LITERATURE

‘America Is in the Heart’ teaches us how to deal with the pain and shame of being Filipino today

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Revisiting Carlos Bulosan’s seminal novel “America Is in the Heart,” now out in a new international edition. Collage by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It’s the end of May. The air is thick and still, but clouds are threatening a downpour. Habagat was unseasonably early — it usually arrives in June. We have so much rain in this country that we give them different names, know their characteristics, distinct like personalities.

Filipinos don’t think about the weather much. That is, until it starts to rain. Then it becomes all we can think about, all we can hear, as it pours down relentless on clay tiles, corrugated metal, nipa grass. If our homes are safe, we’ll think of those whose homes aren’t, wonder whether any coastal villages or informal settlements are flooding, or being swept away. We’ll worry that our lights will go out, that our water will stop running. What the death count will be.

So far, there have only been scattered showers. Ambon-ambon lang.

When I heard that publishing house Penguin was releasing their own edition of Carlos Bulosan’s “America Is in the Heart,” I felt proud, excited, and something else. Like the first few drops of rain.

I first read Bulosan in my freshman year in college. Carlos Bulosan was a Filipino-American writer and activist, and “America Is in the Heart,” his second novel, is considered the pioneering work of literature from the Philippine diaspora. If you got a private education in this country, Bulosan was, is, required reading.

Published in 1946, “America Is in the Heart” narrates the story of Allos, a poor peasant boy from Pangasinan, who follows his older brothers to America in pursuit of the American dream. Drawing largely from Bulosan’s own experiences (Allos comes to be known as Carlos in the U.S.), the novel is a saga of utter, unrelenting oppression. After his family’s little plot of land in Binalonan is taken by moneylenders, Allos flees the cyclical poverty of rural Philippines only to be thrown into the desperate depravity of Depression-era America. The novel is important because it’s one of the first accounts of the lives of Filipino migrant workers in America of the 1930s and ‘40s. In other words, a drastically different experience from mine. I steeled myself for the worst of it.

As the humidity climbed in Metro Manila, I read Carlos Bulosan’s “America Is in the Heart” for the second time, and waited for the rain to come.

"Shame, to me, seems to be one of the more physically assaulting emotions — up there with kilig, gigil, or heartbreak. Faced with it, we find ourselves strangely, irrationally helpless."

2.

“I came to know afterward that in many ways it is a crime to be a Filipino in California. I came to know that the public streets were not free to my people: we were stopped each time these vigilant patrolmen saw us driving a car. We were suspect each time we were seen with a white woman. And perhaps it was this narrowing of our life into an island, into a filthy segment of American society, that had driven Filipinos like Doro inward, hating everyone and despising all positive urgencies toward freedom.” (p.123)

Bulosan scholar E. San Juan Jr. explains in his introduction that this second wave of Filipinos, mostly male agricultural workers, were trapped in a liminal state: not tourists, but not immigrants, either. Without any rights, they were ready victims; upon arriving in Seattle, a couple of Filipino “old-timers” befriend the lone Allos, before shipping him off to work in an Alaskan cannery, his room and board deducted from his pay. It doesn’t get any better.

The book is sometimes accompanied by the subtitle “A Personal History,” and the experience of reading it is disturbingly, exhaustingly physical. Every meal, every dollar, is scavenged, toiled, or fought for. Like Allos, Bulosan suffered from tuberculosis; it eventually killed him. I stopped turning down corners whenever something horrible happens; the whole book was dog-eared. Dispossessed of land, only to be disowned of identity, and finally to die, slowly.

And Bulosan just keeps going. He spares no detail, no drudgery too insignificant, no brutality too gruesome. Allos reunites with his brother Macario, the only one to finish school, and with their friends they try to unionize the farm laborers. The white man is angry. The police take them for rides, break their hands, smash their testicles. Their neighbors burn down their homes or lynch them to a tree. My acidity started acting up.

A deluge would’ve been welcome relief, but to complain of the humidity — or worse, refer to it as oppressive — felt disrespectful. When the heat becomes too much, the best thing to do is to do nothing.

I can’t bring myself to talk about the women.

“The season for picking grapes was still far off…There was no work for the cold months of winter. From the gambling houses I went to the whore houses, hoping to find someone I knew… I sat in the living room and watched lonely Filipinos paw at the semi-nude girls. I felt angry and lost. Where in this wide country could I go?” (p.273)

Restless and roving, Bulosan’s characters are caught in “a strange flight” (p.182). Bulosan’s prose is just as breathless. It’s like he has to get it all out in one go, before his time is up. To write is to reveal, to share one’s secrets. Shame has written many memoirs. But on the underside of privilege, where lack is absolute, Bulosan exposes not his secrets but those of an unjust society. He is writing a testimonial, not a confessional.

When Allos is confined in a hospital for two years, a sick boy asks his help to write a letter. Allos finds himself pouring out his entire life story to the boy’s mother. Carlos the author, like Allos the narrator, needs to tell his story, to tell someone what happened to him. He needs to know that there is a chance, as tiny as the thought of light in a dark, locked room, that someone, anyone, might listen, one day.

This is what I had dreaded: the shame his testimonial would inspire in me, because I never experienced anything like it; never had to. But to dread is also to be drawn in. I was willing to listen; I needed to listen. My discomfort was the least I could do.

3.

The German writer W.G. Sebald wrote strange, elegiac things about the Holocaust by not writing about the Holocaust. When he died in a car accident in 2001, he’d become a canonical writer practically overnight — considering his relatively recent discovery by the English-speaking public. In a podcast tribute, his friend and colleague Christopher Bigsby remembers asking Sebald if he felt responsible.“No, not responsibility: Shame.”

Shame, to me, seems to be one of the more physically assaulting emotions — up there with kilig, gigil, or heartbreak. Faced with it, we find ourselves strangely, irrationally helpless. It’s problematic, but I actually don’t mind a little shaming, to be put in my place. It helps me make things right when I’ve done someone wrong. Maybe it’s because we Filipinos are so used to shame, have made it a part of our culture, even. Or maybe because place is something I too feel an anxious, almost panicked need to touch, and be immersed in.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, an island where people are always coming or going, my siblings and I always knew that we weren’t from there, not really. For a kid that never felt real, books, these made-up things felt much more real than reality, extremely and excitingly so. I found a home in these pages filled with words more permanent than the rented flats my family moved into and out of.

On his side of the privilege divide, made powerless by such targeted, systemic racism, Allos also loved to read. He read feverishly, desperately. He read to understand this foreign, hostile land that was now his home. He read to be a little less alone, to escape the sound of doors slamming in his face; to find a community to belong to, even one made of ideas and written by strangers either dead or far away. He read so that he wouldn’t lose his humanity, his sense of self — the values and traditions that were mementos from home — to this onslaught of hate, rage, fear. He read like his life depended on it, and it did.

Allos distrusts the middle class. In one instance, an American woman invites him to her home; she wants to throw a party in honor of his cause. When he leaves, all he can think about is how soft and white her carpet was. “How luxuriously this woman lived! Was this the reason that made me hate her class? Was my lack of comfort the mainspring of my dark fear?” (p.279).

Strange, how either side of privilege, desperate lack on the one hand, overwhelming surplus on the other, echoes with a similar hollow sound, as if each is its own kind of spiritual wasteland. Two desert islands, an ocean of difference in between.

"Bulosan was another person in another time, and yet reading him, today, the déjà vu is uncanny, like encountering something familiar in a place we least expected it to be."

4.

