Feminism and Racial Homosociality in Carlos Bulosan’s
America Is In the Heart
- Author: Lim Jeehyun
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 21, Issue3, p107~138, Dec 2013
This essay examines the tension between feminist analyses and a cultural nationalist, left critique of Carlos Bulosan’s
America Is In the Heart(1946) to suggest a point of convergence between the two in the text’s trope of racial homosociality. By reading Bulosan’s revision of the triangle of desire, I argue that racial homosociality in America Is In the Heart, the very object of feminist critique, becomes a temporary alternative to hegemonic nationalism. Whereas the heterosexual relationship guarantees the homosocial one in Eve Sedgwick’s classic study of homosociality, Between Men, racial homosociality in Bulosan’s text comes at the expense of normative heterosexuality for brown men. Instead of taking such categories as men, women, and the nation as a priori categories, Bulosan’s text prods us to attend to the historically and socially contingent production of gender, sexuality and nationness. I call this Bulosan’s queering of nationalism and identify the text’s openness to feminist concerns in such an ambivalent and strategic deployment of nationalism
Feminism , racial homosociality , queering nationalism , Carlos Bulosan , America Is In the Heart
Between Men, Eve Sedgwick takes René Girard’s schema of “triangular desire,” which he calls “the basis of the theory of the novelisticnovel,” to create an erotic triangle that illustrates the operation of male homosocial desire in English literature (52). Whereas Sedgwick’s discussion of homosocial desire shares the structuralist premise of Girard’s triangular desire, her use of the triangle achieves something quite different from Girard’s. If Girard’s triangle of the self, the other and the mediator aspires to explain the workings of intersubjective desire in the European canon, which includes, but is not limited to, the erotic triangle, Sedgwick focuses on the erotic triangle of two men and a woman and the Girardian insight that in triangular desire the bond between the men is often as strong as, if not stronger than, the love for the woman. The most immediate payoff of Sedgwick’s study of “the potential unbrokenness of a continuum between homosocial and homosexual” may have been to show how the social construction of gender and sexuality can be seen not only in gender norms and behavior, such as masculinity or femininity, or in the binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality, but also in relations and desires that are seemingly unmarked by gender and sexuality (2).6 For the purpose of this essay, though, I am interested in Sedgwick’s emphasis on the imbalance of power in the positions of the men and the woman in the triangle. Sedgwick notes that the erotic triangle is all the more critically productive when viewed through the complex power differentials that crisscross the points of the triangle and the relations of the three actors. “[I]n any maledominated society,” she says, “there is a special relationship between male homosocial ( includinghomosexual) desire and the structures for maintaining and transmitting patriarchal power: a relationship founded on an inherent and potentially active structural congruence. For historical reasons, this special relationship may take the form of ideological homophobia, ideological homosexuality, or some highly conflicted but intensively structured combination of the two” (25). Such attention to power as it affects the operations of sexual desire allows Sedgwick to utilize the triangle’s structuralist potential without divorcing aesthetics from the material conditions of their production.
Just as Sedgwick, in her own words, “recast” and “refocus[ed]” Girard’s triangular desire to elucidate the connection between male homosocial and homosexual desire, Carlos Bulosan also recasts and refocuses the triangular desire, so common in European literature, to explore the predicament of Filipino labor in the U.S. (17). In
America Is In the Heart, the predicament of Filipino labor is coterminous with the predicament of Filipino men as the social construction of Filipino manhood takes place through a metonymic reduction of Filipino men to racialized labor. In such a context, where Filipino men are excluded from categorical manhood, as it is defined in terms of white American manhood, Bulosan constructs a male rivalry between white American and Filipino men in his narrative, negating the racial castration through a structural recuperation of the place of Filipino men. At its most violent, the racial rivalry results in the public beating and humiliation of Filipino men who marry or are accompanied by white American women and the lynching of Filipino union organizers by white Americans.
