Author Interview: Kawika Guillermo
Updated: May 18
Kawika Guillermo is the author of Stamped: an anti-travel novel, All Flowers Bloom, and many short stories. Kawika Guillermo is the pseudonym for Christopher B. Patterson, an academic currently based in Vancouver BC. He’s authored the academic books Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature of the Transpacific and Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games. Chopsticks Alley sat down with Kawika to talk about his work and the publishing industry at large.
Tell us a little bit about yourself!
My friends call me Chris. I'm a scholar, a father, a constant traveler, a taro-and-potato mash of Filipino and white, and the grandson of two fervent Christian preachers. I write fiction under my matrilineal name, Kawika Guillermo. I'm currently in Vancouver, working at the University of British Columbia on the ancestral and unceded territories of the Musqueam peoples.
Your latest fiction book All Flowers Bloom is a love story that spans generations, timelines and has no fixed gender or race as your protagonist chases their lover through a thousand different lives they live across time. The historical writing of each time period is phenomenal. And I really enjoyed Stamped: an anti-travel novel not only for its non-glamorized traveller characters, but I really connected to Sky’s observations about being queer while on their journey. Can you speak to the themes of All Flowers Bloom and Stamped: an anti-travel novel?
I'll point to the ways All Flowers Bloom tries to express the ongoing legacies of colonial empire, and the ways that each of us has become (or could have been) involved in it. My first book, Stamped: an anti-travel novel follows young marginalized Americans travelling around Asia, who experience (and sometimes divulge) a kind of in-your-face racism that is deeply tied to American power then and now.
With All Flowers Bloom, I wanted to understand colonialism and power outside of our own contemporary moment, meaning times when race had completely different meanings (or wasn't even a known word). There is a life in All Flowers Bloom that takes place during the Balangiga Massacre in The Philippine-American War, told from the viewpoint of a soldier who feels down on his luck for various reasons. He falls in love, reflects on God, and gives a (figurative) middle-finger to his captain, all while killing and eventually being killed.
I think I wanted to capture how violence becomes normalized, how we become immune to its impact when we're not on the receiving end. Today, the U.S. drops 46 bombs per day on average on countries that have basically no power to do anything against it. What does that say about us, Southeast Asian Americans, who often come to the U.S. as colonial subjects (Filipinos), or as refugees? How are our lives caught between the death-grips of the normalized war machine and the spate of racist violence we face in North America?
What motivated you to put together and release Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games? I can say when I went to university, we only had a few books around academic video discourse, and recently I’ve noticed it really expanded over the past years.
We're at a moment where writers concerned with empire and history in Asia are getting more attuned to the ways that video games impact us as products that demand a lot of exploited labor and material gathering, as well as artistic forms that shape how we see the world. If we explore either of these threads we get pretty depressing outcomes, which is what much of Open World Empire is about. You're right that game studies is a fairly recent field, but as myself and others have been pointing out, game studies has often relied on denying its erasure of sexuality and its projections onto Asian countries and cultures, where most game genres and innovations come from. Simply put, the ability to play with (and sometimes demean) Asian cultures has been the social glue that has allowed game cultures (and game studies) to flourish, and it does have consequences for people of Asian descent who play or create games.
However, Open World Empire also explores how we can play games in more creative and politically-relevant ways. Did you know that the co-creator of Counter-Strike, for example, is Vietnamese Canadian? Or that some of the top level designers and leads for the first Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games were Asian American and Iranian? What would happen if we read these games as commentaries on US militarism rather than as simple endorsements of it? I feel that video games are going to impact the 21st century just as powerfully as film impacted the 20th century, and if we note that films have had a gargantuan impact--stunningly racist films like Death of a Nation were screened at the White House--then we need to understand games as having the same potential impacts.
We need to get ahead of it. We need to reach designers, game journalists, and game scholars, to expose the exploitative processes of game and computer manufacture, and to help audiences understand what we are doing when we play.
Can you talk about #ownvoices and inclusive literary movements like it?
Some authors take stories that express shared experiences of particular marginalized communities and then make them their own, and do this without being part of those worlds and so the outcome can be incredibly stupid (stereotyping, caricature). But they don't do this because they're narcissistic or opportunistic. Or, not just because they are these things. Because the structure of the literary industry has been encouraging them to do so, the audience has mostly had no issues with it. This is because, according to most any statistics we can gather, the vast, vast majority of people involved in literature in North America identify as white, more than almost any other cultural industry (yes, even more than video games). People continue to be surprised by this fact, though it's been thoroughly observed in the New York Times every year since at least 2015.
But I worry that with #ownvoices and similar movements, we are drawing lines in the sand and pretending they were always there in stone. We're becoming so invested in staying in our lanes that we haven't bothered to notice that the direction we're all driving in hasn't changed a bit. We're still heading towards national utopia: the house and picket fence, the city on the hill, the viral image of ourselves that lets "us be us." To be more specific--we are asking "marginalized people" to approach writing as a form of self-aggrandizement, and for "white people" to approach writing as self-flagellation. I'm not interested in narratives that only serve to remind us that we are victims and our friends, family members and neighbors are our perpetrators. I don't need to see an Asian or Filipino superhero if they're only going to do what every superhero does--protect the status quo from those seeking to change it. So I'm not on board with the idea that if we write about ourselves we'll be in a good space. What matters is how we write about ourselves, as well as how we write about others.
What’s next for you?
Well, to try and exercise some of the writing ethics of that last point, I should say that I am in the process of writing, what I'm calling, a "fake-punk self-hurt anti-memoir." But it does not focus on my own disadvantages, or how I came to be a writer/scholar out of very constrained circumstances. It is about my very complex relationship with my father, who was born and raised in Portland and believes himself to be white, and his marriage and divorce with my mother, who was born and raised in Hawaii and whose lineage comes from the Philippines. This was a chaotic period for my family, involving alcoholism, the death of my uncle from the HIV/AIDs epidemic, and the breaking away from a church that was our second home, with hate and pain from everyone and felt by everyone. But my aim is to dwell darkly in these family relations, not to cast blame or create sympathy. I want the reader to see themselves in me, and I want to see myself in my father, as well as in my mother. I want to understand how living within our imperial histories impacts all of us, and drives us to certain prejudices and hurtful habits.
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Nathalie De Los Santos
Chopsticks Alley Pinoy Contributor
Nathalie De Los Santos is digital designer and videographer based in Vancouver BC. She is the founder of PilipinxPages, a bookstagram of Filipino book recommendations. Her work appears in Marias at Sampaguitas, Ricepaper Magazine, Gastrofork, and The Vancouver Observer. She has read as an author at the LiterAsian Festival, BIPOC Writing Community Reading Party, Freedom (W)rites: 8 Filipino Authors, and Sampaguita Perspectives: A Celebration of Filipino-Canadian Writers. She writes SFF and has completed three novels.