THE PHILIPPINES IS IN THE HEART by Carlos Bulosan
by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
The passage of Carlos Bulosan from colonial Philippines to the U.S. metropole marks an axis of multiple historic transitions. He died at the height of the Cold War, 11 September 1956, the year of the independence of Sudan, Tunisia and Morocco. It was a year after the Bandung Conference of Asian and African leaders, birthplace of the “third world.” It was also the year when Martin Luther King initiated the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, the beginning of the stormy Civil Rights struggles in the United States that transformed the era before September 11, 2001. In that decade, only about 70,000 Filipinos resided in the U.S., compared to four million today.
When Bulosan was born in the Philippines in 1911, two years after the Payne-Aldrich Act of 1909 defined the geopolitical role of the islands as a dependent, peripheral formation, the Philippines was a full-fledged colony of the U.S. empire. Filipinos (first recruited by the Hawaiian plantations and Alaskan canneries) were classified as colonial subjects or “nationals,” not immigrants seduced by the American “dream of Success.” This is a fact ignored by virtually all commentators on Bulosan’s writings, a basic error that leads to peremptorily assuming the neocolonial Philippines today as a fully sovereign nation-state. Without comprehending this asymmetrical relationship, all attempts to interpret and evaluate Filipino cultural expression in the United States, including Bulosan’s, remains flawed and deleterious in influence. It is complicit in the agenda of perpetuating US “Exceptionalism,” then articulated as“Manifest Destiny” under whose banner over one million natives were killed. Thereafter, the rebels were pacified and disciplined into docile subjects by the rifles and cannons of McKinley’s program of “Benevolent Assimilation” (Miller 1982).
Bulosan arrived in Seattle in 1930, just after the worldwide collapse of finance-capitalism. It was also marked by the founding of the Communist Party of the Philippines whose leaders were all jailed the year after (Richardson 2011; Saulo1990). The onset of the “Great Depression” was heralded by the racist vigilante attacks on Filipino farmworkers in Watsonville, California, and Yakima Valley, Washington, in 1928 and 1930. Violence thus greeted Bulosan’s welcome to the promised land of liberty, democracy, and brotherhood.
Mapping the Barricades
On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Bulosan summed up his years of experience as a labor organizer and nomadic journalist, in a letter to a friend: “Yes, I feel like a criminal running away from a crime I did not commit. And the crime is that I am a Filipino in America” (Feria 1960, 199). Rather than being perceived as part of the “yellow horde,” Filipino workers acquired the stigma of troublemakers when they led or participated in strikes. Among these were the January 1920 and September 1924 strikes in Hawaii; in the latter, sixteen workers were killed and one of the organizers, Pablo Manlapit, was deported to the Philippines. In a letter to a friend dated December 7, 1935, Bulosan confessed that “I have become a communist” (Babb 1928-2005).
Objective conditions quickly catalyzed the agencies of change. In 1933 and 1934, thousands of Filipino workers in Salinas, Stockton and Monterey country formed the Filipino Labor Union and staged several damaging strikes. From the thirties to the forties, Filipinos belonging to the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), Federated Agricultural Laborers Association, and the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) mounted nationwide actions against agribusiness and industrial corporations, protesting corruption, low wages, and degrading labor conditions. The image of the Filipino in the United States in the thirties up to the 1965 grape strike in Delano, Califonira (which led to the founding of the United Farmworkers Union), established the image of this southeast Asian ethnic group as a “disturber of the peace” (to use James Baldwin’s phrase).
After his ordeal as itinerant field hand in Washington and Oregon, Bulosan joined his brothers Dionisio and Aurelio in Los Angeles. He became friends with Chris Mensalvas, a union organizer of the UCAPAWA. In 1935, Filipinos in the US confronted the threat of deportation by virtue of the Repatriation Act of 1935. From 1934 to 1937, Bulosan was a publicist for the proletarian resistance. And as editor of The New Tide, a bimonthly worker’s magazine, he entered the circle of such artists as Richard Wright, William Saroyan, John Fante, Paul Robeson, and others. The radical artist Sanora Babb and her sister Dorothy served as the “life-maintainers” of Bulosan as a patient in the Los Angeles County Hospital from 1936 to 1938, through the years of the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism in Europe. The indefatigable Babb sisters sustained his efforts to educate himself by reading in the Los Angeles Public Library. He absorbed a provocatively intense constellation of ideas through the works of Theodore Dreiser, James Farrell, Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, John Steinbok, Maxim Gorky, Agnes Smedley, Lillian Hellman, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Snow, and others. His apprenticehip in progressive thinking and dialogue (he reflected later on) “opened all my world of intellectual possibilities—and a grand dream of bettering society for the working man” (cited in San Juan 1994, 256). His return to Seattle as editor of the ILWU 1952 Yearbook, defending the popular nationalist poet Amado V. Hernandez who was indicted as a communist, and denouncing the fascist violence under the Quirino regime, completed the itinerary of his radicalization (Bulosan 1995).
