"—to the man you are today. You give me hope that, just possibly, the cruel contractors of the world do not outnumber the good people; perhaps they are simply more talked about and more visible in their actions?
I shall certainly come to visit you this week. I had already planned to, as I am setting off for a month or so (somewhat against my will, truth be told) for an extended family gathering up the coast. I cannot imagine what it is that will take my cousin Elsie so very long to get married, but that is the way it is planned, so I suppose I will just have to abide by it. I only wish you could come with me, to fend off the slings and arrows of outrageous relatives!
I did say, however, that I find reunions generally stimulating, and I stand by my words. After all, there certainly are those relations that I shall be purely glad to see again—let us just hope that, like the good people of the world, they manage to outnumber the others!
| It always comes as a surprise to me to meet women who are prejudiced, to learn that it is even possible for any person herself discriminated against to then turn around and discriminate against others.
I don't expect that I shall be afforded much time to write while I am gone, so let us talk, when we see each other, about a schedule of telephone calls until I return.
Barring complications, I will see you soon,
December 4, 1937
Your recent trip up the coast made me remember an experience of one of my own trips. Two of my friends and I were driving to Portland in an old Model T Ford. When we stopped at a gasoline station in Redding, a small town in northern California, we noticed a few husky men talking near the station. Two of them came over to the car and one asked, "Filipinos?" We answered yes, and then he said, "Well, this town is too good for you. Leave just as soon as you get your gas."
We asked why we had to leave. He looked at us with contempt because we had the temerity to ask. His hatred, which had been cold and hard, immediately became violent and loud. The expression of his eyes was strained and wild, and his hands gripped the door.
"Pay your gas and beat it, you goddamn goo-goos, or we'll fill you full of lead!" He slapped his bulging hip, and we knew the trouble was more than insult. These men were probably hired vigilantes; California was full of them then. We drove away slowly as if life did not mean anything to us, but we were all afraid. We were only peaceful young men and we wanted to keep our lives.
Such arrogance and brutality are not always received passively by my people. The Filipinos, like the Spanish, are impulsive and quick with the knife. Their readiness in defense has surprised some of their white brothers who have given insults without expecting any retaliation.
One day, before I came to the hospital, I was talking to a Negro boy about prejudice and he asked, "But there isn't any prejudice against the Filipinos in this country, is there?" When I told him a few of my experiences he was surprised, believing that Negroes are the only persecuted race in America.
We who know prejudice sometimes have a tendency to believe that we are the ones most discriminated against. There were times when I have been sad and bitter and felt this way. Then I remember there are thousands others besides Filipinos who have had similar experiences—Negroes, Chinese, Japanese, and even native-born whites. And I begin to feel less alone, remembering these people, and those few Americans I have known without a trace of race prejudice.
You are one.
I am all right now that you are in the city again. Thank you for the fruit you brought me. I will look at its beauty before I eat it. Your hands held it.
December 15, 1937
| ...I am not sorry that I was born a Filipino. When I say "Filipino" the sound cuts deep into my being—it hurts. I have nothing against the world now. I don't even hate white America any more. What is the use hating?
How good it is to be back—and without having had to suffer such frightful incidents as you did, on your journey to Portland. I must admit to being grateful that I have never been the victim of such outright prejudice, but at the same time I am outraged that it has and does happen so commonly, carelessly, and callously as it has to you.
I thank you for your kind words regarding me being "without a trace of race prejudice". If I am so (and I would not be so smug as to claim it myself), I think it may be because, as a woman, I have been subject to my share of discrimination—the immediate assumption that I am without a brain or volition of my own, in which, thankfully, you have never indulged. It always comes as a surprise to me to meet women who are prejudiced, to learn that it is even possible for any person herself discriminated against to then turn around and discriminate against others.
While I have no illusions that being routinely considered stupid is in any way comparable to being threatened with a gun for no provocation other than your country of origin, it makes me angry that any of us should have to be judged by our gender, or skin color, or religious belief. Angry and sad, especially since, as you have pointed out, we each of us persist in thinking of ourselves as the most pre-judged, the most poorly treated—as if it were some kind of contest, where one wins a prize for being the most victimized!
We are a long, long way from shaping America—or the world, for that matter—into a home for everyone, regardless of color or creed. In my case, I am lucky enough to be able to define home as where you are; and I am doubly happy to be back where I belong.
July 2, 1942
. . . I wanted to say more than I did this afternoon when we parted, but I had no time to say anything except to skim over irrelevant matters. However, I will remember that last moment.
. . .
I have tried to arrange my affairs before I go because I may not come to Los Angeles again. I have been going around for the last few months in a kind of desperation, but I am all right now.
In spite of everything that has happened to me in America I am not sorry that I was born a Filipino. When I say "Filipino" the sound cuts deep into my being-it hurts.
All these years you were prominent in my mind. I think there was not a day that I did not think of you with tenderness.Everything fine and gentle that came into my life since I met you was associated with your gentleness and fine ways. There were times when I cried, knowing that you were gone and lost, knowing that I had nobody to talk to with a certain feeling of equality.
. . .
I will never forget you: never. I will never forget what you have given me.
I have thought of you in a wonderful way, so please don't destroy my wonderful memory of you. Wherever I go with my Filipino friends or with my Filipino intellectual acquaintances I speak of you highly and with sincerity.
I have nothing against the world now. I don't even hate white America any more. What is the use hating?
I think you will understand that I have said everything here. I have very little time left in the world and I should like it to be memorable and beautiful.
I hope you are happy...
. . .
And so good-bye.
July 9, 1942
Please forgive my coolness at our last meeting. I was hurt and stunned—though in retrospect, I should not have been, since I have always known the day would come when you would have to follow where your feet and feelings lead. You are simply too free a spirit to remain in one place for good, especially given the limited time the doctors have estimated.
I, on the other hand, am quite the opposite sort, bound to my place, to where I have taken root; unable to imagine the possibility of life elsewhere. And so you must go, and I must stay. If I have helped in any way toward your finding this new equanimity, this serenity of mind regarding yourself, your country, and your countrymen—both old and new—then I am content.
I suspect I am a long while from being happy, as you hope, but I can be content with the assurance that I have been of significance to you, and that you will continue to think well of me as you venture off into the world. As for me, you will always be in my thoughts as well, and I look forward to the eventual publication of your book with anticipation and no small measure of affectionate pride.
© Nikki Alfar