Me, Mike and Manny circa 1966

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Vote for Angel! It's the American Way!

Reading Angel at the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC
Thrilled that Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery has been nominated for the Teen Choice Book of the Year Award. 

I was never the popular girl at Brookfield East High School back in 1979, though all my friends were.  Here we go, time to give Angel a little push.  Imagine, moving from Manila to Chicago and in just a few months, nominated!  Can it be?

It's almost like being on THE VOICE!

Help Angel win!  Vote here!  Salamat, peoples!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Remembering Tacloban

For the lives lost to Yolanda.  For the families who are grieving.  For our kababayn back home who are always keeping an eye out for baha, for typhoon and strong wind.  For the rain that washes everything away.

Lola Cristeta Alcober at the site of her garrison just outside of Tacloban.
Tonight I am launching Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery at the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC.  I look forward to this night not for Angel's sake, but for the company of being with other Filipinos and Filipino Americans. Maybe we can say a silent prayer together.  Maybe light a candle.  Maybe at the reception we'll organize disaster relief.        
          In 2002, Lola Cristeta Alcober, a surviving Filipina Comfort Women of WII, took me to Tacloban. All my that year, all she wanted me to do was bring her home.  I told her, if you get yourself a polkadot bikini, we’ll go swimming off the shores.  "Sige," she said.  "Swimming na tayo."

Excerpt from “Ocean of Umiyak”

Lola Cristeta, LILA Pilipina organizer Sol Rapisura, and I take a little plane from Manila on the island of Luzon to the Visayan island of Leyte.  The plane is small and feels every single current, moves on the shift of a cloud and the breath of our pilot.  Lola Cristeta smiles, looking out the window from behind a pair of movie star sunglasses.  She points like she can see her house, floating in a sea of trees, set in the middle of an island in the vast Pacific Ocean.  She is going to make us taste the local cuisine and drink tuba, a local moonshine of distilled coconut juice. 
When the plane lands, she is the first one standing, wiggling her hips down the aisle of the narrow plane, stepping onto the tarmac.
If this were Manila, she would wait for us, but in Tacloban she leads the way down streets like the mayor, calling out to passersby and waving.   Dirt roads, wide and lazy, lead to a smattering of houses, sari sari stores and vegetable stands.  We walk past a church, maybe a school.  Occasionally, a motor trike zooms past us and kicks up the dust.   The trees tower over us.  Green and thick, they shade us, tell us how old they and this town are. 
Lola Cristeta and me standing near the site of her former home.
We are finding our way to the house where she grew up.  We visit distant relations.  “I’m back,” she tells them in Visayan, “I brought my friends.”  Her words float by me like people on the street.  Some of them I recognize. Tagalog words.  Sometimes English.  Some are variations of words from her testimony and others are foreign and awkward to my ear.  We stop at a house and Lola raps on a screen.  A woman swings a door open.  Lola Cristeta greets her, her hands gesturing north and south and her smile widening with each word.   The woman listens and then nods.  She speaks back quickly and calls a name or two, says that one married; that one moved away.  Somebody died.  And after awhile, Lola Cristeta points to the side of a house, at a porch made of bamboo with plastic chairs that line the walls. 
“We go that way,” she tells us.
Her voice rises above the cock’s crow.  She pushes her shades up her flat nose; her gold rings and bracelets catch a hit from the sun.   I trail behind her, the camera lens zooms out and shooting the sleepy barrio.  I focus on her gait, how quick and certain, how fast. 
As we move towards the location of her house, the nipa huts and small structures grow scarce and the grasses spike past her shoulders, and the trees shoot into the blue sky, limbs bowing towards us like angel wings. 
I imagine this was the walk she and her brother Marianito took on the way home from the market that day -- that these old paths existed in some form and the trees not so tall and leafy.  But the grasses must have been this high, I think, the shrubbery this fat.  The crickets singing and leaping to the skies just like this.  The silence of the countryside and the heat of the sun, felt old and familiar to the skin.  It must have been like this, I think, watching her. 
We walk past a front porch and as we turn the corner a little woman with white hair and a long walking stick comes out, calling to us in Waray.   She is ninety-years old.  The two old women have never met, but they stop and talk to each other like long-time neighbors trading tsimis, but its not gossip.  They literally exchange war stories.
The old woman is not surprised by Lola Cristeta’s experience.  She knows.  It was what happened back then, but no one ever talked about it.  She wishes us well and watches us walk away, blessing us as we go. 

