Celebrating the Evolution of Filipino-American Literature

On May 8th, I presented a session at Las Positas College’s debut Literary Arts Festival. You can listen to my session, Evolution of Filipino-American Literature, here. The first few minutes weren’t recorded, so I’m including the introduction here. Although May is coming to a close, at the time we were welcoming the month. Here we go!

Happy Asian American/Pacific Islanders Heritage Month! Before I begin my presentation, I want to disclose that I’m not a professor or a historian. I’m a Filipino-American writer and I want to share my knowledge and excitement and gratitude for the growing publication of more and more Filipino-American writers.

I’m handing out a list of Filipino-American writers that I put together with the help of a couple of Fil-Am writers. I started out with four pages and then shared my list. Grace Talusan, whose memoir The Body Papers received critical acclaim, challenged me to define literature (what does it include and not include), define Filipino-American, and be comprehensive with my list. I was overwhelmed by the links she provided, but I was also up to the challenge. Thus far, the list is 40-some pages long. It’s not complete and I’m continuing to update it, but it is comprehensive. Note the dates of publications – many of these books were released after 2010 or even 2015. And there are a lot of books published in the last two years. That’s what gets me excited and the evolution of Fil-Am literature.

Outside of the handout, consider this presentation as a sampler of Fil-Am literature. When I was putting this presentation together, I worried that I was trying to do too much. I am, but let’s see how much we can get through today.

Definition of the Filipino-American writer
I define the Fil-Am writer as a U.S.-born American of Filipino ancestry or a Filipino who claims the United States as his or her or their home, be it a temporary or permanent one. My list encompasses more than just fiction writers and poets. I also included journalists, playwrights, screenwriters, nonfiction writers, graphic/comics authors, and cookbook authors.

Here are some examples of Fil-Am writers: Aimee Nezhukumatathil, whose mother is Filipina and whose father is South Indian, was born in Chicago. Mia Alvar was born in Manila, moved to Bahrain at age six, then moved to New York four years later. Gina Apostol was born in Manila, went to the University of the Philippines for her undergrad degree and then her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University. She’s a two-time recipient of the Philippine National Book Award for her first novel, Bibliolepsy, and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata. Her American debut, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, won the 2013 PEN/Open Book Award. She now resides in New York, and her novels that were originally published in the Philippines are one by one being published by U.S. publishers. And then finally, Bienvenido N. Santos was born in the Philippines and published a total of 25 books – novels, short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. Only one book was published in the U.S. – Scent of Apples, a collection of stories written between the 1940s and 1970s, which received the American Book Award in 1980. Although some would argue that he is not Filipino-American, he traveled back and forth between the two countries, coming first to the U.S. in 1941 as a government pensionado (scholar on study) and then back in 1958 to attend the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop.

Facts about Filipino-Americans
Now a few facts about Filipino Americans. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Fil-Ams are the second largest Asian-American group in the U.S. and the largest Asian-American group in California.

Filipinos who immigrated to the U.S. had a different history and relationship with the U.S. than immigrants from other Asian Pacific Island countries. The Philippines was a U.S. colony and Filipinos were considered U.S. nationals; they didn’t need a passport, and they could travel freely between the two countries. So it was quite a different beginning for Filipino immigrants hundreds of years ago than it was for other Asian immigrants such as the Chinese and the Japanese immigrants.

Before I discuss Fil-Am literature, we need to start with a brief history of the Philippines and then a brief history of Filipinos in the United States. These histories will provide context to the themes that arise out of much Fil-Am literature.

A brief history of the Philippines, Part 1
During his Spanish expedition to circumnavigate the world, Ferdinand Magellan landed in the Philippines in 1521. He later died at the hands of Lapu Lapu on the island of Cebu. Forty-four years later, the Spaniards successfully annexed and colonized the islands during the reign of Philip II of Spain – which is how the Philippines got its name. The history of the Philippines from 1565 to 1898 is also known as the Spanish Philippines or the Spanish colonial period.

Spain essentially opened up the Philippines to world trade. The Philippines was a source of raw materials and a market for manufactured goods. The industrialization that was happening in Europe also spread to the Philippines. And this is where the recorded presentation picks up. Enjoy!

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