In His Own Words: How family and identity shaped the Filipino American writer Carlos Bulosan
When it comes to representation, Carlos Bulosan’s work is cemented into American literature. Bulosan is known for creating Filipino American stories and poems that helped shape literature today. His most recognizable work is America Is In the Heart, a semi-autobiographical novel that follows Bulosan’s experience of immigrating to America and how it shaped a realistic view of being Filipino American. Born in 1911 — some sources say November 2nd, 1911 — in a rural village of Mangusmana (Pangasinan province, Luzon island) in the Philippines, Bulosan was raised by a farming family and spent most of his upbringings in the countryside. During his early years, Bulosan’s family faced poverty and financial struggles due to American colonization and were exploited by wealthy and political elites. In 1930, Bulosan immigrated to America when he was 17 years old for financial stability and to build a better life for himself. He took on various low-paying jobs including service work in hotels, manual labor in fields, and factory work in Alaskan canneries. He experienced unfair labour conditions and racism, which led him to advocate for the labour rights and Filipino American culture for two decades until his unfortunate death in 1956.
While researching Bulosan, I learned how Bulosan’s family greatly influenced his writing. In fact, there were poems by Bulosan that mentioned his brothers and on how their arrival in the United States changed him published in both Poetry Foundation’s April 1942 issue and his collection of all his writings in On Being Filipino: Selected Works by Carlos Bulosan with the titles “Sunset And Evening Star” and “Letter In Exile.” Another work that caught my eye was his collection of stories, The Laughter Of My Father. One of Chopsticks Alley Pinoy’s former co-editors, Rachel Egoian, who reviewed Bulosan’s America Is In the Heart, recommended that I read that collection of stories. In The Laughter Of Father, Bulosan reflects on stories about his family and particularly, about his father while he lived in the Philippines. Reading these texts by Bulosan, I came to understand how Bulosan tied his Filipino American identity to his upbringings and family. One story in Laughter Of My Father that stood out to me while I learned more about Bulosan depicts the time when his father went to court. In this article, we will explore Bulosan’s writing and his family takes center stage in his poems and the short story “My Father Goes to Court.”
In order to know how Bulosan’s family influenced his work, I begin with “My Father Goes to Court.” In this story, Bulosan recalled a time when a rich man accused his father of stealing his food. He opens the story in 1918 after his father lost his farm to the flood and had the entire family moved to a small town on the island of Luzon. At the time, they lived next door to a rich family. While the town’s children, including Bulosan, “played and sang in the sun,” the rich man’s kids stayed indoors with the windows closed. Bulosan often smelled the aroma of fried food cooking at the rich man’s house while he and his family stood outside of the rich man’s tall house as they “listened to the musical sizzling of thick strips of bacon or ham.”
Although the rich man looked down at Bulosan and his family metaphorically and literally through the window of his house, Bulosan remembered how his own father was a laughing man. His family has always enjoyed a good laugh together. There is a moment in the story when his brother pretends to bring home a bundle of goods, but upon throwing the bundle onto his mother’s lap, a black cat leaped out of it. Another memory Bulosan recalls was when his sister pretended that she was pregnant until she opened her blouse and a bullfrog leaped out. Though the prank made their mother faint, their father couldn’t stop laughing for hours until everyone couldn’t sleep and instead joined in, dancing and laughing through the night. He reflected that at the time they were always in “the best of spirits” as their laughter was contagious to the point that his neighbors would sometimes pass by and join in the laughing. Their laughter was his family’s only wealth. However, the rich man filed a complaint that Bulosan’s father stole “the spirit of his wealth and food.”
When Bulosan’s father arrived at court in his old army uniform, the judge asked him if he had a lawyer to which Bulosan’s father denied and proceeded to defend himself. The rich man, who in the story was frail and older, looked on as his lawyer asked Bulosan’s father a series of questions to determine whether the Bulosan family stole the rich man's wealth and food. After the lawyer finished his questions, Bulosan’s father stood up to reach for Bulosan’s straw hat and filled it with coins, while he defended himself and his family from the accusations. The story ends with the judge dismissing the case while Bulosan and his father laugh together once more.
“My Father Goes to Court” points to the economic divide between the rich and poor. The rich man in the story grew envious of Bulosan and his family’s ability to procure a healthy life despite struggling in poverty by enjoying spending time under the sun sharing laughter. The story also serves as the beginning parable on how Bulosan learned to stand up for what he believed in, in the same way his father defended himself in court. Bulosan as an adult would use his voice to advocate for labor rights and bring Filipino American visibility through his writings.
When he does not directly mention growing up with his brothers and sisters, various history sites often provide information about his early years. Instead, Bulosan has written poems directly addressed to his brothers such as “Letter In Exile” and “Sunset And Evening Star.”
