by Anna Alves
Editor’s note: This special issue under the co-editorship of Anna Alves and Michael Gonzalez honors the life and writings of Nestor Vicente Madali Gonzalez, better known as N.V.M. and the influence he continues to exert on writers of his day and the literati of the future.
That spring in 1992, when I joined N. V. M. as his research assistant for a new Filipino American anthology of short stories, we came together from opposite ends of the migration spectrum, eager to seek out what was emerging within that meeting point halfway between our differing points of origin. Born in Elmhurst, Queens, New York City, my migration was coast-to-coast instead of country-to-country. My parents were Philippine-born-and-raised, Manila-university-educated individuals. They moved their young family from the East Coast to Sacramento, California on the West Coast. Who of me now could still be inherent in that being that never was? Yet a larger cycle of return also exists within me.
I grew up amidst the imported cultural trappings of Philippine heritage in a culturally diverse neighborhood in South Sacramento, within a significantly African American, Latino, Filipino and Southeast Asian demographic that populated my primary and secondary school experience. I did not formally learn about Philippine and Filipino American history until I was a college student at UCLA. There, I took Asian American Studies courses and participated in the campus’ politically-activist and community-minded undergraduate student organization, Samahang Pilipino. I coordinated, wrote and performed in Pilipino Cultural Nights (PCNs), that ubiquitous phenomenon of my Fil-Am generation growing up in California. Yet I did not visit the Philippines until I was 22, the summer after graduation. So my experience of being Filipino American emerged primarily from the American part of that equation.
The emergent collection that N.V.M and I worked on was entitled IBA: A Filipino American Anthology. We were seeking to assemble an anthology that could perhaps shift an ever-evolving literary landscape. In his draft Introduction to this anthology, N. V. M. wrote:
A new approach to geography, a re-plotting of national and cultural borders and a charting of expression in a world constantly situational and in a flux, could be in order. But for the moment here are twenty-and-six writers under their very own signatures; and thirty markers of experience on which their thumbprints have been pressed and, hence, writ true.
The anthology, for varying reasons beyond our control, remains unpublished though those of us who own the few copies that remain understand what a treasure it is: A vibrant snapshot of a singular artist’s vision poised toward a fast-advancing literary future, full of expansive possibility. The glance backward, from this point two decades later, yields fresh potential for re-visitation, re-evaluation and reconsideration of the legacy that N.V.M. left behind, not just in his own work, but in the visions that have emerged since, several that he seeded and even now, continues to nurture.
Imagination and ideas thrive beyond a human life and in this retrospective issue, those two things are on full display in the words and stories shared by N.V.M.’s former colleagues, friends, and family. And students, most especially, even those he never met except through his literary philosophies or works and through the N.V.M. Writers’ Workshop in the U.S., started in 2005 and maintained bi-annually by his son, Michael Gonzalez, throughout California and Washington, and taught by such literary luminaries as Russell Leong and Peter Bacho.
We have an opportunity to re-visit and re-examine N.V.M.’s role and influence upon the growing communities of Filipino American writers creating stories into the new Millennium. It is a role that is not entirely visible nor obvious — most U.S. born/raised Filipino American students and writers of this recent generation, if familiar with any Philippine or Filipino American writers, may more readily cite Jose Rizal, maybe Jose Garcia Villa, and probably Bienvenido Santos, Carlos Bulosan, Jessica Hagedorn and Peter Bacho, as these are the authors that seem to pop up most consistently as anchors in the average syllabi of Filipino American Experience or Literature classes. Yet those whom created alongside, studied with, and/or discovered N.V.M. posthumously as a man and a writer came away from these incidental encounters shifted and transformed — even, as many of these pieces that follow attest, if the realization of that alteration did not arise until much later.
Here we attempt to reconstruct a portrait of the artist and the man whose ways of seeing the world have continued to impact so many ways of telling by a myriad of voices speaking beyond his own. As the following pages show, the threads of metaphor are not incidental, even scattered amongst divergent persons and generations. The discoveries made, the connections converging across the years, manifest a through-line of an artistic life that wove widespread community not only through writing words, but in making music, facilitating conversations, breaking bread and, simply and most profoundly, by telling stories. Some of the stories generated by those who were participants in the N.V.M. Writers’ Workshop are also included here, expressing the range of Filipino American aesthetics and voices being created into the new century.
After that initial year with N.V.M. as a student and aspiring writer, I was blessed to work with him again and have since been fortunate to create and teach an entire course at UCLA based on his works. But there’s a moment I often recall from that first year, when I did not know if our acquaintance would extend beyond that singular experience. N.V.M. and his family invited me to their house after a conference was over. They encouraged me to take a nap after an exhausting weekend while awaiting my sister to drive from Sacramento to pick me up for a visit with my family before returning to Los Angeles. When my sister arrived, as she idled her car in the driveway, he came to wake me and walked me to the front door. He bade me a jaunty goodbye and then gave me a quick hug. There are hugs. And then there are hugs. What I mean by that is this: when profound connections are made, an embrace lingers. The warmth, honesty and pure affection of that contact in a minimal instant leaves its traces. For me, the kindness and connection of that embrace lingers. I often feel like his legacy as a person and a writer is a lot like that. Imagination that embraces. Ideas that linger. A legacy wide-open enough for us all to step into and within it, be sustained.