Tuesday, April 20, 2010
A growing number of Filipino gay migrants are being published in the Philippines’ former colonial master, the United States of America, a testament to the postcolonial truism that the power dynamics binding the colonizer and the colonized long after the latter achieved independence continues to operate. Among these global Pinoys are Rinehart Zamora Linmark who authored Rolling the R’s (Kaya Press, 1995), Bino Realuyo who wrote The Umbrella Country (Ballantine Books, 1999), Han Ong who produced Fixer Chao (Picador, 2001), and Noel Alumit who generated Letters to Montgomery Clift (Alyson, 2002) and Talking to the Moon (Carroll and Graf, 2006). While the publication of these expatriate writers’ novels—or any novel by an author of color for that matter—signals their entrance into the American literary mainstream and, possibly, into the larger corpus of world literature, the politics overriding the novels’ publication process (i.e. submission to American editors to suit the exoticizing/objectifying taste of the literary mass consumers) is, interpretively, one of containment. This paper seeks to explore how the double bind of postcoloniality and queerness affected the engendering of the Filipino-American novel Letters to Montgomery Clift.
Author Alumit, who originally hails from Pangasinan province in the northern portion of Luzon island in the Philippines, migrated as a child in the late 60’s to the U.S. which has wielded its imperial influence on the country’s politics, economy, culture and society since the turn of the 20th century. While it is usual for citizens of former colonies like Alumit to continue their contact with their father colonizer under a postcolonial setting, the large-scale migration of Filipinos to countries apart from the U.S. captures the concept of the Diaspora, wherein “peoples [were] uprooted from their homelands and transported from one region of the globe to another…for economic, political, cultural and familial or personal reasons….” As an aftermath of this national displacement, an alienation within the host country pervades among these rendered second-class citizens and a concurrent longing for the home that’s left behind is heightened. The complication becomes more convoluted when gender is factored in, as members of sexual minorities find themselves still being discriminated professionally, socially and culturally in their adoptive countries. It is within this framework of things that Alumit’s novel figures as a postcolonial-queer imagination.
Letters to Montgomery Clift traces the life of Bong Bong Luwad who, in the turbulent period of the 1970’s, was smuggled to Los Angeles in order to escape the wrath of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos’ Martial Law. In the home of his activist-wedded mother’s sister, he experienced the first of a series of alienations in a land falsely believed by many immigrants to be one of refuge and salvation. Under the custody of his mother’s “evil sister Yuna,” he was battered largely because she “never wanted to be stuck with a child.” While child abuse is not an alien concept in the Philippines, it was an exemption rather than the rule. Yuna’s sense of family-orientedness is among the Filipino values that got diluted once she was smothered by American individualism as a result of her stay in the US which, to begin with, was orchestrated by her sister as an act of filial love. This very individualism finds citizens of that country being brought by career-oriented, independent-minded relatives to nursing homes or foster homes, which Bong Bong becomes a regular part of during interludes of his alienating transfer from one foster family to another.
As a means of coping with the foreign environment he was transplanted in, Bong Bong went to school where he studied English, which the Americans taught to the Filipinos during the former’s Occupation with the imperializing project in mind: a Westernizing indoctrination. However, Bong Bong is not among those Filipinos who “benefited” from such a project. In his confession at the time he was made to introduce himself in the American school:
“I didn’t like to speak because my English wasn’t very good. In the Philippines only rich kids learned English well. I was a child of the provinces, Benguet province specifically, far away from the fast-paced capital of Manila…I learned English well enough, but not as well as I could have. After all, once school ended, the kids would stop speaking in English and revert to speaking their native Illocano or Tagalog. We knew that English would serve us little; we had an idea that the rest of our lives would be spent in some low-paying capacity where English wouldn’t be needed. The bosses or employers we’d work under would know English, but not us.”
