Letter to Carlos Bulosan, September 2015

 

Dear Carlos—

To get from Tacoma, where I live, to your gravesite in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle, entails a drive of thirty-eight miles. Halfway between Tacoma and Seattle is the Southcenter Mall. Seafood City, a supermarket that primarily caters to Filipinos, anchors one arm of the mall’s enormous expanse. Around the market are other businesses that also serve Filipinos: bakeries where you can get bibingka, fast-food franchises where you can get halohalo, and a remittance center where you can send money back to the Philippines. I go to Seafood City often. It is, for me, a place of intense belonging—a feeling, I have come to understand, that is made up of familiarity and a disproportionate amount of nostalgia.

          If you are a Filipino and you go to Seafood City on a weekend afternoon, the crowded conviviality of the place amounts to a sentimental journey that is also a plunge into the actual texture of the present. For those of us who were born in the Philippines and spent their early lives there, nostalgia triggers abound. These include the distinctly blue containers of Sky Flakes crackers, which were a staple of my childhood’s snacks. In the produce section, there are heaps of bitter melon, whose startling taste seems wired to a memory of deeply authentic meals from a provincial past. And then there are the mounds of fish on the ice-filled beds in the market’s seafood section, which bring to mind the markets of home, fondly raucous and dingy when the aisles of Seafood City are pristine and well-lit. The nostalgia I’m describing is sweet, the pacifying adjunct of things that are less so: displacement and loss.

What would you have made of Seafood City? I’m certain that its vitality would lead to something like elation in you, as it does in me. There are now over three million Filipinos in the United States, with more than 100,000 of them in the state of Washington. When you arrived by ship in Seattle in 1930, a seventeen-year-old from an impoverished Filipino backwater, there was only a small fraction of Filipinos in the country, most of them uneducated men who worked in the agricultural fields of Washington, Oregon, and California. These men, with you among them, were merely bodies whose only value was the value of their labor. They were exploited by those they worked for and by everyone else around them, including other Filipinos. These men, as you describe so painfully in America Is In the Heart, had a status that put them somewhere just above the animal and just below the human. To be a Filipino in America in 1930 meant living under constant physical and psychic threat—threat that often turned into real instances of harm.

In 1943, in the Saturday Evening Post, your essay “Freedom from Want” was published. By then your work had appeared in Poetry and The New Yorker, and your first book of poems was published the year before. The country was at war, and “Freedom from Want” was one of four essays that reflected on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s notion that there were four freedoms that people around the world deserved to enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. Delivered in 1941, Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” speech was ostensibly meant to convince Americans of the country’s need to take part in the war that was raging around the world. But instead of addressing the war occurring outside the country, your essay addresses the war that was taking place within. “If you want to know what we are, look upon the farms or upon the hard pavements of the city,” your essay begins. “You usually see us working or waiting for work, and you think you know us, but our outward guise is more deceptive than our history.” In its bold avowal of a “we” comprised of those whose freedoms were tenuous or wholly denied, it is a curious opening for an essay meant to contribute to national feeling. Also by this time, you had worked for many years as a labor activist, and the essay is a forceful protest of the violence that you experienced as a union organizer, and the violence brought upon all of the country’s underclass: “We are bleeding where clubs are smashing heads, where bayonets are gleaming. We are fighting where the bullet is crashing upon armorless citizens, where the tear gas is choking unprotected children. Under the lynch trees, amidst hysterical mobs. Where the prisoner is beaten to confess a crime he did not commit. Where the honest man is hanged because he told the truth.”

When I read “Freedom from Want” now, I’m sharply aware of the uncomfortable set of imperatives that the essay presents: the need to express outrage, and the determination to push forward, asserting one’s value and place in the larger polity. To the readers of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, whose idea of menace would have been associated with Germany and Japan, your essay must have been a startling if not ridiculous claim about the menace that was in the grain of American life itself. I’m especially moved by a passage late in the essay, when something like pride is tempered by something like pleading: “If you want to know what we are, look at the men reading books, searching in the dark pages of history for the lost word, the key to the mystery of the living peace. We are factory hands, field hands, mill hands, searching, building and moulding structures. We are doctors, scientists, chemists discovering and eliminating disease, hunger and antagonism. We are soldiers, Navy men, citizens, guarding the imperishable dreams of our fathers to live in freedom.”

A document of protest, “Freedom from Want” is also a document of yearning—a document whose voice, I sadly imagine, probably fell on mostly unsympathetic ears. Still, the appearance of the essay in the Post was the high-water mark in your visibility as a writer. Whether it was intended as irony by the editors or not, the illustration that accompanied your essay was Norman Rockwell’s now famous painting of a family gathered at a holiday table, with the family’s matriarch and patriarch standing at the head of the table, presenting the platter of turkey. It is, of course, a white family depicted in the painting—kindly, glowing, and wholesome. Itself a document of yearning, the painting depicts a scene that is achingly happy. The only shadow that informs the painting is time itself, as suggested by the various ages of the people around the dining table. The painting, too, is titled “Freedom from Want.”

