When I migrated to the US a couple of years ago, one of the first things I did there was try to recreate a sense of home by joining a writers’ community.
It was Philippine letters’ elder statesman Krip Yuson who got me in touch with Eileen Tabios, and she connected me with Aileen Cassinetto. In October 2017, my sister and I had dinner with the two ladies, their husbands, and other friends including writer and diversity studies professor Melinda de Jesus at a quaint eatery in San Francisco.
From there we went on a ‘lit crawl’ to the Dovre Club on Valencia street, where they read poems amid the din of people chattering and a TV at full blast. I still have the photographs from that night.
Eileen and Aileen were born in the Philippines and later moved to the US. Tabios is a poet and anthologist who has published many books. Cassinetto is the first Asian-American poet laureate of San Mateo County.
The year before we met, Cassinetto founded Paloma Press, a San Franciso Bay Area-based independent literary press publishing poetry, prose, and limited edition books. Shebelieves in “the power of the literary arts, how it can create empathy, bridge divides, change the world.”
Paloma has “released fundraising chapbooks such as ‘Marawi’, in support of relief efforts in the Southern Philippines; and ‘After Irma After Harvey’, in support of hurricane-displaced animals in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico…In 2018, the fundraising anthology ‘Humanity’ was released in support of UNICEF’s Emergency Relief campaigns on the borders of the United States and in Syria.”
Edited by Tabios, ‘Humanity’ is a collection of essays and poetry conceived by Cassinetto, inspired by Annie Dillard’s ‘For the Time Being’ “which, in a large part, contemplates humanity ‘in a world of almost 7 billion individuals’” and presents “humanity’s explorations, often struggles, with itself in a variety of contexts.” (from Tabios’ introduction)
One of the essays, “Holy Tunganga: Meditations on Becoming an Ancestor”, traces retired university professor Leny Mendoza Strobel’s journey to “deepen my spiritual practice that is rooted in my Filipino indigenous spirituality.” She migrated to the US in 1983, and needed to be uprooted from the Philippines, she said, “to find Home.”
“We wanted to recuperate the ancient babaylan tradition,” she wrote, “that is still alive and well today even though still relatively unknown to many of us in the diaspora and even in the homeland.”
Mendoza-Strobel related the questions that young Fil-Ams often ask: “What does it mean to be urban and indigenous? What does it mean to be a Filipino in the diaspora? What does it mean to heal communities of color and their colonial trauma and historical amnesia?”
Other essays in ‘Humanity’ tell of experiences in other countries, other cultures. Swiss-French-Filipino Christine Amour-Levar writes about the Nenets reindeer herders of Siberia and their harsh life in temperatures that dip to 36 degrees below zero. In “Desert Castles,” JA Bernstein, of Jewish heritage, recounts a friendship with the Palestinian Samir. S. Lily Mendoza, a professor of culture and communication in Michigan, tells of her childhood in Pampanga and her separation through the years from her ‘indigenous soul,’ and reconnecting with it again.
Paloma Press’ most recent title is ‘The Good Mother of Marseille’ by Christopher X. Shade, a novel of Americans abroad. The first chapter starts with Chinelo the dog getting cut on shards from bottles being flung from a fourth-floor window. It gets more interesting from there.
As a publisher, Cassinetto’s mission to bring voices out of the silence, to make heard those who are ignored and disregarded. She champions the beauty and magic of poetry. She brings to the page the words of POC (people of color), those of the Philippine diaspora, those of mixed heritage who are struggling with issues of race, self, and nation.
In her own book ‘The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves and Other Poems’ (Our Own Voice and Little Dove Books, 2018), Cassinetto reveals her yearning for her home country, for Inang Bayan. In her essay “Traveling With Tsinelas” she says: “Tokens aside, nothing, of course, beats the real thing—my homeland in all her sultry, jangling, ragged, luscious, cerulean, burnt amber, ironic, contradictory, heartbreakingly proud, and heartbreakingly lovely glory. In the most hushed hours of my day, I think of her.
“Then I am home, more often than she knows.”
Poetry is the soul and conscience of a people. FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO