Filipino American Literature

“The identity of a Filipino today is of a person asking what is his identity.” - Nick Joaquin

“This is then what one finds in Filipino fiction: a self that shares in all of the contradictoriness of the national self.” - Ninotchka Rosca

The Postcolonial Meets the “Ethnic” United States

The study of Filipino American literature offers a place for the frames of postcolonial discourse and the literary efforts of the “hypenated” or “ethnic” American to converge. This intersection offers a challenge to the putative need to separate these endeavors on the basis of the United States’s seemingly shaky status as a colonial power (Prior to the American occupation, the Philippines spent three centuries under Spanish rule). American annexation of the Philippines occurred after two separate wars: the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Filipino-American War (1899-1902). U.S colonial rule of the archipelago was loosened during the Commonwealth Period of 1935-1946, a period after which the Philippines gained its independence. In addition to that, the issues of colonization become complicated in light of the fact that the Philippines experienced decades of enforced “free trade” with the United States up to and even after this independence. Such a fact raises all sorts of useful questions about the effects of neocolonialism, and also the latent “colonialism” of alienation and discrimination experienced by some immigrants.

Filipinos in the United States

Approximately 150,000 Filipinos migrated to the United States during the period of 1906-1946, most of them settling in California and Hawaii (Hawaiian sugar plantations commissioned many Filipino laborers). After arrival citizenship evaded Filipinos for many years. The 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Independence Act merely elevated the status of these new arrivals to “nationals” from “aliens.” From 1946-1964, about 30,000 Filipinos, mostly World War II veterans and their families, arrived in the United States. 630,000 people came in the next wave of Filipino immigrants who arrived between 1965 and 1984. The United States’s 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act and the later political and economic uncertainty created by the Marcos regime in the Philippines are two factors which increased Filipino immigration during this period.  At present, the Filipino American population is the fastest growing Asian American group in the United States, and statistics illustrate that this community will surpass the numbers of Japanese and Chinese Americans combined in the next decade. American-born-Filipinos are referred to as “Flips,” a term whose origins are unclear. The suggestion that this term comes from a World War II acronym for the phrase “fucking little island people” has caused some to shy away from the term. Others have reclaimed it and changed the acronym to mean “fine-looking island people”. Others still find it more plausible that the term is just a shortening of “Filipino”.

Filipinos Writing in the United States

Picture of writer Jose Garcia Villa

Jose Garcia Villa, 1953/ Library of Congress

The key question for Filipino writers and critics is how to retrieve (or gain for the first time) their “lost” and “unified”identity. The umbrella term “Asian-American” seems fallacious to those writers (e.g. Carlos Bulosan, José García Villa, Bienvenido Santos, and N.V.M Gonzalez) who migrated to the United States during the first part of the century. Villa was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1943, and Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart (1946) continues to hold weight in literary discussions on Filipino American identity today. “I tell you to wait for the inevitable war/Of armies and idealogies, and the enduring love./In our time when every man must lie for life,/Nothing will survive but this historic truth,” writes Bulosan in “Last Will and Testament” (Evangelista 150). For these writers, the United States is a place of discovery and re-cultivation which are ends to a process akin to a necessary exile. Critics like Oscar Campomanes and N.V.M. Gonzalez, in an anthology of Asian American critical essays, point to the discrepancies of models for true Filipino American identity as they remark on the recent success of Filipino-American writers like Jessica Hagedorn whose 1990 Dogeaters seems to search for a past and national identify not important to all Filipino writers (Cheung 80-83). Literary critics are also prone to question Carlos Bulosan’s dominant presence in studies of Filipino American literature. Campomanes claims, in Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling’s Reading the Literatures of Asian America, that the emphasis on Bulosan’s work comes at the expense of a lack of equal concentration on other writers “whose exilic writing did not fit with the immigrant ethos” of the American mentality (55-56). This claim is part of an ongoing critical discussion on the politics of the U.S literary marketplace and hasty generalizations about minority populations. The work of prominent writers of more recent decades (e.g. Ninotchka Rosca, Ephifanio San Juan, Linda Ty-Casper, and Michelle Skinner) adds to the richly complicated question of the possibility of a true Filipino American vision.  N.V.M Gonzalez is particularly conscious of the categories and divisions of minority literature as he describes the work of Bienvenido Santos: “In such a writing as this, the themes of racial bias, nostalgia, and alienation find authentic expression, but the rendering must be understood not as ethnicized American or Western ideas, better that they be understood as ritual responses by the Filipino in full voice … stifled, silenced, and thus forced to echo itself ” (Cheung 71).

