Author, poet, and worker: The world of Carlos Bulosan

Andrew Hedden November 5, 2014 0
Bulosan, 1951. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, POR1438.

Bulosan, 1951. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, POR1438.

Today, Carlos Bulosan is a central figure in Filipino American history. His book America is in the Heart is a staple in American Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies classes. His words and image appear in murals and exhibits throughout Seattle’s International District. Scholars, artists and activists continue to look to Carlos for inspiration. So it’s easy to forget how many factors conspired to silence Bulosan and ensure his words and deeds would never be known. It is thanks to the hard work of various progressive labor, ethnic, cultural, and political communities—the same communities that inspired and sustained Bulosan—that we remember him today.

A new exhibit at the University of Washington Libraries, “Author, Poet and Worker: The World of Carlos Bulosan,” profiles Bulosan and the many overlapping communities he was a part of. As a labor organizer and a self-consciously radical writer, deeply interested in anti-colonial political struggles on-going in the Philippines, Bulosan was hounded by the FBI. Blacklisted, often in poor health, and unable to work, he lived much of his life in poverty. But a large circle of friends, including radical activists and authors, members of the cannery workers union, ILWU, Local 37, and others, supported him, recognized the importance of his contributions, and made his work possible.

The Manuscript Committee hunted down copies of Carlos Bulosan’s work after his passing. • Courtesy Photo

The Manuscript Committee hunted down copies of Carlos Bulosan’s work after his passing. • Courtesy Photo

Throughout his life, Bulosan was lackadaisical about retaining copies of his work. Moving from hotel to hotel or sleeping on friends’ couches, especially in his later years, he often simply had nowhere to keep it. Much of his poetry was written into his letters and correspondence. Whole manuscripts were left to friends for safe-keeping or sent to prospective publishers and never returned. In the years after Bulosan’s passing, a group of his friends formed a Manuscript Committee, hunting down copies of his work by placing appeals in union circulars and local newspapers and writing to his former publishers (the FBI, continuing to surveil Bulosan even in death, took notice and clipped the Committee’s appeal from The Seattle Times to place in his file). The papers collected by the Manuscript Committee ultimately made their way to the University of Washington Special Collections, where they remain preserved to this day.

The exhibit “Author, Poet, and Worker” draws on Bulosan’s papers, as well as those of his friends and associates, to place his life in the larger contexts of Seattle, the West Coast, and the world. The exhibit begins with the American occupation of the Philippines, which shaped Bulosan’s high school education and led to his ultimate arrival in Seattle in 1930. It traces his harrowing years in the Great Depression, his involvement in radical left-wing labor and literary circles, to his breakthrough success as a best-selling novelist during World War II. Then the exhibit moves on to Seattle, where Bulosan spent the last half-decade of his life until his untimely passing in 1956. Here the exhibit shows Bulosan’s work for the Filipino cannery workers union, his growing concern with Philippine anti-colonial struggles, and the larger radical community of friends and comrades that sustained him. The exhibit also displays selections from his extensive FBI file. Finally, the exhibit illustrates Bulosan’s legacy, taking a look at the many people who have been inspired by his words and deeds.

The exhibit opens November 7, 2014 and runs until March 13, 2015. It is located in the University of Washington Special Collections Lobby, located in the basement of Allen Library South on the University’s Seattle campus. An opening reception, sponsored by the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, Region 37, will take place Friday, November 14 from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. in the Husky Union Building (HUB), Room 145.

The “Author, Poet, and Worker: The World of Carlos Bulosan” exhibit opens November 7 . • Courtesy Photo

The “Author, Poet, and Worker: The World of Carlos Bulosan” exhibit opens November 7 . • Courtesy Photo

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