Making the Most of my Midi-chlorian Count: Geek Consciousness, Identity, and Humor in Creative Non-Fiction

Following is the paper I presented at the Postcolonial Studies Conference a month or so back. I was asked to speak on the young writers’ panel, and to express the issues that I face as a young writer.

I. Filipino

“Where’s the pain? Where’s the anger and the hurt?” my friend asked as she thumped my chest emphatically. She looked at me and I could see the sadness in her face, this look like she was searching for something and she didn’t find it. I was thinking, I might have been doing something good in my writing to get her so emotional about it.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I was just trying to be funny.”

“No,” she said, “You can’t just make jokes about these things. This is serious stuff. You have to write it out.”

I feel that that exchange encapsulates a lot of issues about my Creative Non-Fiction. We see there this questioning of the content, why it was chosen and how it was handled and executed. We also see the demands made by the reader. Further, shown is the belief that there are things that should be taken seriously, and that the CNF writer should indeed be responsible not only to himself but to the people and the milieu being portrayed in the work. Factoring in all these things to think about, I am reminded of a number of times when I have been told that my writing is fun and entertaining, but lacks pathos and gravitas.

Cognizant of my residence in a postcolonial country, and the kinds of experiences that we have had in our bloody, brutal history where we endured centuries of oppression by Spain, a war with American colonizers whose death count is still debated, the devastating Japanese occupation, Martial Law, and the post-Martial law presidencies with their own stories, it’s clear that one need not look far for material that would have both pathos and gravitas.

Poverty is rampant. Corruption and abuse in the government has been something that we have learned to live with. Systems and institutions are assumed to be compromised. Even in this supposedly hopeful time of regime change, there is so much to be angry, sad, frustrated, or disappointed about that one would think that I would have the good sense to be serious when I write CNF.

But then I have my subject position to blame.

I was born in the Philippines, but when I was three my mother and I migrated to Los Angeles. And I feel like I really missed a lot because whenever friends get together and reminisce they talk about Shaider, Voltes V, and Masked Rider Black. All of these are outside of my cultural consciousness. Similarly, when older friends talk of their love for the softdrink beauties I am at a loss. And this is just the pop culture stuff. There’s even more about Filipino culture that I know I don’t know, and these blindspots in my cultural consciousness really do weigh heavily on me.

My own cultural consciousness is defined by a lot of television I watched as a kid. There were the mid-day reruns of old sitcoms like Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeanie, and I Love Lucy. At night my parents would think I was asleep but I’d be watching Nick at Nite for classics like The Dick Van Dyke Show, Get Smart, and Welcome Back, Kotter. I became a disciple of Saturday Night Live even though I would rarely finish it because, being a kid, I wasn’t used to staying up past midnight.

I would discover Star Wars and Star Trek and they would provide me with hours of entertainment and what has now become a lifelong devotion to both franchises. At nine or ten I attended my first convention. I spent lots of hours at the comic book store either picking new comics or trading basketball cards. And feeding my love for sci-fi and fantasy was my membership at the book club of the neighborhood library.

Down the block from our apartment was a video store. The Armenian dude who ran it always recommended indie films to me, and he let me borrow R-rated movies even when I was only twelve. Just a few blocks down, with the help of rollerblades, I could get to the multiplex and catch a bunch of movies.

I was a suburban kid who was fully attuned to American consumer pop culture. Exposure to Filipino culture was limited to the VHS tapes that could be rented at the Filipino stores.

Having spent my formative years abroad, I was stuck with a consciousness that is largely divorced from the third world/postcolonial experience. Studying here helped me to form more of an identity as a Filipino, but I feel that these are aspects of an identity that I have chosen to develop, not the result of socialization at a young age. I’m not sure if my awareness and complicity in developing my identity as a Filipino enhances or diminishes it. What is clear to me is that this kind of diptych consciousness makes for a CNF voice that can adopt stances of both outsider and insider.