Encounter and Discovery
The defeat of the US and Filipino forces in Bataan and Corregidor brought the Philippines into the world’s public consciousness, especially the U.S. audience. The colony offered a space for the exile’s imagined return to native grounds. Earlier, a veteran of the Hawaii strikes, Pedro Calosa, returned to Bulosan’s province, Pangasinan, and led the 1931 Tayug uprising vividly recounted in the first half of Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (AIH). This is often forgotten since most commentators narrowly focus on the Depression episodes (see, for example, the selection in Paul Lauter’s The Heath Anthology of American Literature). During his convalescence from lung-and-kidney operations in the late thirties, Bulosan wrote stories based on Philippine folklore, later assembled in The Laughter of My Father (1944), a best-seller disseminated to American soldiers during World War II. The stories about Uncle Sator included here (first issued in 1978; hereafter PIH) served as an integral counterpoint to the comic role of the father, a donor/villain function in the morphology of Bulosan’s contrived folktales (Propp 1958).
The outbreak of World War II provided the moralizing epilogue to the anti-picaresque chronicle of wandering Filipino laborers in Bulosan’s ethnobiography, America Is in the Heart (AIH). It began with a confession of ignorance, unawareness of “the vast social implications of the discrimination against Filipinos.” He surmised that most of his compatriots suffered from “a misconception generated by a confused personal reaction to dynamic social forces.” But for him, “my hunger of the truth had inevitably led me to take an historical attitude” (Bulosan 1946, 144). As part of this endeavor to historicize experience, Bulosan edited and collaborated on three more books after The Laughter: Chorus for America (1942), Letter from America (1942), and The Voice of Bataan (1943). Two years later, with Bulosan’s “Freedom from Want” manifesto exhibited in the Federal Building, San Francisco, in 1943, The Laughter was followed by AIH in 1946. President Quezon offered Bulosan a job in the exiled Commonwealth government (where compatriots like Jose Garcia Villa and Arturo Rotor worked), but he politely declined. Meanwhile, he outlined at the end of AIH his vision encompassing the dying old world and the new world being born “with less sacrifice and agony on the living.”
Antonio Gramsci (1971) once warned that in between the demise of the old and the emergence of the new, we are confronted with dreadful morbid symptoms. Bulosan wrestled with his monsterns in his novel The Cry and the Dedication, written in the last five years of his life. He engaged the problem of change and sudden metamorphosis, of dying in order to be reborn, which also pervades the stories in PIH. Composed in the years after his sojourn in the Los Angeles County Hospital and his years with the ILWU at the height of the McCarthyist witchhunts of the Cold War, these stories form part of his project of regeneration. In January 1950, he wrote to Jose de Los Reyes: “What I am trying to do…is to utilize our common folklore, tradition, and history in line with my socialist thinking…We are pooling our knowledge together for a better understanding of man and his world; not to deify man, but to make him human, that we may see our faults and virtues in him. That is the responsibility of literature and the history of culture”(Feria 1960, 261). Beyond this general framework of ethico-political intent, Bulosan articulated the aesthetic rationale of the folkloric renditions of The Laughter a year before his death. This was in response to formalist New Critics who dismissed it as a potboiler selling local color, and foisting on an unsuspecting public “the oversimplified image of the Filipino as Peter Pan or as the lovable village idiot, everyman’s eccentric uncle” (Casper 1966, 70). Such a tendentious judgment testifies to the caustic, demystifying impact of Bulosan’s Juvenalian satire.