Here is the friend Lola Cristeta ran into on the dirt path.
On the path, we run into another woman, small like Lola Cristeta, but dark with a long low ponytail.  Lola Cristeta grabs the lady’s arm, starts talking at her.  The woman doesn’t recognize her at first but then there is a flurry of arms going up and hands waving at me.  They were girlhood friends, I am told.  They knew each other when the war broke out. 
And slowly, I begin to figure out that every person Lola Cristeta meets, whether it is someone from her past or a stranger she has stopped for directions, every person is hearing her testimony.
“I never knew,” says her friend.  “I never heard,” she tells me. 
“And how do you feel now that you know,” I ask. 
“I want to cry,” she tells me in Visayan, “I am sad.”
More than fifty years of silence and suddenly, we float down upon the rural roads leading out of Tacloban and she calls out her truth like a herald from God.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Angel Goes to School

for the Students at UM, at IAIA and SFSU

Allyson Titiangco-Cubales' AAS 525 Class at SFSU and me on Google Hangout

The great thing about Angel being out in the world is that she is connecting and disconnecting with readers on her own.  I have been lucky these early days of publication.  Several classes have already read and responded to Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery. 

I sat in on an American Immigrant Literatures Class taught by my colleague, Donette Francis, at the University of Miami and witnessed an impressive power point report by two female students.  I learned in that classroom that Angel is not always a sympathetic character – but then again, what teen is?

In Evelina Lucero’s (yes, Evelina Lucero) fiction workshop at the Institute of Indian American Arts, the students created story maps.  Here is Damien Moore’s full of haunting images and beautiful details of the novel.
IAIA Student Damien Moore's Story Map
And then yesterday, over Google Hangouts, Dr. Allyson Titianangco-Cubales and her Filipino American Literature students at San Francisco State University produced creative responses and shared them with me.  Some wrote poetry, others did movement, a soundtrack, a children’s story with illustrations, a skit, and dramatic interpretation.  Here is the link to a video poem that Conrad Panganiban and his group produced.  They took lines from the novel and collaged them together, cutting images and sound to the text and created this video poem.

My goal in writing a novel is to write a story for me and my readers.  It is a blessing and a gift to receive these creative responses.  I am grateful.  I am grateful.  I am inspired by these students

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Miami Book Launch at Books & Books In Coral Gables

for Angel

Here's a link to my Miami Book Launch.  Full reading and Q & A.  Thanks to all for joining in Angel's journey!

Friday, November 1, 2013

All Souls Day

for Uncle Boy

In Macabebe on the road to the cemetery with Uncle Boy, 2001

Daisy and I walk through the Macabebe cemetery, weaving between the neat rows of stone caskets.  They are all lined up like soldiers in the military, high above the ground.  The sun is with us, hot and unforgiving.  Daisy carries an umbrella to shield the two of us.  She is telling me about the last time she saw our Uncle Boy alive.  How she worried about him living alone.  How he never really had a calling.  He was a free spirit, running about the town, helping people here and there.  Always moving.  Then one day, he disappeared and it took the town a moment to notice.  She is telling me the neighbors found him dead, in the middle of a meal, the soup half eaten, the spoon and fork tossed to the floor.  She is crying now, holding up that umbrella as if the rain is pouring down on us.  “He was different you know.”  Iba. 

I know.  When my lola came to the United States in the 1970’s and brought her two youngest children, twenty-somethings Auntie Baby and Uncle Boy, they lived in New York.  My auntie found her way around the city.  My grandmother too.  But Uncle Boy was trapped between the buildings, caged in the tiny Elmhurst apartment.  He was not made for the American dream.  That dream would never serve him.  He was sent back here to the province where my father grew up with his nine siblings, where the Japanese soldiers intruded on their town during WWII and took over the elementary school across from their house.  Years later he lived alone in the house after my great aunt Lola Charing passed away.  Who knows what he did for a living.  But here, he was free to come and go.  Here, everyone knew him. 

Every time I returned, he’d bring me around, usually during rainy season.  He’d take me in a boat, looking for the graves of my grandparents.  Their spirits seemed to float along the flooded streets, never sitting still with the rest of the dead.  He’d talk to me with a wide smile.  He’d ask about every single one of my brothers, sisters and cousins.  He had a gold tooth.  He had two missing front teeth.  He always wore over-sized tee-shirts and long shorts.  Flip-flops.  He seemed more like a proud older brother than an uncle.  The youngest of the uncles and aunts, he was ultimately the caretaker of this cemetery.

