Mapping the Literary Constellation: 50 Key Moments in a Personal History

The Guardian UK loves lists, and they spend plenty of air time debating the purpose and usefulness of this form. Katie Kitamura waxes in her article “Literary Lists: Proof of our existence”:

Lists are used as a formally alienating device, a dehumanising agent, that is nonetheless entirely wrapped up in the question of human life.

How do we describe the fact of human existence? At a certain point, perhaps, style fails us. Language, even and in particular at its most evocative, becomes less of an aid and more of a difficulty. In these circumstances, a certain kind of writer has, again and again, reverted to the list – perhaps as the simplest proof of existence in the first place. It’s no accident that these lists often delineate material objects, the physical evidence of a life.

…[Umberto] Eco is talking about what I can only describe as a big feeling, and one that requires all the support of its formal and literary scaffolding. He is not, in the main, talking about grocery lists or lists of books read. But as long as we’re keeping lists, no matter what those lists are, we’re keeping faith with some idea of perpetuity. We are making the assumption that the list will endure even when we do not.

Furthering the idea that lists endure, The Guardian enumerated English literature’s 50 key moments from Marlowe to JK Rowling, registering historical moments and literary milestones. Here’s a taste:

Note: what follows is not merely a book list, but an attempt to identify some of the hinge moments in our literature – a composite of significant events, notable poems, plays, and novels, plus influential deaths, starting with the violent death of Shakespeare’s one serious rival …

1. The death of Christopher Marlowe (1593)

2. William Shakespeare: The Sonnets (1609)

3. The King James Bible (1611)

4. William Shakespeare: The First Folio (1623)78)

In the spirit of Eco’s perpetuity, here’s a personal record–certainly not exhaustive nor complete–noting moments of  self discovery, influential people, places, films, musicians, mentors, trailblazers to follow, and other artifacts that have shaped this literary self. The below register doesn’t follow chronological order nor an order of importance but is a haphazard attempt to pin down the brightest constellations that wheel over my literary skies. Like any piece of writing, it’s been revised nth times over, and these fidgety fingers are still tempted to make further emendations. It will be interesting to revisit ten and twenty years from now and discover how the skyscape has shifted.

1. Central Station
2. The City of Angels
3. My soul mate, PJS.
4. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

5. Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine
6. Barbara Jane Reyes
7. Lysley Tenorio
8. Rosemary Graham, Marilyn Abildskov, and Cecilia Brainard Manguerra
9. Saint Mary’s College of California MFA Creative Writing Program (2006)
10. UCLA Creative Writing Program: David Wong Louie and Paula Gunn Allen (1998)
11. Teaching Composition Classes
12. NYT article on Filipino House Bands
13. LA Weekly
14. Beethoven
15. The Smiths
16. MacDowell Colony Residency, January 2013
17. Maternal & paternal grandparents’ lives & stories
18. Virginia Woolf
19. Gabriel Garcia Marquez (short stories–not the novels!)
20. Typewriter Model #____
21. Apple
22. WordPress
23. Mi hermanito
24. BBC’s adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South

25. EM Forster
26. Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss
27. The City of Angels

At Home in Venice, Los Angeeles
28. Andrea Levy’s Small Island
29. Joseph Conrad and his Heart of Darkness
30. Thomas Hardy (Tess of d’Ubervilles, Return of the Native, and Far From the Maddening Crowd)
31. Frederich Nietzsche
32. This Bridge Called My Back and Borderlands/Las Fronteras

33. Shakespeare’s Hamlet
34. Mr. Thurston’s Honors English class at Monte Vista High School and his extra credit reading list
35. Mr. Tato, Avocado Elementary School
36. Libraries at Highland Elementary, MVHS, Avocado, and Spring Valley Middle School
37. Elementary School Bookfairs (Scholastic Catalogs–does anyone remember these?)
38. Laura Ingalls Wilder Series
39. The Romantics: Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, and the rest of the guys in the band
40. Charlotte Bronte
41. Emily Bronte & Wuthering Heights

42. Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek and Loose Woman
43. The UCLA Ten Series and The Norton Anthology of English Literature I and II
44. The Great Chuck D, aka Charles Dickens
45. Poets & Writers
46. Mary Volmer, Nick D. Leither, and Emily Breunig
47. KPFK’s Global Village’s Yatrika Shah-Rais and Derek Rath
48. KCRW’s Tom Schnabel
49. Pa and the copies of Aesop’s Fables and Greek mythology books he gave me as a child
50. Ma, all her books and paperwork that crammed our house and her indomitable encouragement to read & write

Hopefully this inventory might give you pause to reflect over the personal and private moments that have shaped your art and passion. This could include lovers, would-be lovers, chance encounters, TV shows, songs, albums, poets, comediennes–whatever gets your engine revved. You’ll leave beloved people and places out that will make you cringe with regret, as I have, but that’s the nature of lists. As much as they stand as testament; they’re essentially ephemera like every other form we try and hold fast to. These watersheds don’t have to be explained but should mean everything to you.

Interviewed by Dr. Rudy Guevarra Jr. in his new book “Becoming Mexipino”

Just got my signed copy of Becoming Mexipino: Multiethnic Identities and Communities in San Diego written by Dr. Rudy P Guevarra Jr. (Arizona State University) and published by Rutgers University Press. I remember when Dr. Guevarra and I first met at a FANHS (Filipino American National Historical Society) conference in San Diego years ago. We compared notes about being Mexipino or Chicapina, as my family calls us, and, later at UCLA, I would share my stories with him officially for the honor and privilege of being included in his book.

Here’s an excerpt:

Rashaan and other Mexipinos in San Diego are the bridges between both cultures because they live a multicultural existence. Multiethnic and multiracial people have already experienced an alternative worldview, which has positive implications. She described it in terms of the future of racial and ethnic mixing: ‘I think it is inevitable…Time magazine put up all the races of together to see what it [hypothetical person of the future] would look like, and it looked Filipino. You know, it’s like we’re already there, we’ve been there. We’re just bringing it to the forefront (158)

Becoming Mexipino is a social-historical interpretation of two ethnic groups, one Mexican, the other Filipino whose paths led both to San Diego, California. Using archival sources, oral histories, newspapers and personal collections and photographs, Rudy P. Guevarra Jr. traces the earliest interactions of both groups with Spanish colonialism to illustrate how these historical ties and cultural bonds laid the foundation for what would become close interethnic relationships and communities in twentieth century San Diego as well as in other locales throughout California and the Pacific West Coast.

Educators, please consider using this text in your classroom. California history lovers, ethnic study researchers, and San Diego locals, why not pick up a copy for yourself? Please help spread the word to interested parties and consider having a go yourself!

Speaking on Love & Labor for Barbara Jane Reyes’ class “Filipina Lives and Voices in Literature” at USF

Thanks to professor and poet Barbara Jane Reyes and the sponsorship of the Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program and Asian Studies Program, I was able to guest lecture for Reyes’ Spring 2012 course “YPSP 195-01/ANST 195-02: Filipina Lives and Voices in Literature” at the University of San Francisco on Tuesday, April 3, 2012. Before my presentation, sixteen savvy students read my short personal essay “Barbie’s Gotta Work,” published in Doveglion. The essay was included in the course’s unit on “Work and Domesticity.”

Reyes recently discussed this very same class and its inception in her recent post on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet The Blog:

One day, I’d casually asked our program chair whether he was interested in an all Filipina/Pinay (Filipino women) literature course, and he said, yes, draft a syllabus, and we’ll get it approved by the curriculum committee. It was approved. It was quickly filled. This is the first semester I am teaching the course, and I’m still in disbelief. All Pinay Literature. I always think, wow, where was this class when I was young, and when I needed it most. It seems a lot of people have been asking this question too, as I have been asked by more people than I can count, for my syllabus and reading lists. So, in this space, I will be talking a bit about some of the items from my syllabus, in the hopes that it will prompt readers further.

