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
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
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
The trope of racial homosociality in
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
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
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
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
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
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
If such symbolic use of gender is all there is to Bulosan’s representation of women in
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
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
In the schema of triangular desire that Bulosan presents in
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.