Book review | Carlos Bulosan—Revolutionary Filipino Writer in the United States: A Critical Appraisal

Department of English and Cultural Studies
Bryant University, Smithfield, Rhode Island

Carlos Bulosan, one of our most significant Filipino writers of the twentieth century, is the focus of a new book by one of our most significant and prolific Filipino literary/cultural theorists and public intellectuals today—E. San Juan, Jr. According to American Studies scholar Michael Denning, San Juan is listed as one of the “most important New Left intellectuals [teaching and writing]… during the great student uprisings of the late 1960s and early 1970s” (Culture in the Age of Three Worlds, NY: Verso, 2004). It was during this period that San Juan published his pathbreaking book-length study titled Carlos Bulosan and the Imagination of the Class Struggle (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1972) which introduced Bulosan as a revolutionary working class author to the fields of Asian American studies, American literary studies, and Philippine studies.

Before his early work on Bulosan in 1972, San Juan was already active in radical Filipino cultural politics as a collaborator with Philippine national artist Amado V. Hernandez in Ang Masa and with Alejandro Abadilla in Panitikan. San Juan first introduced Hernandez’s poems to an international audience with Rice Grains (NY: International Publishers, 1966). His edited volume of Georg Lukacs’ essays, Marxism and Human Liberation (NY: Dell, 1972), circulated among orthodox socialist and New Left activists in the 1970s and 1980s. Aside from his sustained inquiries into racism and ethnic relations, San Juan initiated the first book-length study of the major literary works of Nick Joaquin in his 1988 treatise Subversions of Desire: Prolegomena to Nick Joaquin (Quezon City: Ateneo University Press), more relevant now with the sanctification of Joaquin as a Penguin Classic.

San Juan’s dedicated research and committed work within radical Filipino cultural politics have paved the way for Carlos Bulosan to become a canonized figure in the academy and an iconic figure of Filipino labor militancy throughout the Filipino diaspora. The publication of Carlos Bulosan—Revolutionary Filipino Writer in the United States: A Critical Appraisal(hereafter Bulosan-RFWUS) provides an opportunity for San Juan to reflect upon (and assess) the development of Bulosan scholarship within the U.S. academy as well as to provide suggestions for reading and engaging with Bulosan’s body of work in ways that move beyond the walls of the contemporary academic industrial complex. One of the central concerns with regard to achieving canonical status as a progressive writer is the risk of being misread—of having one’s body of work emptied of radical content so as to serve the interests of the neoliberal academy (an ideological state apparatus).

The prevailing mode of reading Bulosan (from Asian American/Ethnic studies to American literary studies) has been through the immigrant-assimilationist paradigm—one that replicates the model-minority myth while simultaneously erasing the fact that Filipinos in the United States are not immigrants. Given the long, brutal history of U.S.-Philippines colonial and neocolonial relations, Filipinos in the United States inhabit the position of colonial/neocolonial subjects. The specificity of the racial-national subordination of Filipinos is also obscured when Bulosan is transformed into a reified icon for mass consumption (like the Malcolm X baseball caps of the early 1990s). The two modes of consuming Bulosan (immigrant-assimilationist paradigm and reified icon) are combined in a recent video produced by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (November 29, 2017). The brief video, which features readings from Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart by Junot Díaz, Hasan Minhaj, and Ivy Quicho, appropriates the text’s sentimental Popular Front Americanism to situate the Filipino experience in the United States within a narrative of immigrant assimilation. The video ends with the following statement: “Since America Is in the Heart was published, at least 45 million immigrants have become Americans.”

To be sure, if Bulosan were alive today, as Peter McLaren posits in his foreword to Bulosan-RFWUS, he would courageously protest eruptions of “nativism, misogyny, a deepening racism, environmental catastrophe and virulent mobilizations against immigrants” in the United States since the election of Trump last November 2016. San Juan asserts that Bulosan would simultaneously contribute to mobilizing Filipinos to speak out against Duterte’s shameless “demagoguery and… collusion with the oligarchic exploiters of millions of peasants and workers” in the Philippines. The silencing, however, of Bulosan as revolutionary anti-imperialist artist by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center is symptomatic of the canonization (or institutionalization) of Bulosan. San Juan’s central argument in Bulosan-RFWUS is the following: Bulosan’s “body of writing cannot be fully understood without respecting his ethico-artistic motivations.” Leaning upon Fredric Jameson’s advice to “historicize, historicize, historicize,” San Juan reminds his readers that the liberatory potential of Bulosan can be grasped only when his writing is situated within the context of U.S. colonial conquest and neocolonial control of the Philippines.

