By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Filipino American writer and teacher Peter Bacho, a longtime resident of the Pacific Northwest, won the American Book Award for his first novel “Cebu.” The novel was published in 1991. In the wake of “Leaving Yesler,” his recently-published sixth book and first young adult novel, he took a few questions from Northwest Asian Weekly.
When you wrote “Cebu,” which aspects of the Filipino American experience concerned you the most?
It was mostly an American focus, although not one that was blind to the Philippine setting. In the 1970s and 1980s, I was there often, writing on Philippine politics for The Christian Science Monitor and other national publications. It was a hot and very dangerous time, even more so than now.
After 1968, when more immigrants came to cities like Seattle, I was aware that even though we, as American-born members of an established Pinoy (Filipino) community, were in some sense similar to the new immigrants, we really didn’t understand them. Nor did they understand us or our history. Certainly, my [“Cebu”] character Ben Lucero didn’t understand them. I thought that the common religion — Roman Catholicism — would be an ideal prism to explore these vast differences in culture.
How surprised were you to win the American Book Award for “Cebu”?
I was surprised and pleased, obviously. Just by being on the list, it means you have written something important. It’s an addition or a challenge to the canon of American arts and letters.
Please describe your childhood and formative writing experiences.
[My childhood was] initially migrant and then working class. My dad’s life, at first, was seasonal — the crops, then salmon canning, then the crops again. It was a tough way to live. Like a lot of other Pinoys from that era, I was raised in Seattle’s Central Area, which was then, at least, a great place to grow up. I formed friendships with other Pinoys and young people from all ethnic groups. Commemorating that place and time and community has been a major focus of my work. It was a great and very effective community.
There are a lot more Filipinos now, but I’m not sure they have the same powerful bonds — that same sense of community, that we are all in this together — that we did as youngsters coming of age in the 1960s.
Which writers gave you inspiration for your own work, and how?
Bienvenido Santos was one of my favorites. His writing possesses elegance, a poetic quality that’s just lovely. Plus, his way of organizing short stories really helped with my own collection, “Dark Blue Suit,” which did very well, at least critically.
You’ve published novels, nonfiction, and a collection of short stories. How does your approach to writing differ from one type to another?
I try to become a different writer each time. For example, “Cebu” is written in third person omniscient.
Much of “Dark Blue Suit” is in first person. I think that I change as a writer every time I set out to do a project. Of the difference between fiction and nonfiction, there’s no doubt that fiction is by far the greater challenge because it places on the writer the burden of creating universes and populating them with characters over whom the writer has complete control.
You just published your first novel for young adult readers, “Leaving Yesler.” Do you take a dramatically different approach to fiction and writing for a younger audience?
It freed me to become a kid, to think like a 16-year-old again. It freed me to use kid humor. I was writing for the kids — not adult editors or reviewers — because young teens are the ones that must grapple with these issues of identity, sexuality, masculinity, etc. Plus, there’s a very powerful anti-war theme here — and why not? It’s the teenagers that are asked to clean up the messes made by adult leaders. In Vietnam, for example — boy soldiers — is there anything more obscene? Why not expose them to the world and get them to critically think about this screwed up realm they are about to enter?
What about the Pacific Northwest intrigues you the most?
Its physical beauty. Its memories, especially of that historic community that my family and I were a part of.
Seattle was the home of the [labor] union, which, over time, changed affiliations. Its best known name is ILWU Local 37. The union was militant and tough — and full of memorable characters, like Chris Mensalvas, the communist president who led Local 37 during the McCarthy Era. Imagine that. The union and Chris defied McCarthy and survived — a lesson for me and anyone else who pays attention. It was also important because it gave my dad’s generation a chance to earn enough to eventually stop being migrant workers.
What are the greatest rewards and greatest challenges of teaching writing to young people?
Seeing them grow and have a greater sense of the artistic standards — and how to apply them.
How has your approach to teaching changed over the years?
It always changes. After more than 30 years in the classroom, I am still looking for ways to become a more effective, more challenging teacher. Teaching remains a passion. ♦
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.