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  • On Becoming Socially Articulate:Transnational Bulosan
  • Martin Joseph Ponce (bio)

According to the late P. C. Morantte, Carlos Bulosan declared in a letter written around 1943 to his future biographer, "I am the most socially articulate Filipino in America."1 All the more provocative for being immodest and unverifiable, the claim certainly raises the question of what "socially articulate" might mean. Bulosan's reputation as a "social realist" writer committed to working-class rights and anti-racism indicates one possible answer.2 "Letter to a Filipino Woman" (1943), an essay published in The New Republic, gestures in that direction while also pointing in another. Addressed to the wife of Salvador P. Lopez (S. P.), a prominent Philippine literary critic who had been advocating a proletarian poetics in Manila since the late 1930s, the "letter" offers a gloss on the phrase:

It was S. P. who first achieved the needed articulation of social ideas in the Philippines. He had hopes that our culture would bloom as it should in our time. We were nearing what would have been the most significant achievement of our generation when Japan invaded our country and destroyed our freedom. We would have been able to focus our virginal talents on a new vista of literature, that is, to speak to the Filipino masses and to be understood by them.3

Presumably referring to Lopez's award-winning collection of essays, Literature and Society (1940), Bulosan here defines "socially articulate" as at once articulate about the social (the "articulation of social ideas"), and articulate to the social ("to speak to the Filipino masses and to be understood [End Page 49] by them"). Although these meanings are consistent with the politically-oriented Bulosan that the critical tradition has established, the epistolary conceit of "Letter to a Filipino Woman" implies a third sense of "socially articulate"—articulate in the social—that enables a quite different Bulosan to emerge: a transnational Bulosan who was as much concerned with issues of literary form as with political radicalism.

Bulosan moved to the West Coast in 1931, during the so-called "first wave" of Filipino immigration when the Philippines was still a U.S. colony, and found himself ambiguously positioned within a transnational social context. This context shaped not only what Bulosan would write about (the Philippines and the U.S.) but also how and to whom he would write. In an autobiographical sketch published a year before he died, he explicitly located himself within this transnational setting. He proclaimed that what "impelled [him] to write" was "[t]o give a literate voice to the voiceless one hundred thousand 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."4 Even as Bulosan identifies himself as a "socially articulate" writer who speaks on behalf of the "voiceless" Filipino masses who have been "rendered speechless by history,"5 he simultaneously figures himself as a mediator or "translator," an articulate node or link in this dispersed social formation.6 As implied by the form of "Letter to a Filipino Woman," the paradigmatic mode Bulosan deploys in becoming articulate in this social context is the epistolary. Although exiled from the homeland, Bulosan makes clear in that letter/essay and in the autobiographical sketch that he did not become involved solely with the difficult issues facing Filipinos in the United States.

To a large extent, the critical tradition has created such an impression. One might even say that it has accepted Bulosan's hubristic claim in that, of all Filipino writers "in America," he has received the most attention. E. San Juan, Jr., for instance, has argued in favor of "the irrepressible centrality of Carlos Bulosan's oeuvre in the shaping of an emergent pan-Filipino literary tradition affiliating the U.S. scene of writing."7 Most Bulosan scholarship, however, has been less interested in engaging with his "oeuvre" and situating it within a "pan-Filipino literary tradition," than [End Page 50] in focusing on America Is in the Heart: A Personal History (1946). Rediscovered in the 1970s, this semi-autobiography was taken...