Both poems were written to his brothers and expressing Bulosan’s opinion on living in America. For example, in “Letter In Exile” Bulosan reflects on his time in the United States while reminiscing about memories that include his brothers, both of which already left the family home before Bulosan immigrated to America:
Recalling all these before the hour of noon,
I thought of you, brother, and wished you
Could watch with me the splendid glide
Of limousines in this street and in that other,
The endless parade of hungry men and women
Who approached my window at dawn to remind
Me once more of the coughing orbit of life
In this wide land, their loved country.
Bulosan briefly recalls life on the islands and speaking with the “simplest joy” and without thought of the heavy realities while growing up,
But we grew into manhood with the music of trees
In our hearts that would break, breaking
At last to the barrenness of hard city streets.
He dives deeper into this moment, in what becomes almost like a confession to his brothers about his impression of adulthood,
All of it was anxiety. All the years that passed
For me. And I am still facing a greater anxiety:
The promised happiness that would never come to me.
Ten years for me and twelve for you, and that other,
The other younger brother who could not find himself,
Fifteen years—and he was only a child when he came.
But we are still here burning with a thousand fevers,
Though now more discerning, the enemy close at hand.
hroughout “Letter In Exile,” it is clear that Bulosan held his family as close to him as he held his identity as a Filipino American. “Letter In Exile” displays a Bulosan confronted by the realities of growing older while living in a country like America where he has to fight for better labour conditions and safe spaces for Filipino Americans. Bulosan closes the piece,
All will move forward on
The dangerous course of history that never stops
To rectify our tragic misgivings and shame.
Bulosan again connects with his family and identity in the poem “Sunset And Evening Star.” Like “Letter In Exile,” “Sunset And Evening Star” focuses on Bulosan’s view of America while describing how his brothers were affected by being mistreated outside of their home in the Philippines. He opens this poem in discussion with his brother who fell ill during winter. The two of them move on to discuss their other brother, who passed, although his death wasn’t caused by an illness,
He spoke of our other brother, the one who died
Hating greed and money; the native village
And the immigrants who went to settle there.
The poem can almost be read as a continuation of “Letter In Exile” as it focuses on Bulosan’s thoughts on how he was treated in America. He connects watching his brother die and holds him as an example of a lost future, one for his brother himself and also for his family. Bulosan says in the poem, “Sometimes a bold image Evoked complete surrender.”
This line ties his adulthood to his brother’s: existing and living in one’s identity can be a sign of giving up a possible change in the world. It provides a perspective of the reality of existing in a country like America with its long history of racism and mistreatment of immigrants, especially Filipino Americans. The poem’s last six stanzas captures Bulosan’s heartbreaking but realistic view as he stays by his brother’s side,
While my brother dreamed, memory of pain
Explored the aching stream of our relationship;
Our dispassionate arguments, our hurlings at times,
And, because we felt our imprisonment, our hates and fears…
So I waited and watched the cold sunset and evening star
Embrace in light and darkness the heart of America.
While in “Letter In Exile” touches on the realities of Bulosan’s experience in America, “Sunset And Evening Star” expresses how his and his brothers’ experiences were similar, especially the hate and fear received from the country they immigrated to where they hoped to create a better and financially stable future. What makes this poem more heartbreaking is Bulosan’s way of tying his own experience of living in America with his brothers’ as he hints that they went through a similar experience. “Sunset And Evening Star” provides an emotional yet honest view of trying to exist in a land where you are discriminated against based on your race.
Although there weren’t many historical texts about Bulosan’s early days and his family, his writings provide a look into his family life and his relationships, specifically with his father and brothers. “My Father Goes to Court” in Laughter Of My Father touches on economic power and the lesson of standing up for oneself. Poems such as “Letter In Exile” and “Sunset And Evening Star” reflect on Bulosan’s time in America in which he expressed his most vulnerable fears and hopes to his brothers. Reading this short story and the poems, I came away with a better understanding of how much family meant to Bulosan. Bulosan’s strong imagery and vulnerability in his writing showed how family shaped his identity for future generations.
If you want to read his work for yourself, you can find a copy of Bulosan’s collection of short stories The Laughter of My Father and On Being Filipino at a local bookstore near you!
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Asela L. Kemper - Oregon
Co-Editor Chopsticks Alley Pinoy
Asela holds a BFA in Creative Writing with a minor in Emerging Media & Digital Arts from Southern Oregon University. She holds many positions including poetry reader for Timberline Review (also as a copyeditor for poetry), Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and Marías at Sampaguitas, contributor for Royal Rose Magazine, and poetry editor for Ayaskala. She has also previously published in SOU Student Press, Flawless Mag: The Border Issue, Silk Club: QUIET, Reclamation Mag, and No Tender Fences. Asela uses her passion for creative writing to open conversations on diversity and identity in literature. As an Asian American, she uses her platform to engage and uplift underrepresented Asian American artists. She resides in Oregon, USA with her family.