Luis H. Francia and Eric Gamalinda talk about the making of AAWW’s Filipino American literary anthology
December 13, 2021
Editor’s Note: As the Asian American Writers’ Workshop celebrates its 30th anniversary, we invited current and former editors, writers, community members, and workers to make new meaning from the Workshop’s archive. Together, they have awakened AAWW’s print anthologies and journals, returned to the physical spaces of the Workshop starting from our basement location on St. Mark’s, and given shape to the stories from within AAWW that circulate like rumors, drawing writers back again and again. In revisiting the Workshop’s history, we hope for insight into the ever-changing landscape of Asian diasporic literature and politics and inspiration to guide us forward in our next 30 years. Read more in our AAWW at 30 notebook here.
I was 12 going on 13 when my family immigrated to New York from the Philippines in 1992. I remember whiling away the hours at the public library, seeking out stories about immigrant girls like me. The librarian obliged me with books by Edwidge Danticat, Sandra Cisneros, and Maxine Hong Kingston. They weren’t my immigrant story but were vital then as my only guides.
A few years later, my father and I stumbled upon the Asian American Writers’ Workshop on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. There, I found my home as a reader, discovering books by Filipino American writers like Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters (1990) and R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the Rs (1995).
The Workshop also published the anthology Flippin’: Filipinos on America (1996), edited by Luis H. Francia—poet, playwright, nonfiction writer, filmmaker, and adjunct professor at New York University—and Eric Gamalinda—poet, novelist, playwright, nonfiction writer, filmmaker, and adjunct professor at Columbia University—who was then the publications director of the AAWW.
Flippin’ was the second anthology published by AAWW’s historical Small Press Division and among only a handful of anthologies published in that decade that celebrated the prolific cultural output of Filipino and Filipino American writers. It wasn’t about “arriving” on the scene but rather reasserting a literary lineage dating back to the turn of the 19th century of Filipinos writing on America. Or as Francia puts it, “that Rushdiean empire writing back … taking ‘flip,’ the slang, derogatory term for us who would insist on the primacy of our selves, and yes, flippin’ it.”
On the occasion of the AAWW’s 30th anniversary, and Flippin’s 25, I spoke with Francia and Gamalinda over email about their memories of that first decade of AAWW, how Flippin’ came to be, Filipino and Filipino American literature then and now, and their thoughts about its future.
□ □ □ □ □
The Asian American Writers’ Workshop has grown and changed over 30 years, from its location to the personalities involved. What are some of your salient memories of the Workshop?
I was part of the Workshop back when our office was in a basement on St. Mark’s Place. I remember the street well for its rather seedy character back then, the block teeming with drug peddlers, tattoo artists, and sex workers, and right there at the corner with an almost invisible sign was this place, buzzing with activity and artistic energy. I think a news article called it one of the coolest places in New York City. We had a fold-out futon that I slept on many nights because our work ended late if we had events, and I had to be in meetings early the next morning. All the staff back then were unforgettable characters to me, and I am still in touch with many of them.
Luis H. Francia
I loved the Workshop space on St. Mark’s. It was a neighborhood I was familiar with, as I had lived there, between First and A, before moving to Soho. From Soho I could just walk to St. Mark’s and hang out. You went down a flight of stairs from ground level, and, as Eric points out, there was the Workshop full of like-minded people. It had a bookstore that actually sold books! And whenever there were readings, one could hear the footsteps of the customers above, shopping in what I think was a Gap store.
The Workshop also had cubicles it sublet to help pay the rent. Nearby was the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church on 10th Street, and there were still a couple of cinemas in the hood, and Gem Spa on the corner, famous for its egg cream, now sadly gone. As is the East Village that nurtured so many of us, with its cheap rents, eateries, and above all, a lively arts scene.
Can you tell us more about the genesis of Flippin’, particularly in the context of the literary landscape at that time? What do you think the anthology’s impact was then and now?
Americans still know very little about the Philippines, their former colony, and back in the 1990s, we were largely invisible and underrepresented and misunderstood. It’s gotten a little better now, but I think we’re still a community that is misinterpreted or that mystifies a number of people. And I think many people still don’t know about the Philippine-American War, which redefined the destinies of both the Philippines and the United States.
When (then Executive Director) Curtis Chin launched the Workshop’s Publications Department, we decided we wanted to publish anthologies focusing on underrepresented communities within the Asian American community, and I was happy to work on an anthology of Fil-Am writers. In the Philippines, Luis and I were part of the Philippine Literary Arts Council, which published a quarterly poetry journal called Caracoa. One of the issues was devoted to Filipinos writing about America. I thought it would be interesting to extend that and see what Fil-Ams thought about America. The anthology aimed to seek and publish promising writers along with more established ones. I’m glad we were able to publish authors who have since made their mark in the literary world. I do hope it has served to shed a light on our native and diasporic culture.