For all it put him through, Bulosan believed in America. After all, Americans created the public education in the Philippines, which is how Allos and his brother learned English, giving them their beautiful ideas about a better world. The same education system helped my own father and his siblings — growing up in Sitio San Ildefonso, Bulacan, with parents who were farmers and public school teachers — become upper-middle-class professionals in Manila. “America is the prophecy of a new society of men: of a system that knows no sorrow or strife or suffering,” Macario tells Allos one night. “The old world is dying, but a new world is being born.” (p.191).

Ultimately, even if Bulosan and his characters never get to see this new world, it is enough to keep them going. For a minute there, our generation thought we were already in it. We thought we were winning, that the world was becoming a little more humane, more equal. But ideas and reality are two different things.

I was a graduate student in New York, pursuing my dream of being a writer, the day Trump became president. To escape the sight of people crying — students in hallways, teachers in classrooms, strangers on the subway — I took a walk along the Hudson River with a man who no longer loved me. It was October and the leaves had finally turned; their golden skeletons swirled in the cold wind, rattling like empty shells.

Bulosan was another person in another time, and yet reading him, today, the déjà vu is uncanny, like encountering something familiar in a place we least expected it to be. It may be the great joke of our era that dystopian speculative fiction like Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale,” surreal meta-T.V. series “Atlanta,” and historical social realism like Bulosan’s are now singing the same song, using different harmonies. Everything hasn’t changed; nothing has.

The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk argues in “A Critique of Cynical Reason” that the apathy of the educated youth is actually the product of history, specifically the events of the last century. How can human civilization be good or true when it’s responsible for things like the Holocaust, the Rape of Manila, and, more recently, the War on Terror and the refugee crisis? “Even the simplest things in life [are] difficult for a person — that opens his eyes critically…sores open up everywhere…”(p.xxxvi-xxxvii). In order to carry on with our lives, we’ve developed a “false enlightened consciousness” which believes that, because nothing is true or real or good, nothing we do matters. “With some things we feel dismay but with most things we can’t really give a damn” (p.98-99).

In our experience of normal, small talk is weaponized, bombs go off amidst civilians, and people are scared of the weather. The world isn’t fair, and we’re starting to realize that it probably never will be. We know too much about all the terrible things happening in the world; false optimism feels far more toxic than honest cynicism. Nothing makes sense except for paradox, which is why Chance the Rapper can be ironic and earnest, hopeful and disillusioned, when he makes a song about the American Dream:

“I’m just gon’ rapping/ And y’all just keep clapping and keep acting like Flint got clean water/ And y’all don’t got teen daughters and black friends and gay cousins, y’all just gonna say nothing/ [...] Now these are first world problems that n*ggas make up/ Keep on playing we gon’ shake this shit up/ Keep on telling us we making it up/ The American Dream may you never wake up.”

I can’t say I was surprised that Trump won — Duterte, either, for that matter. Still, on the bad days, I’d listen to this Chance song on repeat to get myself out of bed. Some days the song just kept on playing.

Numbers aren’t just for counting money, they also measure risk and possibility. In our late stage capitalist times, we can’t help think about change in the same terms as economies of scale. How much does my individual act weigh against the grand total? How does saying no to plastic straws help to reduce the eight million pieces of plastic going into the ocean every day? How urgent is it for the Philippines to stop using coal when our country only produces .33 percent of the world’s carbon emissions? Late at night, I stop at a gas station and order a mega cup from Potato Corner — no plastic bag, please. The guy shaking cheese powder onto my fries looks sleepy; I wonder if he’s getting any benefits beyond his overtime.

4 ¾.

When Allos and his friends make some money, they eat until they feel sick and burn the rest of their earnings in the Chinese casinos. One day, the abuse will get bad enough that they go on a three-day bender, or pull a butcher knife on an employer or customer. The past is unbearable, the future inconceivable. There’s only the present, relentless and indifferent.

Their most tangible connection to the passing of time are the seasons. What sounds romantic is really a matter of labor, because farm hands follow the harvest. They camp on the outskirts of a town, their brown silhouettes barely seeming to move as they painstakingly work through each row in the field. When they are through, they move onto the next farm. Apples. Lemons. Corn. Grapes. It’s no accident that the romanticizing of nature, something Bulosan himself does, arose with the industrial age.

