Loving America: Reading Carlos Bulosan with My Students

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Does one person’s freedom depend on another’s loss of freedom?

I am wondering about love, of course. And writing. And protest.

I am wondering about the protestor who fights for an ideal that conflicts with reality—like supporters of #TakeTheKnee who say they kneel out of a desire for America to become a country everyone would want to stand in support of.

In the Asian American Literature course I teach, we have been reading Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, which means constantly returning to what scholar Elaine Kim says about Bulosan’s portrayal of women as symbols of “the contradiction between what is brutal in America and what is kind and beautiful.” Kim writes:

Marrying a white woman would free [Carlos] from sexual oppression and emasculation, give him the possibility of a stable family life and at least a partial entry into the mainstream of American life.

Female characters so often become symbols in male literature. Why does certain fiction turn supporting characters into supporting devices? Does the freedom of a protagonist depend on other characters’ loss of freedom?

The answer to that last question, of course, is no. Yet I want to ask it anyway, not to condone making women symbols, but to explore the power dynamics that cause this phenomenon and what this means about love.

Here is a passage from America Is in the Heart that my class has troubled over: Carlos has been sold as labor to a fishing expedition in Alaska, where a Native woman, La Belle, becomes pregnant. She says that Carlos’s friend, Conrado, is the father. A company official explains that the father must stay for seven years and support the child. Conrado denies paternity. And then another man, Paulo, claims the baby as his. La Belle, at first surprised, accepts this arrangement. This exchange follows:

“I’ll stay here for seven years all right,” Paulo said to me. “I’m in a mess in Los Angeles anyway—so I’ll stay with this dirty Indian girl.”

“Stop talking like that if you know what is good for you,” La Belle said, giving him the baby.

“I guess you are right,” Paulo said.

Why does La Belle accept Paulo? Why does Paulo accept La Belle? Carlos ends the chapter by saying he doesn’t understand and never sees them again.

In class my students read La Belle as “bad” and another female character, who is sexually assaulted, as “good,” though neither are given any depth. Both are ciphers. Paulo, who appears for five hundred words or so, is given more character than La Belle. So is it only the female characters’ relationship to power that makes them read as “good” or “bad?”

Carlos as narrator is invested in the complexity of certain things and people more than others. America Is in the Heart has been read as an effort to make Pinoy laborers into more than victims of a racist, imperialist system—they actively fight their condition and effect change. Also depicted are the dangers of stereotype threat: American culture tells the Pinoys in America Is in the Heart that they should be gamblers and drunkards and sexists and gangsters, and they become these things. Carlos struggles to retain faith in his own freedom and in his idealized America. The problem is how this faithfulness to his ideas is represented by characters: he runs away from oversexualized brown women and toward idealized white women—La Belle’s pregnancy mirrors entrapments sprung upon Carlos and his brothers. Carlos’s purity and incorruptibility depends on the purity of women characters, especially white women, and the corruption of women characters, especially women of color.

Complex sexual relations do not translate in the book to complex characters of the opposite sex. Paulo’s complexity, in fact, depends on La Belle’s flatness. Why do they accept each other? It’s not because they see each other as whole individuals. One way to read the scene quoted above is that they are already making stories of each other—stories of the other that they themselves can accept.

A writer friend says “heterosexuality is not a good premise for a story,” there needs to be something more. I agree. Perhaps he would agree that a related problem are stories that try to turn heterosexuality into something more through a kind of thematic symbolization—for example an interracial couple as a symbol for the potential relationship between white and non-white America.

Bulosan’s portrayal of women prompts our class to ask the question of whether romantic love or sexuality is a particularly apt model for the ways that symbolization can be both powerful and dangerous. In the case of writing, powerful fiction often transforms objects into symbols. What happens when the first step in this symbolization, this story-making, is to turn a person into an object, in order to turn the person into a symbol?

America Is in the Heart may be a particularly useful example because, as the title suggests, Carlos idealizes (loves an ideal version of) America—and, to come back to Elaine Kim’s critique, that ideal version of America is represented by ideal versions of white American women (for example: a woman who takes Carlos in as a boy and teaches him that in America even a poor kid can become president.)