It may be gleaned from the aforementioned that far from being able to appropriate English to suit the native’s purposes, Bong Bong and others of his similar class and distance from the national center (where influxes from the American Empire are directed) remained estranged from the colonial language. He does not belong to the “rich kids,” whose parents make them learn English to get by in the academic, corporate and like aspects of the English-speaking world. The working class, meanwhile, would indeed have not the same need as the class above them, a condition that contributes to the elitism spawned by the upper-class’ use of English. This association of English with elitism is further explored in the episodes wherein Mrs. Billaruz, Bong Bong’s father’s fellow Martial law prisoner, “spoke English good…[because the] guards were afraid of English. They were intimated by it,” and wherein Bong Bong’s own detained mother had been told by a high-class jailbird “to speak it better. Whenever you speak to the guards, speak to them in English. They’ll think you’re educated. They’ll respect you more.” Also, the farther they are from the center, the lesser are their access to and employment of the language owing to impracticality, i.e. the regional languages are more prevalent.
Hence, the dialect-adept Bong Bong “spoke English slowly, almost like a guessing game, trying to think of what the next word will be” and was taunted as retarded-sounding as a result. He was transferred posthaste to a class of mostly immigrant children from Korea, Mexico, Cuba, and China “to speak and write better” although it seemed to him “everything that I had ever known didn’t much matter. And whatever I learned wasn’t good enough.” This, of course, is but a comment on the perpetually inferior Other’s mastery, which can never be consummated notwithstanding its repetitive attempts to mimic the colonizer. It surprised the Basic English teacher, Mr. Lopez, that a Filipino kid should have a problem with that Philippine colonial language, to which Bong Bong reasoned that he “did not practice English in the Philippines. English is what you say to Americans living here [in the U.S.]” In the long run, Bong Bong’s English improved, to the detriment of his Tagalog —yet another form of conquest.
However, a different case altogether is being experienced by the author. His profession reeks of a bourgeois adornment, and while he may be said to be also writing for the masses based on the Marxist comment above, his use of English as a writer makes him twice removed from the (most likely) non-English-speaking working class. If he would so much as turn to the Filipino languages he may be acquainted with, he would lose the reach of the broad American audience he mainly writes for. His editors from the imperial center would therefore demand a linguistic condition from him so he can sell his book to the Anglophonic reading market, which is composed chiefly of the bourgeois class up. Nevertheless, it is to Alumit’s advantage that he did not have to struggle to practice English (it being a colonial language in his country of origin) and that his considerably wide reach not only presents (for the purpose of inciting action) the plights of the various minorities (racial, sexual, etc.) peopling the novel but also helps put the Philippines in the world literary map.
Having mentioned the Philippines, it becomes somewhat inevitable for writers of color like Alumit to make the country of origin the subject and/or the setting of their novels. On the one hand, it displays the objectification of the mother country to correspond to the Westerners’ penchant for the exotic. On the other hand, it manifests the exiled Filipino’s nostalgia for the old country, no matter if the home revisited is never any more the home left behind. Either way, the Philippines was fondly imagined by Alumit in Letters to Montgomery Clift. Despite the distance, the novel’s characters remain connected to the homeland at the other end of the vast Pacific through the rituals of praying to the saints and dead ancestors as well as through the preparation of Filipino food like adobo and hopia mongo and lumpia, pansit and rice. More than these consumptions as metaphorical engulfing of a lost part of one’s being, these links serve to counter the estrangement that expatriate citizens experience in their adoptive countries. Hence, it is with trepidation that Bong Bong would partake of the Chinese food his first foster family kept preparing for him so he “could feel more at home.” How could he, when he did not hail from China? When Bong Bong lamented that “to the Webers if you were oriental you were Chinese” despite the fact that Filipinos and Chinese may be taken apart, it calls to mind the orientalizing motive of the West in conflating the non-West territories into one world that necessitates a worlding into the Empire. It is furthermore exemplified when he hooked up with a man who, having gotten it on with an Asian guy for the first time, mistook him for a Chinese or Vietnamese.