A brief discussion of the viability of the kind of structuralism that the triangle represents for the cultural politics of Asian America may be in need here, as Sedgwick’s reliance on structuralism in her own work has been pointed out as a limitation by Judith Butler (“Capacity” 111). Historically speaking, Bulosan’s revision of the triangle precedes Sedgwick’s revision, which was published in the mid-1980s when structuralism’s hold on academic knowledge production was strong. If, as she states, “the thesis of monolithic patriarchal power” that underwrites the erotic triangle may no longer be useful, Butler still maintains that Sedgwick’s structuralist premise served a prominent role at the time of
Between Men’s publication (11). As a structuralist exploration of the character of U.S. nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s, Bulosan’s triangle of white American men, Filipino men, and white American women should likewise be understood as a literary intervention that was most immediately relevant to the time of the text’s publication. Schematic as the triangle in America Is In the Heartmay seem, it exposes the social regulations of Asian exclusion and anti-miscegenation laws which restrained individual expressions of gender and sexuality according to the racial hierarchy of white on top.7 In other words, Bulosan’s appropriation of the triangle should be viewed within the racial formation of the time, the “process of historically situated projectsin which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized,” according to Michael Omi and Howard Winant (55-56).
In addition to restoring Filipino manhood by presenting them as structurally equal to white men, Bulosan also presents a collectivist sense of the actors of the triangle. That is, whereas Sedgwick’s male homosocial desire looks at the workings of desire at the micro-level of intersubjective relations, Bulosan’s narrative continuously undermines the singularity of the individual in the triangle and asks the reader to consider the interchangeability of Filipino men as they occupy a position in the triangle. For example, the physical differences between Filipino men and their white American female partners is reiterated through a number of interracial couples. Marcelo’s comparably small stature as he dances in a taxi-dance hall with a “tall blonde in a green dress, a girl so tall that Marcelo looked like a dwarf climbing a tree” is not just an individual trait but is reiterated as a visual sign of the relations between Filipino men and white American women (105). When the narrator, Carlos, meets Pascaul, a Filipino socialist and union organizer, he notices again the difference in height between him and his wife: “[Pascaul] was small and semiparalytic, but versatile and fiery. He had brought his American wife from Chicago to California—a woman almost twice as tall as he” (182). Pointing out the reiterative development of Filipino-white interracial relations in the text is not to dismiss the micro-level development of individual characters in the narrative.8 Rather, I suggest that Bulosan is experimenting with characterization so that the condition of Filipino migrant labor, which creates numerous fleeting encounters in the text and not as many sustained and long-term relations, does not become an obstacle to character development but the means of a new kind of character development wherein both Marcelo and Pascaul, for example, can become facets of Filipino manhood. Such interpretation accords with de Jesús’s observation on “the intense relationship among the
manongsthemselves” in the text (94). The relationship among the manongsis intense not so much because they form a stable community but because the bonds they form, under precarious conditions of meeting and living together, function as an expression of collective desire for social legitimacy. Carlos states that the psychological and political need for a community of fellow Filipino men is a reaction to the shared experience of racism. “My distrust of white men grew,” he says, “and drove me blindly into the midst of my own people; together we hid cynically behind our mounting fears, hating the broad white universe at our door” (163-164). Part of the intensity that characterizes male homosociality among Filipino men in America Is In the Heartis based on white racism’s reduction of Filipinos into a monolithic other and the Filipinos’ recognition of that oppression as a common denominator. Bulosan’s emphasis on the collective desire of Filipino men in his homosocial triangle brings into high relief such social conditions and elucidates the inadequacy of the individualism in Sedgwick’s erotic triangle to speak to the predicament of Filipino men in the U.S.
The trope of racial homosociality in
America Is In the Heart, however, has met with critical skepticism. Most notably, Rachel Lee and Susan Koshy advance trenchant critiques of the limits of Bulosan’s valorization of the fellowship among Filipino men, his “sacrificial fraternal devotion,” as Lee puts it (19). In essence, Lee’s critique rests on the fact that nationalism—which exists at various levels in America Is In the Heartfrom the state-induced nationalism that is constituted by legal and cultural exclusion to the brotherhood of Filipino migrant workers—is in and of itself a gendered ideology that promotes the unity of the male members of a group at the expense of women. Koshy echoes Lee’s critique when she says that “although the radical reimaginings of national and transnational communities in America Is In the Heartrepresent these political forms as all-inclusive, these imagined communities are founded on an ideal of heteronormativity” (117). To return to the structure of triangular desire, the potentially contentious question is whether Bulosan’s representation of Filipino men as a point in the triangle, parallel to white American men, suggests that he subscribes to patriarchal nationalism or not. If what he aspires to is just the inclusion of Filipino men in the male privileges pertaining to a patriarchal nationalism, for them to be “allowed to hold America as property” and to be “permitted to hold American women ‘properly,’” then Bulosan’s literary intervention is seriously limited in its conception of social change (Lee 37).