Following the wrongheaded fatuous view of Filipinos as immigrants obsessed with the “American Dream of Success,” a postmodern notion is fashionable nowadays to bracket Bulosan as a transnationalist, at best a cosmopolitan or planetary intellectual. In effect, this diasporic recasting seeks to transcend boundaries and barriers, abandoning the alleged parochialism of his peasant origin and the provincial ethnic heritage so as to fashion some all-embracing, universally cogent work of art. To refute this illicit abstraction, one may cite as a point of departure Bulosan’s overriding motivation. In a letter prior to his death, he reiterated the politico-economic motivation behind his poetry and fiction. In particular, he reaffirmed his view to Florentino B. Valeros that The Laughter “is not humor; it is satire; it is indictment against an economic system that stifled the growth of the primitive, making him decadent overnight without passing through the various stages of growth and decay. The hidden bitterness in this book is so pronounced in another series of short stories, that the publishers refrained from publishing it for the time being….” (Feria 1960, 273). That time has elapsed, the censor is gone; in front of you, unveiled, is the bitterness of the stories that other editors refused. These narratives somehow elude the shock of recognition that satire, with its techniques of burlesque, parody, lampoon and travesty, usually trigger in the empathizing sensibility.
For the purpose of this brief introduction, it would be useful to provide a general framework within which the stories here can be understood and appreciated in the context of Bulosan’s life and his milieu.
Northrop Frye, Robert Elliot and other scholars have theorized the genre of satire as rooted in magic, ritual and archaic modes of production and reproduction. Its normative effect is therapeutic, simultaneously conservative and subversive. Elliot believes that the power of satire, even the sophisticated modern type, inheres in the magical, ritualistic connotations of words (1960, 282). Frye categorizes irony and satire as “the mythos of winter”: “Satire is militant irony” which assumes standards against which the grotesque and absurd are measured…Satire demands at least a token fantasy, a content which the reader recognizes as grotesque, and at least an implicit moral standard” (1957, 223-24). Often, as in “The Lonesome Mermaid” and the two ghost stories, fantasy and morality coalesce felicitously. The satirist may seek to arouse contempt on deviations from orthodox, received norms, foibles or vices due to human frailty; sarcastic innuendoes and scornful invective convey the censure and ridicule. At times, the satirical protest acts to sublimate and refine indignation against the evils usually observed: cupidity, hypocrisy, avarice, fatuous complacency, gluttony, and so on. Such derisive rhetoric, caricature, or lampoon, no matter how bitter or acerbic, do not trigger outright offense because, as Jonathan Swift noted, “satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own” (Cuddon 1979, 602; see Hodgart 1969). This may refer to the genial Horatian style, not to the harsh Juvenalian caustic attack on social excesses. In periods of violent instability and change, the satiric mode becomes difficult to sustain unless exaggerated to the level of hyperbolic caricature and cynical parody in the style of Petronius’ Satyricon.
Comic absurdities prevail over satiric invectives in Bulosan’s stories. Even in the violence-field incidents in “The Way of All Men” and “The Son of Uncle Sator,” the narrator focuses on the comedic quality inhering in the mechanical gestures and movements of flat characters (following Henri Bergson’s definition of humor [1960, 49]) that spring from the rigid conformism of conduct in hierarchical peasant culture. One encounters a Brechtian alienation-effect in the juxtaposition of illusory belief and discordant reality in scenarios that Bulosan sets up where the Father or Uncle Sator preaches about the virtues of a morality that directly contravene their own burlesqued sordid conduct. This is obvious in “The Wisdom of Uncle Sator,” “The Bandit and the Tax Collctor, “ or “The Homecoming of Uncle Manuel.” Examples of caricatured speech and grotesque behavior abound in these stories, as well as in The Laughter , especially in the predictable, mechanical reactions of characters. But Bulosan disrupts this pattern, as in the ambivalent and erratic behavior of the central protagonists in “The Angel in Santo Domingo,” “A Servant in the House,” “The Great Lover,” and in the stories revolving around music and Dionysian figures of trumpeters and guitarists where fantasy, the mode of romance, and the supernatural eclipse the criticism of manners.
