One of the major reasons I decided to develop the PINOY POETICS book project is to help obviate the ignorance about, as well as the narrow-minded perspectives on, the works of Filipino/a poets. The autobiographical aspect of the essays in PINOY POETICS is important because, before and/or in addition to others commenting on Filipino/a poetry, I wished the Filipino/a poets to have had a chance (if they wish to do so) to offer their own views on their own works.
Timothy Yu, a scholar in the Ph.D. program at Stanford University has offered a paper at the Modern Language Association conference (and is in the midst of expanding his thoughts) on Jose Garcia Villa's life. (More information about Timothy is available at http://www.stanford.edu/~tyu/cv.htm.) The following is one of Timothy's papers which, by reflecting on the constraints faced by Mr. Villa (e.g. the attempts of critics "to place Villa squarely in the Anglo-American poetic tradition" and even his admirers' tendencies to exoticize him), highlights the importance of PINOY POETICS.
If the Filipino/a community long has been afflicted by the many forms of silencing (from colonialism to racism), then its poets surely should be among those aggressively speaking out.
[If you are unfamiliar with Jose Garcia Villa's works and wish to learn more, you are encouraged to read THE ANCHORED ANGEL (Kaya, 1999) which I edited and features essays by Jessica Hagedorn, Luis Francia, Nick Carbo, Luis Cabalquinto, Alfred Yuson, Jonathan Chua, and E. San Juan, Jr. THE ANCHORED ANGEL also includes a selection of Mr. Villa's poems and prose.]
Throughout much of the twentieth century, José Garcia Villa has been regarded as the first and greatest English-language poet of the Philippines, a man who, as the critic E. San Juan puts it in The Philippine Temptation, “almost singlehandedly founded modern writing in English in the Philippines” (171). Villa’s 1933 short story collection Footnote to Youth was the first to be published by a Filipino in the United States, and the enthusiastic reception of his 1942 poetry collection Have Come, Am Here made him the Philippines’ most famous poet (Chua 176-7). Beginning in 1928 and continuing through the 1970s, Villa’s anthologies of Filipino short stories and poetry established him as the critical authority in Filipino literature, shaping canons of taste and making or breaking literary careers with his selections. Villa’s status as a major figure of Filipino cultural nationalism was ratified in 1972, when the Marcos government designated him as “National Artist of the Philippines.”
Yet Villa played this role largely in absentia. He left the Philippines for the United States in 1929 and returned only a few times for brief visits, declining lectureships and a government pension in favor of his small apartment in Greenwich Village. Indeed, for a period in the 1940s and 1950s, Villa was considered a major American modernist writer, a fixture in the New York literary scene and protégé of such luminaries as Edith Sitwell, Mark Van Doren, and Marianne Moore. But Villa’s prominence in the United States was short-lived. His work was falling out of favor by the late 1950s, and by the 1960s he was nearly unknown, though the decline of his American reputation seemed to have little effect on his dominance of the Filipino literary world.
In the last few years, Villa has begun to re-emerge as an Asian American writer. The first collection of Villa’s work to appear in over two decades, The Anchored Angel: Selected Writings by José Garcia Villa, was published in 1999 by Kaya Press, a publisher of Asian American literature whose other projects include Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry; a back cover blurb by poet Garrett Hongo hails Villa as “one of the greatest pioneers of Asian American literature.” Villa is increasingly being paired with Carlos Bulosan as one of the founding fathers of Filipino American literature.
At some level, these three versions of Villa’s career seem irreconcilable; yet none by itself seems capable of explaining Villa’s significance. Although Villa has apparently been judged wanting in the aesthetic realm of the modernist canon, his continuing importance in the Philippines reveals how bound that canon is to the national boundaries of the United States—to what degree literary “modernism” continues to be understood as a phenomenon internal to the American nation. At the same time, Villa’s status as the Philippines’ great “national” poet must be complicated by his self-imposed exile from the nation that claimed him—and by his allegiance (though he never became a citizen) to his homeland’s colonizer. Finally, Villa’s recent rehabilitation as an “Asian American” writer, far from synthesizing these two narratives, only further problematizes them. It is Villa’s very allegiance to the universalizing aesthetic dicta of high modernism and the Anglo-American literary canon that has prevented him, up to now, from being considered under the rubric of American ethnic writing. Indeed, Villa’s admission into the Asian American literary canon may do less to stabilize Villa’s position and more to destabilize the category of Asian American literature itself; for one reason Villa has frequently been unfavorably been compared to his contemporary, Bulosan, is because Bulosan’s social engagement and activism, both inside his work and outside it, have been seen as more amenable to the political goals of Asian American studies than Villa’s detached aestheticism. To accept Villa, in short, is to alter our very notion of the “Asian American.”
