The life story of Carlos Bulosan—poet, short story writer, novelist and labor union organizer—reads like an epic bestseller
Abject poverty in Pangasinan. Brutal discrimination in America during the 1930s, the Great Depression (“Filipino and dogs not allowed here”). Heady literary success in the late 1930s and the war years, capped by the publication in 1946 of his masterpiece, America Is in the Heart, “a personal history.” Then charges of plagiarism. Literary career affected. Alcoholism, serious illnesses, medical operations. Dead in 1956. Forgotten and neglected, then a literary revival in the Philippines and in the United States among university circles, especially those specializing in Asian-American studies.
Carlos Sampayan Bulosan was born in the barrio of Mangusmana, Binalonan, Pangasinan to a farming couple on November 2, 1911 (baptismal record); there were seven children in the family. At the age of five, Carlos started to work, helping his father farm their one-hectare piece of land. Two years later the family moved to the town proper of Binalonan, where his mother sold salted fish in the public market. Both his parents were illiterate.
In America Is in the Heart, Busolan recalled this time of his childhood: “Many of the peasants were starving but like my family they were full of pride. They promised to pay their debts at a certain time when they knew well enough that they could not afford to pay. But my mother was a patient woman. Even when our profit for a day’s work was only 20 centavos or ten cents, her interest in our business never diminished.”
Young Carlos had a limited education and this would impel him later on, when he was in the United States, to read voraciously in the public libraries, increase his knowledge of life and literature, and perfect his English. At home, he attended public school in Binalonan off and on until he was 13, studied for three semesters in Lingayen High School and then left school “forever.” He worked for a time in Baguio City in a bakery and an ice plant, and then returned to Binalonan.
One by one his brothers—Amado, Macario, and Aurelio—would leave for the US. By 1931, it was time for the 20-year-old Carlos to go, too. The stock market in New York had crashed two years earlier, and it was the worst time to journey to “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It was the nadir, the lowest point of the Depression.
In 1941, the year the Pacific War broke out, Bulosan recalled those earlier years in a
letter to his friend, the writer Federico Mangahas:
“I used to tramp around this country when I first landed here years and years ago. It was during the height of the Depression when there were millions without work, young men and women on the road, catching freight trains, sleeping in shacks in dry river beds. Dying in flophouses, living from day to day without hope, every minute a dagger of pain that stabbed the senses, every cop beating us, every man an enemy, machine guns everywhere around us, the sky dark, the air cold, the whole of America doomed. And I was a part of it all: starving in large cities, sleeping in foul toilets, drinking gallons of water to ease the emptiness of hunger, running from street to street, eating garbage, crying at night and in the morning, looking at the sun again, shouting for something that was not in America, weeping everywhere, demanding for tenderness and love, shouting, shouting to be heard in the world that was dead or dying or doomed…”
At one point, while organizing workers in the West Coast, Bulosan and another Filipino were brutally assaulted by racists.
Bulosan stayed in the United States for 25 years. While embittered by the violence and hostility that he experienced during the Depression, he remembered the persons who had been kind to him. He never applied for American citizenship, he was not interested in that; and he never returned to the land of his birth, remaining a Filipino at heart and in spirit. He never married but had his affairs, which often ended disastrously. But his literary executor said the women whom he hurt forgave him.
In 1938, Bulosan wrote to a woman friend: “I cannot understand, am wondering why I cannot really love a woman.”
THE WRITER EMERGES
By the late 1930s, however, things began to improve for him. In the years and decades, he wrote many short stories of uneven quality, some published in prestigious publications like The New Yorker and the more popular Saturday Evening Post; volumes of poetry which brought him to the attention of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt; and many novels, of which only two were later discovered and published—The Power of the People (The Cry and Dedication in the US edition); and All the Conspirators.
During the US visits of the future President Manual L. Quezon and his wife Doña Aurora, Bulosan became friends with them. “Even Mrs. Quezon loved him,” declared (the late) UP Diliman Professor Dolores S. Feria, who became his literary executor upon his death. “…she was a very democratic person. There was nothing snobbish about her.”
Bulosan’s papers are contained in seven boxes at the University of Washington library in Seattle and the University of Chicago library. These include stories, a biographical sketch, letters, notes, drafts, fragment of poems and microfilm.Some of the works have been published posthumously.