Even as his trope of racial homosociality shares a lot in common with the fraternal bonds of brotherhood that Lee ascribes to nationalism, Bulosan’s trope works to expose the ideological construction of hegemonic nationalism rather than to endorse it (19). One place where this can be seen is the blurred line between the public and the private in the transient communities of Filipino migrant workers. According to the political theorist Carole Pateman, the public/private distinction is constitutive of what she calls “liberalpatriarchalism,” which in reality often masquerades as liberalism(157). In Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s discussion of the production of heteronormativity as a complex social process, the public/private distinction is also important. They contend that “[c]ommunity is imagined through scenes of intimacy, coupling and kinship; a historical relation to futurity is restricted to generational narrative and reproduction. A whole field of social relations becomes intelligible as heterosexuality, and this privatized sexual culture bestows on its sexual practices a tacit sense of rightness and normalcy” (554). The distinction between private and public, with private being the proper place for sex and intimacy, is central to the “field of social relations” that Berlant and Warner say is recognized as heterosexuality and, by extension, also informs hegemonic nationalism, which is based on a heterosexual order. The world of the Filipino migrant men in
America Is In the Heartdefies the expectations of nationalism and heteronormativity by showing that what should be private actually cannot be contained in the private but that it intrudes into the public. When Carlos lives with other Filipino men, he notices that a sense of privacy in sex is thoroughly lacking in the sexual relations between the Filipino men and the women they bed:
On the surface, Carlos appears scandalized by witnessing the deviation of the Filipino men’s sexual culture from the norms of monogamy and privacy. His recourse to pre-adolescence religious ritual for solace seems to support de Jesús’s observation that Bulosan practices a “virginal, prudish writing” (de Jesús 102). Carlos calls the sexual culture he sees a “decadence . . . imposed by a society alien to our character and inclination, alien to our heritage and history” (135). Yet the image of semi-public, chaotic intimacy imprinted in Carlos’s mind is not disturbing because it registers moral degeneration but because it exposes the arbitrary construction of normative sexual culture around a notion of privacy that presupposes certain material conditions. That is, decadence does not exist prior to or independent of the heteronormativity that precludes Filipino men from any kind of socially legitimate expression of erotic desire and sexuality. Rather, the sexual culture of Filipino men that Carlos witnesses becomes decadence as the brown bodies of the men and the women spill out of the properly confined space of the middle-class bedroom that is unavailable to them to occupy the entire house of communal Filipino living. The pervasiveness of semi-public sex in
America Is In the Heart, regardless of Carlos’s prudish attitude toward it, fundamentally disrupts the arbitrary separation of the private and the public that constitute white American male homosociality and hegemonic nationalism.
Instead of male homosociality being a sign of gender inequality that takes place through the exchange of women, reminiscent of the dynamic Gayle Rubin lays out in her classic essay “The Traffic in Women,” Bulosan depicts the brotherly bond among Filipino men as not only resisting confinement to the private sphere but also potentially violent for the men themselves, as can be seen in Carlos’s sexual initiation, the only instance in the text where Carlos’s (hetero)sexual experience is chronicled. As a migrant laborer, Carlos joins a team of seasonal Filipino workers planting cauliflower in Guadalupe, Texas. One night, as he is fast asleep in his makeshift bed in the workers’ tent, he is called upon to participate in the “fun going on in the bunkhouse” (158). The narrator is horrified to find himself the main object of this fun:
The initiation that takes place in the above passage is twofold. Carlos's sexual initiation is at once his initiation into the brotherhood of Filipino migrant workers. Having sex with a prostitute in front of other Filipino men is an expression of male heterosexuality, and it is by partaking in such sexual expression that the male homosocial bond is consolidated. In this sense, Carlos's sexual initiation seemingly enacts a dynamic that is similar to the kinship system Gayle Rubin analyzes, where women are “gifts” and men the “exchange partners” who lay claim to the “rights of bestowal” (44, 45). However, the description of Carlos's participation in fraternal heterosexuality above is distinguished from the anthropological situations discussed by Rubin as characterizing the exchange of women. In fact, the case could be easily made that Carlos himself is a victim of masculinist violence as he is physically restrained and unclothed against his will. Not only is sex again displayed in a semipublic setting, with the “wall of sheets” being a mockery of privacy through its pretension to privacy, but sex is also associated with violence and involuntariness. Carlos’s ambiguous participation in the heterosexual ritual of homosocial bonding makes the reader think that Bulosan may view the racial homosociality of Filipino men as something that Carlos
cannot notparticipate in. That is, although he recognizes its potential violence, the brotherhood of Filipino men is the only available community through which he can fight for his humanity. “There was something urgent in their friendship,” remarks Carlos in reference to Filipino men, “probably a defense against their environment” (170). The urgency and defensiveness he detects are not qualities that Carlos appreciates in the beginning: “[Their friendship] was something I did not want to be a part of but was not strong enough to escape from” (170). His unavoidable inclusion in the “friendship” of Filipino men, however, later becomes the ground for his political activities as a supporter of Filipino labor and the material of his writings. The ambivalence in Bulosan’s trope of racial homosociality, characterized by the double negative I use above, makes his trope less an expression of patriarchal nationalism and more a strategic deployment of certain elements of nationalism for specific political purpose.