Read entire post here.

For my guest lecture, after giving a brief power point presentation, featuring pictures of my family, my maternal and paternal grandparents at work and at play in their youth, the students asked challenging questions about the superficiality of Barbie and how that was complicated in the essay and what it was like to be a professor of color. Another student broached the gap between generations, wondering how to relate with family members who might not share the same  educational experiences. This brought on the idea of exploring the roots that hold us together and the stories family members share no matter where their paths in life take them.

We discussed looking at life and literature through a prism of lenses, much like looking through a kaleidoscope; we can shift the angles. We also talked about family memories that shape who we are. Some of the students shared their own experiences, remembering the work of their mothers, fathers, and grandparents.

Below is a sneak peek at the writing exercise students worked on, sifting through their past and their parents’ and grandparents’ pasts to uncover half-forgotten memories concerning love and labor, two themes that I keep coming back to with my own writing.

Love & Labor Writing Exercise

  • How do your parents and/or grandparents use their body at work?
  • How did work define your parents and/or grandparents?
  • What sense of self and purpose did they find through their labor?
  • Describe one of your parents or grandparents at work: What is the setting? What are their hands doing? Explain the actions of the body and mind.
  • How are they interacting with their setting? With other people at work?

Professor Dawn Bohulano Mabalon Honors Visayan Roots

Professor Dawn Bohulano Mabalon from San Francisco State University shares family stories and a Visayan favorite, binangkal, which my grandma and grandpa loved to make and share for breakfast with a nice cup of coffee. Just because the holidays are over doesn’t mean we can’t keep sharing good times with family & food.

From Our Own Voice, published December 2011, “Bohulano Family Binangkal”:

Several friends, many of them second and third generation with roots in the Visayas, reacted quickly and rapturously to my binangkal photo, thrilled that Facebook love had been given to an obscure regional treat beloved across the Visayas and wherever in the world Visayans settled. My writer friend Rashaan Alexis Meneses posted: “My grandpa used to make these! Sob.”…Binangkal is a sesame-covered baking powder donut, deep fried until crisp and brown on the outside and pillowy on the inside. When made well, its surface is craggy, brown and caramelized from the hot oil, its insides moist and fluffy. A popular snack in Cebu and the Visayas, it has look-alikes in Chinese dim sum restaurants and bakeries, which is a clue that binangkal may have some Chinese influence.

Read entire article here and have a go at the recipe to bring a taste of sweet memories into your kitchen.

In honor of Saint Valentine

On the summer solstice, June 21, 2010, among dear family and close friends, my partner of twelve years and myself jaunted over to San Francisco City Hall for a civil union. When we arrived, we had just missed a tour of elementary kids who were boarding their buses as we filed in for our appointment to be wed ’til death do us part. After our ceremony under the rotunda, we whisked up to the top floor for a photo shoot meanwhile SEIU members demonstrated, singing “We Shall Overcome.” We followed our civil union with a photo shoot at one of our favorite venues, the Legion of Honors. The day closed with an exchange of vows on Ocean Beach, and after ward we celebrated with dinner at the Cliff House.

We were lucky enough to have this magical day documented by our one of our nearest and dearest friends, who I’ve known since our salad days at UCLA. The photographer, artist, and educator Brenda Janairo captured the solstice’s events with her artistry. Here’s an excerpt of her website:

Oh L’amour….Rashaan & Phil

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I’m a sucker for love. I’m the one who watches all the weepy love flicks and cries like a baby. Yes, I admit, I love to cry. It’s not the mere action of crying that I love, but more the ability to connect to characters that I watch. To me that is what creates a beautiful film, characters I can sympathize with.
Now, when I connect to people in real life…tears do flow. A few weekends ago I had the honor of shooting the wedding of 2 amazing individuals, Rashaan and Phil.

For more photos click here.