Interview With E. San Juan (Circa 1994)

By Joon Park

1) How do we go about classifying Asian American literature. Are there issues or themes that the literature must focus upon. For example, Ishiguro (a Japanese native) wrote “Remains of the Day.” Should that be classified as Japanese-English literature?

For all “minority” writers, language is a political question. While the linguistic base for Asian American writers remains American English, the literary mode is constantly being modified. Ishiguro’s work is, in my view, legitimately part of literature written in an “english” that is undergoing global changes. It’s part of diasporic literature written in English by a writer of Japanese ancestry domiciled in U.K., dealing with experiences in the U.K. Salman Rushdie’s work, although it focuses on the histories of India or Pakistan, is also part of this diasporic literature. I don’t think he would classify his works as belonging to Indian literature, or even the hyphenated Indian-English literature. Neither subject-matter nor medium alone can dictate the criteria for classification.

2) What type of things do you discern when you merit “good” Asian American literature? (Perhaps I’m making too many structuralist assumptions here.)

“Good” is a term that postmodernists (and I am not one) have prohibited as not “politically correct.” However, I think writing that reflects–of course in highly mediated ways–the histories of various Asian communities, their complex interaction with the dominant society, their individual predicaments and prospects, would be useful for students who need to understand where they’re coming from, what kind of alliances they need, etc.

This is the narrow pedagogical function: the question of identity, often limited to “identity politics.” Bluntly put, I think Asian American writing needs to contribute to the radical transformation of consciousness in a racist-patriarchal system. There’s no particular subject, theme, or style that can be privileged for this purpose because the situations of readers and writers are contingent and infinitely diverse. What’s important is to historicize both the reading and writing situation.

3) What types of approaches should a reader take when reading Asian American literature, if there is one. For example, Asian American literature often focuses on the issue of ethnic identity, and the internal contestation of the author usually becomes apparent. Should we pay closer attention to authorial intention?

I would propose a historical-materialist approach,… In other words, the parameters of the act of communication should be taken into account: author, reader, circumstance,…subtending forces, etc. Authorial intention is only one of the aspects that can serve as a stimulating point of departure, although (as D.H. Lawrence warned us), trust the tale, not the teller.

The reason why the question of ethnic identity comes up (with Kingston, Okada, Mori, Bulosan, etc.) in non-white writing is, I think, a function of the exclusion, marginalization, segregation and segmentation of these non-white communities enforced by the racializing state and its cultural apparatuses. [Of course, today, with the emergence of white studies, Norman Mailer can claim to be an ethnic writer, and the entire hegemonic corpus of American literature can be presented as multicultural and ethnically diverse. But then one begins to be suspicious of this liberal notion of multiculturalism, (which is the subject of my forthcoming book BEYOND POSTCOLONIAL THEORY.)]

4) Who are the great Asian American writers, and what can we learn from them? What Asian American writers do you believe should be in the canon, but are not?

I am not in the business of setting up canons, like Henry Louis Gates and company. This is a collective enterprise, maybe already decided by the “triumvirate” Elaine Kim, Amy Ling, and Shirley Lim. Being in the discipline of ethnic studies now, and having been professor of English and comparative literature for 25 years, I usually choose texts that can address the historical issues and problems of the different communities, in particular how the U.S. racial and gendered system acted on them, their variegated responses, etc. Even the aesthete Jose Garcia Villa can be included in this sociohistorical framework.

I have no problem teaching the “canonical” writers Okada, Mori, Carlos Bulosan, Yamamoto, Kingston, Bakharati Mukherjee–I particularly like Kim Ronyoung’s CLAY WALLS, a major text much neglected. But again the field is fluid and heterogeneous (to use the cliches of postmodernist/postcolonial critics), and critical voices are just emerging from the Filipino community, for example, which have been drowned out by Chinese and Japanese authorities in the field. I also find M BUTTERFLY by David Henry Hwang useful in introducing the “orientalizing” of Asian bodies, but this has to be placed within a historical field–such as the one outlined skillfully by Glenn Omatsu in THE STATE OF ASIAN AMERICA. (Omatsu’s “historical field” refers to the 1980-1990 period when Asian American neoconservatives, primarily in California but elsewhere, changed the hitherto defensive or marginalized position of Asian Americans and began to be political players or actors while maintaining the old traditional patriarchal order, the “orientalist” logic of Western power, in the community. Omatsu’s essay is rich in describing these complex changes in which white supremacy continues to exoticize Asian bodies while allowing multiculturalism or ethnic difference within policed, safe limits — in particular, within the “model minority” framework of competitive individualism.)