Bulosan’s keen awareness of what Sedgwick calls the “continuum between homosocial and homosexual” also contributes to the departure of the text’s homosociality from the kind of male homosociality that constitutes patriarchal nationalism (2). At a shelter near Seattle’s Chinatown—a racialized and gendered space as it is primarily inhabited by male Filipino laborers—Carlos experiences the tenuous line that separates homosociality from homosexuality. The passage where Carlos describes his state of mind when he meets with sexual advance from another man deserves a close look:
Like in the passage on Carlos's sexual initiation, this passage also contains a sense of sex as violent and threatening. Viewed as a spatial metaphor for the trope of racial homosociality in the text, the “building of lost men” signifies the dual character of racial homosociality. At the same time that it is a space that offers protection from the natural elements, it is also a terrifying space due to the lack of any consideration for the individual, a space in which “a room of my own” is impossible. It is at once born out of need and want, a space that combines the topoi of “Necessity” and “Extravagance” in Asian American literature that Sau-ling Wong so persuasively writes of (13). And as a trope that contains the paradox of co-existent necessity and extravagance, racial homosociality in
America Is In the Heartdoes not hide its proximity to homosexuality. Carlos’s escape from a possibly homosexual encounter is not an expression of homophobia but a startling recognition of how the Filipino predicament in the U.S. exceeds the boundaries of normative conceptions of sociality and sexuality. Voluntary racial homosociality coexists with socially imposed racialization, and the boundaries of homosociality and homosexuality are permeable. In his analysis of the writings of African American and Asian American male writers from the 1960s and 70s, Daniel Kim draws attention to the “homophobic symbolism” in these writers' reactions to the objectification of men of color by white men (9). Kim convincingly shows the intricate social dynamic among white racism, white male homosociality, and racial homophobia as racist male homosociality among white men induces anxieties about homosexuality among men of color. Bulosan's representation of Carlos’s reaction to possible homosexuality can be seen as a precursor to the kinds of homophobic symbolism that appear in later writings by men of color even if it lacks the representational characteristics of homophobia that Kim analyzes.
An explanation of Carlos’s seeming detachment from sexuality, what Higashida views as his “asexual” inclination, seems necessary here as many critics are troubled by the numerous instances of evasion and ellipsis in Bulosan’s narrative on the question of sex (51). While some critics read this evasiveness as Bulosan's unwillingness to engage with how Filipino male homosociality is constructed at the expense of women—for example, Lee suggests that the prostitutes’ labor in the texts is treated as improper in contrast to the proper labor of the Filipino male workers—I suggest that this evasion of sex is due to Bulosan's exploration of the threshold of sexuality (27). In her reading of
America Is In the Heart, de Jesús uses the term queer as a critical lens that eschews the binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality and questions the production of sexual normalcy and normativity. Based on this definition, Bulosan's ambivalent dealings with sexuality, his precarious balancing of Filipino male heterosexuality and a selfselected celibacy that denies sexuality a place in Carlos's politics of social change, may be the example par excellence of a queer sensibility.
