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Re-interpretation of the American Dream
By Linda Ty-Casper

Editor’s Note : The following is a paper presented via Digital Video Conferencing to the American Studies Association of the Philippines, on November 19. 2005, Manila under auspices of the US Speakers/Specialist Program of the Bureau of International Information Program, US Department of State.

Access to the American Dream of immeasurable opportunities became a distinct possibility for Filipino writers in the 1930s with poet and short story writer Jose Garcia Villas publishing successes in New York with both poetry and short fiction, and the critical acclaim he received from the Gotham Bookstore group of fellow authors, which included Dame Edith Sitwell from Great Britain.

It brightened considerably with Carlos Bulosan’s emergence in the 40s as the voice of the “Filipino exile.” The first Asian to document, in English, the life of immigrants in the West Coast’s bent-labor fields and canneries, Bulosan was asked to write “The Four Freedoms” for The Saturday Evening Post, essays which became part of the Allied effort to win World War II. For both his writings and his work as union organizer, Bulosan was honored by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Also In the 40s, other writers began publishing in America. Stevan Javellana’sWithout Seeing the Dawn exposed to American readers the brutalities of the Japanese Occupation. Carlos P. Romulo chronicled the rise and fall of the Philippines during World War II, for which he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In 1940, Romulo was elected the first President of the United Nations General Assembly.

Before 1965 there were at least 300 works by Filipino authors —including both poems and short fiction—published in the United States. From the 50s into the 90s, scholar/critic/teacher/ novelist NVM Gonzalez received honor after honor in California where he taught at Hayward, even as he also lectured across the country. Among his five collections of short stories and three novels was his autobiographical The Filipino in the World. Similarly, Bienvenido Santos received the American Book Award for novels written while Distinguished Writer in Residence in Wichita, Kansas. More recently, after the year 2000, F. Sionil Jose published all five novels of his Rosales saga in Random House’s Modern Library series.

On the success of such writers have been fastened the hopes of others who followed their own dreams of publication in America. It no longer seemed farfetched to imagine writing bestsellers, as have Ninotchka Rosca and Jessica Hagedorn, and receiving still greater international acclaim elsewhere as a result of their publication in the United States. The possibilities appeared potentially global, Filipinos seeming to have a special edge because English was the language of instruction in their schools, from the time American teachers first arrived in the islands on the SS Thomas in 1898. Having made their impression in English, writers such as NVM, Frankie Jose, and Ben Santos confirmed their worth through many translations throughout the world.

Are Filipino writers in America now fulfilling the challenge of the groundbreaking successes of those who, before them, became part of America’s literary world? How far forward have they carried the American Dream shared by Filipino writers with other immigrants?

In the United States, interest in Philippine writing has come in waves. (Could this explain why Villa, after so much early acclaim, effectively disappeared from the literary scene in America? Actually, what seems to be a disappearance might actually be a gathering of strength: the same way that not writing is really part of writing, the ingathering phase when ideas germinate, flower, bear fruit, then seed again.) After World War II when other ethnic and immigrant groups began competing for publication, getting published became more problematic for all authors. The difficulty was compounded beginning in the 90s, when in order to maximize profit, large publishing houses began to merge; when chain bookstores, offering less diversity in their stock, forced the closing of independent booksellers. The publishing and selling of books became in essence just another commerce, instead of a cultural/literary endeavor.

Nevertheless, alternatives still exist. Books sell on the internet. But online booksellers’ demand for hefty discounts from publishers, effectively cut off access to books of independent small publishers or university presses, and literary journals. Beyond commercially oriented mainstream publishers, Print-on-Demand books are taking the place of so-called vanity books, especially in academe where the-publish-or-perish policy threatens tenure.

Impatient with the slow process of quality publication by hard and soft back presses, Bert Florentino—himself a publisher in the Philippines since the 60s—has an ambitious project of creating a mammoth website of the whole of Philippine Writing in English: 1905 to 2005, revisiting his original Peso Books in new configurations. A playwright (one of his plays is the often-reprinted The World is an Apple), he is even thinking of producing his plays in cyberspace, sending out drafts of his works-in-progress to e-groups and list serves.

For Filipino writers in diaspora there is the online Our Own Voice which Remé Grefalda, with Nadine Sarreal and Geejay Arriola, conceived in 2000 and now edits; her staff coming from different countries. This e-zine promotes the works of Filipino writers scattered across the globe. The focus is on those just emerging. It has 20 issues to date. Our Own Voice started the Global Filipino Literary Award in 2003 with winners among them Noel Alumit (Letters to Montgomery Cliff). Oscar Penaranda (Seasons by the Bay), Sarah Gambito (Matadora), David Martinez (A Country of Our Own),Vince Gotera (Ghost Wars), and Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Miracle Fruit). This year, Veronica Montes won the Ivy Terasaka Short Story Award.