His published works include Letter from America (1942, poetry); The Laughter of my Father (1944, short stories); America Is in the Heart (1946, a personal history); Sound of
Falling Light: Letters in Exile (edited by Dolores S. Feria, University of the Philippines;
1960); The Philippines Is in the Heart (1978, New Day); The Power of the People; and Bulosan: An Introduction with Selections (1983, edited by E. San Juan, Jr.)
In 1944, with the war still raging, Bulosan boasted in a letter to a friend: “The first edition of my book The Laughter of My Father is sold out. There is a second edition now of 15,000 copies. All the reviews are favorable and I think the book will make history before the year ends. It was broadcast last week (later part of April) to the fighting men and women in some 880 words by the Office of War Information in New York. I don’t think our own government takes any interest in it. But it does not matter to me, because I have made myself without anybody’s help.”
POET OF WORLD WAR II
As I delved into the fiction and poetry of Carlos Bulosan during the 1980s for a long feature story in Celebrity magazine (included in my 1986 collection Red Roses for Rebo), I became more impressed by his poetry than his fiction, memorable though some of his stories may have been. His poems are eloquent protest works, a poetry of commitment. His images, metaphors and similes are striking: “The coughing orbit of life in this strange land/,” Life is a foreign language/every man mispronounced it…”
He is angry (“You must know that I cried when the Jews were driven from their country, when the Negroes/were burned in their homes”); as well as lyrical: “Delicately the film/Of his life unfolded like a coral sea/Where stone is a hard substance of wind/and water leaking into memory like pain.”
America has her verdant plains and blighted cities: “Undone with hate, the city screams/With the high neon sign of murder.” Nature vs industry (“This is America—a sudden rush of machinery/Above the savage lip of the sea”). Other themes are health vs disease, love vs hate, hunger vs plenty, fragile peace vs war, democracy vs fascism; and loneliness vs fulfillment.
The Voice of Bataan is Bulosan’s third volume of poetry. Here, “the voice of American”.
Filipino and Japanese soldiers all converge in the prospect of history as
progression from conflict, a process whereby the contradictions of one stage are
resolved into a higher stage in the future” (E. San Juan, Jr, in Carlos Bulosan and the
Class Struggle, UP Press,1972).
Letter from America and The Voice of Bataan were published when, at long last, following the hardships of Filipino workers and farmhands, a wave of sympathy for fallen Philippines swept the United States during the 1940s because of the war.
This could have been one reason for the success of The Laughter of My Father, which Bulosan himself called a collection of modernized folk tales from all over the world, but adapted to the Philippine setting and embellished with his kind of humor.
SATIRE, NOT HUMOR
Flashforward: In 1955, a year before his death, Bulosan wrote to editor Florentino B. Valeros that his politico-economic ideas were embodied in all his writing but especially in his poetry. As for the bestselling The Laughter of My Father (criticized by many but defended by just as many), “let me remind you that (the book) is not humor, it is satire. It is an indictment against an economic system that stifled the growth of the primitive, making him decadent overnight without passing through the various stages of growth and decay.”
The book is written in a light and outwardly comic vein, and deals with events and happenings in a rural community in northern Luzon, presumably Pangasinan. Often there is a precocious child narrator who has a mischievous father. The more serious implications of the stories are concerned with the corrupting influence of capitalism and conventional politics, the impact of war upon the community, unequal distribution of wealth, and the greed of the rich.
“The Soldiers Come Marching In,” is the story I best remember. Filipino volunteers who fought in the war return to the town and begin to act in a lifeless, lethargic manner. Taking pity on them the narrator’s father sets up a wine shop and they take to drinking and carousing. This angers the town’s wealthiest resident, Don Rico, who hires someone to burn the wine shop. But the ex-soldiers continue to sing, and Don Rico goes mad and hangs himself.
The Laughter of My Father contained 24 short stories and was translated into many languages, including Danish and Italian. Its sequel is The Philippines Is in the Heart, a collection of 21 stories. A cheerful spirit animates the first part, “On Native Ground,” but the mood darkens in the second section. “No More Laughter.” In the last two parts, “In Quest of Another World” and “The Human Comedy,” the author for the first time gives full rein to fantasy and myth, spinning tales of amorous ghosts and lonely mermaids.