Perhaps one reason for Villa’s resurgence is the emergence of other paradigms through which we might understand his significance. Though Villa, the Greenwich Village resident, might have identified with a cosmopolitan modernism, such an identification would limit our analysis to a Euro-American axis. It might not be too fanciful to think of Villa instead as a proto-transnational subject, one whose significance and literary authority was generated precisely in his movements across national boundaries. Perhaps the best argument for this approach is the disruptive and illuminating power it can have with regard to the three narratives I have outlined above.
In part my goal will be to evaluate the claims of E. San Juan, Jr.—the critic who has written most extensively and persuasively on Villa—that we can read Villa’s formal strategies symptomatically, locating a “peculiar ‘Malayan/Pacific’ habitus” (172) in his engagements with modernist form. I will suggest that, paradoxically, the cultural authority Villa lent to Filipino cultural nationalism derived from his position outside the Philippine nation and at the cosmopolitan center of its former colonizer. Finally, I will ask what a consideration of Villa’s work has to offer to Asian American culture. The resurgence of interest in Villa seems a metaphor for a paradigm crisis in Asian American literature: will a new focus on transnationalism result in an inclusive expansion of the field’s scope or in the erosion of a distinctive Asian American project? For while Villa’s innovative work suggests an expansion of Asian American literature beyond its previous, content-driven criteria and beyond the borders of the United States, Villa’s elitist aestheticism and his troubled alliances with imperialism, cultural and otherwise, make him a disturbing figurehead for a new transnational Asian American studies.
Ironically enough, the literary career of the man who would become the Philippines’ great “National Artist” did not begin in earnest until he left the Philippines for the United States. Villa had, however, gained some attention for his student writing—though more notoriety than acclaim. After publishing a few poems with erotic content, Villa was expelled from the University of the Philippines, where he was a medical student; but his work also earned him a prize from the Free Press, giving him enough money to leave for the United States in 1929. He would spend most of the rest of his life in the U.S., returning to the Philippines only sporadically.
Once in the U.S., Villa enrolled at the University of New Mexico, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1932. He continued to publish, and his stories came to the attention of the influential editor and critic Edward J. O’Brien, who was, among other things, editor of the annual Best American Short Stories anthology. O’Brien selected Villa’s stories for his 1932 and 1933 collections; perhaps more importantly, he became an active advocate of Villa’s work, an effort that culminated in the publication of a volume of stories, Footnote to Youth, by Scribner’s in 1933. Although Footnote was not widely reviewed, O’Brien had apparently succeeded in creating a certain amount of buzz around Villa, as demonstrated by the opening paragraph of the New York Times review of Villa’s book:
“ For at least two years the name of José Garcia Villa has been familiar to the devotees of the experimental short story. They knew him as the editor of a small mimeographed magazine, Clay, which published the work of numerous distinguished newcomers. They knew him for his very unusual short stories—and they knew, too, that he was an extremely youthful Filipino who had somehow acquired the ability to write a remarkable English prose and who had come to America as a student in the Summer of 1930.” (7)
This assessment, coming at the very start of Villa’s American career, captures precisely the tension between Villa’s dual literary identities. In the first part of this account, Villa is preeminently an avant-gardist, known and appreciated only by a coterie; his role in the avant-garde is significant enough that he is not simply a writer but a gatekeeper and tastemaker in his own right, as the editor of a journal. But the abrupt shift in the final sentence—which is the first to mention Villa’s writing itself—signals a disjunction between this avant-garde identity and Villa’s race and nationality. Structurally, Villa’s national origin forms this paragraph’s surprising climax, disrupting for the moment any direct consideration of his writing and dwelling on the more “remarkable” facts of Villa’s biography. The condescending “somehow” is, of course, typical of responses to early Asian American writing, but here it even more remarkably represses the American colonial presence—with its English-language educational system—in the Philippines. So the notion of Villa’s stories as “very unusual” undergoes an odd slippage here, from aesthetically unusual (avant-garde) to linguistically or even racially unusual—foreign. But making the author’s immigration to America the telos of this troubled progress neatly resolves the contradictions: placing Villa in a “student” relationship to the U.S. contains his avant-gardism within the logic of U.S. paternalism, while making his against-all-odds achievement that much more remarkable.
