Carlos Bulosan's the Laughter of My Father: Adding Feminist and Class Perspectives to the "Casebook of Resistance"

Article excerpt

In this essay we focus on a cycle of twenty-four short stories published in 1944 by Filipino American poet and author Carlos Bulosan entitled The Laughter of My Father. (1) Although this work is less commonly treated than Bulosan's novels, we draw from one of the most compelling analyses to date, presented by literary critic L. M. Grow. (2) In an article published in 1995 Grow proposed that Laughter could be read as a kind of casebook, illustrating peasant resistance against the colonial structures and the comprador class found in northern agricultural areas on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Here we propose that it is possible to expand critically on Grow's analysis by adding feminist and class perspectives to Grow's interpretation. This in turn reveals that Bulosan had more to say about Filipino women than has been suggested in the published literature on the author and his work to date. (3)

Specifically, by sifting though each of the stories in Laughter, it is possible to elucidate lessons regarding gendered social relations based on the specific manifestations of male domination encountered by the women in a neocolonial social formation. Through an analysis of the individual stories, as well as the book as a whole, an assessment can be made of the work's lessons regarding possible responses to male domination vis-a-vis interpersonal relationships, the family, and social institutions.

WHY BULOSAN? WHY THE LAUGHTER OF MY FATHER?

For any reader who is not familiar with the life and work of the late Filipino author Carlos Bulosan, we should start with a quick overview. Although not widely known in the larger domain of North American popular culture, Bulosan, the writer and the activist, is iconic within the field of Asian American studies. Controversies during his lifetime, however, and criticism of his most famous book, America Is in the Heart, over the last two decades may have served to limit his audience. (4)

Bulosan, who remained a Filipino national even though he spent his entire adult life in the United States, was a new Asian immigrant who landed in the port of Seattle in 1922. (5) As an immigrant he was a prolific, well-recognized author for his age and educational background. A little more than a decade after his untimely death, Bulosan's legend exploded in the late 1960s. His work as a poet and author, as well as a prolabor militant, was foregrounded in the earliest classes in Asian American history, literature, and the Filipino American experience, after Asian American studies classes and programs were established at the university level circa 1968-69.

Carlos Bulosan's writing, especially his semiautobiographical novel America Is in the Heart, had a special significance in Asian American and ethnic studies for a wide variety of reasons. First, and perhaps most important, Bulosan developed a race and class perspective on behalf of his compatriots, the generation of Filipino migrant workers known as the Manongs (or "respected elders") who worked in the fields, fisheries, and canneries up and down the West Coast during the 1920s and 1930s. (6) America Is in the Heart, especially, was widely used in Asian American studies courses across the country because many of the field's founders thought that this book, in particular, most explicitly exposed the racial prejudice and discrimination that the Manongs faced before World War II. What differentiates Bulosan from most other prewar Asian immigrant authors is that, along with race, Bulosan was highly focused on the local and global class dynamics that also shaped the Filipino immigrants' labor experiences and tribulations. (7) In this same sense Bulosan was also able to position the Filipino laborers' plight within an international context, rare in terms of nonfiction Asian immigrant authors of the time. In America Is in the Heart, specifically, Bulosan spends chapters developing the portrait of how American colonial intervention in the Philippines created the macrodynamic that forced peasants from the collapsing agrarian sector in the northern Philippines to consider international migration as a possible solution to their constant cycle of poverty and debt. …