More than seventy years after your essay and Rockwell’s painting, maybe Seafood City is a kind of fulfillment. The tableaus of community and family that you see at the supermarket on any given day are, to me, redolent of the sense of wellbeing depicted in the painting. To walk through Seafood City is to register how far we’ve come. Recently, while shopping in the market, I saw a man pushing a cart down one of the aisles. He had two young children with him; his wife was just behind them, browsing a shelf of goods. What drew my eye to them was the man’s t-shirt, a dark-blue shirt with the red, triangular Superman logo on the chest. But rather than the large S that would normally be within the logo, there was an RN instead. The joke represented by the t-shirt and its wearer seems both simple and complicated at the same time. Part of its wit has to do with the fact that the majority of nurses these days are women, and that for a man to claim nursing as a vocation is still a novel thing. But the greater part of the joke is perhaps one that only Filipinos will fully understand. If you go to a hospital in America today, you’re likely to encounter a number of Filipinos working there. It’s estimated that almost twenty percent of Filipino women in the American work-force work as registered nurses. For a Filipino to wear that RN/Superman t-shirt is, then, to be in on the joke that Filipinos are ubiquitous—perhaps, to some, too ubiquitous—in the profession. The t-shirt is also a statement of confidence, conflating ethnic pride with an exemplary cultural figure. As jokes go, the joke should be a pleasant one—one that is, after all, related to the vital economic status that most Filipinos have in the United States today. But for me the t-shirt is complicated in this way: telegraphing a claim for Filipino respectability, the t-shirt can’t help but conjure up the bigotry that gave rise to the assertion in the first place. I suppose one can read too much into a funny t-shirt, and yet I can’t help but see the ironies teeming in it. Like the juxtaposition of your essay with Rockwell’s painting in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post—one depiction of “Freedom from Want” placed beside a bitterly different notion of “Freedom from Want”—the t-shirt worn by the man in Seafood City is a tense representation of one of the many paradoxes in American life.

How far, exactly, have we come? By almost all measures, very far. In the course on Asian American Literature that I teach, the students and I trace the changes in self-representation among the writers we read. From Maxine Hong Kingston’s accounts of a Stockton childhood haunted by Chinese legends to Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s gritty portrayals of rural Hawaiian life, from Lawson Inada’s evocation of the Japanese internment camps during World War II to Timothy Liu’s candid reports on queerness, from Bharati Mukherjee’s stories of fierce immigrant resilience to Jason Koo’s riffs on masculinity—each of these writers, whether knowingly or not, presents an accounting of personhood for the Asian American self, a self that can be situated somewhere on a spectrum figured as alien on one end and assimilated on the other. Where a particular writer lands on that spectrum usually depends on the writer’s time period and the degree of enfranchisement that any Asian American would have enjoyed during that time. When we discuss each writer, the students and I also try to determine the intended reader for the piece of writing at hand. Where one writer’s poems will seem coded for a coterie audience, an audience composed of the writer’s own community, another writer’s memoir will seem to be at pains to appeal to a wide—that is, white—readership.

In my course, yours is the first book that we read. Published in 1946, America Is In the Heart is a book of great violence. One part of its violence are the instances of racism, degradation, and exploitation that run through the book like a bloody seam. If most autobiographies and memoirs ultimately tend towards being triumphalist narratives, America Is In the Heart is an adamantly dark account of what it means to be an alien in America, and to be reminded of that status at every turn. The physical violence repeatedly experienced by you and other Filipinos in the book is grotesque. For me, the sharper part of the book’s violence is in the servitude that conditions nearly every encounter you have with any authority figure—white or otherwise—in the book. The narrative told in America Is In the Heart tacitly rests on the premise that you and your kind are not human and are therefore subject to harm with impunity.

One of the many disturbing scenes in the book recounts your interaction with a man who confronts you about your book-reading. You are washing dishes in the back of a restaurant when the man appears and says sarcastically, “Mr. Opal tells me that you are reading books. Is it true?” In the exchange that follows, you are careful to present yourself articulately and with deference, but this only aggravates the man further, who shouts, “Watch your yellow tongue, googoo!” and throws the whisky bottle he is carrying at your head. He then comes at you with a cooking pan, which is when you grab a nearby knife. “Something snapped inside of me,” you write, “and my whole vision darkened. I lunged at the man with the knife in my hand, wanting to murder him.” The man manages to get away, Mr. Opal fires you, and the encounter ends with you shouting, “I’ll kill you, you white men!” Discussing this scene, my students and I are less interested in the melodrama of the encounter—after all, it’s just one of the numerous lurid moments in the book—but in the dignity that you try to bring to the exchange in the first place. One aim of America Is In the Heart is to make a case for you being human, and the restaurant scene is a kind of distillation of that case—and its sad, everyday failure.

If there is any hope in America Is In the Heart, maybe it’s in the fact that you found your way as a writer and that the book was written and published. Because it was published almost seventy years ago, the book often seems the fossil of a truly distant time. But there are many days, very many recent days, when I know that the book’s accounting is only one part of a gross, continuing history. What continues is the question that surrounds black bodies and brown bodies, black faces and brown faces, black lives and brown lives. What continues is the threat towards those lives. The struggle that you describe in America Is In the Heart continues: the struggle to be seen, and seen justly. To exist as someone whose presence is acknowledged, even welcomed, someone whose body is dignified by freedom and safety—this is the struggle that continues. And your book continues to be a chief narrative in that struggle.

