Summer of Asian American Stories

Dear Humanity,

As we head into the fall season in Chicagoland, I wanted to take one last look back at what an incredible summer it has been for this story-gatherer. Every culture and group has its stories. Now, more than ever, is a time when stories can help human communities uplift, survive in love and honesty, be brave, thrive, and heal. Here were the “Top 5” highlights of my summer. I hope you found rich and profound stories to sustain and nourish you, too:

5. George Takei and Gaman. Resilience. Went to hear Uncle George speak about his time in an American internment camp, taken at 5 years old at gunpoint. Through Japanese American internment, the Civil Rights Movement, Marriage Equality, and Hollywood, Uncle George has expressed an indomitable human spirit, sense of humor, and grace. He has a profound belief in the practice of democracy. Gaman: the Japanese word for enduring the impossible with patience and dignity. Check out the song in his musical, Allegiance.

4. The First Asian American Literature Festival. Traveled to Washington, D.C. for this amazing gathering of Asian American poets, performers, writers, scholars, and lovers of the written and spoken word. Asian Am Lit rang in the corridors, stages, and galleries of the Smithsonian, the Phillips Collection, Dupont Underground, and the (OMG!) Library of Congress. So inspiring: Li Young Lee, Regie Cabico, Sarah Gambito, Gowri K., Gene Oishi, Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Franny Choi, Sejal Sha, Karen Mei Yamashita, and all. Readings, workshops, book vendors, editors, poetry slam, literaoke, pop-up dessert bar. Kudos to the Asian Pacfic American Center  (APAC) of the Smithsonian and Kundiman for creating this space in our nation’s capitol.

3. Sssst! Tagalog Camp. Taught a Tagalog language class for kids. The sense of cultural continuity and the kids’ freshness gave me hope. Reconnected with my dear friend, Elaine, a talented photographer, and we’re revisiting our book project of Filipino American women’s stories.

2. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Daytrip with my friend Scott into the shush of prairie grasses, the search for elusive bison, dizzying butterflies and grasshoppers, golden Alexanders, prairie sunflowers, and purple thistle waving in the wind.

1.The Banyan, Asian American Writers’ Collective Inaugural Celebration. Gathered and organized with local Asian Am writers to read our works and launch Samina Hadi-Tabassum’s book of poetry, Muslim Melancholia. We had an intergenerational audience, ages 4 days old to 70+ and packed the Oak Park Main Library with stories, food, Asian Am visual art, music, and kids’ activities. Worked with Riksha Magazine to share stories that were nakakaaliwuplifting. More to come? Yes, please.

I know, I know. Technically #2 isn’t full of Asian American stories. Or even human stories. But the Flowers and Grasses have their tales to tell, too. The act of getting quiet and listening to their wordless existence brought me peace. From the Flowers to me, may the peace spread to you.


Mary Grace

Moon Phases


That moment when you calculate the moon phases in 1521 and can now reckon time precisely in the world of your novel. Kilat-kilat, the time when the moon is a flash of lightning. Ah, twenty-first century tech meets the precolonial Philippines!

Book Expo America 2016 – Highlights, Part 1


This gallery contains 7 photos.

Last week was Book Expo America 2016, held at McCormick Place here in Chicago. I was so busy soaking it all in that I didn’t have time to write a proper post. So here it is, highlights of my experience … Continue reading

“Mele Murals” – Film Reco

I went to the Gene Siskel Center last night to see Matt Yamashita’s “Sons of Halawa” which was a beautiful story about the continuity of tradition in Molokai, Hawai’i. (See my previous post.) Also watched Tadashi Nakamura and Keoni Lee’s film “Mele Murals” which I loved. Hip-hop meets indigenous Hawaiian spirituality. This film was beautiful and honest. Two artists, Prime and Estria, teach students at Waimea charter schools how to paint murals. At the school, students are learning Hawaiian language – to read and write in it – as well as their history. They also learn hula. For someone like me, a Filipina American, this is beyond amazing. It brought tears to my eyes to see the love with which this school treasures Hawaiian language, music, dance, and stories. But here’s the thing. To the kids in the film, who were brought up with hula and all, they seemed…a bit bored. Like they needed a new way forward with their culture, a way to make culture their own. It reminds me of what’s happening with Pinoy kids and tinikling in America – mixing the power of hip hop into our traditional dances. Culture is a living, dynamic thing. And, from what I am seeing, when kids can make it their own, they can relate. It goes deeper.

The other thing that was breath-taking to me about both films is that it shows Hawaiian spirituality with such love. Christianity and indigenous spirituality side-by-side. This was not the point, necessarily, of either of the documentaries. But it struck a chord with me because so much of indigenous spirituality in many cultures, including Filipino, is based on the love of nature, the spirit(s) of nature, respect for the land and the water bodies. When the communities in both films, “Sons of Halawa” and “Mele Murals” engage more deeply with their indigenous traditions, the result, for them, seems to be joy and peace.

Mahalo, salamat, and thanks to the film-makers Matt, Tadashi, and Keoni for bringing their stellar documentaries out into the world!


Sons of Halawa – Film at Gene Siskel

Welcome to Chicago “Sons of Halawa“! The story of elder Anakala Pilipo Solatorio who is searching for a way to pass on his beautiful cultural traditions of music and dance in the Halawa Valley. Sincerity and the sacred. I’m really looking forward to this film, especially as my friend, the darling, Jason Poole is singing in it. Bonus: June Tanoue and her Halau i Ka Pono will be doing a hula presentation. (Yes, my hula teacher. Can’t wait!)