Living in the present, connected to the land — the things we hunger for today were our ancestors’ harsh reality. There comes a point where every generation needs to reconcile their ideas with reality. Sloterdijk puts forward the possibility that idealism isn’t worth its salt — that learning how to live one’s ideals is less important than learning how to be alive. Maybe for us it’s “not so much a matter of work but rather of relaxation.” (p.xxxvi-xxxvii)

"To write is to reveal, to share one’s secrets. Shame has written many memoirs. But on the underside of privilege, where lack is absolute, Bulosan exposes not his secrets but those of an unjust society."

5.

Climatologists predict that typhoons will become more powerful and erratic as our planet continues to warm. Three years after Typhoon Yolanda, I went to Guiuan, Samar, ground zero for the most powerful typhoon to make landfall in recorded history. I wanted to know how the nascent surf town had recovered; if people had been able to reclaim their everyday lives. But I was afraid that they would be triggered by my questions, or get angry at me for making them remember their pain and loss. My self-consciousness dissolved as the stories spilled out of them and over me, salty, bitter, sweet. They wanted to tell me, needed me to know, to taste and see, what it was like, for them. Just like Allos turned his shame of the things he had to do to survive, into something powerful, maybe even beautiful — something to be proud of.

“America Is in the Heart” isn’t a perfect novel. Just as Allos the Filipino slowly and painfully learns to be Carlos the American, in “America” Bulosan is coming into his own as a writer. Sometimes, he is uncertain and inconsistent. One episode of hardship follows another: maybe turning points could be better heightened; maybe some moments are over-indulged, sentimental. The novel comes to an abrupt end as World War II begins — too much history for one tentative book. Bulosan didn’t have much of a living literary tradition to borrow from or build on. For Filipinos, his "America" was the first.

This new edition features a foreword by Elaine Castillo, a powerful Filipinx writer on the rise — her widely acclaimed first novel, “America Is Not the Heart,” about a queer, ex-NPA young woman who migrates to the Bay Area, continues the tradition that began with Bulosan, even as it challenges it. People think genius is about one person’s talent, but true genius expresses the best of a collective, not an individual.

Life has turned out so different from the stories we love most. So flat and frustrating. So shapeless and unsymbolic. Imperfect. And yet, the patience required to read a flawed story of survival can teach us more about the patience we need in this world than one that’s perfectly crafted and totally satisfying. Perhaps imperfect stories by broken individuals are what we need right now. To remind us we have always been broken, that the world is in a constant state of becoming, half made and half unmade. And that, for as long as we’ve been broken, we’ve also been capable of beauty. We see it in the world around us. In our beautiful made-up things. In our own beautiful bodies, the asymmetrical, irregularly shaped work of innumerable cellular colonies. Such stories help us remember that existence is not probability but miracle, a growing, mutating field of change. Nothing fixed, no guarantees; every moment starting over, each choice an act of faith.

Normal is a bad word, these days. But normal doesn’t have to be normalizing. It can be a simple point, the middle of a bell curve. Some of us, by circumstance or choice, aren’t easily included — off-center, outside the frame; not seen, let alone heard. Testimonies like those of Bulosan widen the middle, stretching it to take in much more of the world. We’re much more elastic than we think. If there is shame on either side of privilege, perhaps it can help us find one another again — to see our material comforts as our forefathers’ and great-mothers’ sacrifices fulfilled; to hear in the hurts of others a realm of possibilities, a chance to make things better; to feel the myriad ways we push and pull each other — connected, interdependent. The middle is where we meet.

I don’t know if books can save us — I mean, all of us. It’s enough, for now, that literature helped Carlos Bulosan save himself.

***

“America Is in the Heart” Penguin Classics Edition is available in Fully Booked branches.