Credit: Stella Kalaw
International writing faculty
Luis Francia (Creative Non-Fiction/Poetry)
Luis Francia is a poet, journalist, and creative nonfiction writer. His semiautobiographical account of growing up in the Philippines, Eye of the Fish: A Personal Archipelago, won both the 2002 PEN American Open Book and the 2002 Asian American Writers literary awards. His poetry books include The Arctic Archipelago and Museum of Absences. He is the author of Memories of Overdevelopment: Reviews and Essays of Two Decades; the editor of Brown River, White Ocean: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Philippine Literature in English; and co-editor of Flippin': Filipinos on America, and of Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream, 1899-1999. He is included in numerous anthologies, the latest being the Library of America's Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing (2009).
Two books of his are due out in 2010: Beauty of Ghosts (Quezon city: Ateneo de Manila University Press), a chapbook, and From Indio to Filipino: A Brief History of the Philippines (New York: Overlook Press).
He has written for a number of publications, including the Village Voice, the Nation, Asiaweek, and the Far Eastern Economic Review. On the board of trustees of the Asian American Writers Workshop and Kundiman Arts, he teaches at New York University and Hunter College.
Bindlestiff, a theater group in San Francisco, will be staging my full-length play, The Strange Case of Citizen de la Cruz, in September of 2012
Teaching / Mentoring Philosophy in a Nutshell:
In mentoring a would-be writer, whether in creative nonfiction or poetry, I stress the development of the critical faculties, for it is the writer above all who should be his or her own severest critic. This approach is designed to identify and address weaknesses in craft, as well as in imaginative thinking, and thereby strengthen his or her writing skills.
From Eye of the Fish: A Personal Archipelago (Kaya Press, 2001)
No one knows for sure how many people inhabit the
patchwork of jerrybuilt communities spread through metropolitan
Manila one estimate places them at half the population of eight to
ten million but the number seems to grow every year. People
migrate to the city from the provinces, searching for work, filled with
the illusion that in this city by the bay there will be reprieves for their
pitiful lives. Their children beg on the streets, importuning driver and
passengers alike for whatever change they can spare, or sell garlands of
sampaguita (fragrant jasmine) for a few pesos. The clich? about the
poor wearing smiles is true, though the smiles are more rueful than
blissful and do little to soften the relentless claims of poverty.
More images of loss: on Roxas Boulevard, the elegant old clubs have gone; boarded-up buildings line a whole stretch of the thoroughfare. Havana after the revolution but here one that has nothing to do with morals or ideology, only with mass-market capitalism. Alongside the sushi bars, the hamburger stands, the wiener und schnitzel dives on M. H. Del Pilar, the skin trade has become a fast-food business. The massage parlors and the girlie bars that have mushroomed pretend neither to elegance nor to a cheeky up-yours nod to the establishment. This is a straight-up, no-time-for-romance, wham-bang-thank-you-ma'm cash business. The Marcos regime promoted sex tours avidly, trumpeting the country's female charms abroad as a natural resource, like so many stands of virgin forest to be felled. And in lumbered Tokyo's salarymen; farmers from the Japanese country side with their cameras and garish tropical shirts; and middle-aged Teutons and Aussie adventurers, slack-bellied and dull-eyed, searching for the perfect Asian doll. Or, worse, a child.
Images of loss: nothing startles and repulses more than the easy availability of street children whose faces, a mixture of world-weariness and innocence, make you want to weep. You see them, walking hand in hand with much older tourist men. You want to cry out, putangina mo, you whoreson, motherfucking foreign devil, and pummel them senseless, but you hold your tongue and jam your useless fists into your pockets. You know the city has always been tough, but was it ever this tough, this cold? Sex with prepubescents in the afternoons, and salvagings at night? The child in you shudders, retreats. Now my recollections are as much elegy as anything else, not just
for the city but for my childhood. Yet in the heart there is that place forever sacred, that child who refuses to die, immune from the mutability of time and even place, a place finally beyond place. Out of love, and even out of self-preservation, I hold my Manila in its niche, in my own peculiar history, a city no less tangible than that encountered in the real world, a Manila also of the imagination.
Village dogs have a sense of community, and so there is the phenomenon of dogspeak, maybe even dogmusic, dogpoetry, in the dif-
ferent precincts of the village. With no stranger, either human or
canine, in sight, with nothing but the cool calm of an evening, and
even on those nights when the moon has hied itself off to a nunnery,
the street dogs let loose anyway with their peculiar, plaintive bayings.
A careful listener will pick out a variety of tones, from bass to screechy
soprano. One dog or two begin, and pretty soon every four-legged
cur, mutt, bitch, hound, mongrel, and pup join in, the a capella vocalizing moving from street to street until the whole neighborhood is
one collective dog concerto, displaying a full range, limited but still
astonishing, of howls, barks, growls, yelps, and woofs. Then, as suddenly as it begins, it ends, as though some baton-wielding conductor
invisible to us had signalled a halt. What in the air moves these brutes
to such unpretty eloquence? The moon lamented for its absence?
