Carlos Bulosan (1913-1956)
Amy Ling and Oscar Campomanes
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Some readers may be repulsed by what they consider an overly negative
portrayal of American society. Their reactions range from incredulity to
discomfort to rejection of what they consider to be exaggeration. Other
readers are quick to dismiss Bulosan on aesthetic criteria, believing American
Is in the Heart to be autobiographical and sociological rather than
"literary." The issue of genre is another problem area: His fiction
seems autobiographical, his poetry prosy, his short stories read like essays
and his essays like short stories.
Providing students with biographical background on Bulosan, showing
that he was primarily a writer rather than a farm laborer/ factory worker,
and giving them historical information on Philippine immigration will set
this text into its proper context. This text is primarily a novel and at
the same time, as Carey McWilliams has pointed out, "it reflects the
collective life experience of thousands of Filipino immigrants who were
attracted to this country by its legendary promises of a better life."
If a slide show or video on Philippine immigration is obtainable, it
would provide useful information. The film Manongs from Visual Communications
in California is an excellent introduction. NAATA/Cross Current Media at
346 Ninth Street, San Francisco, is an excellent source of Aisan-American
As students read Bulosan, they ask, "Who is this man? What group
does he belong to? What are his concerns? Is the plight of the immigrant
today different than it was in the 1930s and 1940s?"
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Bulosan's major theme is exile and return--the effect of departure from
home and the necessity to return to the Philippines in order to make sense
of the exile's experience in the United States because of the colonial
status of the Philippines.
His second purpose is to record his own, his family's, and his friends'
experiences and lives, their loneliness and alienation.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Bulosan wrote with an eye to violating literary conventions, as mentioned
above. As a political activist and labor organizer, he also believed that
creative literary activity and social purpose cannot be separated. Some
of his later stories are magic realist in style. Students should be made
aware of the gulf between the ideals of America as the land of equality
and opportunity and the painful, violent reality Bulosan delineates in
the representative selection of America is in the Heart.
Bulosan, at the beginning of his career, wrote for a mainstream American
audience, and was placed in the position of cultural mediator, a bridge
between the Philippines (which America wanted to know better during World
War II) and the U.S. Late in life, he consciously cultivated a Filipino
audience, sending stories back to the Philippines, most of which were rejected.
In the 1970s, he was "rediscovered" by Asian-Americans delighted
to have found a spokesperson as prolific and multifaceted as he.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
In his unadorned, deceptively simple prose style, he resembles Ernest
Hemingway; in his social concerns, John
Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Bulosan may be compared with
Maxine Hong Kingston
in that both were critically acclaimed by a wide audience but denounced
by certain portions of their own community who accused them of having "sold
out." With Kingston he also shares a reliance on peasant forms of
storytelling as well as the seeming incoherence of their works and the
question of genre.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. The students may be directed to think about whether there are distinguishing
characteristics to Filipino immigrant experience setting it apart from
Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or any European group.
2. Ask students to keep a journal of their random reactions to the text.
On a sheet of paper, have them record quotes, phrases, or words from the
text that were particularly significant to them; on the right-hand side
of the sheet, they are to record their reactions. Later they write a one-page
statement of their responses, setting up a dialogue between themselves
and their instructor. The instructor then makes a response and dittoes
up the dialogue so that the entire class can enter into the dialogue. Finally
the class writes papers on the entire classroom-wide dialogue.
Amerasia Journal 6:1 (1979). Special issue devoted to the writings
of Carlos Bulosan.
Campomanes, Oscar and Todd Gernes. "Two Letters from America: Carlos
Bulosan and the Act of Writing." MELUS (Spring 1990).
"Carlos Bulosan." 500-word biographical entry in the Encyclopedia
of the American Left, by Oscar Campomanes (Brown University).
Evangelista, Suzanne Potter. Carlos Bulosan and His Poetry: A Biography
and an Anthology. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985.
San Juan, E. "Tunnelling Out of the Belly of the Beast." In
Crisis in the Philippines. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey,
--. "Beyond Identity Politics: The Predicament of the
Asian Writer in Later Capitalism," American Literary History
3:13 (1991) 542-65.