This queer sensibility highlights the social context of the hyper sexualization of Filipino men as an important factor in the sexual reservations of the narrative. Repeatedly, Carlos notes that Filipino men are seen as embodying an overt sexuality and a desire for white women. For example, at a dinner party hosted by the wealthy white couple that employs Carlos and his brother Macario as domestic servants, one of the conversation topics is the deviant sexuality of Filipino men. In the presence of the Filipino men serving them, the white hosts and guests at the party hold a casual conversation about how Filipino men are “sex-crazy” because “they go crazy when they see a white woman” (141). Koshy shows in detail how the attitude of the white Americans Bulosan portrays is part of a larger cultural stereotype regarding Filipino men. Filipino men were singled out among immigrants of various national origins and coded in the popular imagination as seducers of white women (Koshy 96-102). Historian Mae Ngai suggests that such sexual stereotyping of Filipino men may have been part of a vicious cycle of socially imposed segregation and the racial homosociality that consequentially developed among Filipino men. The “antagonism toward Filipino male sexuality,” she says, “was bound up in the social anxieties about the homosocial nature of the Filipino workforce” (111). Bulosan specifically mentions the legal regulation of Filipino male sexuality that places white-Filipino interracial couples within the bounds of what Berlant and Warner call “criminal intimacy” (558). He does not fail to note how the court arbitrarily decided to prohibit marriages between Malays and Caucasians as the anthropological classification of Filipinos in the West changed from Mongolian to Malay, a change that temporarily created some leeway for Filipino men to marry white American women.9 Such social conditions of Filipino male sexuality form the backdrop of Carlos's silence regarding his own sexuality. Bulosan’s queering of male Filipino sexuality also has the benefit of imagining a possible political affinity and coalition between brown men and white women, as I explore in the following.
1Carole Vance’s diagnosis of the contradictory uses of the category of women within feminism from the perspective of social construction theory also points to what I call the ontological assumptions about men and women that subtend feminism. “ One goal” of feminism, she says, “is to attack the gender system and its primacy in organizing social life, but the second goal is to defend women as a group. Defending women or advancing their interest (in equal pay, abortion rights, or child care, for example) emphasizes their status as a special group with a unique collective interest, distinct from men, thus replaying and perhaps reinforcing the very gender dichotomy crucial to the system of gender oppression” (31). 2An explanation on how I use the terms hegemonic and counterhegemonic nationalism may be in need here. By hegemonic nationalism I refer to the kinds of nation-building efforts headed most often by the state (but not always necessarily) that construct a unified image of the nation, its people, its past and present, for the purpose of increasing or maintaining the influence, political and economic, of those in power. In contrast counterhegemonic nationalism can be seen in situations where nationalism is not hegemonic but is being used as an oppositional strategy, most often in decolonizing states and in minority movements that are organized along the line of race or ethnicity. 3Sylvia Yanagisako cites Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart alongside Victor Nee and Brett de Barry Nee’s Longtime Californ’ and Ronald Takaki’s Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1835-1920 as the three “canonical texts of Asian American history” (183). 4See also Libretti and Denning for the place of America Is In the Heart in the criticism of U.S. working-class literature. 5I date the beginning of Asian exclusion to 1882 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed and view its end as 1952 when the Immigration and Nationality Act repealed the ban on immigration from Asian communities. 6See also Judith Butler’s discussion of the significance of Sedgwick’s Between Men (112). 7See Rachel Lee for an analysis of how anti-miscegenation laws of the time relate to misogynist nationalism (30-1). 8Higashida, for example, argues that an attention to the symbolic significance of gender in Bulosan’s narrative has ignored the micro-level development of such women characters as Meteria, Carlos’s mother (49). I agree with Higashida that Bulosan’s text leaves ample room to analyze the characters as singular individuals; yet I am of the opinion that the macro-level symbolism of the text and micro-level development of characters are not oppositional but complementary. 9The lawsuit that Bulosan references is Roldan v. L.A. County (1931). Rachel Lee offers an excellent analysis of the significance of this lawsuit (31).