In one story, “The Summer of Beautiful Music,” music portends death. A stranger with a trumpet appears in town and buys a small house near the river. He plays the trumpet and the music is so sad and beautiful that children listen to him the whole day, and mothers and their daughters begin to weep.
Because of the music, many young couples decide to marry. The stranger blows the trumpet continuously during these festive occasions until he falls down dead. His friend, Silent Popo, replaces him. A cholera epidemic ensues, and Silent Popo plays without ceasing for the dead until he too succumbs. And then, the child narrator, to the horror of his father, takes over as the town’s trumpet player…
KIND TEACHER VS RACISTS
My favorite Bulosan short story is not found in any of these two collections but in Philippine Cross Sections (1958), an anthology edited by Maximo Ramos and Florentino B. Valeros—“As Long as the Grass Shall Grow.” It begins lyrically:
“It was my first time to see her, a young woman about 25, with brown hair and a white dress spotted with blue. The blue sky seemed to absorb the white color of her dress, but from where I stood she appeared in all clothed in white blue. The blueness of the school at the back of the schoolhouse also enhanced the blue dots of her dress. But my eyes were familiar with the bright colors of the hillside, the yellowing leaves of the peas, the sprouting green blades of the summer grass, the royal white gowns of the edelweiss, and the tall grey mountains in the distance, and the silent blue sea below the clear sky.”
The narrator and his companions are Filipino migrant workers, like Bulosan, picking peas in a farm for a living. He is describing Helen O’Reilly, a kindhearted schoolteacher who befriends the workers, give them books to read and recites poetry to them, to increase their knowledge of English and improve their communication skills. But this only infuriates the racists in town, and one night the narrator is beaten up.
Miss O’Reilly falls ill, is hospitalized, realizes her presence in town may have more
adverse consequences for the Filipinos, and decides to leave. On the eve of her
departure the workers throw a party for her in their bunkhouse, and the schoolteacher
promises the narrator: “I will go on teaching people like you as long as the grass shall
REBELS AND CONSPIRATORS
There have been two published novels by Busolan—“The Power of the People and All the Conspirators; it is likely that there are more, finished or un—but these are the only two which have been retrieved from the archives and edited by scholars and researches who had been on the trail of the by then legendary exiled writer from Pangasinan for years.
A major work, The Power of the People, was published in a newsprint edition in Ontario, Canada. It was available for a time at Solidaridad Bookshop in Manila, but was soon sold out due to word of mouth. Then National Bookstore published it in a pocket-size edition in, appropriately, 1986, the year of the People Power Revolution.
The action takes place in Central Luzon during the late 1940s, when the Huk rebels were on the rise and believed to be threatening Manila. A rebel band of seven, led by Hassim, go on a long journey through the mountains and plains to meet with Felix Rivas, who is returning from the US with funds and other forms of assistance. The only member of the group who can identify Rivas is Dante.
They pass through their respective hometowns, sometimes welcomed or violently received—by relatives. In a confrontation with his brother, a landlord-priest, Dante is killed. Who will identify Rivas now? The rebel band, however, vow to continue with their mission as “they walked into the new morning.”
The Power of the People is long, all of 496 pages, while All the Conspirators is much shorter. The protagonist this time is an American, Gar Stanley, and the setting is the Philippines right after the war. Stanley returns to the land of his childhood to help his ex, Candy, look for her missing husband, Clem, Stanley’s best friend. “I have just received conclusive evidence that Clem is still alive,” Candy informs the American. “I need your assistance. Please help me.”
The quest turns out to be more than Stanley had bargained for. He undertakes the mission and the trail begins in Manila and leads to Baguio, from mansions to novels, from bordellos to churches, from nightclubs to Igorot huts. There are tales of wartime collaboration, a rapacious gang and greed for money. Along the way Stanley is pursued by “conspirators,” a motley group of people, respectable or shady, whose secrets will be uncovered when the American discovers the shocking truth.
In 1949, one Guido D’Agostino, sued Bulosan for plagiarism, claiming that the Filipino had copied from his (D’Agostino’s) story, “The Dream of Angelo Zara.” In the latter story Zara, an Italian immigrant, dreams that Italian dictator Mussolini dies after offering him a job with a salary almost that of a general’s pay. Excitedly Zara shares the dream with his fellow Italian workers but insists that the dream belongs to him alone. For his friends, however, a dream like this is “public property.”