There were still tix an hour ago. Quick, quick – reserve yours! Part of the 21st Asian American Showcase. Saturday, April 9th. 7:30 p.m. Gene Siskel Film Center.

As of last night: SOLD OUT! 🙂




Honoring Our Ancestors

We were in Japan for 3 weeks this summer which was a wondrous journey of extremes: from the neon, buzz and bullhorns, and manga-mania of Electric Town in Tokyo to the mist-covered hills, sacred herd of deer, 1,000-year-old cedar tree, and the shrines and temples of Nara.

It’s taking a while to get back into the F L O W of home…though it is lovely to be someplace where I have mastery over the language!

But I came home to the August 2010 issue of Our Own Voice, a literary ezine of the Filipino diaspora. This special issue was edited by the dynamic Leny Strobel, director of the Center for Babaylan Studies and by OOV editor Aileen Ibardaloza-Cassinetto, poet of the exquisite. It is dedicated to exploring and celebrating babaylans, indigenous Filipino healers and shamans. The zine’s frontis piece took my breath away.

One of my own pieces, “Honoring Our Ancestors,” is included in this issue. (Note: It is not for the squeamish; I am unabashed about the mysticism. Read at your own risk.) I share my experience of attending the First International Babaylan Conference which happened last April. But, more importantly, the piece is about the tradition of staying connected to those who have gone before us. Mine is only one voice in this chorus, this chant. I am privileged to be in such company, especially Frances Santiago’s “Pintada,” M. Evelina Galang’s Lola Amonita Balajadia and the Counselors of Light,” and Leny’s From the Editors Laptop column. Check out the issue! (And if you do, try reading while listening to Grace Nono’s song “Panangpit.”)

Now that I’m back, there’ll be more coming in the blog…particularly around art that celebrates nature and encourages us all to connect…

Mabuhay, live,

Mary Grace

Growing Up Filipino II

Growing Up Filipino II

Growing Up Filipino II

I was 10 when someone gave me my first diary. It was small, hard-backed, had a teddy bear on it and, most importantly, a lock. What more could a kid want than a space where she could say anything she wanted? Crushes, rants, dreams, magic, love songs. It was all in there. What my first diary meant to me can be summed up in one delicious word: FREEDOM! I was hooked on recording the details of my life, the soaring search for the right word, playing with poems and stories from that moment onward.

I was one of those kids who loved her English teachers and was wide-eyed with wonder (and a little intimidated!) at these wise-owl women we called librarians. In L.A., in the 1980’s, there really weren’t too many stories with Filipino or Filipino American kids on the bookshelves. In third or fourth grade, I had an assignment to write a report on my heritage. When I went to the public library, the librarian wasn’t able to find any books that mentioned Filipino culture. She shook her head sympathetically. The invisibility of my culture in books  sank into my consciousness quietly, stealthily. Because I never saw an author of my heritage, I’d assumed that people like me didn’t have any worthwhile stories. Hey, if my beloved English teachers and the wise librarians didn’t have stories of families like mine on the shelves, the stories couldn’t possibly exist, right? Kid logic.

So I wrote, secretly. I was a writer before I even had a word for it. No one in my family and no one we knew wrote stories. The grown-ups in my family were all nurses and navy men, vendors at  sari-sari stores, and med techs who worked long hours and relaxed by watching TV and movies and feasting at potlucks. No books for pleasure, only text books for saving patients’ lives. I thought I was weird for writing my stories and kept my weirdness private. But, man, the joy of locking my bedroom door, curling up on my window-seat with flowery cushions, turning on the radio, and letting my black felt-tip pen glide in loops and swoops across the page!

The first time I ever met a Filipino writer, I was already 19, studying at UCLA, and firmly convinced we had no stories. It was one of the most awesome moments of my life to learn, at last, that someone from my background was an author. His existence showed me that dreams are possible (and that, perhaps, I wasn’t so weird after all). The writer happened to be N.V.M. Gonzalez, who is considered a national treasure and one of the founders of literature in the Philippines. He was also a keen teacher who respected his young students greatly. N.V.M. didn’t make a big deal about himself. Humble, like the characters in his short stories.

So it’s with the greatest pleasure that I share with you all the U.S. launch of the anthology Growing Up Filipino II, edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard. Cecilia is tireless in publishing stories from the Filipino diaspora — a fancy word that simply means my sea-faring, adventurous, and  hard-working community has traveled and settled around the world. It’s filled with 27 stories from writers of Filipino descent who grew up in the Philippines, the United States, and Canada. There are wonderful writers like Marianne Villanueva, Paulino Lim, Jr., and Cecilia Brainard. One of my own YA short stories, “Shiny Black Boots,” is included in Growing Up Filipino II. And I count myself lucky to be in such fantastic literary company.

I think the me who was the L.A. Valley Girl in the 1980’s would have loved to see Growing Up Filipino II on the bookshelves. I wouldn’t have had to wait so long to learn that we, too, had stories worth reading. And to my friends who, also, never knew that Filipino stories existed, this is a great time to introduce them to your teens. As a kid I loved Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Stories of survival and resourcefulness, creating bonds of friendship, and taking care of your family are universal.   James Baldwin said it best in his 1984 Paris Review interview: “Your self and your people are indistinguishable from each other, really, in spite of the quarrels you may have, and your people are all people.”