From my experience in both high school and college, the literary material offered by almost all my English literature classes was curated from works written by poets and authors from the Western world and white backgrounds. There remains an assumption that Western art in general is inherently more “educated” and “intelligent”, but that is evolving towards a more inclusive collection of work from writers of color.
We seek a reflection of ourselves in fiction, and I was dreading my inevitable search for reading material. In all the classes I've taken, there was so little work discussed outside of the white, Western, and male spheres; that any writer who deviated from this "norm" granted me reprieve for that section of the course. That is why it was to my surprise and delight I was able to find a handful of Filipino American poets and authors. Including work from writers from all ethnic backgrounds, it grants us a myriad of new perspectives. The Filipino poets, Oliver de la Paz and Patrick Rosal, prove with their collections, Requiem for the Orchard and My American Kundiman respectively, that despite our differing origins, the human experience is universal.
De la Paz was born in the capital of the Philippines, Manila, and immigrated to Ontario, Oregon. He authored four collections: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, Requiem for the Orchard, and Post Subject: A Fable. His collection of poetry, Requiem for the Orchard, is the winner of the Akron Prize for poetry.
The collection from Requiem for the Orchard is divided into two parts with twenty-five poems in the first half and twenty-eight poems comprising the second half. These poems string together a vivid, wholesome coming-of-age tale, which has a genuine feel of what “home” is to the speaker. Before part one, it opens with an introduction of de la Paz’s hometown, “In Defense of Small Towns”. It is as though the speaker is singing of his hometown with a wistful tone. He preempts with the facade of his feelings, stating, “I hated life there.” He describes his home with solid imagery. It opens with September, often symbolizing the start of the year, in the sense that it is a new school year, a fresh start. His September was “once filled with animal deaths and toughened hay,” alluding to a simple, country life away from the city. He continues adding life to the description of his home with its “smells / of fall were boiled-down beets and potatoes / or the farmhands’ breeches smeared with oil and diesel / as they rode into town, dusty and pissed.” After couplets pass painting a visual of his home, he slips, “I shook loose, but that isn’t the whole story. The fact is / I’m still in love.”
This contrasts with Patrick Rosal’s work, My American Kundiman, as he is ethnically Filipino, but was born and raised in New York. He was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in New Jersey. He authored four books of poetry: Boneshepherds, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive, Brooklyn Antediluvian, and My American Kundiman.
He opens My American Kundiman with the title’s definition and its significance to the Filipino people. It is a traditional song of unrequited love coming from the phrase, “kung hindi man,” meaning “if you will not.” Its form transitioned from addressing women to the Spanish occupied Philippines during a time when love for the motherland and its culture was condemned. There is also a version of the kundiman used during the American occupation. It was a secret political protest, coded so the conquistadors would not interpret it. Rosal defines his work explicitly; he states, “the poems that follow...are love songs for America.” He brings this to the reader’s immediate attention because paralleling that of its origins, this compilation is a “kundiman” for America: the country that he loves but does not reciprocate this love.
The work itself is divided into three parts, with each part ranging from nine to sixteen poems. It is as though we follow Rosal on his life’s journey: we meet his friend trying to learn guitar, we fear Tito, or Uncle June with “the .22 off his hip”, and we observe his encounters with women and love. He takes inspiration from the art in his environment, often referencing 80’s hip-hop and b-boy culture and poets such as Allen Ginsberg, who also hails from New Jersey.
Both perspectives Rosal and de la Paz provide allows us to experience an upbringing with which many Filipino and Filipino Americans can relate. De La Paz’s speaker describes his hometown with dripping nostalgia and bittersweet longing, while Rosal explains the unrequited love he has for the country that does not accept him as one of their own. If we can include work from all writers and artists of differing ethnic backgrounds, we can create a more holistic curriculum that inspires compassion and understanding with its diversity.
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Keana A. Labra - Milpitas, CA Contributor
Utilizing her background in English Literature, Keana would like to learn more about Filipino literature and history to bring an understanding and awareness to the culture. As a Filipino American, she is interested in further researching the impact of the feminist movement and how it affects Filipino tradition. She would also like to uplift the Filipino Americans who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community. She hopes to encourage fellow Filipino Americans to participate and immerse themselves in the Filipino culture. Her hobbies include watching anime and reading manga.