Dear Carlos Bulosan,
Sometime during my elementary school years, someone told me I was a good creative writer. I even wrote a play that my classmates and I acted out in my fourth grade. That was my last year in the Philippines. The following school year, my brother and I joined Mama and Papa in California.
Throughout middle school and high school, I liked my English subjects best, so when I applied for college, I picked Literature/Writing as a major. As an undergraduate, I became aware that the characters and stories I liked most (and wrote about) revolved around only white Americans, complete with blue eyes and freckles. Somehow, embedded inside my mind was the idea that white Americans were the better characters to read and write about.
Then I read writers like you, Bienvenido Santos, and Jessica Hagedorn in college. Something inside me broke free! I now have short stories about the manongs, who picked vegetables during the day and dominated the dance floor at night. I have stories about my grandmother, her experiences of moonlit courtship, and also of hiding underground during World War II. I also wrote two short plays about second-generation Filipino Americans who stumbled in their attempts to speak Tagalog. (I called them BOFs.) I even wrote a play about the ghosts that came to life inside me when I learned about the Philippine-American War.
For now, I have these stories tucked away for a later time in my life. These days, I spend a lot of time writing field statement drafts and trying to publish in academic circles. This brings me to the two-fold purpose of my letter. First and foremost, I want to thank you and writers like you who showed me that our stories are worth sharing. You have awakened me to voices that are usually unheard. I now pay very close attention to even those who have already passed away, in this life.
My other purpose is to comment on your book The Cry and the Dedication. I read it in a graduate literature seminar that centered on the wars in Asia, or what some call the Pacific Theater. We read The Cry alongside books like The Rape of Nanking and A Gesture Life. While reading, I kept asking myself the following questions: Who is Bulosan’s audience? (Does he have several?) What does he want to tell his audience/s? In what ways is he successful, and in what ways does he fall short?
I understand that you were a labor organizer in California and helped bring the Mexicans and the Filipinos together to fight for their welfare, wages, and work safety. Because of this, I thought that perhaps you are addressing the collective of poor, landless, and seasonal workers. I think that you do this beautifully in the book through Hassim’s speech on proletarian humanism and the closeness among the main characters, especially portrayed in their distress when the group thought that Hassim and Old Bio were killed and in their dancing of “The Lady Dayang-Dayang.” I was particularly moved with Old Bio’s intimate relationship with the land (the dirt and the animals). This reminded me so much of my father, who grew up in a farm in Ilocos Norte and is now tending a magnificent (no less) garden in the backyard of my parents’ home.
The tension I had with The Cry was with Mameng’s role in the group. Mameng’s “duty” and “sacrifice” drip with the same rhetoric under which the Korean women (and some Filipinas) were called to serve during World War II. The Korean women were “Japanese” (as colonial subjects) and they were to function as military supplies, to boost the morale of the soldiers, and to protect the (“authentic”) Japanese women. I think that you tried to make the sexual act between Dante and Mameng tender, shameless, and pleasurable, but the fact remains that Mameng is part of the traveling group of Huks in order to sexually appease their financial supporter Felix Rivas. Mameng’s role is part of Dimasalang’s order, which has to be carried out for the success of their mission. In a sense, Mameng is a military supply. And what else could Mameng do? Their mission is crucial, and she is supposedly an “obedient, peasant woman” (55).
I know that you think more highly of women than as military supplies during wartime. I can see this in how Hassim invites Josefina to join the movement: “I will ask you to join us, if you are resolved to liberate our country. There is a place in our movement for young women like you” (165). My hope is that all brothers, see us women as necessary for their strugglesÃ‘as allies and as equals.
Once again, thank you for your contribution to the world through your writing. I read that you had to write The Cry in the United States, having only Huk member Luis Taruc’s memoirs and your memories of the Philippines. What a feat. I know how hard that is, how complex the emotions that process brings. On one hand, I am happy recalling scents, shades, and sensations. On the other hand, I want to cry for the things I no longer remember, for the things slipping away. That is why part of what I do in my research is to listen to my elders’ stories. I want to help carve that space for them to share, to reflect, to recall. This is not always easy, but it is necessary. I find value in their stories and storytelling, both of which are often relegated to the margins. I pray their stories live on, as yours do.
Thank you for reading this letter. I am comforted to be in community with you.
Makibaka! Huwag matakot!
Jimiliz Maramba Valiente-Neighbours
P.S. The Filipina comfort women survivors formed the Malaya Lolas Organization in their efforts to ask for an apology and for reparations. I just thought I would give you a heads-up about that!
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