The reviews of Footnote are also, to some extent, typical of responses to Asian American writing in their focus on content to the exclusion of form. According to a brief notice in Scribner’s Magazine, the book “contains some tales of [Villa’s] native land that have a poignant beauty” (382). The lengthier New York Times review also notes that “Most of the stories in the book—and certainly the best ones—have a Philippine background” (7). But the Times reviewer uses this point to fend off a claim made by O’Brien in the volume’s introduction: “He stresses too much…the freshness of Mr. Villa’s approach to American life.” The effect of the essentializing emphasis on racialized content is usually to circumscribe the author’s field of action; but here it seems that there actually is a threat that Villa could become an “American” writer writing on American themes. For Villa does, the reviewer admits, have a certain command of the craft of writing: “The rich lushness of his imagery, the passionate intensity of his emotion achieve, at times, a kind of biblical beauty….[H]e may—as Mr. O’Brien now claims for him—become one of the ‘half-dozen short-story writers in America who counts.’” And the reviewer’s comparison of Villa to Sherwood Anderson, an author who does present a “fresh approach to American life,” begins to position Villa with regard to an American literary canon.
With a well-received first collection and the sponsorship of a prominent critic, Villa would have seemed well on his way to a distinguished career as a writer of fiction. But after the publication of Footnote in 1933 Villa abandoned the short story and turned his attention almost exclusively to poetry. He published little in the years between 1933 and 1942, when Have Come, Am Here announced his triumphant (re)birth as a poet. Villa did nothing to discourage critics treatment of him as a “newcomer,” despite his decade-old career as a writer in the United States.
What can account for this radical and apparently willful break in Villa’s career? E. San Juan, Jr.’s seminal account in The Philippine Temptation of Villa’s project of “fus[ing] U.S. modernism…with a nascent, if problematic, Filipino sensibility” (171) treats his career, to a large extent, as being of a piece. San Juan does note that after Footnote Villa “abandons the subject-position of colonial deracinated/paranoid rebel and tries to construct on the borderline of nomadic space a simulacra of self-reconciliation,” but sees this as simply another, equally valuable strategy of “native ressentiment” (192). What San Juan is not able to explain is why Villa abandoned the apparently successful synthesis he achieved in his stories—a synthesis San Juan himself relies on in outlining Villa’s political project—in favor of the much more politically ambiguous terrain of his later work; more specifically, the crucial abandonment of the medium of prose for that of poetry is not fully explained.
I would suggest that we take Villa’s turn from prose to poetry on what seems to be its own terms: as an attempt to gain access to the modernist canon. The reception of Villa’s short stories as a collection of “tales from the native land” suggests that Villa’s work as a fiction writer would always have been constrained by a demand for lived experience; just as Sherwood Anderson was praised for “knowing” his native Ohio, Villa would have been judged by his presentation of his country of origin. Any attempt by Villa to present “American” content in his stories would likely, as with the New York Times reviewer, have been dismissed out of hand. By turning to poetry, Villa was able to relieve this sort of pressure to be sociologically correct; indeed, he was able to turn his foreignness into an asset, a brand of exoticism that appealed to the orientalist strain in American modernism while still allowing Villa to take his place among the “great” American writers. Readings that seek to ground Villa in a (post-)colonial historical context neglect Villa’s own efforts to escape that context—efforts that ultimately earned him his tenure (however brief) in the modernist canon.
