UCLA alumnus breaks stereotypes in his intellectual history of prominent Filipino American writers.
"What is Asian American? I don't know anymore where I fit into these national boundaries."
UCLA doctoral alumnus and University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign history professor Augusto Espiritu launched his new book Five Faces of Exile: The Nation and Filipino American Intellectuals on Monday, Apr. 11 at UCLA. He spoke about his book and how he came to write it to an appreciative audience in Bunche Hall.
The book, Espiritu said, has been in the making for ten years; the product of five years of dissertation work, eight months as a Fulbright Scholar in the Philippines, and five more years of organizing and writing.
As part of the "1.5 generation" Espiritu said he "sees the world from the vantage point of my immigrant parents and that of my American-born peers." As a student at UCLA, he encountered the stereotype of Filipinos as "people of low intellect," but also took his first Filipino American history courses that helped him to challenge that stereotype. Eventually, he became fascinated by the "generation of Filipino writers who lived literally and figuratively between the Philippines and the U.S." and wanted to "address the tantalizing possibility of writing an intellectual history" of Filipino Americans.
Espiritu said he wanted to write a critical work that was nonetheless accessible to a wider public, especially Filipino and Asian Americans. Through both the style and the content of his work he aimed to make the point "that intellectual life is not something limited to an elite culture." With that in mind, he said, he used a kind of language which, while challenging, is a "mode of discourse that people can follow." "I hope it reaches a broad audience" including academics, community members, students and student leaders, he said.
Espiritu also hopes the book will raise questions about the Filipino American community, race, gender, and nation, and that it will offer new ways to analyze these questions. His book also reconfigures the discourse of Asian American studies by directly addressing transnationalism and "transnationals" -- people whose identities and cultures simultaneously embrace, transcend and fall between normal national boundaries. The topic, said Espiritu, is already addressed in Asian American literature although not directly labeled as such.
"My own life has come to resemble the lives of these traveling transnationals I have written about." Indeed, Espiritu said with more than a hint of irony, he lives in two worlds -- California and Illinois -- but he also confronts the question, "What is Asian American?" "I don't know anymore," Espiritu said, "where I fit into these national boundaries." This is a condition he finds both disorienting and empowering and a theme that makes its way into his narratives about Filipino expatriates.
Espiritu's talk was co-sponsored by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
Five Faces explores the real and figurative journeys of Filipino writers
Five Faces of Exile, said Espiritu, is about the diverse views of five pioneering writers, all born between 1899 and 1911, who were among the first Filipinos to travel to the United States and among the most "recognized names and public figures in both Philippine and Asian American intellectual life." "This book is about their real and figurative journeys," said Espiritu. The writers, he said, had both complex and ambivalent relationships with their in-between positions, yet they were "translators serving as bridges of understanding between two worlds."
By exploring these ambiguities rather than ignoring them, Espiritu offers new and sometimes surprising readings of the subjects of his study. He provides an unusually sympathetic portrait of the diplomat Carlos P. Romulo, a controversial figure in Philippine history. Espiritu noted that while Romulo is "difficult to like" he was also an important thinker and writer whose work defies any simple characterization. "[Romulo] was very articulate" and "an early astute critic of the U.S. policy in Vietnam," Espiritu said. "There is a very critical aspect of Romulo's life that needs to be brought out."
Five Faces of Exile explores many themes including race, Asian identity, gender and colonialism, modernity, nationhood and performance.
In his book, Espiritu addresses race, for example, by discussing fiction writer Bienvenido N. Santos' experience under U.S. colonial rule. Santos wrote about his early education in the Philippines and an American teacher who assumed he was plagiarizing because his writing skills were so good. Santos reports his teacher saying, "No Filipino can write like this," and asking, "Where did you copy this?" Epiritu writes, "[The teacher's] charge of plagiarism plays upon the archetypal assumption we have seen several times that natives were of a lower level of intelligence, that they were imitators and mimics incapable of original ideas, thus requiring 'tuteledge'" (p. 146).
Five Faces also addresses the issue of Asian identity. "The idea of Asia, in a sense," said Espiritu, "had to be invented." He uses Romulo's construction of pan-Asia to address this theme in his book. In 1941 Romulo wrote a series of articles about traveling through Asian countries; the next year, Romulo became the first Asian to win the Pulitzer Prize for the Philippines Herald articles that came out of those travels. After visiting China, Romulo went on to visit Burma, Thailand, Singapore, French Indochina, and the Dutch East Indies, writes Espiritu, "meeting with nationalist leaders often in secret. He recognized in the development of these nationalist struggles much of the Philippines' and his own ilustrado history" (p. 18).
There are no women profiled in the book because the early writers were men. "During the early period, women were being educated but were not expected to leave the house," said Espiritu. They were expected to get married and raise children, rather than pursue intellectual paths or careers. Espiritu does, however, address his profilees' relationships with women. "I tried to look at and critique the way gender is discussed in terms of national representation," said Espiritu. In his book, for example, he writes, "While Santos valorized the ideal of woman in his life, he would express his displeasure at what he regarded as her antithesis -- modern, liberated women who, in effect, betrayed the national ideal" (p. 153).
The poet Jose Garcia Villa, fiction writer N. V. M. Gonzalez and the Asian American worker-writer Carlos Bulosan are also profiled in Five Faces of Exile.
336 pages, Stanford University Press, ISBN 0804751218 paper; ISBN 080475120X cloth
paper price: $24.95; hardcover price: $65.00