In the comic world of Bulosan’s imagination, the satire is tempered by the needs of the body and the material welfare of the collective. In “The Son of Uncle Sator,” the first-person narrator claims to “make commentaries on human affairs.” He describes his mileiu as “the morally petrified tribe of brigands, thieves, jailbirds, gamblers, inebriates, imbeciles, louts, and liars” (1978, 72). Because of the “ageless naivete” of this tribe, their imbecility is neither tragic nor laughable” —it is an unpredictable, mixed world where night and day interpenetrate. It is inhabited by hybrids, “ghostly humans” and “humanlike ghosts” (as the stranger observes in “Return of the Amorous Ghost”) and enigmatic, supernatural happenings reminiscent of folklore, as in “The Rooster’s Egg, ” “The Angel in Santo Domingo,” and the three ghost stories. It is a world of mercantile/feudal alienation, farmers-artisans robbed of the value produced by their labor-power, totally fallen into a nihilistic realm of money/commodity-fetishism supervised by corrupt bureaucrat-politicians, police, rich compradors, and criminal opportunists.
The strong libidinal predilection to indulge in romance/fantasy is curbed by Bulosan’s empiricist drive. Lived, carnal experience is paramount. Gratification of the appetites supervenes over any particular folly or vice personified by individuals. This is vividly illustrated in the town festivities and ribald exuberance of drinking and eating found in every encounter of uncles and aunts, children and parents. The organic body of the folk comprised of carousing, pleasure-loving, sentimental individuals springs to life in the anonymizing revelry. We are initiated into the time/space of carnival that abolishes boundaries between private and public, performers and spectators, destroying the social hierarachies that underlie official culture. Entailed by this construction of a pastoral milieu, sometimes camouflaged by irony or parody, is the translation of the complex totalilty into intelligible elements accessible for problem-solving by the unlettered folk, a paradigm for proletarian art proposed by the codifier of ambiguities, William Empson (1950). A visionary utopian fable lies immanent in the crude naturalist surface of uncouth swindlers and vulgar outlaws. This accords with the essence of all art, the simplification of a dense heterogenous reality based on conventions, which reveals to us that lived reality is far more complex than any single view of it, just as the manifold of inter-subjective experience is richer than any theorizing of it (Berger 1972). Praxis/communal activity always trumps individualist theorizing founded on Cartesian intuition.
Analyzing Rabelais’ universe of discourse and its intertextuality, Mikhail Bakhtin was the first to theorize the carnivalesque motivation in art. This is a nuanced, historically substantiated rearticulation of Empson’s pastoral genre. Originating from the Roman festival of the saturnalia, the carnival world-outlook stages an inverted order that mockingly challenges the legitimacy of established authority. It is essentially debunking, suspicious, deconstructive. By canceling doctrinaire pieties, it demystifies the customary rules and norms that define outsiders and insiders, who is acceptable and who is not, thus leveling unequal strata and classes. For Julia Kristeva, the carnivalesque logic of the Bulosan narrative posits a homology between the body, dream, linguistic syntax and structures of desire; it plays with distances, relationships, analogies, non-exclusive oppositions and ambivalences, the structural dyads of carnival: “high and low, birth and agony, food and excrement, praise and curses, laughter and tears” (1986, 48-49).
Carnival originally re-enacted traditional cults of fertility and rebirth. It celebrated bodily pleasures, foregrounding eating and excreting, taking away the repulsive quality from gluttony, lust, and other libidinal pleasures in the hope that this celebration of vital functions will renew the world. Carnival thus represents the popular force of transformation and renovation, forecasting the advent of a quasi-utopian realm of freedom, spontaneity, and abundance suggested here in scenes of mayhem, convulsive gatherings, and rowdy logomachia, as in the confounding mischief in “The Betrayal of Uncle Soyoc” and “The Betrayal of Uncle Roman.” In this dialogic cosmos, the idea of rupture is dramatized as a modality of revolutionary transformation occuring in the midst of crisis—the transition of the archaic tributary, patrimonial mode of production to a comprador/capitalist-bureaucratic one, a deeply chaotic, disaggregated process.
