Summer Forum speech: “A country like the Philippines haunts America. But it is a trace, a ghost unseen. I think sometimes I write novels to conjure that trace, to make that trace visible.”

Out of the blue last winter, I was invited to speak in the California desert, at the Institute of Mentalphysics (a great, seventies name!) by a wonderful young woman I did not know, Sara Hunter, who created Summer Forum with her husband Michael Hunter, when she was frustrated with the way grad school conceived of education in only one way, it seemed—through lectures and so on. She preferred conversations.

I had never been to the California desert anyhow, and I had never met Sara, but the proposition was intriguing—like nomads of the modern world, people came to Summer Forum to converse and so think ideas through. Sara and Michael gathered people interested in the experience of ideas to have a dialogue about issues that mattered to them. How did they get people? One simply applied. Many were friends of theirs from Chicago Art Institute, but many just read about Summer Forum online and applied because it was a way to converse about ideas in real time with real people. Participants at Summer Forum read collectively a syllabus of readings, listen to speakers, and then create a “trace” of their interactions, most obviously in a booklet called Dilettante. This year’s theme was “Networks of Belonging: Geographies, Citizenries, and the Masses.” Here’s a section of the speech. I interrupted readings of my novel with comments that related to Summer Forum’s syllabus; the rest of the speech was patches from other speeches and articles I have done (on English and the Super-Spy Lacanian Baby, and on the Philippines as a Borgesian Tlon).

SUMMER FORUM, 2014

….As I said, I have read a few of the readings for the conference. I have, in fact, taken the test for citizenship that appears in the packet, with its 100 questions about America. I remember one of the questions I had to answer was—where does the President of the United States live? It remains one of the most banal, insipid moments of my life, becoming a citizen of America. Basically, they asked me ten questions, then I answered them; then they made me write three sentences on a piece of paper—the lady officer dictated the sentences, and I wrote them down. One of them went something like—a kitten jumps onto the windowsill. Something like that.

I keep thinking that the banality of it was what made it surreal. My experience of becoming a citizen of America was a practical, not ontological, matter anyhow. I remember I was going to go on vacation in Europe—to Spain—in the summer of 2001, and it was extremely annoying to have to go to the Spanish embassy in NYC again with my friend David, who would be my host once again in Spain, and have him vouch for me as his guest, one more time. These small irritants for a middle class Filipino in America were part and parcel of holding a Filipino passport.

And then 9/11 happened.

An immigration lawyer friend of mine called me up to ask me if I were a citizen. I said no, though I had been a resident alien, as a green card holder is called, since 1989, when I married my husband, an American novelist I met in grad school at Johns Hopkins. “Get citizenship now,” my friend the immigration lawyer told me after 9/11. “The laws are changing for immigrants as we speak—I’ve seen even green card holders deported, for the smallest thing—a speeding ticket, a moving violation.” That call made me do it, but really, there was also that recent memory of the annoying trip to the Spanish embassy that summer of 2001 that made me finally apply for citizenship—a practical issue that I had been stalling about since the early nineties—mainly because I am lazy. And my identity is not tied, I think, to passports. Or I’d be happy to have forty passports, forty so-called identities. [I’ve been thinking about getting citizenship with Spain, since recently they have declared they are opening their borders to people with certain surnames—one of which includes my mother’s—they are trying to attract Jewish people to invest in Spain. I guess, I have a Spanish surname linked to the expulsion of the Jews. But then I realize I’m not really Jewish, so I don’t think that’ll work.] And anyway, Filipinos can get dual citizenship (which I have). So I did not stop being Filipino, even in that legal sense. And as I said, getting U.S. citizenship was an entirely banal, routine, insipid event—like getting my driver’s license, except that someone dictated to me some sentences about kittens.

And yet, as I know, getting US citizenship was also a demarcation, a borderline, that I had crossed, a crossing for which people have died—and which, if I pressed myself, I in fact had not wished to cross, until I had to.