It’s from this perspective that I attempt to write. The essay is an attempt, and in most cases, it’s me trying to understand a social situation. My geek consciousness makes for limited ability to understand and function properly in social situations. This gets compounded at times by the Fil-Am consciousness. I feel it’s worth pointing out here that it helps that I do not look American or mestizo at all, that my kayumanggi skin and rather plain looks let me blend in and allow for more normal natural behavior towards me, as opposed to say looking like I am part American. I’m not saying it’s the most fortunate thing, as I suppose that if I did look more American then I would be much better looking and would do better with women and might perhaps have had a chance at a showbiz career. But my Filipino looks do help me to be a funny writer, and well, you gotta make the best of what you got.

In these attempts to understand, funny things emerge. I try to understand, I try to fit in, but I often fail. These failures do lead to some learning, to some enhancement of understanding. But this learning and understanding is built upon my inability to adapt or conform to situations.

I often write these situations as funny. But if one thinks about it, these are based on sad occurrences, on instances of failure. These situations might include a dilemma while buying DVDs, not having a date at a wedding, or a breakup. All of these are obviously dwarfed when it comes to the larger social conditions that we have to contend with in this world, and particularly in the third world. But these are small tragedies, containing gravitas and pathos, wrapped up in a sense of humor. Which is to say that while I may be making jokes, I am serious about them.

II. Geek

I’ve carved a niche for myself as the voice of the Filipino geek. And I think it’s important that I problematize the bringing together of those two terms, as the latter is an inherently Western concept.

The definition of geek is highly debated. As part of the general consensus and what we’ll work from here, is that geeks are socially awkward people who have a devotion to non-mainstream interests.

It’s not just people in the West who are geeks, though there are probably more of them there because of the access to media and content which would inspire geekery.

There is a geek community here. It has not reached a critical mass to the level that it can influence local pop culture, but geeks do organize and congregate. Seeing geeks gather though, it becomes clear that the composition is mostly middle to upper class, with most of its members being affluent, which explains not only their ability to engage this type of culture, but their access to media, content, collectibles, and the other physical manifestations of geekery. Which is to say that geeks make up an extremely small part of the population.

Also, the things which geeks get geeky about are rarely Filipino. Filipino content at present is developed for the masa, and it largely excludes the geek from its considerations when TV shows, movies, music, or other forms of entertainment media are designed.

This means that the Filipino-ness of a geek will be at question, because while Filipino in nationality, the geek will inhabit a consciousness that is not Filipino. It is arguable that the consciousness is largely Western- or Japanese- influenced as most of the content that fuels geekery is either from the West or Japan. While this might lead us to assumptions that this is just the spreading of Western cultural hegemony, we can also point out that the content that geeks get geeky about isn’t pop or mainstream either, but constitutes fringe culture and interests. It’s more likely that the values geeks ascribe to are influenced not by the hegemony of the West, but rather the teachings of The Jedi Council and The Force, The Federation and The Prime Directive, or other fantastical worlds. The cultural consciousness to which the geek ascribes is something not fully Filipino, if Filipino at all.

Most geeks would point to the lack of Filipino content to get geeky about. After all, local TV has no such mythos-building equivalents, local literature has no sweeping LoTR or Song of Ice and Fire epics, no local movie has the irresistible allure of Star Wars. But there is content. I can’t speak for TV, but I think that our local epics do have mythic qualities and classic Filipino films as well as old Pinoy comedies inspire their own brand of geekiness. But again all of this has yet to catch on, and it’s going to take a lot more before there is a brand of true Filipino geekiness.

Where does that leave me, as a person who attempts to document his own geekiness in this world, with an eye on the movements of pop culture? It presents on my end a substantial problem, as it shows limitations in the way that I can engage Filipino content, Filipino consciousness.

The true Filipino geek does not exist. Knowing this it becomes apparent that the way is clear to create an identity which has never been explored in our literature before, an identity that engages both global interests and hopefully local concerns.