In 1993, an anthology of Philippine literature in English I had edited for Rutgers University Press came out, Brown River, White Ocean: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Philippine Literature in English. The writers included all had to have been born in the Republic of the Philippines, though a number of them subsequently moved to these shores and furthered their careers here. I believed the anthology would introduce readers here to writers from there.
So, when Eric proposed this anthology, it made total sense. That would be the theme: the empire writing back (I think Nick Carbo edited an anthology with that title). The process would be a literary manifestation of Langston Hughes’s double consciousness, and part of that was to take the word Flippin’ and claim it for ourselves, investing it with a power not intended by those who used it to denigrate us.
I’d like to add something about how we fundraised for the anthology. We held an event at the restaurant Cendrillon, the forerunner of Purple Yam in Brooklyn, owned and run by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan. Cendrillon was in Soho at that time, this was 1996—it was new, and a whole lot of folks showed up to support the intended publication. A wonderful, fun event. At that time, we had someone working with Eric and me, like an intern, who was also working for the fashion designer Josie Natori. So, we asked this person, whose name I forget, to approach Natori for some funding. She did. And guess what we got? I’m sure Eric remembers this as well. Lingerie! And oversized lingerie at that, meaning it probably couldn’t be sold. What were we to do with the lingerie? It was hilarious and maddening. I guess we weren’t sosyal enough for the Natori crowd.
Fundraising really brought the community out, with so many people, young and old, donating services or cash. Friends introduced us to friends, writers to other writers, and I felt really blessed to expand my own “circle,” having just immigrated to New York a couple of years earlier. And yes, I will never forget Natori’s donation. We thought of selling the lingerie at the bookshop but decided to let the women on the staff have them. They were so thrilled, and I was happy to see them rummaging through the boxes and getting all excited when they found something of their size. It was a small way we could repay them for their hard work. Too bad we didn’t get underwear for the guys, though.
The image used on the cover is of a painting, Manong, by Venancio C. “V.C.” Igarta, who also painted portraits of some of the writers in the anthology, including Ninotchka Rosca and Eileen Tabios. Who was V.C. Igarta, and why did you choose Manong for the book cover?
V.C. Igarta, bless his grumpy soul (though he was really a sweetheart) was a GI, Genuine Ilocano, a true-blue manong—hence, the title of the painting for our cover—who escaped the punishing fields of the West Coast and traveled to New York where he found he could paint, and so became a painter. He had a flat in Chinatown, supported himself by being a color specialist for mixing paints, and played the stock market—and apparently, he was successful. By the time I and some other friends met him, he lived off the stock profits and, I guess, social security. By the way, he did a portrait of me, but alas this was destroyed in a fire that wrecked my West Broadway rent-controlled flat in the late ’90s. Sayang!
Luis introduced me to the work of Igarta, and I loved the painting the moment I saw it and decided we simply had to have it on the cover.
While featuring mostly contemporary Filipino authors in the United States, the anthology represents multiple generations of the literary diaspora. Why was it important for you to include mid-20th century writers such as Carlos Bulosan, NVM Gonzales, and Bienvenido Santos as well?
It was important to let readers know that we didn’t just come out of the blue, there is a historic lineage that we follow, and there were trailblazers who made their mark decades ago. Looking back, I wish we had access to the works of even more Filipino immigrant authors from the early 20th century—there are many who are sorely missing in this anthology, like Stevan Javellana and Wilfrido Nolledo.
The writers you mentioned of course had to be in Flippin’. A great deal of their writing is all about their response, their interactions with America. They were our literary manong. And writing about their compatriots, the working-class or of peasant stock manong. And Bulosan was a peasant lad from Binalonan in Pangasinan province, whereas NVM (Gonzales) and Bien (Bienvenido Santos) were college graduates and scholars as well.
Flippin’ in a sense was a response, for me at any rate, to Aiiieeee, the Asian American anthology put out in the 1970s, in which the Fil-Am section was the sparest. That also speaks—though today, to a lesser extent—to the view held by so many Asian Americans that Fil-Ams are kind of suspect as Asian Americans. Probably due to a large extent of the dominant image then of East Asians representing Asian America.
Can you speak more about curation and the challenge of representing what Filipino and Filipino American writing is? For instance, Jose Garcia Villa, whom Luis studied with, is missing from the anthology, and Edith Tiempo,who studied at Iowa and whom contemporary scholars like Conchitina Cruz criticize as propagating “colonialist and classist ideas about language and literary production,” is included. Then, there’s the matter of F. Sionil Jose … Would you make the same curatorial decisions if Flippin’ were published in 2021 rather than in 1996?
