Luis H. Francia introduces FLIPPIN': Filipinos on America edited by Eric Gamalinda and Luis H. Francia
(Asian American Writers Workshop, New York, 1996)
The Other Side of the American Coin
You think you know us, but our outward guise is more deceptive than our history.
What makes this anthology both appealing and necessary is the universality of its private histories: the stories and poems here embody, elucidate on, allude to, the person at the center of events, whether these relate to intensely intimate revelations or to larger narrative and poetic frameworks. They remind us of the crucial role the creative spirit plays in reclaiming what is never quite the past—because it will always be with us—and in asserting an identity, difficult and perhaps impossible to define, but one that is unquestionably distinct. More than the grim landscape of ideology, beyond the dry discourse of academe, this collection gives us flesh and blood in a communion of words, illustrates history not as lesson but experience, and commands our imagination. Along the way we realize how the notion/nation of America, a common thread linking Filipinos in their diaspora, is full of paradoxes, cornucopia and Pandora’s Box all at the same time.
I recall having heard someone say once that “America” was essentially a catch-all term, a repository for ideas and races originating someplace else—positing a limitless There as background to a limitless Here—the world swept up in one word, a mantra that everyone on the planet was capable of uttering and probably had at one time or another. Indeed behind its heroic self-portraits, its dominant ethos, America notoriously appropriates on a global scale, with the sweep of a humongous discount shopping mall (the U.S. as K-Mart of the world) but where exactly, on what shelf, do we find particular selves? With expedience in lieu of accuracy, with stress on mono- rather than multiculturalism, various storekeepers excluded much in constructing a paradigmatic New World that is a deconstructionist’s wet dream, with a fluidity of identity possible only in a place that sans irony, simultaneously confirms and denies the existence of borders even as it consumes them voraciously. Whole histories, sensibilities, aesthetics, communities, most notably those of nonwhite non-Eurocentric peoples, get chewed up. (Of course this trope of a New World disregards Native Americans; try telling them, or African-Americans for that matter, that this is a nation of immigrants.)
Because or in spite of our having been the objects of colonial and imperial desire, many of us resist participating in this assimilationist trope. Still, wherever we may have been born and wherever we choose to live, America can never be a neutral subject for Filipinos. Dealing with Filipino-ness is to deal with this condition, with a fall from grace, when the twin-headed snake of Spain and America seduced us with the promise of boundless knowledge—we too could be white gods!—even as we reposed in an unimaginably beautiful garden. So it is that the West has insinuated itself over the centuries into the national character. Hence, the continuing preoccupation, to distinguish between a presumed utopian precolonial self and the confused dystopian mongrelized nation-state that we have allegedly become. In the postcolonial world, however, newer than the New World (what Guillermo Gomez-Peña terms the “New World Border”) hybridity rules while purity, in a decade where ethnic rivalries have been revived violently, has acquired a fatal taint. Unity Divides, Difference Unites, could very well be the chant of the approaching millennium.
As Filipinos we move about easily, for the most part unself-consciously, through this amalgam of borderlands; we’ve been hybrid so long we don’t usually remark on it. Such calm self-recognition is often mistakenly interpreted as passivity, an indifference to our status in the larger society. Make no mistake; that status retains a largely neocolonial cast, abetted, it must be said, by Pinoys, who reside in a “mental colony,” quick to yield for instance to claims of primacy by other cultures, whether this be in the context of art or marriage. And so it has been commonplace among Filipinos to talk resignedly about being forgotten even in a secular “paradise.” But that tells only half the story. To forget implies an unconscious process, absent volition. Our insistence on forgetfulness lets America off the hook, as though we were making excuses for a doddering but essentially benevolent uncle. Ignoring and denying: not quite the same as forgetting.
Is it a surprise then that, consistent with its popular do-gooder mythology, America denies an imperialist past? That denial goes hand in hand with a deep-seated schizophrenia, eloquently described by Mark Twain (honorary Filipino) in his powerful essay, satirically titled “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.” When in 1898 President William McKinley wanted to Christianize a country that had been Catholic for three hundred years running, Twain surmised what Filipinos must have been thinking:
The Person Sitting in Darkness is almost sure to say: There is something curious about this—curious and unaccountable. There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him, with nothing found on it; then kills him to get his land.
The truth is, the Person Sitting in Darkness is saying things like that.
Half a century later, Carlos Bulosan and Bienvenido Santos, my spiritual manongs and, I suspect, of other Filipino writers in America, quickly recognized this malady in their writings. The young men they described in their stories were handsome, cocky, naïve, hooked on a quasispiritual vision America proffered, and wanting only the chance to prove themselves equal to any other participant in the American enterprise. But the America they encountered, of racism, exclusionary laws, of violence against people who were different, ground these men’s spirits relentlessly. It is a tribute to them that at the end they stood proud, sadder, yes, even bitter at times, but unrepentant in their sense of being Filipino, hair still slicked back.
This book is for them as well as for us, their sons and daughters. It asserts our existence, our history, our difference, our refusal to stand in a light that wounds rather than heals. We insist on our redemptive darkness even as we form part of that Rushdiean empire writing back. We return a borrowed tongue, to use poet Nick Carbo’s apt title of his recent anthology of Filipino poetry. This is about flippin’—getting out and flippin’ the pot over, about taking “flip,” the slang, derogatory term for us who would insist on the primacy of our selves, and yes, flippin’ it. This is about flippin’ out: losing our minds and composure, in order to rediscover them.
Turn the page, fellow traveler, and find the Flip side of the American coin.
Luis H. Francia is a poet and a nonfiction writer. His latest volume of poetry is Tattered Boat, released in 2014. His poems have been translated into several languages. He has read at numerous literary festivals and most recently at the XIth International Festival of Poetry (2015), held annually in Granada, Nicaragua. His nonfiction works include Eye of the Fish: A Personal Archipelago, winner of both the 2002 PEN Open Book Award and the 2002 Asian American Writers Award, and Memories of Overdevelopment: Reviews and Essays of Two Decades. A collection of his most recent nonfiction, RE: Recollections, Reviews, Reflections, was just published this summer. He is on the faculty of Asian American Studies at New York University and Hunter College. He teaches creative writing at the City University of Hong Kong.
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