A common complaint among critics of
America Is In the Heartis that Bulosan’s representation of women relies on symbolism and produces caricatures of womanhood.10 It is not hard to notice Bulosan’s resort to well-rehearsed conventions of representing the nation through a symbolic use of women. For example, there is a palpable dichotomy in the representations of white and Filipino women. White women, such as Mary Strandon (who employs Carlos when he is a boy in the Philippines) and Marian (who befriends Carlos and supports him materially while working as a sex worker and suffering from poor health herself), occupy the roles of benefactress whereas brown women are shown as vulnerable and exploited subalterns. This racialized and gendered representation of women, in turn, hints at the dichotomy between the symbolic status of the U.S. and the Philippines, between what PantaleonMorantte calls “Lady America” in Bulosan’s writings and the metaphor of the Philippines as virgin territory in the discourse of U.S. colonialism (84). A phrase coined by Morantte, a close friend of Bulosan, “Lady America” connotes the conflation between the idealized white women who appear in Bulosan’s writings and the ideal of America that haunts his writings. In America Is in the Heart, Bulosan’s description of the Statue of Liberty, “holding a torch in one hand and a book of freedom and justice in the other,” a female embodiment of the democratic ideals of the nation, is an apt example of the figure of Lady America (95). At the other end of such gendered symbolism common to the discourse of nationalism is the image of U.S. colonialism in the Philippines as a male conquest of a virgin. In her analysis of the colonialist speeches during William McKinley’s presidency, KandiceChuh convincingly shows the intersections of patriarchal and colonial violence. In the imperialist rhetoric, the Philippines is imagined as seductive virgin territory whose “[u]npenetrated regions must be explored. Unviolated valleys must be tilled. Unmastered forests must be felled. Unrivenmontains must be torn asunder . . .”(46). Chuh aptly calls this dressing of imperialist drive with metaphors of heterosexual male desire the “eroticization of violence” (46). Lady America and the Virgin Land of the Philippines constitute the two archetypes of a symbolic use of women in nationalism that Bulsoan seems quite conscious of.
If such symbolic use of gender is all there is to Bulosan’s representation of women in
America Is in the Heart, then it would be almost impossible to draw out a critically productive gender politics from the text. Despite its apparent resort to recognizable tropes of women and the nation, I suggest that America Is In the Heartstill offers something beyond conventional representations of gendered nationalism in its representation of the frustrated sexual relationship between Filipino men and white women. While Rachel Lee reads the text’s silence on (normative) heterosexual fulfillment in Carlos’s relationship with the white American women he befriends as a sign of Bulosan’s regressive gender politics, I view it as enabling Bulosan to imagine white women as political partners in the Filipino struggle for social legitimacy. Whereas Sedgwick’s erotic triangle is based on the assumption that two men, as rivals, will pursue the same woman, Bulosan revises this assumption to present the brown man’s pursuit of a political partnership with the white woman that parallels the white man’s romantic pursuit of the white woman. Needless to say, such revision takes place in a context where the rivalry between white and brown man does not easily become a homosocial bond in the face of racial antagonism.
Carlos’s brief relationship with Judith, a young, white salesclerk at the grocery store of the small town where Carlos finds seasonal work, illustrates the ambivalence between romantic feelings and the potential for political affinity common to many of Carlos’s relationships with white women in
America Is in the Heart. On the one hand, there is a strong suggestion of mutual romantic interest between Carlos and Judith. While their contact is limited, they develop a strong enough interest in each other so that Judith would read to Carlos from her favorite book, The Light That Failed, about a painter who goes blind. Carlos is enamored with her voice. “Oh, the sound of her voice!” he exclaims (173). The brevity of his reaction accentuates the strong emotional response Judith and what she represents elicit in him. Yet the intimation of romance remains just that, an intimation. Instead of the development of a heterosexual romance, what the reader is left with is Carlos’s attention to the affinity between himself and Judith, the emphasis on sameness rather than difference: “She was my size, with brown hair and blue eyes” (172). The similarity in “size” that Carlos carefully notes contrasts markedly with the textual references to the difference in height between brown men and white women. The visually striking sign of the interracial relationship’s physical mismatch is revised into an emphasis on the affinity between a brown man and a white woman to pave the way for a possible partnership in the fight for the social recognition of Filipinos as equals to white Americans. The “sound of [Judith’s] voice” parallels the “sound of home” that Carlos waxes nostalgic over immediately before Judith appears in the narrative, an indication that Judith, even if she is a white American woman, is capable of embodying the innocence and humanity Carlos associates with his country of origin. The narrative’s emphasis on feeling in the contact established between Carlos and Judith suggests that Bulosan views white American women’s understanding of the Filipino predicament and their emotional support of Filipino men as crucial to Filipino uplift in the U.S.