In the Bulosan story, “The End of the War” (The New Yorker, 1944) Private Fidel, a Filipino infantryman stationed in California, dreams that the war in the Philippines had ended, that Japanese soldiers are surrendering en masse in Mindanao. He relates the dream to his cousin, a sergeant, who tells it to another sergeant. As word of the dream spreads, Fidel realizes it no longer belongs to him. He begins to play the harmonica, “with great joy and anticipation.”
The case was settled out of court.
In 1972, critic E. San Juan Jr. wrote, “a letter to me from The New Yorker editor (dated August 27, 1970) dismissed the charge as without merit and vindicates Bulosan’s originality. A comparison of the ‘plagiarized’ piece with Bulosan’s story reveals at once the falsity of the charge. This should put an end to still common allegations about Bulosan’s impostorship and his counterfeit genius.”
In my interview with Mrs. Feria in 1982, she asserted that “it was simply similarity of idea and not textual plagiarism. Bulosan had a photographic memory; he had an extraordinary grasp of anything he read. But then, he developed a very neurotic personality and he became ill…”
FALLEN, RISING AGAIN
For the crusading writer in exile, the consequences were most distressing. The New York magazine editors who used to publish his poems and stories blacklisted him and he was forced to move to Seattle, in the northern West Coast. Although he continued to write poems, stories and letters until the year of his death, in the aftermath of the plagiarism trauma, his neurosis worsened, as did his alcoholism and his health. He had suffered from tuberculosis for many years, and in later life underwent a series of medical operations. “I have left a part of my body for the doctors to play around with,” he joked once in a letter to a friend.
In 1955, a year before his death, he wrote: “I am sick again. I know that I will be here (Firland Sanatorium, Seattle, Washington) for a long time. And the grass hut where I was born is gone, and my father and his one hectare of land are gone too. And the palm-leaf home in Binalonan is gone, and two brothers and a sister are gone forever.”
Nick Joaquin wrote in 1960: “The dying Bulosan, still stubbornly crouched over his typewriter even when his fingers have become almost too weak to press the keys, makes a picture to uplift the heart. He was one of the great figures of our race.”
Bulosan died on September 11, 1956, in the charity ward of the King Country Hospital in Seattle, Washington; he was only 45. Cause of death was broncho-pneumonia complicated by severe infection, the doctor informed his brother Aurelio Bulosan. He was buried in the city’s Calgary Cemetery.
For several years after his death, Bulosan was all but forgotten. But by the 1960s onwards, slowly, interest in his life and works grew, along with the number of readers and academic studies here and in the United States. Universities with Asian-American studies expressed their interest, and there was a re-evaluation of his works. “The 1970s brought a wave of ethnic awareness, and with it a new appreciation of authors like Bulosan,” reported the Associated Press (AP) in 2005 from Seattle, where the writer died.
The University of Washington Press, the caretaker of Bulosan’s literary properties since 1973, republished America Is in the Heart the following year, and had 15 printings
and sold about 4,000 copes yearly at the time. It “is on the most widely used books in
Asian-American studies classes around the world,” the AP added.
In the 1970s, the local government of Binalonan, Bulosan’s birthplace, built a concrete marker in his honor at the corner of a street named after him, which leads to where the Bulosan house once stood. And in 2006, the municipal council enacted an ordinance declaring September 11, his death anniversary, as “Carlos Bulosan Day.”
Binalonan residents later established the Carlos Bulosan Center, leading to a Bulosan Centennial celebration which included a lecture on his life and works, and an exhibit of his manuscripts, published books and letters. Bulosan memorabilia is displayed at the government-run University of Eastern Pangasinan.
The “unknown hero” had finally come home to his hometown, his province, and his country which he never left in spirit.
A year before his death, Bulosan wrote:
“What impelled me to write? The answer is—my grand dream of equality among men and freedom to all. To give a voice to the voiceless 100,000 Filipinos in the United States, Hawaii and Alaska. Above all and ultimately, to translate the desires and aspirations of the whole Filipino people in the Philippines and abroad in terms relevant to contemporary history.”