(In terms of the Filipinos,) I am thinking of younger scholars who have been quite active but have not been publicized in the right or prestigious venues. For example: Theo Gonzalves at UC Irvine who critiques Pilipino Nights and murals with a degree of sophistication and social awareness not found in aestheticizing scholars (usually associated with the older generation of critics like Kim, Ling, and Lim); Jeffrey Cabusao (formerly at Oberlin College); Augusto Espiritu and his circle at UCLA; Greg Castilla in Seattle; Jorshinelle Sonza at Drew University; the brilliant Neferti Tadiar at UC Santa Cruz; Melinda de Jesus at San Francisco State; and others. There are many more women in this new generation than there were before. And of course, not to forget Vicente Raphael at UC San Diego who is already well-known but still overshadowed by trivializing and really backward if not reactionary critics of Asian American cultural practices who are regarded as celebrities mainly because they speak for the more politically entrenched Japanese, Chinese, or Korean segments of what is misleadingly called “Asian America.”

It’s time Filipinos are heard and paid attention to. Their innovativeness resides not in their diverse personal idioms and styles; rather it inheres in their critical vision of the global material conditions that link the Philippine crisis with the vicissitudes of U.S. transnational capitalism and the alienation/reification that characterizes all cultural practices in this society and in all market societies. In short, they register the new changes going on in U.S.-Philippine relations and in the Pacific Rim insofar as they affect sensibilities, attitudes, beliefs, locutions, and so on. And this has profound implications for the immigrant community here despite the surface apathy and opportunism going on.

6) What makes Asian American literature distinct from other “minority” literature?

Asian American literature is distinctive, say, from African and Chicano only in the way U.S. imperial power impinged on the homelands of the various groups and in the way each group was incorporated into the racial formation. That is why one cannot homogenize all of the texts as “Asian American” in much the same way you can more or less take black literature, from the slave narratives and Fredrick Douglas to Dubois, Ellison, Wright, Morrison, as one distinct continuous body. Not Asian American literature. For one, the experiences of colonization of the Filipinos and, in another way, of Vietnamese would set them apart from the Chinese and Japanese. No doubt there are similarities, affinities, and commonalities that these cultures have in responding to the racial state; we can point them out and learn from them lessons in organizing coalitions, alliances, etc. Much more interesting are the differences due to specific historical conditions.

7) What do you remember about the Philippines when you were there? Are there any certain books that recapitulate this experience?

The Philippines in the fifties, when I was in the university, was a neocolony of the United States, dependent economically, politically and culturally. The Centennial should remind everyone that of all the Asian countries, the Philippines was the only one subjected to enormous violence and ideological pacification by the entire state machinery of the United States. One can probably say the same thing about IndoChina- – we have not yet been reduced to becoming “boat people” — but, as I say this, over six million Filipino “Overseas Contract Workers” are now virtually economic refugees, even political ones, so that our diaspora is assuming the proportions of the Chinese and Jewish ones in previous centuries.

The Cold War defined my education: we learned New Criticism, idolized Ernest Hemingway and Robert Penn Warren, rejected socialist or even realist writing, shunned away from politics and social problems, etc. Meanwhile, the U.S.-supported Filipino ruling elite suppressed the majority of Filipinos who were unlettered peasants and workers; corruption continued and worsened, class inequalities sharpened, poverty and oppression were deemed “natural” and eternal, thanks to the indoctrination of the Church, Hollywood, and U.S. mass media. But the resistance shown by the Huk uprising in the forties and fifties smoldered and caught fire in the late sixties and early seventies with student youth revolts and the rise of the New People’s Army.

