- Beyond the Nation: Diasporic Filipino Literature and Queer Reading by Martin Joseph Ponce
How should we respond to the condition of Filipinos in the United States who have been forgotten or made invisible in the afterglow of U.S. imperialism? What are the limits of cultural nationalisms both here and in the Philippines that have formed dominant responses? Martin Joseph Ponce’s new monograph, Beyond the Nation: Diasporic Filipino Literature and Queer Reading, delivers a welcome and incisive intervention that explores alternatives for thinking through the heteronormative politics of cultural nationalism. If the response to invisibility has been, as Ponce deftly specifies, “innumerable efforts to locate secure origins, codify grand [End Page 225] narratives of the nation, [and] arrest the erosion of ethnicity” (12), his analyses of diasporic Filipino literature demonstrate “how its multivalent forms of address are routed through issues of gender and sexuality” (14). While he does not dismiss the project or politics of identity, he emphasizes that it “serves, at best, as a starting point” (219) that is undone—or, to use the language he draws from the poet Jose Garcia Villa, “un-oned,” by diasporic literature. That is, the route this literature takes through gender and sexuality reveals the heterogeneity and indeterminacy that constitute the Filipino diaspora.
The first chapter is devoted to Maximo Kalaw’s The Filipino Rebel, which was published in the Philippines in the late 1920s or early 1930s. The novel enables Ponce to illustrate the connections between heteronormativity and cultural nationalism in the Philippines. The chapter begins by working through different responses to U.S. imperialism and benevolent assimilation, in which questions about the suitability of Filipinos for self-government were central. Drawing on this context illuminates two points: first, Kalaw’s novel and other writings must be understood as addressing the specific political and cultural discourse that would render Filipinos colonial subjects due to their not-yet-assimilable (“little brown brother”) deviance; second, the deviance takes on a particular gender and sexual form, not unlike alibis for colonialism elsewhere. Kalaw’s novel thus bears a certain logic to it: if Filipinos have been silenced and subjected to colonialism due in part to gender and sexual nonnormativity, then the novel stages its liberatory gestures by making reproductive heterosexuality a “constitutive function” (55).
Ponce’s analysis leads us to seek alternative narratives, poetics, and modes of address that do not require heteronormative investments. The chapters that follow produce careful readings countering Kalaw’s hetero-nationalism and reminding readers that cultural politics is not binary, that the alternative to nationalism is not assimilation, and that hetero-nationalism is not the obligatory response to imperialism. In the poetics of Jose Garcia Villa, he finds a modernist aesthetic not devoid of political questions (of which it has been accused) but one that reframes these issues along the lines of a queer erotics in a way that has slipped past critics and led to Villa’s marginalization. Our loss, Ponce informs us. Reading Carlos Bulosan’s posthumously published novel, The Cry and the Dedication, he argues that it revises the autobiography of Luis Taruc, a rebel leader. Bulosan’s address is plural—addressing the Huk rebellion from his positionality as a writer based in the United States while questioning the effects of race, class, and gender on characters who sojourn there—in comparison to Taruc’s narrow narrative of national liberation. [End Page 226]
Though the study takes on a chronological form, it is far from being invested in any sort of linear telos. The final three chapters make profound inroads into interpreting much recent work in transpacific Filipino literature and suggest that contemporary formations are riddled with restrictive cultural politics while also working through moments of subversion and subterfuge. Ponce examines the cross-cultural dynamics of Jessica Hagedorn’s work to show how identity and community are constructed on terms that are neither biological nor national. Instead, her characters borrow from African American musical traditions, from the rock of Jimi Hendrix to the...