Instead of simply illuminating Bulosan’s stories as satire or humorous vignettes, it woud be more fruitful to articulate them as examples of carnivalesque discourse in Bakhtin’s dialogic criterion. We are therefore not confined to isolating Juvenalian harangue or Horatian sermons. The series revolving around Uncle Sator and his brothers illustrates Bulosan’s use of the populist-anarchist predispositions in folk-culture. In “The Widom of Uncle Sator,” the contrast between the official worship of money (Uncle Sator representing the rentier/comprador mode of production) and the sensuous use-value of the fat hens and suckling pigs paid as fees to the Father’s school of music, is sharply drawn: “And the accommodating parents obliged Father willingly, until all their animals and fowls were killed in our kitchen…Uncle Sator kept all the money, of course, because Father was interested only in his stomach. He thought a slaughtered pig was more immediate and important than money in his pocket” (1978, 62). In “The Homecoming of Uncle Manuel,” Uncle Sator himself indulges in culinary fantasies: Uncle Sator’s “mouth watered from describing the imaginary suckling pig, or carabao meat, or whatever it was in his mind. Father’s salive was dripping down his shirt. His yellow tongue was hanging out of his black mouth, his red eyes popping like guavas” (1978, 92). The bacchanalia goes on until Uncle Manuel finds himself the victim of Uncle Sator’s swindling art, an absurd comic peripeteia. Such situations approxime the target of Menippean satire against mental atttitudes in which people are “handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior” (Frye 1957, 309).
We are imperceptibly ushered into a capsized unmoored world, obliquely alluding to the era of U.S. violent pacification of the islands and of turbulent worldwide Depression. With the family disintegrated, the uncles all cheat one another; kindred actors engage in fraudulent gambling, banditry, extortions, blackmailing and bribing their way through the feudal/mercantile hierarchy. The official Establishment and its patrimonial guardians are travestied by the routine violation of laws and regulations. In “A Servant in the House,” while the merrymaking is going on, the servant cleverly plans his own racket.
Given the absence of limits or their precarious definition, ghosts and angels infiltrate the public domain. Magical powers and charismatic agents creep into the allegorical, farcical play. In “The Lonesome Mermaid” and “The Rooster’s Egg,” the temporal-spatial coordinates are dissolved. offering a glimpse of a parallel antithetical cosmos. Angela, the “Angel in Santo Domingo,” becomes a commodity clamed by the priest, the landlord, Mayor, etc. Before she could be sold to a gambler, she disappears—proof that the spirit indeed trumps the letter. In “The Marriage of Cousin Pedro,” we encounter a town where mothers, not fathers, know who their children are. Patriarchy is dethroned, but not in order to put the matriarch in charge, contrary to the theorists of matriarchal/matrilineal ascendancy. Juxtaposition of the sordid and sublime, the serious and grotesque, is designed to subvert the conventional standard of values and mores. It intends to shatter the obscurantist ceremonies of the priestly castes and empower the pariahs and outcasts. In “The Great Lover,” the polar opposites are cleverly if ambiguously aligned in “the night that lives within and without us.” Social conflict is thus reduced to futile, aleatory psychomachia.
We call attention to Bulosan’s elaboration of the role of the trickster/impersonator and its counterpart, the ghost/mermaid. The magic power of this uncanny protagonist proceeds to defy the antinomy of death and rebirth (for the trickster-artist archetype, see Jung 1969), exemplified by Silent Popo in “The Summer of Beautiful Music,” by “Timbucto” in “The Son of Uncle Sator,” and the stranger in”The Lonesome Mermaid.” Wherever we confront the incongruous and discrepant, the polarized qualities of the customary and the strange, the harmonious and dissonant, we face the absurd that triggers laughter or ironical self-reflection. This conjunction resembles the medieval laughter that Rabelais designated as the “social consciousness of all the people,” We experience the flow of time in the festival crowd and marketplace as members of a “continually growing and renewed people. This is why festive folk laughter presents an element of victory not only over supernatural awe. over the sacred, over death; it also means the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes, of all that oppresses and restricts…Laughter liberates not only from external censorship but first of all from the great interior censor…It liberates from the fear of the sacred, of prohibitions, of the past, of power. It unveils the material bodily principle in its true meaning. Laughter opened men’s eyes on that which is new, on the future” (1968, 92, 94).