With this background, when I came to this country in 1960, the writings of Bulosan (which I discovered late in 1965 when I began teaching at the University of California, Davis) affected me in a powerful way. I had read Villa, Bienvenido Santos, and one or two other writers residing in the U.S.; but only Bulosan was able to address those conditions in the Philippines. Filipinos subsisted in what Paolo Freire calls the “culture of silence” until the anti-martial law movement in the sixties afforded space for Filipinos born here to participate in acts of transgression and rebellion.

(Freire, the Brazilian revolutionary educator, described the culture of the impoverished peasants in Brazil — and by implication of the Third World — as one which is distinguished by “silence.” That doesn’t mean that unlettered peasants couldn’t speak, are passive, mute, etc. The plight of the “silent” victims stems from historical, man-made circumstances. The “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” to use a cliche, have been deprived of the weapon of words, in literacy in print, so that no matter how versatile and sharp their oral communication might be, the Western imperial system, or the knowledge/production of instrumental rationality, consigns them to “silence.” Through his method of generative themes in literacy education, Freire was able to make that “silence” speak in a language that accompanies the conscious practice of attempting to transform life-conditions. Freire was challenged by the fact that the resources of peasants and workers in the Third World were being chanelled to reinforce their oppression rather than mobilized for their own good. So the “silence” of the “wretched of the earth,” to use Frantz Fanon’s phrase, is perhaps louder and more articulate than the tired gibberish of consumerism and free enterprise. I think Freire continues to inspire many Filipino educators, particular nuns and priests active in fashioning a Filipino “theology of liberation.” Yes, Freire is read, discussed, and applied in the Philippines, perhaps more enthusiastically now than during the dark days of the U.S.-Marcos dictatorship.)

Filipinos in the United States have not produced much in terms of written texts; their oral culture supported them in their daily lives, esp. the first generation of “Manongs.” This is a problem of class domination and the silencing of the laboring subalterns. Only in the sixties and seventies do you find a new group — in particular Al Robles and Jessica Hagedorn — beginning to connect the Manongs and the Philippine neocolonial plight in their own singular voices. But then, after the 1965 change in immigration, you have a new generation of Filipino professionals and middle strata who have life-forms and orientations quite distinct from the migrant farm workers like Philip Vera Cruz. Cruz’s biography (Craig Scharlin and Lilia Villanuevau, PHILIP VERA CRUZ; A PERSONAL HISTORY OF FILIPINO IMMIGRANTS AND THE FARMWORKERS MOVEMENT, Ed. Glenn Omatsu and Augusto Espiritu: UCLA Labor Center and UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1992) is instructive in depicting the shift of those two periods.

8) Observing the effect of English-based language on writers in the Philippines, do you believe writing in the vernacular really addresses the masses’ concerns, because the English-based speakers are coincidentally the elite?

The enemy can also speak in the vernacular. In this context, language should be viewed as an instrument in political mobilization. I use English because I want to address a specific audience familiar with the ideas and issues I discuss. I also write in Pilipino to communicate with the larger segment of the population interested in general questions of freedom, exploitation, etc. We have had decades of controversy over which language to use: this was solved in the seventies when the New People’s Army began using the vernacular in various regions to raise consciousness and organize people. Filipino (the evolving national language) has now developed tremendously to the point of intellectuals producing works in philosophy, social theory, science, in Filipino accessible to millions more than English. Meanwhile, English continues to be used in debate, business, etc. not because the most educated and elite Filipinos are the only ones engaged in serious conversation but because we are still a peripheral society dependent on global capitalist business whose language is English. So, again, the parameters of the act of communication need to be taken into account.

I think in the future Filipino will replace English not only as the language of everyday business, government, and daily life but also as the medium of intellectual and artistic practices. But those who can use two or three languages would be much more effective; we shouldn’t refuse versatility. Isn’t the emerging global culture of the INTERNET multilingual?

9) As regards the Filipino diasporic experience, what do you perceive as challenges for next 100 years?

