What makes one a Filipino Writer?

10:13 PM December 22, 2011

The occasion of the first Filipino American International Book Festival in San Francisco brings up the basic question.

Are you a Filipino scribe because of the topic and subject matter? Is Stanley Karnow, who wrote on the Marcos regime, really a Filipino author?


Does the writer have to be Filipino? Maybe one parent?  Maybe he lived there?

Is it the accent? Skin color? Nose flatness?


Is it experiential?  Maybe you can be a Filipino writer if you’ve sat through at least ten years of a  provincial mutual aid organization’s officer installation dinners with full color guard  and anthems?

Or perhaps one has the perspective of a Filipino. But is that Manila  or  Daly City, Vallejo, Union City, Jersey City, Virginia Beach, et.al.

But how can we forget Abu Dhabi, or Riyadh.

As you can see defining “Filipino Writer” is not as easy as one thinks.  And that made the first Filipino American International Book Festival all the more challenging.

For that reason, I use the phrase “American Filipino” to describe myself.

Filipino American is so old school. The long accepted phrase begins with “Filipino” as the adjective modifying the anchor noun, “American.”

In the old days, it referred only to an American-born or to a naturalized citizen. That’s it.


But my “American Filipino” is the inclusive phrase we’ve longed for in these modern global times. Citizen, immigrant, born here, with or without accent, doesn’t matter. The “American” describes where we are now, but the anchor of this phrase is what we all are at heart—“Filipino.”

It’s certainly a more unified sense of Filipino.

But the festival for me was more old school than not.  And seemed to be more just plain Filipino.   The perspective from Manila vs. Daly City seemed to define the event. And Manila won.

There seemed to be a lot more literary folks from there than here. Even ex-president Fidel Ramos was there.  But not any ex-presidents of the U.S., the most beholden of whom might have been George W. Bush. (Remember when Bush went to war, Gloria Arroyo was quick to support Bush like fleas on a dog).

But the festival did have Manila literary types like young iconoclast Carljoe Javier and Karina Bolasco, the driving force at Anvil Publishing.

With the immigrant boom since the 1960s, naturally, Filipino books would have a viable market among American Filipinos.

Great. How about the other way? Are Filipinos in the RP interested in American Filipino tales, especially among those who were born in America? The bridge seemed more one way than not.

Tess Uriza Holthe

My event highlight was meeting highly acclaimed writer Tess Uriza Holthe—an American Filipino.

Like me, Holthe was born and raised in San Francisco’s Mission District (she in Bernal Heights, me around Dolores Park).  We both went to Lowell High (though I am her cuya).  And while my work has been in both mainstream and ethnic journalism, Holthe has established herself in the New York publishing world.

Her first book, “When the Elephants Dance,” achieved rave notices in 2002, and her Filipino-ness was an important part of the book.

But she doesn’t like to brand it a “Filipino” story.

“I am proud of my Filipino heritage and also of growing up American,” she said. “As I write, I often find myself reflecting upon the different cultural messages I was raised with like utang na loob (debt of the soul) and familial obligations vs. Growing up American and being expected to move out, fly the coop and somehow have the operating instructions for all of that independence when you were raised in a traditional Filipino household.”

Her books sometimes have no Filipinos in them. But that’s not to deny her heritage.

“Sometimes it’s there at the forefront and other times not, but it’s part of who I am and I wouldn’t want to separate the two. It’s definitely not a coincidence, together the combination for me is a heady, magical mix,” she said.

To Holthe, her ethnicity is neither an artistic nor business consideration.

“I don’t get the feeling at this point—as I near completion of my third book that the publishers care either way. My second book was about a man who has everything looks, money, charm, friends, yet he’s also a vulnerable, manic-depressive Norwegian American, off his meds and he falls into the wrong crowd when he takes an impulsive trip to Cannes…However, for my first novel I was noted as Filipino American, to lend credit to the work being about WWII Philippines and inspired by my father’s firsthand accounts.”

For that novel, Holthe does get responses from readers in the Philippines, but she doesn’t track sales there.

Maybe the next festival is in Manila, with American Filipinos shuttling there on PAL?

Still, I consider this first year a real success. Festival founder, the writer Gemma Nemenzo,  tapped into her clique of publishing friends and her shared rolodex has morphed into a real global literary community.

In the modern age of the far-flung Filipino, that’s quite an achievement.

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