A “Different” Asian American Literature

The seeming indecisiveness of agenda for Filipino-American writers (to exile themselves from the home country, accept the status of a hyphenated American or find a bridge between the two) is not exclusive to this branch of what we term as “Asian American” literature. There are, however, some ways in which the Filipino American experience veers away from the “normal” Asian American lifestyle, and these differences contribute to these writers’ literary intentions. Ephifanio San Juan Jr. claims, in “Filipino Writing in the United States, “that Filipino Americans remain an exploited and disadvantaged, not a ‘model’ minority” (142). Oscar Campomanes, in his arguments that all types of Filipino American writing are “exilic” in some way, counters Bharati Mukherjee’s strict dichotomy of immigration and expatriatism( Lim and Ling 57). The uniqueness of Filipino American writing comes, for critics like Campomanes, from its inability to fit neatly into divisive labels. What makes Filipino American literary efforts different, even from South Asian American writers, is the combination of the length of the total colonial experience, the involvement of the United States, and the varying degrees of willingness to assimilate into the American cultural landscape. Further complicating the matter is the Filipino appraisal of its own “national”language (Pilipino, stemming from Tagalog) which, according to an entry in the 1995 Encyclopedia Americana written by Leonard Casper, is known as “Filipino English.” The pluralism of national consciousness within the Philippines (eight vernacular languages and three distinct geographical divisions) also precludes an immediate and unified “home” or”national” identify.

Major Themes

Critics tend to agree upon the importance of configuring and re-creating functions of the imagination for Filipino-American writers. This imaginary attempts to ease the shock of alienation and isolation resulting from immigration and helps to bridge the homeland to the United States for the Filipino American. Rocio G. Davis describes the import of this quality along with the elements of irony and “double perspective” in an anthology of essays on Asian American immigrant literature (Kain 118-119). In her explication of the work of Hagedorn and Rosca, she states, “the interaction of historical facts and memory are the tools that construct the immigrant’s elusive story as the need to see beyond superficial accounts and tell their own versions, albeit fictionally constructed — to create, ultimately, a mythos rendered official in the telling,” (125). The theme of invisibility is also one that is often explicated in critical works. San Juan attempts to differentiate between the themes of those writers like Bulosan who write of a “radical project of solidarity of people of color against capital” and writers like Santos and Ty-Casper who write with “conciliatory or integrationist tendencies ” (151).

Commonly Cited Works of Fiction and Poetry

  • America is in the Heart (autobiographical), Carlos Bulosan (1946)
  • The Bamboo Dancers, N.V.M. Gonzalez (1959)
  • Dogeaters (novel, nominated for National Book Award), Jessica Hagedorn(1990)
  • Many Voices (poetry), José García Villa (1939)
  • The Peninsulars (deals with influences of Spanish colonization),Linda Ty- Casper (1964)
  • “Scent of Apples” (short story), Bienvenido Santos (1979)
  • State of War (novel), Ninotchka Rosca (1988)
  • Ilustrado, Miguel Syjuco (2010)
  • When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard (1999)
  • American Son, Brian Ascalon Roley (2001)
  • Dream Jungle, Jessica Hagedorn (2003)
  • When the Elephant Dances, Tess Uriza Holthe (2002)
  • Magdalena, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard (2002)

A Selection of Authors and Titles for More Research

  • Bacho, Peter. Dark Blue Suit and Other Stories. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.
  • Bruchac, Joseph. Breaking Silence: An Anthology of Asian American Poets. Greenfield Center: Greenfield Review, 1983.
  • Cordova, Fred. Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans. Dubuqued: Kendall Hunt, 1983.
  • De Jesus, Melinda L. Pinay Power: Peminist Critical Theory: Theorizing the Filipina/American Experience. Hove:Psychology Press, 2005.
  • Francia, Luis H. and Gamalinda, Eric, eds. Flippin’: Filipinos on America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
  • Huang, Guiyou. The Columbia Guide to Asian American Literature Since 1945. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
  • Kaplan, Amy and Pease, Donald E., eds. Cultures of United States Imperialism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.
  • Kim, Elaine H. and Lowe, Lisa, eds. New Formations, New Questions: Asian American Studies. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.
  • Kowalewski, Michael, ed. Reading the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.
  • Mendoza, Susanah Lily L. Between the Homeland and the Diaspora: The Politics of Theorizing Filipino and Filipino American Identities: A Second Look at Poststructuralism-indiginization Debates. Hove: Psychology Press, 2002.
  • Peñaranda, Oscar et al. “An Introduction to Filipino-American Literature,” in Aiiieeeee!, 1975
  • Rafael, Vincente L. Discrepant Histories : Translocal Essays on Filipino Cultures. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.
  • Root, Maria P.P. Filipino Americans: Tranformation and Identity. New York: SAGE, 1997.
  • Ruoff, LaVonne Brown and Ward, Jerry W. Jr., ed. Redefining American Literary History. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990.
  • San Juan, Ephifanio, Jr. Beyond Postcolonial Theory. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
  • Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Sumida, Stephen H. And the View From the Shore: Literary traditions of Hawaii. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.

Works Cited

  • Cheung, King-Kok, ed. An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Evangelista, Susan. Carlos Bulosan and His Poetry: a Biography and Anthology. Seattle, London: University of Washington Press, 1985.
  • Kain, Geoffrey, ed. Ideas of Home: Literature of Asian Migration. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1997.
  • Lim, Shirley Geok-lin and Ling, Amy, eds. Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.
  • San Juan, Ephifanio, Jr. “Filipino Writing in the United States.” Philippine Studies 41.2 (1993).

Author: Reshmi Hebbar, Spring,1998
Last edited: June 2012

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