Daisy tells me his birthday is on all souls day and every November first, he’d walk to every grave in the cemetery and light a candle.  He never wanted anyone to think they were forgotten. 

The rows of tombs like teeth, line up as far as we can see.  No trees except for one.  And when we get to that tree we find our uncle’s grave lying perpendicular to the others.  Just like in life, he’s a little out of sync.  Iba.  And here my cousin weeps at the thought of him, wonders what will happen now that he is gone.  Who will light the candles, Ate?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

American of Pinay Descent, Daughter of Pampanga, Quezon and Brookfield, WI

for the record

"When I said I am an American of Pinay descent, don't get me wrong. Pinay ako. Sa dugu. Sa puso. Sa lahat ko. The stories we are writing here by authors and poets of immigrant nations are the stories of Americans."

at the Filipino American International Book Festival in San Francisco, CA

Monday, October 21, 2013

Home (Writing Our Way Home III)

for Melissa Rae Sipin and all my literary sisters

Home is where the dirt is.  Home is the early mornings when the whole world is sleeping and I am seated in the red metal chair, cup of joe in my palms, under the avocado tree, next to the mango tree, right of the lemon tree.  In the yard behind me a thump.  And the peacock has leapt from a branch to the neighbor’s roof and she is honking and guffawing and looking for her man.  Mine is asleep.  Mine is in a world all his own.  For now, I am here with the seedlings of kale, and bok choy, of peppers and tomatoes and eggplants and lettuces.  For now I am watching the branches sway and bow and I am eyeing fat avocados bobbing like Christmas tree ornaments.  For now the squirrels are chasing one another, rattling branches, stuffing fat cheeks with bites of ripened fruit.  For now I am dreaming of quiet time.  Miami sky time.  Home at last time.

No, really, for now, I am sitting in seat 27D, the aisle seat, typing.  Since the flight has lifted off the ground the man two seats away from me has been chatting loudly with the stranger he has just met, his new best friend.  All I want is quiet.  All I want is peace.  The man on the other side of the aisle, is sympathetic.  He motions for headsets.  “Do you have them?” he asks me.  Nope.  When the fly attendant waves a cheap set in the air, I raise my hand.  I want one.  For now I am wanting to think about this past weekend.

Writing is a solitary act.  I always say that.  And that is true.  To do it, you have to sit your ass down and just write.  And yet, every time I am on the west coast, where Philippine American Studies has a house in almost every university and community college, I am reminded, I am not alone.  That even as I sit before the computer – in the garden, in the office, a coffee shop or in seat 27D, I have been blessed and I am not alone.  I am grateful to the students I met this weekend at the Filipino American International Book Festival.  You make me realize, I’d do anything at all just to connect with you.  Fly back and forth from Miami to LA, to San Diego, to San Francisco, far far from my sweetheart, from my garden and my kitties, just to be reminded how important our stories are. 

Reading them and writing them.  We do that to find our way inside.  To find our way home.  To find our way to each other.  To be reminded that the stories we write, stories so new to the contemporary American canon, are just as important (maybe more?) than the ones that have come before us.  Ours is the story of these United States.  We are not the margin.  Not anymore.  Now we are planting stories into the weave of Americana.  Now we are growing images and metaphors and Sampaguita are blossoming everywhere.

This then, is writing our way home.  The planting of stories.  The naming of sisters.  The memory of our fathers and light of our ancestors.

Thank you to PAWA.  Thank you to the Philippine Consulate.  Thank you to our hosts at the San Francisco Library. Maraming salamat to the booksellers of Philippine Expressions and Arkipelego.  Thank you to my colleagues, writers and poets planting, planting.  And to my little sisters, Pinay poets and writers and readers.  I am touched by the mere image of you.  Thank you.

Reading from Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Writing Our Way Home II (Define "home")

for the organizers of the Filipino International Book Festival in San Francisco -- in gratitude.

All I know is that I was born in Pennsylvania and we didn’t stay there long enough for me to know the city of Harrisburg, the landscape of our neighborhood or color of the sky.  Right away I moved, a transient newborn, flying off to Wilson and Baltimore and Manila and Saskatchewan, Peoria, and finally Milwaukee, no finally Brookfield.  All before I was ten.  All that was constant in my universe were my mom and dad, my two brothers, my sister and finally the little brothers born in Dairyland.  We were a family that roamed the earth in search of a house, but we were always home. 

