Me, Mike and Manny circa 1966

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Calling all Ancestors

for my VONA Fiction Workshop 2013

"Beautiful Filipino Girl, P.I." Artura Printing circa 1910
The first time I taught a class where everyone was a person of color was in the winter of 1998.  The course was called “China Dolls, Geisha Girls, Chinks, Gooks and Other Ugly Stereotypes I am Not.”  The students were twelve high school kids from all over Chicagoland and every single one of them was of Asian American descent.  And girls.  My assistants were college students and working twenty-somethings. Also Asian American.
       On Saturday mornings when the rest of the city slept, we’d gather at the School of the Art Institute.  One morning, the falling snow lit up the January sky. Our skyscraper nested in the heart of the Loop and from our thick glass window we could see white dusting the entire city.  Not even the elevated trains ran.  The girls doodled in notebooks.  A boom box played in the background, something hip and low and if I could understand the lyrics, probably completely inappropriate.  We talked casually, like we were at a slumber party.  We traded family secrets.
       We took polaroid portraits of each girl.  The old kind.  The kind that you had to pull out of the camera and wave in the air.  The kind you had to peel apart to reveal two images.  I said, “One image is the girl the world sees, describe her.”  Their heads went down, the scribbling began, the words spun in circles in their notebooks.
       “The other image, the negative,” I said, “Is the real you.  The you nobody sees.”  They took a moment to think about that.  They cut that girl out and pasted her onto their pages.  They wrote with their hands covering their words.  They wrote with their faces practically kissing the paper.
       “Who supports you?”  I asked.  
       And then we conjured up our families, our grandmothers, our lolos, our great aunts and great great grandfathers, our lola lolas.  Some of us had these people living with us, some of us were waiting for them to arrive, and still, others only knew them from the pictures and old videos their moms and dads showed them.
       “I have a memory of being two years old,” I told them, “And my Lolo and Lola and all the Galangs were chasing after me with their arms wide-open calling to me in Kapangpangan, ‘Mekeni, mekeni.’  Come.”
       The girls nodded.  The music on the boom box changed and a couple of the girls started dancing in their seat and singing along. Then Luba, a thin woman in funky tights and a little old granny’s consignment sweater and mini-skirt said, “Hey, do you smell that?” Her red plastic rims were falling off her tiny face.
       Ana Fe looked up and tilted her head, her mass of black hair fell off her shoulders.  Ana Fe was a filmmaker.  In a band.  She sniffed.  “Yeah, what the hell?”
       “I smell it too,” said Eliza.
       “It’s making me hungry,” Tara said.  I looked up at her and her full moon face, at her professional bob, swinging to the music.  “Where’s it coming from?”
       I closed my eyes and I breathed. And there it was—that greasy garlic wafting from some wok, the soy sauce spitting at the rice and the vegetables snapping in the heat.  The whole room smelled of fried rice.  It was ten in the morning and nothing was open in all of downtown and we smelled fried rice
       Ana Fe and Tara exchanged a look. And then Luba said it.  “It’s like they’re here.”
       In the silence of the city, we spun their images out of thin-line-markers.  We named them.  Lolo.  Lola.  Great Auntie.  Uncle's father.  Lolo-lolo.  Lola-lola.  We fashioned them out of crudely made confessional poems, out of secondhand memories.  We called them out.  And they answered, despite the lone streets of a sleeping Saturday morning and the empty cars on the Brown Line, on the Red Line, on the Blue Line, they found their way to us and they were here.

Juan Luna y Novicio: La Mestiza [Pintura al Oleo sobre 1887]


  1. Ah, so I've found your blog, Evelina! :-)

  2. Are you a YAWPer?! Wow, so many Chi connections. Thank you for this beautiful memory and dedication, Evelina. Excited to talk more tomorrow!

  3. YAWPERs were born shortly after I left Chicago ... I've hung with them too but not as their teacher.

  4. Just found this and the opportunity to read it, as my re-entry into the rest of my life picks up steam.
    Wish I had found it earlier.
    Glad that I found it, at all.
    Thank you for the week, the love, the smiling support. What remains with me is 'showng readers how to read my story.' First thing I have to do is finish it, so I will know what to show the reader. know