The decade between Footnote and Have Come can be understood as a period of self-fashioning for Villa. The two crucial moves—from the Philippines to the U.S. and from prose to poetry—must, I suggest, be regarded as parallel, so that generic and national boundaries become roughly analogous. We can better understand the ground of Villa’s departure if we begin with a measure of Villa’s reputation in the Philippines, as marked by the publication of a volume of his selected poems in the Philippines in 1939. The collection, Many Voices, contains nearly 200 pages of poetry, attesting to the already long career of a writer who would be greeted as a “newcomer” by U.S. critics in 1942. It opens with a long critical assessment of Villa by the Filipino literary critic Salvador P. Lopez, who recognizes Villa as “the one Filipino writer today who it would be futile to deride and impossible to ignore…He has been, for the past several years, the pace-setter for an entire generation of young writers, the mentor laying down the law for the whole tribe, the patron-saint of a cult of rebellious moderns” (7). But Lopez makes clear that this status is not due to Villa’s work as a fiction writer:
“[W]hile the general public believes Villa to have made his most valuable contribution to Philippine letters through his short stories, Villa himself seems to be o the opinion that his principal literary achievement lies in poetry…For while it is true that Villa has done yeoman service for the Filipino short story, he has himself admitted that there are short story writers today who not only equal but surpass him in the master of this form. In the field of poetry, on the other hand, he stands quite alone…[H]e is first of all a poet.” (8-9)
Lopez suggests one possible reading of Villa’s turn away from prose: he is simply a better poet than he is a prose writer. But more subtly, Lopez may be suggesting that there is simply less competition in the field of poetry, as there may be fewer accomplished Filipino poets writing in English. It also seems that this generic choice helps Villa’s case in another way; Lopez pronounces his work free of the “taint of localism” that plagues the immature writer (8). We’ve seen that this “localism” is exactly the lens through which Footnote was seen by U.S. critics. By turning away from stories of his “native land” to poetry and the more abstract themes of “genuine poetic feeling,” Villa was able to achieve the universalizing aesthetic that made him not simply a great Filipino writer but potentially a great modernist.
That this perspective is not simply a retrospective one is evident from Lopez’s increasingly critical stance toward Villa as his introduction goes on. Lopez regards Villa’s turn away from social realism as a conscious choice, one which Lopez does not entirely condemn but does not approve either:
“One doesn’t bring the charge against Villa that his poetry lacks social significance—that would be pointless, since he long ago begged to be excused from those preoccupations that today absorb the attention of other writers everywhere. One is bound to complain rather that, after a while, Villa becomes somewhat of a bore…There is something effete and bloodless in the lines of Villa, something that smells of the study and the parlor. There is no wind to it, no sun, no saltiness of earth.” (14-5)
While Villa’s conscious break with those socially committed “other writers” may be lamented here, it is also what sets him apart from the mass of writers; this elitism, as Lopez suggests, is a conscious effect, one designed to gain Villa access to the modernist “parlor.”
Whatever Lopez’s opinion of Villa’s strategies, they proved effective in the 1940s, when Villa’s collection Have Come, Am Here was released to wide acclaim in the United States. Critics praised Villa’s mastery of the Anglo-American canon and of modernist technique, while for the most part ignoring his race and nationality. But in perhaps the best-known review of Villa’s work, poet Marianne Moore sums up Villa’s virtues as those of “a Chinese master.” American modernism, in other words, could only adapt to the phenomenon of a Filipino modernist writer by placing him with the Anglo-American tradition and filtering his racial difference through an orientalism already present within modernist ideology. But the presence of that orientalism also meant that there was a particular space available for Villa to occupy.
Villa’s reputation in the 1940s, then, was formed in a kind of contact zone between Asian and U.S. literary formations. That this contact zone was one of bodies as well as texts is evident from Villa’s relationships with two of his major patrons, Edith Sitwell and Mark Van Doren. For both of these influential gatekeepers, Villa’s exoticism—evident mostly in his person rather than in his poetry—was crucial to their interest in him and an integral part of getting his work on the critical map.
Van Doren, an eminent poet, critic, and Columbia professor, was one of Villa’s earliest supporters. In his Autobiography, Van Doren gives a remarkable account of his meeting with Villa in the early 1940s:
“José Garcia Villa, a Filipino who had lived in New Mexico before he came to New York, and whose connection with Columbia was never clear to me, though he belonged there in some essential fashion, called on me one morning to introduce himself. He had a completely impassive face, and he moved with a quietness that captivated me. He had brought some of his poems for me to read. When I said that I preferred to read manuscripts at my leisure, to myself, without their authors’ eyes upon me, he said in the softest of voices: “You can read these now. This one”—the top one—“is very fine.” He handed it to me and of course I read it. The first line justified his claim…The man was a unique combination of gentleness and firmness…His opinions, not always comprehensible, were stubbornly maintained, as if they were laws, were ancient decrees, not personal to him who held them…Villa never changed. I have said his face was impassive; there could be, however, a subtle play of humor or of pain about the eyes; and this amounted in the end to eloquence; for it expressed, delicately, a thousand reservations.” (252-3)
What Marianne Moore and other reviewers describe as characteristics of Villa’s texts—deep wisdom, “delicacy with force,” reticence—are exactly what Van Doren finds characteristic of Villa’s person. That shift makes it clear how much the response to Villa and his work partakes of orientalist complexes—inscrutability, delicacy, reserve, ancientness. The motions of Villa’s body are what “captivates” Van Doren, and they become a necessary backdrop to the motions of his lines (which Van Doren discusses very little), allowing Villa’s emphatically non-orientalist rhetoric to be read as “Oriental.”
