It is not very often that a phone call with a person that I’ve never met is anything but awkward. However, this conversation with Jason Bayani, while understandably awkward at first (again, we had never spoken before) proved to be a transformative experience. Perhaps it is because Jason is used to baring his soul to strangers. Perhaps I’m just that good of an interviewer (HA). What I think made this incredibly interesting and personal was the level of comfort we established thanks in great part to a shared Filipinx American experience and all the baggage that comes with it.
Jason Bayani is a poet, writer, and thinker. His first book, “Amulet,” was published in 2013. His latest work, “Locus,” was recently published and is now available for purchase. Jason is also the Artistic Director for the Kearny Street Workshop, the oldest Asian Pacific American multidisciplinary arts organization in the country. We chatted about the different histories of Filipinx people in the United States, growing up in America as the son of immigrants, and the comfort in not knowing, all while watching a Clippers-Warriors playoff game in which the Warriors eventually trounced the Clippers. While the domination of the Clippers left me despondent, philosophizing with Jason about the “liminal space” children of immigrants often occupy helped bring clarity and meaning to an oftentimes confusing upbringing. Read on for my conversation with Jason Bayani.
What childhood memories inform who you are today?
I was born in and grew up in Fremont near Oakland in the suburbs. One of the big stories to bring up was when I was younger: my older cousin was in a DJ crew and we’d take those freakin’ balikbayan boxes and just start breakdancing on ‘em. We were living in a suburb that was in the process of developing so we used to go down to the construction site to steal a lot of stuff and one of the big things we stole all the time was linoleum because it was easier to do big spins on than cardboard.
How has being a second-generation Filipino immigrant in the United States shaped you and how you navigate the world?
The word ‘liminal’ gets used a lot because you’re in this space. Growing up with Filipino parents in a society where images are constantly bombarded on your brain. I think I knew from an early age that I was different. That kind of really affects you because you always feel like you’re out of place. Because I didn’t speak Tagalog… it took me a really long time to feel connected to my own culture. These are things I attempt to grapple with in the book. I don’t always come up with easy answers for it. I know I didn’t belong, I know the standard of this culture is whiteness. What drew me in were things like hip hop. I listened to a lot of R&B. In junior high, things like Public Enemy and X Clan and this really revolutionary type of rap was appealing to me because I didn’t have a language for what I wanted and what I felt was working against me. I don’t think I truly understood for many years what all that was but it began to give me something that I could work from. As I grew older, there’s this framing, this way of looking at the world that I could access and understand better.
While Jason’s personal experience is his own, there are common themes that many 2nd generation Filipinx immigrants can relate to from the inability to speak their mother tongue to searching for validation and measuring oneself against whiteness. His immigrant experience shapes a lot of the material that can be found in his new book Locus.
Can you tell me a little bit about the book? Why the title Locus?
It came together because of the show “Locus of Control.” Locus of control is the amount of control you feel that the world or universe has over you versus what you have over it. Where your locus of control is on that spectrum. I like the idea of how locus is the idea of location. We talk about being in a liminal space, being between worlds. There is this thing that is wrapped in unsureness but at the same time I wanted to have this feeling is that it’s not this passive thing but an active search for… a place.
You draw inspiration from the mixing and layering of musical fragments in DJ culture. Could you tell me how that informs your collection of poems?
A couple of years ago, I finally decided I wanted to try DJing. I’m still pretty much a newbie about it, but I have a lot of music knowledge and I enjoy doing it. When I approach a book or a manuscript, I try to look at it as one long piece and you have to consider how these poems go together. In putting together this book, I was taking inspiration from folks like Claudia Rankine who works in hybrid poetry/prose and just kind of mixes it all together… and I wanted to use these tools I found were common in poetry books. I wanted to use intertwining prose. There’s a lot of pieces that kind of use things like the erasure of quotes from other poets or other writers and I was thinking about how can I use all these different tools and make it feel like when I move from one poem to the next that I’m maintaining a seamless flow.
What I wanted for this book was to be like another way of telling history. The whole crux of that was to explore the history of my generation of Filipinos after the 1965 immigration act. The history of this influx of immigrants who came over here from the Philippines and their kids who became DJs and got really into hip hop and what kind of effect does that have and how do we explore what that means. It’s a different history than that of Filipino farm workers and the veterans who came in previous waves. How can we start talking about what this history is alongside that history?
