AWP 2005


I attended AWP 2000 in Kansas City, MO, "back in the day" when Robin Hemley was still Editor of the Bellingham Review and Brenda Miller had just started as faculty. I was one of Hemley's 'prize horses,' one of a handful of us who he'd encouraged to come with promises of publication and notoriety. We were shown off to others, his latest batch of prodigies *shakes head* We tolerated it, of course, because we were with Hemley after all, and he always seems to get what he wants, no matter how outrageous it seems in retrospect.

I valiantly, and successfully, found a batch of FilAm writers there - Nick Carbo, Vince Gotera, Evelina Galang, Oliver de la Paz and a few others - and we all snuck out for Missouri BBQ on a Lenten Friday night. It was great to find "my people" in the sea of whiteness that can be AWP, and I kept a picture I'd taken of all of us hanging above my desk, my quiet inspiration to keep going even I felt too hopeless to write on my thesis.


AWP 2005 - a Friday night again, this time the Friday gathering is after Easter, so no worries about not eating fish when I'm not supposed to. Instead, I find myself in a corner cafe in Vancouver, BC after driving two plus hours through rush hour traffic. My mood is tense and anticipatory - would any remember me?

As it turned out Oliver, Vince and Evelina were not in attendance, and when I reintroduced myself to Nick, all he could say was "well, you've grown up" which is strange, since I was 34 when we met and now 39. I'm hoping he didn't mean I'd gotten fatter in five years. The crowd was mixed ethinically and age-wise, with me apparently square in the middle, belonging to neither side. There was a lot of that, feeling inside/outside, especially when I was asked about my book (I don't have one published yet) or my teaching (I don't have a stint right now). There is nothing more conversation stopping than revealing the lack of publication or academic position, leading to the inevitible, yet unsaid "So what /are/ you doing here, then?"

I wanted to find Eileen Tabios, though, to thank her for her interest in a poem of mine, and she walked up just as I was asking about her. F2F (flat nose to flat nose) finally, we laughed a bit, and she called me one of her Peeps, wondering how I knew about the reading - "your blog" I said, which seemed to surprise her and made me feel a bit like a stalker (Hi My name is Bec, I stalk famous writers).

The question of the night for me, though, was "where are all the FilAm memorists?" which was an odd thing, I know, since this was a poetry reading afterall, but here was the biggest concentration of AsiaCan and AsiAm writers I'd been around in years, so I took a risk. Most were taken aback by my forthrightness (which by now I should be used to) - Nick seem confused by the question at first, then gestured to the book I was holding Pinoy Poetics, saying that all the writers in it were memorists. Oscar Penaranda seem intrigued, saying he'd been encouraged by his editor to put together a memoir also. We talked a long time about the form and how important it was to get the stories out there, and I'm hopeful, since when he gave his reading, I realized he had the perfect voice for memoir pieces. Eileen, though, was the most surprising, first insisting that 'we' had to establish the FilAm aesthetic first before we could write memoir, then mentioning, almost as an aside, that her 'brick' was a memoir of sorts, even if she couldn't claim to be a fallen angel.

All through the reading, which was fabulous (oh the voice of those poets! beautiful and challenging) I kept wondering, why does it seem on the one hand that these writers already knew memorists but who were choosing to focus on poetry and fiction instead while on the other there was this shyness about the memoir form.

It didn't hit me until a few days later - duh - Fourth Genre. Many folk think of memoir as something done at the end of one's long, illustrious career, usually hollywood types wanting to cash in on dishing the dirt on their friends 'back in the day.' Memoir, then, is too much about self, about personal accomplishments, which is antithetical to the Filipino culture. It's about looking back, but never pushing forward, never an action of protest or activism.

I had to laugh when I realized this! The problem was Fourth Genre.

The three main genres of writing are Poetry, Fiction, and Playwriting. Historians are considered non-fiction writers, and traditional memoirs, as mentioned above, are seen as historical non-fiction.