These same elements are visible in Edith Sitwell’s reception of Villa. After reading Have Come Sitwell became one of Villa’s strongest advocates, working to find publishers for his work and including some of his poems in her anthology The American Genius. Sitwell ultimately contributed a preface to Villa’s Selected Poems and New, published in 1958, where she explained how she had become acquainted with Villa’s work:
“In the late summer of 1944, I received a book of poems from America, by an author hitherto unknown to me.
I learned afterwards that the young poet in question hailed from the Philippines, and is at present living in New York. I learned, also, that this book had been acclaimed by the principal critics of America as a work of genius…But this I did not know at the time…
Opening the book Have Come, Am Here, I received a shock…[R]eading it I knew that I was seeing for the first time the work of a poet with a great, even an astonishing, and perfectly original gift.” (ix)
Sitwell works very hard to create a pristine scene of reading, untainted by knowledge of biography orcritical response. In doing so she replicates the critical gesture made by many of Villa’s reviewers, turning Villa into simply another American poet (“a book of poems from America”); this gesture, it seems, is necessary to make a plausible claim for Villa’s greatness. While Villa’s nationality and the fact of his immigration are present, they are, as in Moore, curiously bracketed. Sitwell, though, puts herself in a more difficult position than Moore does by making Villa’s poetry highly personal, “spring[ing] straight from the depths of the poet’s being” (x). Like Louise Bogan, whose New Yorker review labels Villa a “Spanish mystic,” Sitwell identifies Villa as a mystic, but separates him from the “Spanish” mystical tradition by identifying him with Novalis and Meister Eckhart. She eventually achieves what seems to be a stable positive valuation of Villa’s work by encrusting the personal with metaphor: “This poetry springs…from his blood, from his spirit, from his experience, as a fire breaks from wood, or as a flower grows from its soil…[The] poems are equally the labour of ages, growing all from the poet’s earth” (x).
If we turn from this essay to Sitwell’s letters, however, we are struck by how heavily racialized and orientalized Sitwell’s perceptions of Villa are. As Victoria Glendinning writes in her biography of Sitwell:
“The fact that he was a Filipino caught Edith’s imagination; she enjoyed the fantasy that he was some kind of magic iguana, and wrote to Georgia that “it is so extraordinary to think of this presumably minute, dark green creature, the colour of New Zealand jade, spinning these sharp flame-like poems out of himself. Of course some are bad…” (246)
Despite Sitwell’s critical maneuvers in her preface, it’s clear that her orientalizing caricatures of Villa are the ultimate ground for her advocacy of him, entirely negating neutral aesthetic concerns. When she proposed including poems by Villa in The American Genius, her publisher protested, arguing that Villa’s work did not “merit anything like the space you have given [it]” (Glendinning 287). Sitwell responded in a letter that although to some degree she agreed, she was personally bound to Villa, in part because of his uncontrollable “Filipino” emotionalism:
“You know I think José Villa a really fine poet. I, too, think his experiments are bosh,--especially the comma one. But he is a Filipino, and Osbert says his heart will be broken if we don’t put in those explanations. I, too, agree with what you say about them. But it is very difficult. Because Jose began to weep at 5.30 on the evening before I left when he came to say goodbye; and although somebody took him out to dinner afterwards, tears rolled down is dark green cheeks, like large pearls, throughout the evening. This makes it difficult for me to hit him about his experiments. Because he says he has to have the poems accompanied by the explanations.” (169)
Here the modernist imperative toward successful experimentation is trumped by race: “But he is a Filipino.” Reading comments like these back into Sitwell’s essay suggests that Sitwell’s apparently mystical rhetoric of flame, blood, and earth is really tinged with orientalism, marked by her contact with the foreignness of Villa’s body.