If this all sounds very Freudian—superego, ego, id—it is. Here is scholar Paul Lauter on Bulosan: “According to Freud… healing and recovery are related to experiences of ‘re-memory’ and ‘reenactment.’” In other words, Bulosan’s writing about “the kindness sought in the ideal of a nurturing America as home, for the brown man, […] always contested by the cruelty of violent acts that originate in terror of the other” is a way for him to recover the self.

Mária Minich Brewer, in “A Loosening of Tongues: from Narrative Economy to Women Writing,” describes this kind of “plot” as a “discourse of male desire recounting itself through the narrative of adventure, project, enterprise, and conquest.” In America Is in the Heart this is complicated by the oppressive forces of white American culture and imperialism that make it difficult for brown male desire to satisfy itself.

The famous ending of Bulosan’s novel has been read various ways, but the sticking point, as I understand it, is that nearly all of the book recounts suppression, exploitation, racism, misogyny, etc., and yet the final sentence goes: “I knew that no man could destroy my faith in America that had sprung from all our hopes and aspirations, ever.” This ending has been read as ironic, as insincere, as tacked-on, as an attempt to please Bulosan’s white audience, etc. By students it is often (in my experience) read as sincere.

My students argue that what gets Carlos through all the trauma is exactly his hope and faith, his love of an ideal America.

My question then, I suppose, is something like: Can one love one’s country into a better version of itself? And can that love better the self?

What does all this have to do with Bulosan’s symbolization of women? Take the case of romantic love as an example of how symbolization can be both “good” and “bad.” The lover often loves a symbolized version of the beloved. (See: people who fall for the same kind of partner over and over, and what that says about the person falling.) One of the dangers of love is that the image of the beloved erases the actual person—it is a kind of conquest—at first for the lover, but the beloved might then go so far as to make themselves into the image the lover has of them.

This is like the parent who tells the child she is a good girl when she cleans her room, getting the child to associate cleaning with goodness. For the child: cleaning my room makes my parent love them, and so I shape myself into the aesthetic of the parent.

Idealization of the beloved is one person’s freedom at the expense of the other’s: freedom to love a version of a person that is not actually them, that says more about the self than the other.

Hate, too, is much less about the other than about the self. The desire of the person who hates is often that the hated do something to prove their hatefulness: “I’ll give you a reason to cry.” Both love and hate are about making the other into a version of itself that the subject finds meaningful. White anger directed at nonviolent protestors of color is the desire to make those protestors into monsters. If, for example, the black athlete protesting police violence can be understood as protesting the national anthem, that athlete becomes an acceptable object easily incorporated into the subjecthood of the haters.

In the Western tradition of the novel supporting characters are often used to reveal something about the protagonist, either by parallel or by contrast (mirrors and foils). The danger is that the author limits the novel’s complexity in order to emphasize the relative complexity of its protagonist. Is the difficulty of male writers to make female characters more than symbols a symptom of an unspoken, deeply held belief that male writers must give women meaning in order to establish a meaningful male subjecthood?

As a last note, it occurs to me that my relationship with my daughter best encompasses a love for both the reality of who she is and an idealization of her. The obvious difference is that in this relationship there is no reciprocal anxiety. The anxiety of love is the anxiety not of whether my love comes back to me, but whether my love for my daughter might in fact transform her in ways that take her away from her subjecthood. Perhaps we cannot love America into a better version of itself because ours is an anxious love—a love that reveals our desire to love what we do not see as real. Out of that anxiety we argue over flags. Out of that anxiety Bulosan makes white women into America.

How do we symbolize a reality then in which for some people freedom is a zero-sum game, when the stories we tell must both reckon with this fact and reach for something more?

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Feature image via Creative Commons.


Matthew Salesses is the author of The Hundred-Year Flood. He was adopted from Korea and has written about race and adoption for NPR's Code Switch, the New York Times Motherlode, Salon, and The Rumpus, among others. He is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing & Literature at the University of Houston. His previous books include Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity (essays) and I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying (a novel). Follow him @salesses. More from this author →