The term “expatriate writing” conjures the romantic and banal image of the lonely writer in exile in some cramped room pounding an old typewriter or writing on pad paper and trying to keep his fingers warm by rubbing his hands. This was how it was for Jose Rizal, working on his novel in Ghent, Carlos Bulosan in Seattle, and Jose Garcia Villa in Greenwich Village—to cite a few Filipino exile writers.
Today the Filipino expatriate writer is more likely seated before a computer or laptop—tapping the keys to create literature in exile.
They are now legion—these expat writers—and scattered all over the world, in keeping with the Filipino diaspora of an estimated eight million overseas workers. Inevitably the literarily inclined among them express themselves.
Not that their writings get into the literary canon—a few will—and be read by hapless students of literature. The act of creation in itself is salutary enough for these workers whose aspiration is not to become a Palanca or Free Press winner but to earn for the families they have left behind.
Imagine now a Filipino in a dormitory or apartment room trying to write while a sandstorm is blowing outside and his friends are entertaining themselves with a karaoke or a card game. Another banal image but out of such has resulted in a collection of verses that a UP scholar has taken the trouble of putting together.
This book From Saudi with Love: 100 Poems by OFWs by Odine de Guzman (UP Press, 2003) is a valuable contribution to the critical study of what may be called emergent literature —in the context of canon revision, which has occurred in some literature departments, notably those at the University of the Philippines.
Canon revision or formation is undertaken in at least two levels. As is the function of English departments, curatorship, i.e the preservation and projection of what Matthew Arnold called “the best that is thought of and known” becomes their primary concern; hence, the “classics” or the “great books.”
On the other hand, the emergence of Third World (countries characterized by underdevelopment as a result of their colonial exploitation) with the attendant struggles of the oppressed classes and sectors (workers including migrant labor, peasants, minorities, women, gays and others considered marginalized) has compelled literature scholars and students to take a critical look at their curricula, largely made up of the dominant texts—which have only served to maintain the status quo.
The idea of literature and social change has taken root, and efforts are directed at retrieving the literature (both written and oral) of the dispossessed and the marginalized. At first blush the formalist reader would dismiss these works of the unlettered, for art (high art actually) has been the norm. But more and more scholars have undertaken studies of emergent literature.
Odine de Guzman has made a study of the poems produced by overseas Filipino workers who as a class or sector would not have thought of writing at all. These writings come from all over the world in places where there are Filipino migrant workers who suffer homesickness, oppression and dispossession. As Epifanio San Juan says, their writing is “the transitional agency for self-expression and self-recovery.”
The Filipino diaspora of the working class began in the first decade of the 20th century when American planters imported contract labor to work in the sugar, pineapple, vegetable fields and fruit orchards of Hawaii and California as well as in the salmon canneries in Alaska.
The better known of these migrant workers who turned to writing are Carlos Bulosan and to a lesser degree M. Gracia Concepcion. The earliest but hardly known expatriate worker poet was Juan Salazar who died in 1919.
Bulosan is an icon among Filipino writers in English. He arrived in the US during the Depression and rode the boxcars along the West Coast looking for work and suffering discrimination and abuse. His poems and his fiction, notably America is in the Heart depict the heart rending experience of the Pinoy during that period. The older Concepcion had his stint as cannery worker, postal clerk, and newspaper reporter who put out a book of poems called Azucena in 1925. He returned to the Philippines before the Pacific War, set up a snack shop called “The Ivory Tower” on Herran st. where the left writers met and discuss literature and politics. After the war Concepcion went back to the States and died in Stockton, about two years before Bulosan did of TB in Seattle.
Since the exodus to the States we have had letters, poems, fiction, non-fiction, and plays that would constitute Filipino expatriate/exile writing. They would be joined by pensionados sent for study abroad and professionals who have also been lured to the American dream.
Every writer from the migrant waves has his/her specific experience adjusting to life in America. Bulosan after going through hardship and discrimination in the workplace and American society found camaraderie in the US trade union movement and linked up with the workers’ struggle in the Philippines. Jose Garcia Villa, the poet alienated from his father and what he considered the dismal state of literary affairs in the country, found himself in New Mexico and later moved to New York where he found his literary niche as an anthologized American poet.
Bienvenido Santos who found himself stranded as a pensionado in the States during the Pacific War had occasion to document the homesickness of the Pinoys abroad in his stories and novels. The end of the war brought him back to the Philippines but martial law found himself again in the States as a self-exile. Many others fled the dictatorial regime and new writers emerged in the milieu of the colonizer’s culture.
The search for jobs and a better life abroad expanded the Filipino diaspora to some 180 countries in need of contract labor and professional services. One such country is Saudi Arabia where one finds the highest concentration of Filipino contract workers and professionals anywhere in the world—now numbering close to 800,000 from a world total of 7 million (including the undocumented), making the Filipino OFWs the “world largest migrant nation,” according to a foreign affairs secretary. Many of these workers are “victims of abuses and human trafficking” and who return home “physically and emotionally brutalized.”
Yet how OFWs are victimized and brutalized will probably not be so evident in the poems (Carlos Bulosan was singular in this respect; he minced no words in describing the castration or lynching of a Filipino worker). In the Saudi poems one will not find similarly graphic accounts but the instances of racism, draconian punishment for offenders, and other misfortunes are there.
Most of the poems were submitted in a literary contest sponsored by the Overseas Filipino Press Club—a project that gave an opportunity for the writers, in de Guzman’s words, to “examine their relationships with their family and the nation-state and to make these usually private musings public.”
The poems are about “the workers’ anxiety, alienation, and loneliness on being away from home, but they also speak of the workers’ love for their country and family happiness, triumphs, humor, loves and new found loves, and the discoveries and new learning.” The poems are grouped into three: “love of country which includes the OFWs’ reflections on the concept of bagong bayani and their relationship with the nation-state; love for family and other love interests, including the OFWs search for ‘greener pastures’; and meditations on life and other musings.”
The author notes the strong influence of Balagtas’ Florante at Laura on the poems invariably written in Filipino—suggesting that among the “unlettered” authors the native oral tradition of the balagtasan, as well as the awit, the salawikain and the bugtong was something they could fall back on when pressed to create a poem. Popular culture also has a big effect on their writing.
The bibliographical essay on OFW literature attests to the growing genre of writing from the world’s “largest migrant nation” of Filipinos.
De Guzman’s book provides a window through which we can appreciate people’s literature.