I have a memory of waking up on a plane at the age of three  My brothers and I were lying on blankets on seats turned down into make-shift beds.  I remember wetting that bed. We were traveling from the Philippines to Canada.  And there I would see the snow pile tall as the horse of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  There it would snow in the middle of my birthday month, April.  And I would ask my mom to invite Gidget (aka Sally Fields) to my birthday party.  And there would be a memory of my mom in the hallway of our little apartment, a phone to her ear, the long cord swinging back and forth in the shadows, taking that call from Gidget.  "You know, I'd love to, but I can't make it. Wish her happy birthday for me."  I’d hear my mother thanking her for calling.

I was just beginning to acclimate to the snow, when the family packed it up again and moved to Illinois.

My fiancé, a man from the hills of western Virginia, has the mountains in his heart.  There are days in Miami where he will breathe sadness, longing for the land he grew up on.  He calls it homesick.  He feels the need to hike up and down the sides of mountains, reading the deer tracks, the turkey trails, the brush in the valleys.

But me, when I am homesick, I am dreaming of the noise that comes from the voices of large families.  I long for morning talks with my mother.  I long for the honky tonk piano of my father.  I long for the embraces of all my nieces and nephews.  I want to give and take shit from my brothers and sister and be in the company of Galangs. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Dalaga Na Ako (Writing Our Way Home I)

for preteen Evelina

Dalaga na si Evelina.  Dalaga na ako.  Back in those days when my hormones were just beginning to move about this body, grow these legs that long, shape these hips out, draw that waist in, fill up you know where, I was quiet and moody.   I had feelings.  I was in a house where the boys were loud.  My dad played all kinds of piano by ear and his voice filled our home with stories.  My mother ran a household of eight. The little ones, smaller than the loud boys ran from room to room, doing their thing.  I babysat a lot. During the day I followed my youngest brother about the house to make sure he wasn’t into anything.  At night I bathed him and powdered him and wrapped him up in diapers and footy pajamas. In the quiet moments, I read.  I was not the wild American girl of my day dreams.  I was not the girl boys wanted.  Those girls had blonde hair and blue eyes and their skin was fair.  I was not that girl.   

I found ways to express myself.  I played piano in the dark. Classical music.  And I am not sure if I swayed with the music because its what I felt or if I thought the drama of rocking back and forth, hair falling into my eyes, shoulders sliding down close to the keyboard, was romantic. 

I had notebooks I scribbled in late at night.  I wish I had those notebooks now.  I tried to hide them from my brothers who would find them and quote from them, sing from them, embarrass me about the latest crush I had.  When the rest of the house was quiet, when the last diaper had been changed and all that I could hear was the faint sound of late night television coming from my parents’ bedroom, I’d sit at my little white desk, bent over a nightlight and I’d scribble my heart out.

In my notebooks, I was beautiful. I did not babysit, change diapers or cook rice for the family dinner.  I wrote stories.  I imagined I was Jo from Little Women.  I dreamed of writing books and publishing them.  I found ways to ground me to the earth, to feel comfortable in my skin, to meditate on life and God and everything I knew I was to become.  I’d write until the only sounds were crickets from the backyard, until moonlight filled the bedroom, until I found my way home.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

San Diego Mountain Dance

for Jen Derilo

I stood under a tree and I watched the dancers move like mountain birds, flapping wings and skipping to the beat of the gangsa.  They circled the green in follow-the-leader fashion.  I have seen this native dance and heard these bells rung always oceans away from las Islas Pilipinas.  The dalagas dancing reminded me of my nieces, of my friends, of myself (as a geeky awkward teen in Filipino costume), dancing traditional dances in nontraditional ways.  Then the leader of the dance troupe invited the community to join them.  I didn't think they would.  But then this blonde mommy in a ponytail, with toddler on hip ran across the hill to join them, and then a kid in shorts stumbled after the line of dancers, then one of the Pinay dancer's tall white boyfriends, hairy beard and all, arms up and hollering danced his way into the line.  In a moment there was a swarm of people coming out from under the shaded trees, from the canopies beyond the green, from picnic tables and from under rocks, from ribbons of blue sky and out of thin air, all coming out of nowhere, swirling like a flock of mountain birds, laughing with their heads thrown back, calling out to seven thousand islands on the other side of the world.   Everybody coming home at once.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Our Lady of Kings Court, Kendalia

For Mercedes and her Children

On the feast day of Our Lady of Mercy, I take my non-Catholic, non-Spanish speaking fiancé to the Church of the Little Flower to celebrate Mercedes Don Varona.