The carnivalesque principle accentuating the body, laughter and physical action, is revolutionary par excellence. It is the method and form of the folkloric artifices here and in The Laughter. Reconstituted from the mixed genealogy of folk tradition, it exists side by side with the culture it parodies and somehow contains it, hence its ambivalent status. It affords space for eccentricity, variegated play, a counter-cultural syndrome opposed to the bureaucratic, hierarchical system comprised of dominant-subordinate poles. But what stands out in the carnivalesque theatrical disposition is the body of the people “aware of its unity in time… It is conscious of its uninterrupted continuity in time, of its relative historic immortality…the uninterrupted continuity of their becoming and the ceaseless metamorphosis of death and renewal” (quoted in Clark and Holquist 1984, 303). The amorphous, perverse image of the carnivalesque body, for Bakhtin, is flesh as the site of becoming, metamorphosis, evidenced by changes in its nature through eating, evacuation, sexual intercourse, etc. This ever-renewing body is symbolized by Uncle Sator’s “cavernous mouth” as he devours a chicken drumstick while he discusses his last will and testament with his nephew and the mother who prepared the meal (Bulosan 1990, 55). It is embodied in the buoyant and cyclical appearance of Uncle Sator, the father, Orphic musicians, ghosts, and other commedia dell arte personalities on this tropical stage.
It is no surprise to find Bulosan’s high esteem of indigenous folklore consonant with Bakhtin’s conceptualization of the carnivalesque anatomy and its mutations. Other stories here demonstrate the discombobulating efficacy of popular music, the Orphic motif of the saturnalia, in “The Power of Music,” “The Summer of Beautiful Music,” etc. Images, smells, noise concordant and dissonant all indiscriminately blend in a Menippean dialogism that relies more on analogy and a logic of relations rather than on substance and inference, as Kristeva (1986) describes it in connection with the intertextual novelistic discourse of Doestoevky’s fiction.
In 1941, three years before the publication of The Laughter, Bulosan paid homage to Walt Whitman”s “orphic celebration of the masses, his outlandish but healthy love for the body,” his despising “all unhealthy traditions: the repression of mind and body” (Feria 1960, 200). In 1950, after the tributes given to the book, Bulosan wrote to a friend that he had been trying in his work “to utilize our common folklore, tradition and history in line with my socialist thinking” (Feria 1969, 261). In his 1951 essay “The Growth of Philippine Culture,” he identified the constant revitalization of native culture originally based on a communal economy by writers returning to “their social roots—the peasantry and the proletariat—and [who] began to weave the threads of their folklore with the national tradition” created by revolutionary heroes like Rizal, Bonifacio, Mabini, Isabelo de los Reyes, and others (1995, 122-23). People, art, nation were indivisible in Bulosan’s counterhegemonic aesthetics.
We might recall the origin of this insurgent aesthetics. The carnivalesque body in Bulosan’s art first materialized in the person of Apo Lacay, the old man from the mountains surrounding the village of Mangusmana, a mythical figure like the sage Lao Tzu. The wisdom of this old storyteller derives from the communal practices of farming, hunting, and diverse craftwork. Its organic scaffold is the natural environment to which the exile will never return, except by remembrance, the reservoir of experience (as Walter Benjamin construed it ). After an unexplained hiatus, Bulosan returns to say goodbye before he departs for America. He tells Apo Lacay that he will perform as oral transmitter of the old man’s tales, the source of the “wisdom of the heart” that guarantees the authentic homecoming of the prodigal son and the body’s regeneration: “ Then it seemed to me, watching him lost in thought, he had become a little boy again living all the tales he had told us about a vanished race, listening to the gorgeous laughter of men in the midst of abject poverty and tyranny. For that was the time of his childhood, in the age of great distress and calamity in the land, when the fury of an invading race [United States] impaled their hearts in the tragic cross of slavery and ignorance.… But this man who had survived them all, surviving a full century of change and now living in the first murmurs of a twilight and the dawn of reason and progress, was the sole surviving witness of the cruelty and dehumanization of man by another man, but whose tales were taken for laughter and the foolish words of a lonely old man who had lived far beyond his time” (1983, 25-26). Remembrance then becomes prophetic and heuristic.
After the old storyteller’s death, death as the authorizing seal of narrative art, Bulosan meditates on the fusion of their utterances, origin dissolving in the sharing of the stories with others: “And now, in America, writing many years later, I do not exactly know which were the words of the old man of the mountains and which are mine. But they are his tales, as well as mine, so I hope we have written stories that really belong to everyone in that valley beautiful beyond any telling of it” (1983, 26). This resonates with the theme of the artist’s education and the ironic ethics found in “The Betrayal of Uncle Soyoc”: “Now as I listened to mytwo uncles, who had run the gamut of human confidences and secrets, who had divested themselves of all illusions and regarded honesty as a sure sign of weakness, I became a man among men without a childhood” (1978, 82). The boy matures with the weapon of ironic laughter, participating in life as “a great adventure,” watching “the progression of truth” in the midst of entanglements among “beautiful women and gentle men.”