In this novel, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, the girl at the start moves from country to country as if she has no boundaries. She is a fantastical Filipino in some ways—a Filipino who does not seem bound by the restrictions on migration that the ordinary Filipino feels. And yet she is entirely real—Sol lives among a corrupt upper-class that lives lives that Filipinos are currently trying to prosecute, in fact—with varying degrees of failure.

[3 senators are in prison right now for a several-billion peso pork barrel scam—one of whom is the former defense minister, an incredibly malevolent guy who outlasted the dictator—his milieu is also the narrator Sol’s milieu]

During a reading of this novel once, an audience member, a Filipino woman, afterwards came up to talk to me. And what she said to me was: I am so glad your narrator is not a maid.

I was stumped by that. I did not know how to answer.

It’s true that the narrator I chose, Sol, is atypical perhaps. She is an extremely wealthy young woman who, in the beginning of this novel, goes from border to border—the Riviera, to New York, and so on, in what seems a fantasy world of migration—she feels bound by no restrictions that the ordinary Filipino feels. And what the Filipino woman at the reading was telling me was—there is the trope of the Filipino as desperate migrant—maid, caregiver, so on—that the rest of the world, including Filipinos, expects. To be honest, it is a trope that the publishing world also expects—but that is a topic for a different conference—the narrowness within which a person of color in fiction must be framed.

The Filipino is framed narrowly in that trope as a [possibly illegal] desperado who is a victim of neoliberal forces—in the words of the Metahaven reading, a figure like Moussa K who, quote, seems to understand border crossing as a process of extreme desubjectification, unquote—that process by which, quote, as soon as the border is passed, engineers become cleaners, academics turns into sex workers, and brain surgeons become taxi-drivers—ready-made for exploitation on the informal labor markets of late capitalism, unquote.

So you have these, at least, three experiences or notions of migration and citizenship—one, my banal passing of a stupid test so I could go to Spain untroubled; two, the figure of the Filipino maid, who is both a trope and a reality, a figure of tragic economic desperation, in some cases, and basic ordinary human striving, in too many others; and three, this figure in this novel, Sol, whose status both embodies the forces of imperial capitalism that victimize the mass, her countrymen, as well as illuminates the tragedy her own status has wrought—because the horror she tells is self-implicating: it is her horror, her self that her story of nightmare contemplates.

As the novelist Chimimanda Adichie has famously said about the dangers of the stereotype—what is problematic is not that the stereotype is untrue—it is that it is incomplete.

I have always wondered about this—how to speak about the multiple realities of the world that I know. I use Sol, I think, as a kind of inverse character of the victim of capitalism, because her world is the world of the perpetrator, the enemy that the masses fight—perhaps I do this in order to see that system from a self-implicating lens: the reader, like Sol, is part of the problem.

Perspective in this novel was a struggle for me—I had begun in the 3rd person, but I found myself editorializing and pontificating about this class of people, Sol’s people—and it was a very thin, unsatisfying way to tell the story—to me. But when I shifted to first, and I took on the voice of Sol, took on her memory—the novel became more complex—because I, too, was implicated in Sol’s troubling world.

So this, I suppose, is an m.o. for a novelist—to keep seeing through other lenses—I think it is a useful m.o. for any citizen.

In the novel, in turn, Sol is desperately desiring to belong to someone else’s world, the world of her classmate, the activist Soli, and of course you’ll note the mirroring in the naming. The issue of twinhood, of being double, recurs in this talk, and in the novel. …

…Any trace of our world in the post-Anthropocene might always have that hidden perspective, that is, might pose the problem of power: in any phenomenal trace it might be good to ask—who suffered and who conquered? But it is interesting to think in terms of duality also, or beyond the binary, when we think about the traces left behind. When we imagine how the conqueror also suffers from his rapacity, and recognize also how the victim has agency—and that if we shift our lenses and try to view a figure in multiple ways, what happens?