III. Writer

I try not to introduce myself as a writer. Some take this as false modesty. But to be honest I’ve always observed and respected the difference between a writer and a person who writes. The first is a state, one that has been attained and proven and acknowledged, while the other is an act which, if done often enough and well enough, leads to the first.

As of late I have started to be introduced as: the writer. This usually leads to one of two reactions. The first is something along the lines of, “Oh really? I didn’t know that there were Filipino writers who were still alive.” This probably speaks too much about the kind of exposure to literature that most people in this country have. The second reaction is to ask, “So how many Palancas have you won?”

I think about this because often the skill of the writer is thought to be commensurate to the number of writing awards amassed. I’ve slowly come to a place in my writing career where I have accepted that no one will probably be giving me an award anytime soon. I write funny, short essays about seemingly trivial things that are told from the perspective of a fringe subculture.

My attempt in writing essays is to try to approximate a rhythm and rapport that would be similar to stand-up comedy. I think that the geek stance that I am able to appropriate makes for a great perspective from which to tell jokes. In lucky strokes this stance allows me to make insights on the Filipino condition and the human condition which would not be available to other writers. This is because the self-deprecation and self-awareness provided by this stance allow me to say certain things that would not be acceptable if I were speaking from a position of authority or knowing. It’s in knowing that I don’t know, and in being willing to admit such a lack of knowledge that, paradoxically, allows me to speak with credibility.

Still I feel that humor is underappreciated. It’s not that people don’t like humor, but I sometimes wonder if we give humorists as much credit as they deserve. How hard is it to tell a joke? How hard is it to keep people laughing? Imagine all the assets at your disposal when you’re with friends and trying to make them laugh. You’ve got material all around: the physical environment, the past that you have all shared, recent stories and situations, and you’ve got your body, voice, facial expressions, hand gestures, and so many more resources.

Now consider what you’ve got if all you’ve got are words. How hard is it when you don’t have intonation, or rhythm, or other aspects of delivery? Notice that most “joke books” are filled with puns, or quickie one liners, or just one line set-ups followed immediately by punchlines. It’s because it’s difficult to sustain a joke. It’s hard to make people laugh, and it’s even harder to build upon that initial joke and keep spinning it into a series of jokes, or in my case a complete essay.

My essays come out in short bursts. This is fine, of course, as it is what the content demands. This brevity though, makes most of my essays ineligible for contests, as they often don’t reach page minimums. And while people will laugh and enjoy my work, I am rarely taken seriously, or taken as a serious writer.

I feel that there should be some kind of way to acknowledge and even promote funnier writing. More often than not our awards and our respect go to decidedly serious writing that incorporates social realism and portrayals of social issues. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with that writing. But I’m wondering if it isn’t time for us to think of humor more seriously and to try and recognize the work that goes into a well-crafted piece of humor just as much as we reward a well-crafted piece of realist literature.

I remember Dr. Dalisay asking in one of our classes, why it was that everyone was always setting out to write the great Filipino novel. Everyone was trying to write the next Noli Me Tangere.

So I’m not sure how people will respond to this stance, but I feel that I am leaving others to write those books for the moment. I might try my hand at it one day. I’ve got a tri-generational narrative brewing in my head that spans the occupation of Corregidor to a fleeing from Martial Law to 1970s Southern California to a turn of the century murder mystery. But I’m leaving novel writing, and mostly serious writing, aside for the moment to focus on being a funny geek trying to understand the world and his place in the world.

I do sometimes think about one day bagging some awards that might convince some people that I am a writer indeed. But I wonder if it’ll be my writing that changes, or the aesthetics of judging, or if magically these two things will just align perfectly. In the meantime, I’ll keep talking about the mundane and weird everyday experiences that I have, I’ll keep chronicling geekiness, and most importantly I’ll keep trying to make people laugh.

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