Villa’s particular mode of border-crossing allowed him to be incorporated, albeit problematically, into modernist ideology through its orientalist underpinnings. But what about the return journey? Did the effects of Villa’s engagement with modernism return across the Pacific? To address these questions, I turn to a consideration of Villa’s reputation in the Philippines.
Although Villa himself remained, for the most part, physically within the U.S., his influence did return to the Philippines. Since the 1930s he has been considered one of the giants of Filipino writing in English, despite both his long-term residence in the U.S. and the vagaries of his U.S. reputation. So Villa’s reputation in the Philippines seems not to have been tied to national boundaries. But I would argue that Villa’s border-crossing, both generically and nationally, was as crucial to generating his Filipino reputation as it was to his U.S. reputation. The refusal of “localism” apparent in Villa’s switch from prose to poetry, and his embrace of modernist aesthetics, made Villa one of the first Anglophone Filipino writers whose work could be recognized internationally. But because those aesthetic standards were tied to the national boundaries of the United States, they were deeply implicated in colonialism. Villa’s move to the United States simply mapped these aesthetic boundaries more directly onto geographical ones. Although Villa became a crucial figure of Filipino cultural nationalism, I suggest that paradoxically, the cultural authority Villa lent to Filipino cultural nationalism derived from his position outside the Philippine nation and at the cosmopolitan center of its former colonizer.
As evident from the essay by Salvador Lopez I discussed above, Villa had already developed a solid literary reputation in the Philippines long before his U.S. “debut.” Villa’s rejection of “localism” and social realism in favor of a modernist experimentation with form and syntax that had not been seen before in Filipino letters was the centerpiece of his claim to greatness. But Lopez’s suspicions about the elitist and esoteric tone of Villa’s work show that Villa’s political sympathies were somewhat in doubt. Jonathan Chua’s essay “Colonialist or Critic: Revaluating Villa” gives an excellent overview of shifting evaluations of Villa’s aesthetics and politics in the Philippines, focusing on Villa’s crucial role as tastemaker. While Villa shifted his publishing priorities to the U.S. in the 1930s, he remained perhaps the most important critic and anthologist in the Philippines, editing the first major collection of Filipino short stories in English and several editions of the Doveglion Book of Philippine Poetry. Chua provides numerous examples of what one writer labeled the “tyranny of Villa” in Filipino writing, from the stars (one to three) that Villa awarded to various writers in his annual selections to the widespread stylistic imitation of Villa in the poetry of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.
Chua provides at least three possible readings of Villa’s “tyranny.” The first, which Chua attributes to the Filipino nationalism of the 1960s and 1970s, is a sense among Filipino writers that “Villa in a very real sense served the colonial dispensation” (181). This is largely an extension of Lopez’s argument: Villa’s turn away from social realism, his defense of the autonomy of art and aesthetics, and his rigid standards of poetic quality made him an elitist accomplice of colonial culture whose pronouncements “blunted the subversive edge of literature” (182). Chua does suggest another possibility: that the national pride that Filipinos took in Villa’s American successes in the 1940s and ‘50s was itself a form of resistance to colonialism. Finally, he cites the suggestion of Eileen Tabios (the editor of The Anchored Angel) that Villa’s experiments can be seen as inherently political, as “his own way of imposing mastery on English, the borrowed language” (184).
I would argue, though, that understanding the politics of Villa’s influence and reputation in the Philippines is somewhat more complicated than labeling it as colonial or anti-colonial. Rather, the author-function “Villa” was a kind of border production, an effect of colonialism that might have served nationalism but cannot be understood outside the interaction between colonialism and nationalism, between U.S. and Filipino literary formations. While Villa’s meteoric rise in the U.S. was due in part to his foreignness and the way it played into orientalist expectations, his power in the Philippines relied upon his identification with the United States and his presence at the very center of U.S. literary culture, with his lifelong residence in New York’s Greenwich Village. Perhaps one of the most interesting examples of this identification is Villa’s nebulous association with Columbia University. Chua relates an anecdote from Filipino writer N.V.M. Gonzalez, who remembers that writers would wait “‘with bated breath’…for Villa’s manuscripts, written in Room 614 of Columbia University’s John Jay Hall, to be wired” (178). This highly specific locating of Villa gives Villa an assigned place within the U.S. academy and allows his selections to partake of the authority of that institution, even though Villa has no official role within it. Villa’s own curriculum vita cites “postgraduate work” at Columbia from 1942 to 1944, but Villa seems to have been quite skilled at maintaining his aura of academic authority. Mark Van Doren, himself a Columbia professor, wrote that Villa’s “connection with Columbia was never clear to me, though he belonged there in some essential fashion” (252). So although Villa’s “place” in American letters was tenuous at best, his ability to project his place in it back across the Pacific was crucial to maintaining his Filipino reputation.