What Is to be Done?
Ultimately, the burden of the Uncle Sator cycle of stories is the task of the carnivalesque satirist: the demystification of colonial domination. It is the destruction of the pastoral mirage of harmonious, happy village life pacified by U.S. civilizing missionaries. If there is something comic in the situations drawn here, it involves in general the contradiction between the personal (the subugatd colonial subaltern) and the universal (the principles of human dignity) that does not involve the reader/spectator in suffering or pity. No such involvement occurs because the narrator exercises some power of detachment from what is going on (Potts 1966, 154). W. H. Auden believes that satire cannot deal with serious evil and suffering such as, for example, the genocidal killing of 1.4 million Filipinos resisting U.S. occupation between 1899 and 1913. Auden asserts that “in public life, the serious evils are so importunate that satire seems trivial and the only suitable kind of attack prophetic denunciation” (1960, 115). Eloquent criticism of racist violence may be found in Bulosan’s AIH, The Cry and the Dedication; in stories like “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow,” “I Would Remember,” in the poems “Waking in the 20th Century,” “Letter in Exile,” and in many personal letters to American friends and compatriots (Bulosan 1983).
In the genre of carnivalesque discourse outlined here, these stories include prophetic excoriation of folly as one aspect of satire. Greed, apathy, lust and other symptoms of human depravity are historically linked to commodity-fetishism, the cash nexus, in effect the whole system of capitalist exploitation based on private ownership of social wealth and the elite monopoly of power. From this angle, this cycle of adventures with Uncle Sator and his ilk may be read as the allegory of the destruction of private property (and inherited privilege) represented by the patriarchal surrogate, Uncle Sator and his accessories; or its expropriation for distribution and enjoyment by everyone. At least, the boy dreams of depriving the Uncle of his ill-gotten wealth. We confront this social wealth as the collective body’s members divided and shared by everyone. The scenes of gambling, town festivals, squabbles, and so on, represent the indispensable ceremony of saturnalia, the hours of liberation from toil and celebration of the community’s liaison with Nature. Extrapolating from the example of Menippean satire, Rabelais, and European folklore, Bakhtin theorized the popular-democratic principle invested in serio-comic art, the unity-in-diversity of mixed genres and styles, as illustrated in Popular-Front art (see Denning 1997)—and in the coalescence of legend, fact, and invention found in The Laughter and in this collection.
Although Bulosan is now a canonical icon of multiethnic United States literature, he has not been adequately given his due in the archives of Filipino culture. This is a symptom of neocolonial subordination. In the process of gaining respectable status, however, his radical edge was blunted, his subversive qualities muted in the name of neoliberal multiculturalism. Given the marginalized position of the Filipino diaspora in the U.S., we need to recover the submerged, repressed strand in their history sedimented in Bulosan’s testimonial texts. This book is an attempt to excavate those oppositional, counterhegemonic impulses in his works by re-contextualizing them in our durable anticolonial tradition dating back from the 1896 revolution against Spain and U.S. occupation, the peasant insurrections up to the Huk rebellion, and renewed insurgencies during the Cold War up to the present. Re-inscribed in its proper historical milieu and geopolitical force-field, Bulosan’s entire body of work acquires a profound contemporary resonance. This is so because Filipinos (in this post-9/11 racialized-fascist polity) have been stigmatized as possible terrorists, suspected of harboring seditious contraband. This evokes in the collective memory the persecution of union leaders in the Hawaii plantations, California farms, and Seattle wharves.
We are engaged today in an anti-postcolonial project of reading Bulosan against the grain, from a rigorous historical-materialist viewpoint affording resources for strategies of resistance and emancipation. A future task for critics and cultural activists anywhere is to figure out how these stories can help us grasp the complex vicissitudes of the Philippines as a contested neocolony of the US empire, even as the worsening crisis of the bankrupt global-capitalist hegemony and its terrorist drones explode into a planetary meltdown, overwhelming both its masters and its predatory caretakers. Can the subaltern “wretched of the earth” still speak truth to power while laughing, and in the carnivalesque insurrection of the multitudinous body dare overcome the legacy of over a hundred years of imperial barbarism?
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