Creative Non-Fiction, the use of narrative techniques to tell a personal, non-fiction story, is a relatively new invention, though it's roots go as deep as the traditional three. The Fourth Genre is Creative Non-Fiction, and as such, has only a few journals that publish it. The movement is a strong one though, with many critics and writers of Creative Non-Fiction around the world. Within the genre, the work is refered to as memoir (because Fourth Genre seems so blah, and Creative Non-fiction is so long).

There aren't that many FilAm memoirists because in general, there aren't as many writers of Creative Non-Fiction as there are writers of the other three forms. It was such a simple understanding once I figured it out.

I still feel outside, me doing 'that thing' I do (even Oscar picked up on it when he wrote the inscirption to me in his book), but at least now I know a little more about why. The Poets, Playwrights and Fiction writers all get the glory and attention, but there is something distinctly deconstructive and protest like about Memoir writing, and that makes me feel pretty good.


EILEEN said...

To really be sure my position is clear, I want to say that I, for one, do not privilege poetry, fiction and other literary forms over the form of the memoir. I tried to say this by email but I don't think my thoughts were reflected in tnis second post -- that is, that earlier on, and given the context of the reading, I thought you were asking why the people there at the reading (primarily poets but some fictionists) weren't doing memoirs. I responded as such, which is a different matter from the notion of memoir as its own genre. A memoir, in my view, is its own separate form that can stand on its own, without needing to be compared to other forms. So if others have been telling you otherwise, including that it's considered a poorer relative to other forms, do please let the record show those thoughts have not come from me.


Patrick said...

I hadn't thought about that: Few Pinoy memoirists. Good point. (I do consider Luis Francia's Eye of the Fish memoir, no?). At 76, my father is finishing up his memoir now. Amazingly, though he wrote plenty about religion (when he was still a priest), occasional newsletter and PR copy, and did publish a book about Ilokano, he doesn't consider himself a writer. I suppose we could consider Bulosan's America is in the Heart a kind of inventive memoir. But you're right the examples are few. I would be eager to read Mang Oscar P's memoir in particular, but also others of his generation (and older for god's sake, if they've got it in 'em, and I'm sure they do).

I'm guessing that our generation (I'm 36) will have its share of Pinoy memoir. Perhaps only a few years away from a critical mass in the genre -- certainly no more than a decade away. (just thought of this as a note: Aimee Nezhukumatathil's "first" genre is creative non-fiction.)

If I can pontificate (since the world's currently pontiffless) -- maybe there is a memoir out there, hidden in the back closet of a farmhouse in Northern California, maybe a stack of letters in a Chicago apartment in the 1920s, or crumbling diary in Nevada. What I'm yearning for is a personal historical record. We can call it memoir. Or we can call it history or scholarly research. In any case, there's old eloquence to be found.

Thanks for the provocative post.

Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor said...

For Eileen:

Yes, I /do/ acknowledge there was a disconnect between what was my intended question and the perceived answer I received that lead me to believe that from your point of view, memoir was 'less than' the other forms.

I /am/ glad to hear that this is not the case. I also acknowledge that the venue itself created different platforms of understanding - after all this was mostly a poetry reading we were at, and I think this is the space that you were coming from when you responded.

I, on the other hand, was coming from a space of being at an AsiaCan/AsiaAm reading where I was hoping to connect to the pulse of the larger community, to understand what was and was not being written. What I perceived was a gap in the body of literature /overall/ (not at that particular reading), but I didn't communicate that very well, either that night or here in my blog.

Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor said...

For Patrick:

*motions of jumping up and down excitedly*

Yes! You're saying what I've been trying to communicate! I'm still trying to track down a copy of Francia's book to read. Bulosan is good, but not contemporary, eh? I'm also excited for Oscar's book and Eileen tells me about Leny Strobel. I'm glad to hear about Aimee and will look for her work too.

As for finding those dusty letters/diaries, I've often wanted to find my "Zola Neale Hurston" the 'forgotten' writer 'found' by Angela Davis (I think, wasn't it)? Best of all would be a hapa woman talking about her Louisiana bayou dad...

But yes, old eloquence as well as new eloquence. That's what I'm looking for.

Thank you.