The abovementioned racial stereotyping gets treated more intricately when the professions of Bong Bong and his Filipino foster sister Amada are considered. They are film and television extras, yet another metaphor for the outsiders in America that they are. As “professional extra,” Bong Bong became a part of a Vietnam war crowd, while Amada “played a woman who had just been bombed in Hiroshima” and other racial typecasting wherein “some Asian woman is willing to die for [white guys].” In effect, their portrayal as aliens likewise separates them from other possibilities like bagging major roles or showing other universally human facets that go beyond oriental stereotyping.
An accurate stereotype among these exiles is the yearning to return to the homeland, which Bong Bong felt first in the novel’s eighth chapter but will find fulfillment only in the novel’s last quarter. His search for his mother also serves as an allegorical search for the motherland, one that disappeared because of one strongman’s scheme to change the course of his ruled country’s history. Since Alumit was already in America when Marcos declared Martial Law in the early 70’s, the Philippines he knows of includes commodities like Philippine articles and travel books and memories of elder Filipinos who had enough of these before moving to the U.S. for greener pastures. The novel charts these commodities in the American libraries and memories of Aunt Yuna and the Arangans as well. His research on the Marcos regime to incorporate into the novel’s plot is most likely propelled by the fact that a large portion of what the international community knows about the Philippines is about the excesses of the Marcoses. Early on in the novel, some of Marcos’ cohorts abducted Bong Bong’s father to make him pay for being a staunch critic of the dictator. This civil violence among suspected subversives would recur in the episodes wherein Mrs. Billaruz details her rape by her abductors and Bong Bong’s own mother’s ordeal and countless others’ in various detention centers. By stark contrast, the autocrat’s wife Imelda escaped being satirized for her thousands of pairs of shoes in the novel but was skewered all the same for her ownership of the elegant Crown Building in New York and her erection of the “dark monstrosity” of the Cultural Center “to make her mark in the city [of Manila].” This lost country would materialize soon after Bong Bong’s painstaking collection of travel money afforded him a trip to the Philippines, momentarily divorcing him from his faithful letter-writing to the dead actor Montgomery Clift, an escapist albeit therapeutic activity that preoccupied him while pining away for his mother trapped in the homeland.
While grappling with this geographical loss, Bong Bong also struggled in another territory that’s his gender identity. His sexual awakening would be by way of a “real good-looking” Filipino-American writer named J, whose indiscreet sex with his girlfriend Baby Bounce Belinda caused the boy to fancy the late Monty Clift, a perversion that will land Bong Bong in a mental hospital years later. Of course, this abnormal fantasizing over a dead moviestar should not be conflated with gayness, whose disparaging label as a psychological illness was scrapped only a few years after Clift succumbed to heart attack in 1966. Therefore, as a 50’s celebrity adored by the heteronormative fandom as a straight actor, Clift lived in a sexually-repressive context. The novel, though, alluded to two biographical accounts on Clift, claiming that he “was attracted to men,” a fact that relieved Bong Bong, who was increasingly knowing he is a gay himself. In an epiphany at a time another discreetly gay contemporary of Clift, Rock Hudson, died of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, Bong Bong
“thought of boys in my school and how I wanted to know them better…I thought about boys mostly in the mornings when I touched myself…I ached for some of the guys at school, guys in magazines, guys on TV….From a distance, I admired boys at my school, indulged thoughts of loving them. I wanted to hold them the way they held their girlfriends at the entrance of the school, close and endearing. I wanted to whisper romantic words into their ears like, I’ll never leave you, honey.”