In Bulosan-RFWUS, San Juan challenges the institutionalization of Bulosan by shifting the center of the Bulosan canon from America Is in the Heart to the posthumously published The Cry and the Dedication, a novel written during the Cold War period about the anti-imperialist Hukbalahap peasant rebellion in the Philippines. San Juan’s historicizing approach enables us to appreciate the complexity of a collective Filipino “protest consciousness” (here I’m rearticulating a concept used by Angela Davis in her reading of Blues women) that resides at the heart of Bulosan’s diverse body of work—poems, short stories, novels, essays, letters. Throughout Bulosan-RFWUS, San Juan offers insightful close readings of a wide variety of texts within the Bulosan archive—from “The Romance of Magno Rubio” to letters written by Bulosan, from essays on cultural production to satirical stories collected in The Laughter of My Father and The Philippines Is in the Heart. In urging us to rethink Bulosan’s use of satire in his short stories, San Juan examines the use of “carnivalesque discourse in Bakhtin’s dialogic conceptualization” that illuminates Bulosan’s method for tapping into our collective Filipino “protest consciousness”—more specifically, “Bulosan’s use of the popular-anarchist predispositions in folk-culture.” Subsequently, a new direction for research on Bulosan, according to San Juan, is to delve deeper into Bulosan’s use of “common [Filipino] folklore, tradition, and history” in his body of work.

In addition to enriching our understanding of the complexity of Bulosan’s revolutionary imagination, an historicizing approach enables San Juan to excavate deeper within the Bulosan archive. San Juan’s research on the Sanora Babb papers (held at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin) not only situates Bulosan within a vast network of progressive artists and writers (which includes pioneering Bulosan scholar and activist Dolores Feria), but also raises questions about the authorship of All the Conspirators, which Caroline Hau and Benedict Anderson have introduced as a recovered manuscript from the Bulosan archive. While much has been accomplished due to San Juan’s work over the decades, more research is necessary to properly inventory the Bulosan archive.

Finally, another direction for further research suggested by San Juan is a Janus-faced approach—to read Bulosan in relation to historical and contemporary figures of the Filipino diaspora, specifically Philip Vera Cruz (founding member of the United Farm Workers) and Jose Antonio Vargas (Filipino journalist, courageous activist for undocumented immigrants, and CEO of Define American, a non-profit that defends immigrant rights in the United States). With regard to the former, San Juan examines the ways in which Vera Cruz’s work as a militant labor organizer functions as a bridge that connects Bulosan with the development of Filipino labor militancy during the New Left period. With regard to the latter, San Juan examines how the lives of Bulosan and Vargas converge and simultaneously diverge as a way of assessing the contemporary situation (and future possibilities) of the Filipino presence in the United States.

Over the past four decades, San Juan has worked tirelessly on expanding how we read and engage Carlos Bulosan—by introducing new writings from the Bulosan archive and by offering dynamic and fresh theoretical perspectives rooted in a tradition of historical materialist thought. I’ve attempted to document San Juan’s sustained commitment to reading, researching, and expanding upon Bulosan’s ethico-artistic motivations from the New Left period to our contemporary period of globalized “war on terror”/ecological disaster in Writer in Exile/Writer in Revolt: Critical Perspectives on Carlos Bulosan (Lanham: UPA, 2016). The publication of Bulosan-RFWUS is a reminder of the inexhaustible possibilities of the Bulosan archive that surface when one heeds the call to “always historicize!” It is San Juan’s offering for a new generation of Filipino activists and intellectuals—a text that provides the necessary theoretical tools and methodological approaches to continue to make Bulosan relevant for (and present within) our lives in the twenty-first century. (

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