I may or may not have approached Villa, and if I did, he probably would have asked for a fee, and we weren’t paying anyone except in copies. I know for Brown River, White Ocean, Rutgers did pay him a fee, but of course Rutgers is a university with money. Besides, Villa’s poetry gave the reader no idea of the writer’s situation in and response to America, except perhaps in the most oblique way.
I don’t know why Flippin’ wouldn’t include Edith Tiempo, as the question seems to imply. So what if she studied at Iowa, and, with her husband, Edilberto, began the program at Silliman University? Quite a number of writers back home studied at Iowa, including Pete Lacaba, who is as anti-imperialist as you can get.
As for Sionil Jose, Eric and I thought it was a good story, and so we included it. Anyway, at that time he wasn’t the obnoxious, bitter, anti-Chinese, wannabe Nobelist that he became.
Villa was a difficult one. He himself refused the ethnic-identity discourse and refused to write about the immigrant/exile experience. But an entire anthology of his works was later published, edited by Workshop alumna Eileen Tabios. Obviously, curating a similar anthology today would be much different.
Today, many Fil-Am and Filipino writers have had more success than in that dark, distant past. An anthology alone of excerpts of published works would fill an entire volume, and it would include authors who have been recognized with major awards. But personally, I would also seek out emerging and under-the-radar writers, which was the main intent of Flippin’ in the first place.
In addition to Eileen’s anthology of Villa’s work, in 2008, Penguin Classics issued Doveglion: Collected Poems, compiled by his literary executor, the late John Cowen, and to which I wrote the introduction. In this regard, I’d like to give a shoutout to Elda Rotor, editor of Penguin Classics. She’s responsible not only for the Villa collection, but for the reissuance of the two Jose Rizal novels, an anthology of Nick Joaquin’s writings, and a new edition of Carlos Bulosan’s canonical work, America Is in the Heart. Elda has used her position judiciously and illustrates the absolute need of having editors of color bring into the mainstream writers of color and thus render the domain, the kingdom, of American literature more than just a bastion of white writers. Of course, much, much more needs to be done. Brown Writers Matter!
A number of writers in the anthology recently have or are coming out with new books, including Gina Apostol, Luisa A. Igloria, Zack Linmark, Bino Realuyo, Lara Stapleton, and Eileen Tabios. At the same time, there’s an exciting new generation of writers across genres, from poetry to memoir and nonfiction to fiction, including children’s and young adult literature, representing the diversity of experiences of Filipinos in America. Where do you think Filipino and Filipino American writing is headed and what most excites you about it?
The most important thing is to create what I call critical mass, a number of authors large enough for the mainstream public and the industry to finally recognize that there is such a thing as Filipino and Fil-Am literature; and there is such a country as the Philippines, and it’s not what Americans have presumed before but is a complex, evolving, multilayered culture. The more writers are published, the louder our voice in the public sphere, where we still tend to be erased. In the discourse of Asian American literature, for instance, we hardly ever get any space.
How we wound up in America is still a puzzle to Americans, even if now and then a book like Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire comes out to explain it to them. And our collective is still not fully explored. I hope that, someday, someone will write about the Filipina nanny experience, because that community is still looked down upon but is part of our evolving identity, along with the economic and political forces that have created that unfortunate phenomenon.
In the New York Times Book Review section today (November 24), there is a favorable review of Patrick Rosal’s new volume of poems, The Last Thing: New and Selected Poems—a whole page!—which is great, and last week or perhaps the week before, a review, again in the NYT, of a memoir, Concepcion: An Immigrant Family’s Fortunes, by Albert Samaha, a Fil-Am writer who grew up in California. The reviewer was quite knowledgeable about the Philippines having been a U.S. colony. He’s the exception that proves the rule, for how many in this vast nation are aware of this imperialist history?
As Eric points out, we are still a puzzle to so many Americans. There is Immerwahr’s book, and there is also Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream 1899-1999 (NYU Press), that Angel Velasco Shaw and I edited and that came out in 2002. Eric has a wonderful essay in it, with the cheeky title of “English Is Your Mother Tongue /Ang Ingles Ay Tongue ng Ina Mo.”
Where is Filipino and Filipino American writing headed? I hope in as many and diverse directions, themes, subject matter, etc. as possible, not to be constrained by what is currently in vogue, whether in academe or the rarefied world of the literary gatekeepers. And it’s encouraging to see more attention in Manila being paid to writing in the other languages we have in the archipelago.
What advice would you give to aspiring or emerging Filipino American writers?
When I first came to America, a number of people advised me to stop sounding “foreign” or “too Filipino” and to learn to write “like an American.” I realized quickly enough that wasn’t what I wanted to do, and if I did, it would kill all the joy in writing. So, my advice, to them and to myself, is: Tell your story in your own voice, on your own terms.
Write like hell, don’t be too burdened by identity. Steal as much as you can and make it your own.