Despite having been able to escape the social stigma of coming out in his country of origin characterized by a macho, conservative Catholic culture, Bong Bong did not find it easy to do so in the relatively more liberal atmosphere of his adoptive country. Like his movie idol and Hudson, he has to perform a gender role that is more acceptable in and to a heteronormative society, or reap coming-out consequences that include but are not limited to ostracism, losing the people from his social sphere, being bullied or being targeted in hate crimes, being relegated to limited professional engagements, among others. Hence, it was understandable for Bong Bong to take “comfort in the life of Montgomery Clift. I knew he hid his sexuality, too. I think that is one of the reasons why I like seeing Monty in his movies: he was hiding. He was visible to millions of people, but he hid. He made part of himself disappear. I understood the importance of hiding.” However, this double-life that Clift had led did not sit well on the actor’s personal life, such that this disapproval of homosexuality caused him to figure in a car accident, and to self-mutilate as well as to go insane, which Bong Bong disturbingly followed suit. Such an alienation proved hard for the novel’s protagonist to come out even to his closest ally Amada, whose attempts to introduce Bong Bong to different interesting women did not achieve fruition. She almost succeeded when she got him to meet a gay man this time, Oliver Yen, except that Bong Bong had engaged himself to an imaginary boyfriend in the embodiment of Clift. Nevertheless, what can be recognized here is Amada’s foster brother’s gayness, a finality that did not occur until later, when Bong Bong can already support himself financially, a crucial condition among sexual minorities to enable to survive independently in a heterosexual world. Bong Bong’s and his kind’s sexual survival depended on discreetness, as his trysts with the fraternity boy, the White bar guy and his eventual live-in partner Logan attest; otherwise, queer people like him are highly likely to be objects of homophobia by straight people, as the incident with the nurse proved. Thus, the sexual liberation movement has continuously left out the queer variety because the latter cannot come out in the open not even as romantic couples, let alone as same-sex desiring individuals. This, despite their active role in molding social, cultural and economic geographies in the more liberal US, the conservative Philippines as well as across the highly sexualized global milieu. Hence, it remains a struggle for Alumit and his fellow Filipino gay writers to assert their ethno-sexual identity, without having to yield thoroughly to the exploitative maneuverings of the (mostly) White heterosexual male editors in fetishizing the old country as well as their queerness, as these authors continue to wrestle for their tiny piece of share in the American literary pie.
The postcolonial-queer double bind circumscribing the production of the Noel Alumit’s Letters to Montgomery Clift proves how power dynamics governing certain ideological dichotomies continues to function in order to position various elements of society. In the case of the author, the subject position he has to assume is one of an expatriate gay writer whose work must be submitted to the editorial scrutiny of White heterosexual male-run publishing houses to secure the work’s Western marketability that’s often spelled by the exoticism of the country of origin as well as of fetishism of the minoritized sexuality. What is subversive in this neocolonial containment includes the very articulation of the author’s imagination of his country and people in a mastered colonial language, a colonized subject’s way of writing back at the Empire, and the ineffaceability rendered by a sexual minority’s proven capability to narrate his kind’s queer experience. These challenges to the norm are significant attempts to reclaim the space denied to displaced colonial and sexual subjects; by recording their rich, colorful experiences and by putting forth their dissident projects in the process, these subjects are telling the world that they cannot be ignored and rendered invisible anymore. In the case of the exiled gay protagonist, he and his kind always experience a deep sense of metaphorical double homelessness, a state of permanent diaspora not only in terms of geographic belonging but also in terms of sexual belonging. They become outcasts in issues like language barriers, immigration status, professional visibility, cultural attitudes toward sexuality, exoticism by their fellow queers, among others. This dual dynamic of being neither-here-nor-there and neither-this-nor-that floats the postcolonial-queer concept of hybridity which emerges out of the clash between the colonizer and the colonized, nationally or sexually. This encounter breeds a “third space” of resistance wherein a new reality is engendered and wherein both parties are irreversibly altered, as when Homi Bhabha metaphorized such an encounter within the liminal and interstitial space of a stairwell found in between two floors which “prevents identities as either end of it from settling into primordial polarities.” As such, Bong Bong and his fellow gay subalterns can be empowered by their double hybridity against the dual hegemonic colonization they are facing since they can bridge the gap between the old and the new home, and between the queer and straight genders. By virtue of their intersecting postcolonial histories and alternative sexualities, these many-splendored hybrid identities pose a challenge to the world that stubbornly maintains a monolithic (read: heteronormative, globalized) perspective of identity.
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