Because of such developments, the question of exactly what constitutes “publication” continues to be raised. The Boston Authors, founded by Julia Ward Howe in 1900, the longest continuing literary group in America, rejects self-published books for admission to membership. Creating a second category of “associate members,” it is also considering the possibility of requiring “publication” of any given book to be a minimum of 5000 copies. This, however, ignores the fact that regional or independent presses bring out impeccable writing in much lesser numbers.

What are the odds? What compromises need to be made? Another writer confessed in an email, that there may be mainstream writers, not just emerging ones, who have manuscripts in dusty desk drawers, waiting for agents.

It is as difficult to acquire an agent as it is to get a publisher. (And even more difficult than being admitted to a reputable university to get one’s papers and manuscripts archived for posterity in such universities.) Forced by the economics of publishing, publishers focus not so much on the cultural as on the commercial aspects of their industry, requiring the intercession by agents in order to cut their own losses due to the expense of attention and time. Without an agent, one is stalled, hoping for the proverbial lightning to strike—as it sometimes really does: after all, the first Harry Potter manuscript came in through the “transom,” landing on the slush pile of R.K.Dowling’s publisher.

The difficulty surrounding publication is compounded in the United States, by the sheer number of writers competing for a shrinking number of publishers, many of whom no longer seem to take pride in discovering a durable quality writer. Online access to library books—the availability of digital versions of bound copies—impacts on book sales. Also, current culture seems to cater to an audience with short attention spans; overwhelmed and distracted by quickly changing, ever-expanding worldwide interests. Publication trends run in cycles. Surges are quickly followed by declines. Seeing one’s work into print is not easy when trends overtake each other at a dizzying pace.

Trends in writing can be as arbitrary as fads in fashion. (That problem may itself be global!) This leaves struggling writers in a quandary, trying to put themselves into an editor’s mindset. What kind of writing will sell? If a writer is not plugged in to what the public will buy, given that restless cultures cannot be second-guessed, what is a Filipino writer in America to do? The answer depends on whether the writer writes, in order to get published, or to preserve memories and lives.

In order to get published, should one give up expressing life as experienced by a Filipino? But what actually does it mean to be Filipino in literature? Does indigenous writing exist at all where ideas as well as goods cross national boundaries almost at will? If it does exist, what are its values, the range of its subject, the limits of its integrity? By and large, despite Filipino authors’ ready assimilation and richly multicultural origins, provincial or urban, such authors’ books remain Filipino, far beyond their detailed local color, through what can only be called “the horizon-less landscape of the mind.”

To capture the American Dream should one write like celebrity authors, those who are household names, writers whose pictures and names on a book cover instantly sell the same plot over and over again, effectively plagiarizing themselves? Hardly. Because true literature is about the self, our authentic lives, Franz Arcellana, critic and writer, said: the deepest writing, authentic writing, is not necessarily dazzling, but often quiet writing which demands the deepest response.

Academic positions can promote a writer’s chance of publication. As teachers, writers such as acclaimed poet Nick Carbo and novelist Cecilia Brainard acquire reputations, as well as publishers, with or without literary agents. Sabina Murray who first taught at Andover is now at Amherst. Luisa Igloria teaches in Old Dominion University, Virginia; Marianne Villanueva, author of “anxiety-laden” short stories about contemporary Filipinos on the East and West Coast, is at Notre Dame de Namur University. {She plans to bring her lacrosse players students, who tower well over her, to her reading at Berkeley.}

Through websites and internet groups, Filipino writers spread the word about prizes and awards being offered; new publishers; current books and public readings; requests for submission to anthologies. This exchange creates a community among them, whether or not they call their work “Philippine writing,” or themselves Filipino/ American or Asian/American writers.

As recently as last week, Marites Sison, established Toronto columnist for Filipinas Magazine in California, asked, “What is your advise about getting published in America?” Is the American Dream of Filipino writers to write “the American novel” or to write “the Filipino novel in America”?

Whenever Villa, Bulosan, Romulo, Javellana, Frankie Jose and other writers published in America, each of their books was a Filipino flag planted in the literary world of that continent, charting the way for young writers, like Bino Realuyo. Each book is essentially different from the one before, from the one still in progress, from the one still only in the mind: Filipino creativity has always abhorred a vacuum, barrenness.

Each generation of Filipino writers will face new myths and fresh realities imposed by advances in technology and the increasing globalization of the world into one coherent village. The One World of the 40s. Their response will redefine and interpret the American Dream of individual enterprise, meld it with the Philippine Dream of solidarity. New versions of old myths and realities will challenge them to keep contributing their stories to the stories of all humanity. Because literature is about life and life is sacred, they will be engaged in writing a sacred text for themselves, and for the world.

© Linda Ty-Casper

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Remé-Antonia Grefalda

Eileen Tabios

Geejay Arriola
Seb Koh
Victoria Paz Cruz
Aileen Ibardaloza
Lynn Cadorniga

Geejay Arriola

copyright 2005

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