Perhaps a certain cloud moving slowly against a star-filled horizon? A
shift in the wind, the earth's clandestine whisper? Have spirits passed
this way tonight, hell-bound? Or is this an ancient ritual of remembrance, of noble ancestors and fabled warriors? This orgiastic outpouring of melancholia has a calming effect; the dogs finally lie quiet,
having unburdened their heartfelt feelings to the night and the heavens. One day, perhaps, some clever scientist (a caninethologist?) will
convince a foundation to part with substantial sums of money so this
arcane, timeless practice can be studied.
While I am glad Dances with Wolves portrays Native Americans in
a positive light (the Lakota Sioux, for one thing, speak in their own
tongue), I find it a false epic, a work where the burden of expiation
and representation falls Christ-like on the pale shoulders of the
Costner character-a role that has had a long history in colonial narratives. The film is, as it were, a wolf dancing in sheep's clothing. Still,
I wondered if I was, in a sense, in a similar situation, albeit in much
less dramatic fashion. I wasn't white, but to some extent my mental
and spiritual conditioning, informed by the West through the usual
mediators of family, school, church, and pop culture, glossed over my
difference from a white world. That conditioning had also interposed
itself between me and much in my milieu and myself that was non-Western. Initially I had thought my living abroad, my physical
removal to the city by the Hudson, had generated this alienation. I
had gotten it wrong, however. Moving to a different shore was
merely the inevitable corollary to a theorem that had already been set.
Now, travelling as both outsider and insider in the country I grew up in, I kept glimpsing the past, a past I had all this while carried around, one that I had only previously intuited. It was as though I were engaged in an anthropological dig of myself. What would such a dig bring forth? And what then? As a writer, of course, I could see one end of it: a book that would be an intertwining of a person and places, recollections of childhood, the semifictions of an adult's memory, a mythologizing and harvesting of the imagination-in short a recontextualized life, reinvented to a significant degree out of necessity. But the danger also existed of being trapped by imagery, celluloid or otherwise, of turning into an effigy of myself, of turning others into accomplices in a traveller's voyeuristic tableaux and simplifying them in the process. I suppose-I hope-my naming the dangers helps keep them at bay.
From 'A Fool's Clarity,' Many Mountains Moving, Boulder, CO, 2008:
For some obscure reason-call it whimsy, call it idiocy--I responded to this ad in the Sunday New York Times. It seemed to me entirely plausible in a city where reinvention is the necessity of mothers and immigrant sons. But deep down I knew I would never get the job. After all, I had never handled a gun in my life. I mean, what did I know about being a security guard? The idea begged for a Woody Allenesque scenario. It wasn't lack of common sense that provided me with this fool's clarity; no. I was new to the city, a romantic hick, and had to make a living but didn't want to end up, as I had begun in Manila, in the world of suits. In Manhattan I had briefly tried being a writer of pornographic novellas at a Greenwich Village press where the rate was a dollar a page. I distinctly remember one rule that said there were to be no religious references at all. Characters couldn't exclaim Oh God God, or Christ or Sweet Jesus or Mother Mary even though they might want to while engaged in distinctly un-Christian acts, that involved harnesses and what can only be described as torturer's tools. Perhaps seeking employment as a security guard was my naive way of reenacting that classic writerly rite of passage, of working an obscure, solitary, dead-end job while excavating tunnels to the realm of imaginative light and startling language. I could be Kafka with a gun!...
From Museum of Absences (Meritage Press and the University of the Philippines Press, 2004)
From 'A Manong Complains, as the Star-Spangled Banner Is Played':
When my dark god comes
When the sea spills out of the sky
I'll be on a mountain of skulls
Of those who christianized me
Who english'd me
Who split my speech and fed me
The foul meat of false promise
When the deluge comes I will
See your white faces
A grin of horror before you
And I'll sail by in my bamboo ark
Dropping jasmine petals in
Two by two
Two by two
From 'Meditation #1':
Love, love the page, love on the page, seed, semen: eat the flesh raw, for the word is flesh. I, ravisher, thief of language's virtue, denier of its chastity yet stalwart defender of its inviolability. I need to be faithful to my infidelities. Count on me then to betray you. In the morning I expect to be bemedalled. In the morning I expect to be shot.
No need for a consort, or canvas, or bodyguard, or philosopher. No need for a missile defense shield, for prophylactic devices, just the caress of skin on skin, my pen, glistening, full, erect, held concupiscently in hand, ready to spill on you. Open your life wide and let me spill.
In the beginning... is always the beginning.
In the beginning is the word running after flesh.
In the middle is even more beginning, the music of ever-rotting spheres.
In the middle... there is no middle, only the end.
In the end is the flesh running after word.
In the end is the sword running after flesh.
In the end... I hope it will never.
Meditation #6: A Request to Myself
Take a pen and copy the poems
That appear on the horizon.
Each act of writing strips a poem's
Bulk off me, dark ore of my life.
I wish to disappear so slowly
The last part to go will be
This hand navigating with its pen,
A swimmer without a body
Disappearing into a sea
Of his own making.