By Geo Ong
I was given a copy of Patrick Rosal‘s Boneshepherds as a gift. I read the poem ‘Little Men with Fast Hands’ and wondered if I had read it already because I knew it so well. It took me awhile to realise that it was because I had been in that poem before, many times in fact, as a kid growing up on a basketball court.
It was always a game but a very serious one. For being a traditionally short people, Filipinos play basketball the way Brazilians play fútbol: outside with breathless attitude. Because of my diminutive stature growing up, I was automatically relegated to the guard position and warned, ‘You better learn to shoot the long ball because you’re not getting anywhere near the basket.’ I never did get that shot down, probably because all I ever worked on was sleight-of-hand dribbling, behind-the-back passes, and mid-air contortion layups. Devices in on-court trickery was my game, and I got all the way to the basket all the time thanks to them.
The game I just got subbed into is also a very serious one: learning what it means to be a Filipino-American. You’d think you’d know how to play a game you’ve been playing your entire life, but I’m still feeling out its rhythms. I still wonder what the uniform actually means, who my teammates are, and what is actually at stake. But I’m back on the court, realising something I’ve known since I was a kid: to be Filipino-American means always being David when there is a Goliath. And there is always a Goliath.
The Philippines has only been an official independent country since 1946. Before that the country was under American military rule since 1898, along with a brief occupation by Japan during World War II. Before 1898, the Philippines had been under Spanish rule for over 300 years. This complicated folding of Filipino history is thus equally complicated to unfold, no matter how many hands are involved.
All of this, among many other things, means stories. Lots of stories. But I haven’t yet delved into much of it. This could be because Filipino and Filipino-American literature is hardly taught in American universities. After my university years, when I began to choose the things I wanted to read, I felt a very mysterious and unexplainable resistance toward such literature. Part of me felt like I was outside of these stories, that they didn’t concern me; if I were to excavate a deeper reason why I simply wasn’t interested, whatever I would find I would most certainly be ashamed of today.
A few weeks ago, for the first time in my writing life, I wrote about the Philippines, as only I knew it. And even though I am proud of those articles, they barely describe the country, the culture, and the feelings I still don’t understand. Patrick Rosal’s Boneshepherds couldn’t have existed without a trip to the Philippines—its poems so very much of the country’s soil—but the work is still written from the outside looking in. It is written, after all, by a Filipino-American. But these poems aren’t stories of exclusion or displacement. They are poems written from the cusp of understanding, from the point of view of an outsider being warmly invited into the kitchen of an auntie he never knew he had. Perhaps this cusp is where all Filipino-Americans live and learn to call home.
Perhaps, to a bigot that looks the part, I may not seem as American as he is. And to an ancestor, one who’s critical and may be losing his sight, I may not seem as Filipino as he is. In the past, I’ve let myself be boxed up in this awkward position, but lately I’ve come to realise that the pressure I think I feel from these truth-lies on both sides accentuate the whole truth of what I am, a Filipino-American.
Many of the poems in Boneshepherds made me believe that I can write poetry. They give me hope, like I could’ve written these very poems, or that I could write stories just like these ones, because what they’ve told me, I somehow already knew. Rosal wrote from his place on the cusp of understanding, and this time it is he who is inviting me inside, because even though I seem to have lived there for quite some time, it now feels like home for the very first time. Boneshepherds urged me to look at myself honestly and to write honestly. If I want to be anyone I can, I better start with being whoever I already am.