Carlos Bulosan (1913-1956)

    Contributing Editors:
    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 videos.

    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.

    Original Audience

    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.

    Bibliography

    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, 1986.

    --. "Beyond Identity Politics: The Predicament of the Asian Writer in Later Capitalism," American Literary History 3:13 (1991) 542-65.