Prophecy is not my business, it’s a hazardous undertaking. Still, for rhetorical purposes, I’ll hazard this. If we have not yet been strangulated by the smog and effluvium of a degraded environment in the next millenium, the challenge for Filipino intellectuals–“intellectual” in the Gramscian sense refers to anyone who has some critical judgment, however miniscule–is how to reconstitute the Filipino “nation” from the dispersal of men and women who identify themselves as “Filipino” whether they are in Australia, Saudi Arabia, Alaska, Italy, Hong Kong, or Makati. In other words, are we resigned to just being “domestic servants” of the world, which is the current reputation?

We won’t be a “chosen” people, to be sure, but we can all cooperate to generate that solidarity and intelligence required to destroy an exploitative system based on profit and alienated labor. Yes, despite all the postmodernist chic about globalization and the advent of the “netizen” (the emergent cyborg citizen of the Internet), the oppression of peripheral or subaltern nations by the sovereign powers of the West, the United States and Japan, with their own “white supremacist” agendas, continues to determine the life-chances of peoples in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Caribbean, African countries, and many countries in South America. The Filipinos will either resist the transnational Leviathan of technoconsumerism and assert their own national will and dignity–or they will continue the servility of the last four hundred years. Hopefully we can continue the socialist experiment that suffered disfigurement in the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere, in more creative and original ways.

10) You said you write poetry primarily in Tagalog now? Why and how does that affect the substance and form of your own poetry?

Ah, yes, I mined the lyrical inspiration in English up to the bitter end, from the halcyon days in high school reading Villa up to the sixties and the explosion of the Cultural Revolution in China, in the Philippines, and elsewhere. That particular mother lode was long exhausted, figuratively and literally. The limits of T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” or of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” could not be transcended in rhetoric; only revolution can save the poet in English from solipsism, selling his soul to politicians and business, and suicide–this has been the real future for certain contemporaries in my lifetime.

Why choose Pilipino or “Filipino”? Primarily because the poet who writes in English in the Philippines had no audience and will have none, as the trend goes. The writers in English today write to a coterie, or to their admirers and patrons if not to their own pathetic selves. There’s a lesson for writers in other societies plagued with multiple languages.

What I mean by audience is not just readers but people whose experiences and life-forms provide the materials, intonation, rhythm, imagery,and body-language for the poet and who are the potential (if not actual) receivers of the emotional and intellectual charge in poetry and other verbal/linguistic performances. English has no future in the Philippines–unless it is artificially supported by the neocolonial clientele of transnational power–as the speech of the masses. I don’t mean here that it is the language of the colonizer–after all, the Communist Party of the Philippines conducts its propaganda and education in English, and in various vernaculars. Even in French and Japanese. It may be argued that English of a sort is now the speech of the Overseas Contract Workers, but Japanese and Arabic are really more useful for many of them. And of course, one should not forget the universal language of dollars….

Let me cite an example from my activist inventory. During the sixties and seventies, when we were active in the anti-martial law movement, the most popular poems read in most meetings and conferences were Amado V. Hernandez’s poem in Pilipino, “Lumuha ka, aking bayan…” and Jose Corazon de Jesus’s lyrics for the song, “Bayan Ko.” It’s not just a question of historical exigencies. There’s also the human collective hunger and desire for the renewal of memory, feelings, connections, solidarities, sympathies, and the imagination of the future. It’s a question of discovering your humanity, your agency together, in a racist and sexist and brutalizing system. Ultimately it’s a matter of resurrection (please don’t confuse this with “born-again” fundamentalism) in a milieu of vulgar egotism and mindless consumerism. We were petit-bourgeois intellectuals reborn in the campaign to “serve the people!” (to use the Maoist slogan). Thanks to the U.S.civil-rights movement, George Jackson, the Red Book, and the anti-war movement, I discovered the rich praxis and tradition of Western Marxism–Lukacs, Gramsci, Lefebvre, Benjamin, Korsch, etc. But thanks more to the ordinary folk who died in Mendiola and in many parts of the Philippines, we (privileged children of the middle strata) realized that we had to change.