My friends José and Maria, children of Mercedes, organized a beautiful service.  It was a mix of Cuba and Miami and Italy and Wilmington.  It was the story of a mother’s journey home.  She had climbed back onto the boat that floated her spirit from Cuba and was traveling to another realm.   Even as we were sitting in the pews of the Church of the Little Flower, we stood at the shores and watched the boats go by—Noah’s arc, the ship to Ithaka, a passing image of the wedding at Cana.  We listened to musicians invoke the spirit of Cuba, a memory of the beautiful and complicated Mercedes.  (“Son, they have no more wine.”)

Mercedes always welcomed me into her home like family.  She kissed and sniffed at my skin when I entered.  She sat me down and her little dog ran circles around me and barked and she would wave that dog away. “She loves Pepe,” she’d say.   She told me stories of  her boy when he was young.  She opened up albums and pointed at photos of family she wanted me to know.  And the house was a gallery of Pepe’s paintings.  Once she ordered food from Carreta.  Pigs feet with garbanzo beans and rice.  I ate it.  I could not disappoint her.  I would not.

Last night, she must have been watching as words from the readings carried her away.  Some readings in Spanish and some in English.  Some readings missing. An oral storytelling from Father Ernesto.  At one point, I looked over to my fiancé, wondering if he could understand anything that was going on. 

“You’re smiling,” I whispered. 

“I’m charmed,” he answered. 

Mercedes must have been delighted. I will miss her and her beautiful ways.  Our lady of mercy, the mother of my friends, the Cuban grandmother I never had. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

She is Over the Moon

for Angel
Angel de la Luna and the5th Glorious Mystery was born of three major hurricanes.  Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.  I was supposed to be writing from my more than 30 hours of interview tapes, documenting the lives of 15 surviving Filipina “Comfort Women” of WWII for my book of essays, LOLAS’ HOUSE: Women Living With War.  I was supposed to be transcribing, translating, and writing down history.  But the hurricanes came one after the other and my 2005 sabbatical spun fast in the debris of all that rain.  I was living at Hecht Residential College on the Coral Gables campus of the University of Miami as a faculty resident master and every week, 900 freshmen, twenty-two residential assistants and two other faculty families and I went into lockdown.  So I wrote this book instead, a book that allowed me to work under hurricane conditions, a book that was probably brewing for years. 
Yesterday I came home late in the evening.  I was exhausted and the only thing on my mind was a quiet bath.  I had taken my kitty to the vet that morning and spent the whole rest of the day in meetings and administrative report writing.  I wanted rest.  I wanted silence.  Just as I pulled into my driveway, I saw a cardboard box sitting on my porch.  I knew what it was.  It was this, the moon rising and the spirit going from dark to light, from exhaustion to elation.  My book is here, everyone.  My book is now.  I am not too cool to say it, “Hip-hip-hooray!”

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


For the Boy

That morning, the television was on, as it often was.  My brother was zipping up his son’s jacket, getting him ready for kindergarten.  It’s not that there was a loud boom that drew them to the screen.  It isn’t like someone said, “Look!”  But they did.  They watched the smoke fill the sky.  They saw the plane smashing into the buildings.  The fire lashing out from the windows so many stories above ground. They must have imagined the sound of glass splintering, metal crunching. Voices crying out.  

Weeks later, when I was visiting them I watched the boy running around the basement with his arms stretched wide.  Zoom, zoom, zoom he called out.  Crash!  He hissed.  And then he ran into the wall.

A year goes by and sometime in the summer, we went to the library to check out stories.  The librarian stamped the books and told us when they were due.  And the boy looked up to me, said, “Oh, I know that date.”  What is it, I asked.  And he said, “The saddest day in all the world.”

Five years later and he was writing stories for school.  My novel One Tribe had just come out and he said, “Auntie Evelina, I’m writing my own book and it’s bigger than yours.”  Really, I asked.  How big is it.  He thought about it.  He squinted.  Then he said, “So big it has more pages than people who died on 9/11.”

The image of that morning must have seeped into his skin, crawled right into his memory, become the reference point for all things good and bad.  Just all things.  Never to forget.