Another example in the text that shows Bulosan’s investment in building a political partnership with white American women is Carlos’s relationship with the Odell sisters. Eileen Odell, in particular, develops a strong bond with Carlos to the extent that he confesses “[w]hen [he] found Eileen [he] found the god of [his] youth” (236). Both Alice and Eileen Odell supply Carlos with books and encourage his intellectual development. As Lee and Chuh point out, there is an undeniable element of idealization in Bulosan’s portrayal of Eileen Odell and other white American women who support his intellectual growth and help him cultivate a progressive political outlook (Lee 32-33, Chuh 39).11 Yet the idealization of women such as Eileen does not necessarily mean that Bulosan does not view her—or other women like her—as deserving a place in the democratic community he envisions. The mystique that shrouds white American women like Eileen may be a sign of Bulosan’s unwillingness to arrogate the other’s perspective rather than a constitutive exclusion from the category of democratic subjecthood.12 As the supplier of knowledge integral to Carlos’s political and writerly formation, Eileen shows the potential of white women to form a coalition with brown men to serve specific purposes, such as the education of those sidelined by institutional education. Such political partnership between men of color and white women also resonates with the trope of interracial, heterosexual partnership common in literary texts set during the interwar and World War II era, such as Luis Valdez’s
Zoot Suit.13 During an era when brown-white interracial relationships were criminalized, Bulosan’s representation of the bonds between brown men and white women points to the possibility of figuring out a common ground across the lines of gender and race. Just as the trope of racial homosociality assumes the intraracial and homosocial bonds among Filipino men as neither permanent nor final but a project in the making under particular historical and social circumstances, so is the political coalition suggested between brown men and white women a project that hinges on the mechanisms of social exclusion at the time.
In the schema of triangular desire that Bulosan presents in
America Is In the Heart, the absence of brown women is conspicuous. Even as there are a few developed women characters in the text, as Higashida beautifully illustrates through the example of Carlos’s mother, Meteria, the main drama of loss, disillusionment, and a renewal of search in Bulosan’s text evolves with Filipino men, white American men, and white American women as main characters. As an absent sign, brown women point to the limitations of the trope of racial homosociality to function as a counter hegemonic critique. It is with this insight that we can return to the initial question of what kind of convergence exists between a feminist and cultural nationalist approach to Bulosan’s text. In the world of America Is In the Heart, racist exclusion laws and social practices that dehumanize Filipinos are sanctioned by hegemonic nationalism. Bulosan’s trope of racial homosociality, which accentuates the social construction of racial identities and the dynamic of struggles over power among these identities, forms the basis for a counterhegemonic nationalism wherein bonding between Filipino men signifies the birth of a Filipino collectivity that can contest the terms of hegemonic nationalism. Bulosan leaves open the question of how this counterhegemonic nationalism can be appropriated by Filipino women.14 Will this kind of counterhegemonic nationalism be able to accommodate the emergence of Filipino women as political agents and social actors? Or will it have to make way for another ideology that can better serve these women’s pursuit of democratic participation? These questions are unanswered in the text. As a historically and socially contingent formation, the counterhegemonic nationalism of racial homosociality is not presented as a permanent solution to the ills of hegemonic nationalism. The most compelling lesson of what I see as a feminist approach to the text, then, is that the bonds between the members of a group involve desire and identification that reveal the processes whereby gender and sexuality become important sites for social control and the exertion of power. From this perspective, Bulosan “queers” nationalism to attend not to the question of whether nationalism is good or bad for women but to the question of when and how nationalism produces norms of gender and sexuality. A feminist approach to the text need not necessarily be at odds with such an ambivalent and strategic deployment of nationalism.
10Higashida warns against just focusing on the symbolism of gender in the text (49); Lee is critical of the instrumental role the female characters serve in Carlos’s political and writerly formation as a socialist (27, 33); Chuh is wary of how an idealization of the feminine results in the absence of corporeality in the women characters (39). 11While conceding that the Odells play a significant role in Carlos’s intellectual formation, Lee, for one, argues that Bulosan’s instrumental and symbolic use of women still renders intellectualism into a masculine idea and Bulosan’s idea of the nation as exclusive of women (32). 12Higashida makes a similar point. She says that “[t]hrough several of his female characters, Bulosan imparts the historical conditions that differentially engender women’s oppression as well as empowerment, eschewing both the arrogant assumptions of knowing the Other in “her” singularity and the equally debilitating refusal to think beyond one’s viewpoint” (49). 13The interracial relationship between Henry Reyna, the pachuco who is wrongly incarcerated for a crime he did not commit, and Alice Bloomfield, the Jewish American lawyer who helps Henry in Zoot Suit, however, conforms much more explicitly to the dominant plot of heterosexual romance, even if the romance is frustrated in the end. 14See Emma Pérez’s discussion of Yucatecan feminism in Between Woman and Nation for an example of a feminist movement that attempts to secure a place for women in nationalism.