Back to belle lettre: When you are writing for a living audience in an emergency–and for people of color, every day is an emergency (we don’t have to read Walter Benjamin on this), you write “in situation,” as Sartre would say. Your speech becomes more a part of an ongoing process of communication, dramatic or dialogical in a genuine sense, than if you were writing in English usually to your self, or to versions of your own poetic persona. Today, of course, postmodernists would claim that you can’t tell now which is genuine and which is fake–everything is a simulacrum! Nonetheless, there is the alternative route for artists of color. Self-fetishism may be replaced with the kind of poems Brecht called teaching/learning poems, not utilitarian or simply pragmatic, but tested equipment for survival and strengthening of the spirit. Brecht’s achievement, just as those of Neruda and Vallejo, has become something of a model for many writers, young and old, in the Philippines today. I only cite Western influences. We of course also have indigenous sources and local inspiration from our own history and tradition.

This has been said before, but let me repeat it for this occasion. I believe that only in meeting the challenge of freeing society from the alienation and exploitation endemic to a market system based on profit, can the artists and writers recover the humanistic (in a materialist sense) and truly revolutionizing power of art. In short, we shall be reconstructing a society in which art and literature are organic parts of the life-forms we invent for ourselves in the process of objectifying our possibilities together with our fellow humans and with nature. We need to reinscribe art and literature in the sociohistorical context from which they derive their blood and flesh, their reason for existence. Only in this perspective can we also understand the logic of the aesthetic revolt (Baudelaire, Walter Pater, Villa) against bourgeois society: art for art’s sake!

11) Please share any other reflections you may have, given the Philippine’s centennial commemoration.

%A hundred years of suffering and resistance are over, now let us welcome another hundred years of struggle, of defeats and victories!% This may sound like an old Faustian theme from the Western canon, or a sick repetition of Don Quixote’s song from the kitsch musical. Our struggle is not nationalist in the narrow sense, it’s a worldwide struggle for social emancipation from a global systemic enemy: capital accumulation.

Let’s consider the fact that the Malaysians and other countries in the Pacific Rim continue to regard the Philippine revolution of 1896, with Rizal and the propagandists, as the harbinger of the days of national liberation movements in the fifties and sixties for Malaysia, Indonesia, IndoChina, even India. Remember that Mariano Ponce and other Aguinaldo survivors had good relations with Sun Yatsen and other Asian progressives. And the resistance against U.S. aggression in 1896-1902 in the Filipino-American War had enduring resonance in Cuba and many Latin American countries reacting against years of U.S.intervention since the Monroe doctrine. We’re a small country in tiny islands out there, but geopolitics operates in geometric ways.

The Philippine Revolution of Rizal, Bonifacio, Mabini and Aguinaldo may have been defeated–that’s why comrades of the First Quarter Storm in 1970 call it “unfinished–but its example lives on. Revolutions proceed through defeats and setbacks, as they say. We Filipinos in “the belly of the beast,” as the Cuban hero Jose Marti called the United States at the turn of the century, need to reconnect not only with the 1896 revolution, the sacrifices of Mabini, Sakay, Crisanto Evangelista, the Huks and the New People’s Army, but with current struggles today in order to recover sources of hope and energy for the task of reconstituting the deracinated Filipino community in the United States.

It’s not just the delirium of the other within you that needs to be released, as Derrida and Levinas would say; it’s the actual others around you where you find your possibilities, your future. Your integrity also. You can only find the meaning of your life in solidarity with others as you build a future in which possibilities repressed today can be given a chance to flourish in a socialist order. That commitment is not a matter of postponement or deferral, but an actual endeavor to live dangerously every moment of the day. It’s actually the project you try to realize in a whole lifetime.

Lest I sound existentialist in the dilettantish sense, I end with a tribute to Salud Algabre, the woman who led the Sakdal rebellion in the thirties and who was inspired by Pedro Calosa, a Colorum leader who learned the art of the mass strike in the Hawaii plantations of the twenties. Algabre’s words need to be remembered: “No uprising fails. Each one is a step in the right direction.” And I might add, quoting the Chinese writer Lu Hsun, if each one walks along that path, then we shall have built a road where none existed before.

[This was first published in Asian Pacific American Journal 7.1 (Spring-Summer 1998), then revised  and published in After Postcolonialism: Remapping Philippines-United States Confrontations (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000) and reprinted again in (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2008).


About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.
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