I have argued that the work of José Garcia Villa and its reception can be understood only as a trans-Pacific phenomenon, generated in the contact zone between U.S. and Filipino bodies and literary formations. What, then, of Villa’s latest incarnation: as Asian American writer? For it is only under that rubric that Villa’s work is being read again in the United States. But Villa’s addition to the Asian American canon has been a belated one; as N.V.M. Gonzalez and Oscar V. Campomanes write in their essay on Filipino American literature, “Villa’s importance in Filipino and American cultural relations has yet to be seriously addressed” (69). Although Villa does earn a passing mention in a number of discussions of Asian American literature, including the introduction to the groundbreaking anthology Aiiieeeee!, his influence as a founder of Filipino American literature has been eclipsed by that of Carlos Bulosan, despite the fact that Villa’s Footnote to Youth predates Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (1946) by 11 years, while Have Come predates it by four. Bulosan’s political engagement and social activism were highly consonant with the political goals of the Asian American movement of the 1960s, whereas Villa’s aestheticism, elitism, and obscurity, as well as his refusal of “Filipino” themes, made him far less attractive. Even now, as E. San Juan argues in his essay “In Search of Filipino Writing,” the project of recuperating Villa for Asian American literature is difficult: “[W]e have to read [Villa’s] work symptomatically for those absent causes that constitute its condition of possibility” (231).
Villa’s resurgence in Asian American letters can be attributed in part to recent attempts to broaden the Asian American canon and to recover pre-1960s Asian American writing. It is also linked, I believe, to a new interest in intersections between U.S. minority writing and the avant-garde tradition—a willingness to see that minority writing in non-conventional forms may be as political as those in conventional forms. But most importantly, the new interest in Villa can be attributed to the rise of new theoretical frameworks in Asian American literature—namely, those of post-colonialism and transnationalism—that give us a language in which to talk about Villa. The language of border-crossing that I have used, and the insistence on reading the U.S. and Filipino national narratives of Villa against and within each other, is itself characteristic of this new development.
So I want to close by suggesting that the resurgence of interest in Villa seems a metaphor for a paradigm crisis in Asian American literature: will a new focus on transnationalism result in an inclusive expansion of the field’s scope or in the erosion of a distinctive Asian American project? A transnational perspective does give us a way to recuperate Villa that an older, cultural-nationalist model of Asian American literature does not; the former does not limit his significance to his visibility on the American scene, nor does it hold his work to a particular model of political or social engagement. Thus is implies the expansion of Asian American literature beyond its previous, content-driven criteria and beyond the borders of the United States. But Villa’s elitist aestheticism and his troubled alliances with imperialism, cultural and otherwise, make him a disturbing figurehead for a new transnational Asian American studies. By shifting its attention to writers like Villa, does Asian American studies give up its particular political and historical position?
Villa’s work does seem to exist at the intersection of many of these concerns—national vs. transnational, aesthetics vs. politics, and the like. At the very least it would seem that trying to incorporate him into the discourse of Asian American literature disrupts, for better or worse, our notions of what Asian American literature is or should be. Ultimately, the questions raised by reading Villa as “Asian American” are much the same questions raised by reading Villa’s poetry itself. For much depends on whether we read Villa’s adaptations of narratives of nationalism, modernism, and orientalism as mere inhabitations of those narratives or as attempts to subvert them for an as-yet undisclosed end.
Bogan, Louise. Rev. of Have Come, Am Here, by José Garcia Villa. New Yorker 18.37 (31 Oct. 1942): 80-81.
Chang, Juliana, ed. Quiet Fire: A Historical Anthology of Asian American Poetry 1892-1970. New York: Asian American Writers’ Workshop, 1996.
Chin, Frank, et al, eds. Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Chua, Jonathan. “Colonialist or Critic: Revaluating Villa.” In Villa, Anchored Angel. 176-85.
Glendinning, Victoria. Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions. New York: Knopf, 1981.
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