To follow up on yesterday’s post, one of many things I’ve been thinking about: what is criticism in community work, and what is straight up hateration. In other words, how do we not take the professional personal, and how to we not disguise the personal as professional. It’s so much easier when we are singing “Kumbayah” around the campfire, but this is also a delusion, that we exist in complete harmony as a community, that we are never challenged, taken to task, encouraged to reevaluate our work of writing, publishing, continuing to educate ourselves as writers, pushed out of our “safe” spaces.
Regarding “safe” spaces. This came up in my recent post, “MFA Industrial Complex” here, in which fellow Pinoy writer Jason Magabo Perez mentioned something Junot Diaz told his and his class at VONA. This is an excerpt from Jason’s comment: “I sat in a fiction workshop with Junot Diaz at VONA and he said that many people were overly concerned with feeling safe in an MFA program. He basically said: I immigrated here, that was unsafe. Noted. Audre Lorde says we were never meant to survive. I’ll add: not even through our literature. The best we can do, is survive, and write. Credentialed or not.” I completely agree with this statement, and wonder what the purpose of the “safe” space is if not to enable us to challenge ourselves in the process of our writing. This is where we learn to take risks, to rethink what we are doing with our work, and to push ourselves well beyond our current conventions and self-imposed limitations.
I bring this up now because of necessary criticism and critical discussion which occurs in community spaces. I remember well over a decade ago, I attended (as an audience member, not a speaker) a Filipino American Literature panel discussion at the Maude Fife Room at UC Berkeley. Much to my disappointment, most if not all of the panelists were men, speaking about the literature of other men. Even with someone like Jessica Hagedorn coming into major, mainstream attention, there was so little mention of any women literary figures in our community. During the Q&A portion of the panel discussion, I asked the panelists whether they could speak on this apparent canon of Filipino American literature being male dominated. One of the panelists bristled at me, pointedly denied the existence of such a thing, and berated me for even asking. No one really had my back, publicly at least, and it was pretty scary, having this apparent authority figure berate me in front of everyone. I left the Maude Fife Room feeling like some dumb girl child.
Fast forward to the present, in which I very recently saw this one bristling panelist at a couple of local Filipino American literary events. He saw me and bristled again, said flippant things, and avoided me for the rest of the events. A few things have happened, gender-wise since then in the Filipino American literary scene. There are a lot more women graduating with MFA’s, and/or finding substantial publication and critical acclaim, as well as leadership positions as educators and in community arts orgs. My self-satisfied self would say this dinosaur’s been left behind, reading the same poems he’s been reading since the 1990′s. My more gracious self would say that it was a matter of time before our literary community diversified, no longer fixated solely on the hetero male dominated Manong themed literature, and started to examine patriarchy, body politics, war, globalization through a feminist lens. Such visible Pinay authors as Ninotchka Rosca and Jessica Hagedorn, then Evelina Galang, Marianne Villanueva, and Eileen Tabios, made that possible for my generation.
I think about this elder male poet bristling at me over a decade after the fact. I think also about how pointed my question back then was. I think about how necessary it was to ask, not because I wanted to see these older men squirm, but because I believed it was a totally legitimate question that how many other young women who were also aspiring writers may have wanted to but were too intimidated to ask. So this older male poet will forever think that I am a bitch and treat me accordingly. I think this is personal.
Speaking of elder males in our literary community. Last year or so I spoke at an American Literature Association panel on marketing Asian American literature. In the audience was Shawn Wong, my co-reader for a literary reading later in the day. As I spoke on the tropes, and how we can easily exploit those as a strategy for finding our way out of slush piles and into literary success, how this was the lazy way about it, forgoing the substantial work of crafting, I did sense him bristling at me. I thought, oh God, this man is going to hate me. But later on that day, after our reading, and after the Q&A, during which I knew I had to work really hard, really do my best work, critical talk, and performance in order to gain his respect, he did indeed approach me to talk, to tell me that despite being depressed by what I’d said on the panel, he knew it was the truth, and that he appreciated or approved of my work. I would like to think I earned this.
I realize I am saying many things here. In some places, as above, I am the young blood, being challenged or challenging myself to speak on issues I believe are important to our Filipino American/APIA literary community. These days, I find myself in this mentor/leader position, believing that I’ve gotten to this place because I’ve been so challenged and pushed to write my best work possible by my many teachers and mentors both in the community and in grad school, who have simultaneously opened up all kinds of opportunities for me. When I first met Nick Carbó, for example, back in the mid-1990′s or so, I’d just submitted work to the Babaylan anthology. I was still figuring out whether I was a writer or not. He gave me and Michelle Bautista such an energetic, mentor type talking to, about the many ways to go about publishing, but always in concrete, proactive ways. Shortly after this, I received an email from him, telling me he’d read my submissions, which he appreciated, but that he wanted to see ten more poems from me. I panicked. Shit! I didn’t have ten more poems! I’d struggled for so many months to write those three or four poems that I’d submitted.
After this panic, I then thought, well, what’s wrong with the poems I sent? Why can’t those be good enough? Spoken word audiences loved my stuff. Why couldn’t he?
I’d like to tell you all that I rose to Nick’s challenge, that I worked my ass off to write those ten poems. I didn’t. Or I couldn’t. Or I believed I couldn’t. I thought I was through as a writer before I’d even begun. I’d kept thinking it was because I wasn’t a MFA’ed poet that my work wasn’t good enough for the anthology. And I hadn’t even finished college yet, so thinking about MFA programs was really quite premature. Anyway, I won’t rehash in sordid detail the rest of my history here, because I think as a general rule, you, dear readers, know what I’ve been up to for the last decade of schooling, writing, and publishing.
So as a mentor/leader, I strive to be firm, and to challenge, and even to push, while I try my best to open up all this opportunity for writers in my community to find publication, to read or speak on their work for the public. This is my verbose way of saying that I believe hardcore in my community work, and hold folks in my community to a high standard. I think I am fair. If folks are lashing out at me in passive aggressive emails and in nasty wordless ways in public artist spaces, I need to be better at dismissing these. To paraphrase Carmen Gimenez Smith’s comment to my previous post: other people in the community can step up too. One person, or a few people simply cannot do all the work that needs doing. If people do not know or realize this, then they have totally missed the point of community.