There’s a lot to talk about and there’s a lot to write about. The results are already coming. Like America Is Not the Heart. If you want to see that difference I’m talking about, try putting America is Not the Heart next to America Is in the Heart. Those two things are our history but speak to different time periods and different histories.
Jason is exact in his speech and is always careful to be accurate with what he’s trying to say. Not that he’s afraid of misspeaking, but that he does not want there to be any miscommunication. As he becomes more comfortable, though, his rhythm of speech finds a cadence, not unlike how a slam poet may deliver lines to a prose-hungry audience.
What do you hope a reader takes from Locus? What kind of conversations do you hope your poems and prose spark?
This one’s hard to answer. When I was younger, I wanted to be heard, wanted people to feel heard. These days, it’s more than that. I think a lot about the difficulties we face in the world and how we move against that. I feel like that when we talk about the history and why I go back to this idea of wanting a different way to talk about history. That so much of history is wrapped up in this documentation of violent acts. A documentation of one culture’s dominance over others. And what does it mean to tell a history of the living versus the dying? I would like people to feel there’s a kind of empowerment in our stories and the way we tell them–they’re important in the grand scheme of the world.
That is something I think about a lot. It seems that all records of our histories are histories of violence.
I’m a natural cynic. And I’m a pessimist. It’s like I have trouble giving people any reason to hope. I feel like that’s a word that doesn’t feel like it belongs in my vocabulary anymore. At this point in my life, these are the things I do: I write, I explore these ideas and I feel like, especially when it comes to narratives and history, it brings me back to some kind of… hope? I don’t know if I could call it that anymore–it’s something in that direction. It feels like a fight to declare ourselves and to push to say, “this is who we are” before anyone else gets to define that for ourselves.
Although a self-described pessimist who believes the word “hope” shouldn’t be in his vocabulary anymore, Jason’s work does not seem to reflect that. Indeed, when I ask him about his work as Artistic Director at Kearny Street Workshop working with artists in marginalized communities, the words come easy and quick. This could either be a function of often speaking about the work and having an elevator speech ready or more informed by a passion for art and community work—I prefer to believe the latter.
Tell me about the work you do with the Kearny Street Workshop and the community you work with.
We use the terminology “Asian Pacific American,” but we want to be very clear that when we say that, that we don’t regard that as an identity. It’s an umbrella term for many communities with which we offer services within the arts. I’ve been the Artistic Director for the last 4 years–it’s a 47-year-old organization. It was one that I knew about when I was coming up as a poet–I did shows for them when I was younger. The first professor I worked with was a Filipino poet who was published by them and was one of my earliest influences as a poet. It was great coming back because I had a lot of personal history.
We’re an arts organization. We do event programming, educational programming, and other things like that. We have a program here called Aperture and it’s a multidisciplinary festival for emerging Asian Pacific American artists. We do readings, workshops, one-off events. We have a body-positive fashion show we do every couple of years called “Celebrate Your Body.” We get to work with our greater community (on that) so it’s not strictly Asian American. It’s a cool thing to branch out… and work with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation on this one.
The mission statement says we make artists into community members and community members into artists. We want to use art to build community…for artists who come from more marginalized communities to have space where they can offer the truest expression of themselves. A common thing we hear a lot from our artists when they have to work in more mainstream spaces, and I feel this is the result of the way that we structure grants, is that so much becomes focused around these points of marginalization. In a lot of ways, it can shoehorn people of color to be in these spaces performing their marginalization. We hear that a lot: “I have to perform my marginalization.”
I chose what I thought at the time was a simple question to answer to round out the interview. Although philosophically the answer went deeper than I originally anticipated, I found the end fitting and hopeful.
What is your motto or mantra?
Jeez, I don’t know.
That’s a good mantra, actually.
Yeah, that I don’t know. And being in this space always has me curious and always has me searching. I’m always in a place of questioning… and I like that. That works for me. I feel like especially with social media now, it almost demands that you present knowing. That things become absolute and things are always being declared. I always want to be in a space where I can still discover. I’m 42 now and I’ve become so much more confident in the fact that I don’t know.