In many ways, my job as a novelist has been to figure out how to narrate the story of the migrant as a person whose story we know very well is one of overdetermined forces—overdetermined being a term from psychoanalysis, meaning, “having more determining factors than the minimum necessary; having more than one cause; giving expression to more than one need or desire.” In short, the migrant is like everyone else. Issues of class, economy, race, gender, all constitute the migrant’s subjectivity, just as it does everyone else’s.

There is not only one type of Filipino migrant, that goes without saying. When I joined rallies and activist calls against the Marcos regime as a kid in university in Manila, my friends, upper-class women destined to become academics, used to make fun of me. I have often joked that the best way to make a Filipino Marxist is to send an upper-class Filipino to America to study—the Filipino sees that in this new country, she is under-class because of race and it turns the tide of ideology in her. So that is one good thing America has done. It has made Filipino Marxists. Good. Place can change your lens.

We all recognize, as this novel does, that these capitalist forces, the imperial economy that subjugates the border crosser like Moussa K, or the Filipino maid that the woman at my reading did not want to hear about anymore, those terrible economic forces also subjugate us—it subjugates you and me. My banal citizenship experience is not separate from the experience of Moussa K, the border crosser in the city of Ceuta in the Metahaven reading, just as it is tied irrevocably, of course, to the lives of Filipino maids, for whom in many people’s eyes I am interchangeable. My experience, and Moussa K’s experience, is tied to yours. Because that economic force subjugates us when we look upon someone and wonder how that person came into the country, though the person might have grown up quite innocuously in Des Moines, it subjugates us when we find we understand completely what the woman means when she talks about not wanting to hear anymore about the Filipino maid. As the readings in the Summer Forum packet are telling us, we all live with and enact the ideological gaze of the economic imperium: no one escapes it.

Despite the banality of my experience before the Immigration Officer the day I took my test for citizenship, I understand how the insipidity of the phenomenon is also what makes it violent, thus its surreality—it was an event of splitting, of division, and not an event of communing, of entering into a pact, a oneness with others. Taking the oath of citizenship to America seemed mainly to separate me from them, the border crossers, instead of uniting me with something, with “America.”

After all, I became a citizen after 9/11.

And though we cannot escape that imperium, maybe the trick is somehow to be inside and outside and figure out how to see from multiple lenses, from different class or race or gender lenses, as much as we can, all the time. But that is very difficult.

In my case, novel writing requires that of me. I have to be inside and outside, see a character from all perspectives possible, keep refracting the position by which to write a scene. And then I have to make a choice. Just as I made a choice when I applied for citizenship. The choice directs the novel—the choice of point of view constructs the possibility for action and detail in the novel. When I chose the first person, I had to cut off more than half of the novel, I think—parts that an amnesiac person would not be able to retell. Point of view dictates the text. [And if someone had told me that the minute I got into writing school, I’d have been so grateful, it would have saved me a lot of paper.]

But my choice to apply for citizenship, oddly enough, did not, in my mind, define me in one way or another. And this is the thing about citizenship versus novel—citizenship is more of a mirage than the choice of a first person perspective—it is less real, less definitive, more phantasmal than an artistic choice. Yet of course the consequences of having this type of citizenship or not are acute. Citizenship to me is not a real thing, but art is. But it’s the mirage that kills.

I will say this—I have absolutely no trouble now whenever I leave the country. Every time I use that miracle passport, I find myself marveling at it—at the ease with which I now travel, when I have not changed at all, not one whit, from the person I had been. My relationship with America is just as fraught as it was before I took that oath of citizenship. I have to say, I would not say it is a relationship I struggle with: instead I see it as a form of existence, a relationship we all have with history—the terrible history of our worlds that also constitutes us (which does not mean that I do not wish to change it, to change that dynamic that history constructs for us). That is, my fraught relationship with America is another banality, perhaps, another mundanity, that is, a surreality, a violence, one more sign of the split self that constitutes us all.

(NOTE: this speech is much longer; it is cut here as the other sections of it are versions of two other talks/articles, one a speech Superhero Lacanian Baby and the other the article on Borges and post-colonialism)

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