I have never experienced the physical aggressions that you experienced—or that is experienced today, each day, by black and brown bodies. Instead, what I have known are the small, mild aggressions that add up to a kind of continuous, lowgrade fever in the self, an everyday adrenaline composed of rage and pride. Walking to work one morning, I am jarred by a car full of teenage boys. The boy in the front passenger seat rolls down his window and makes whooping monkey sounds at me as the car goes by. Or, there is the one time at the artists’ colony in the Italian countryside when another American writer—during a night of wine and chatter when we asked rapid-fire questions to get to know each other better—asked, in a series of questions to me, “Are you legal?” In the room were a MacArthur genius, artists who were known internationally, and other artists and writers of note. One part of me knew I had no business being in that most privileged and refined of places. Another part of me knew I had earned my place there. It took the other writer’s question to remind me of the gap between those two parts—the gap that I lived with each day. As for the teenager’s taunt from the passing car, it registered with me the way it must have registered with you in that restaurant kitchen, when the man said to you, “Watch your yellow tongue, googoo!”

To be a person of color in America is to exist in a place of constant deficit. If you are a person of color in America, you are less intelligent, less legal, less belonging, less visible, less articulate, less knowable, less worthy of being listened to—unless you prove otherwise. And it is very much up to you to prove otherwise. America Is In the Heart, and everything else that you wrote, is beautiful and wrenching because it is in service to righting the deficit I have described. And maybe, without quite knowing it until recently, every word I have ever produced as a writer is in service to that deficit, too. Like you, I was born in the Philippines. But unlike you, I immigrated to America with my family under comfortable circumstances. My parents had good jobs soon after we arrived, I studied hard and got what amounts to an elite education, and I became a writer without having to articulate to myself—as you must have done—that writing was a way of saving my own life. I wrote because I wanted to, and because I was encouraged to do so by those around me. Writing was a privilege, not a wound. The difference is important in this one way: while your writing strove to prove that you were someone who deserved a place in the world, I can, more or less, take my place for granted and write into, not away from, my flaws.

Still, it has taken my whole life as a poet to get to where I am, to be able to observe the difference between us and to honor it as a gift. I used to believe that to write poems meant, in a completely positive sense, constructing a better self—not a false self, exactly, but a self that aimed for a kind of transcendence, a self not mired in its pesky identities. I see now that this was an aim playing into the expectations I had absorbed in all that I had read and from everyone who taught me in my early years as a writer. That art was meant to be better than life—this was the operating idea in my young life as a writer. But what I want now is to make art that accounts for the fully complicated self—a self striated with contradiction, a self grained with ardor, a self busy with the work of making, justice, disruption, mutuality, and contemplation.

Why am I writing this letter to you now? For one thing, letters were important to you. Your first book of poems was titled Letter from America, and this letter is one response to that letter and the whole of your brilliant, broken work. I also write this letter to situate you in time, and to situate myself in time. I write it to account for what has changed and what hasn’t changed. And I write it to envision a longer trajectory of thought and effort for myself. In a larger sense, this letter is also a response to the dozens of Asian American writers, in the past and those who surround me now, whose work helps to define my own. The freedom that I have as a writer was created, is being created, by others—I know this. And it is that freedom, in the form of poems, stories, novels, memoirs, and essays, which must be sustained and increased, so that our literature is as complicated as each person who contributes to it, and as complicated as each person who reads it in grief, in argument, in puzzlement, in pride, in recognition.

You died in 1956 in Seattle. You were forty-two years old, your health corroded by years of crushing labor, violence, and tuberculosis, which finally killed you. And even though you had published books and had renown as a writer and labor activist, you died virtually homeless, reliant on the good will and care of others. For decades you and your books were forgotten, until the 1970s, when Filipino Americans took stock of who they were and brought your writings into a strong, new light. When you were buried, it was in an unmarked grave. It was only later that a group of benefactors contributed money for the gravestone that is now there.

When I went to your gravesite in Seattle, it was an overcast Saturday. It was September 12, the day after the anniversary of your death. There was bad traffic on I-5 and when I arrived at the cemetery it was nearly closing time. I didn’t know the location of your grave, so I went to the office by the front gate and asked where it was. The woman behind the counter looked like she was tidying up for the end of the day, but she agreed to walk me to the area, just nearby, where your grave was. The section we walked into was made up, disconcertingly, of very old and recent gravestones—a reminder that the cemetery wasn’t just a place of worn griefs but also new ones. The woman didn’t know the exact spot, but she knew you were there. We separated and walked among the grassy rows. At one point, the woman’s cell phone rang and I heard her say, “We’re looking for the famous writer.” It pleased me to hear what she said as I walked past the old stones and scanned their names, until I found yours.

 

In gratitude—Rick Barot

 

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