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Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart meditates on the place of Filipino writers within American literature. In America Is in the Heart, there are two “types” of writers that are presented: “American writers” and “Filipino writers.” Carlos Bulosan characterizes “American writers” as ones who emphasize hope and “Filipino writers” as ones who emphasize anger in order to demonstrate the effect of extreme social and legal discrimination against Filipino men. Because Filipino men like Carlos were treated so unkindly by America when they arrived, they often became consumed with hate. The figure of the angry Filipino writer is a caricature of the ill-treated men who often retreated into scorn towards America, its people, and its apparent hopelessness.
The “Filipino writers” that Carlos Bulosan introduces in America Is in the Heart all share a deep-rooted anger and hopelessness. While walking on Canon Perdido Street with Marian, Carlos meets a Filipino bus boy who tells him, “I’ll be the greatest Filipino novelist in my time!” (216). Carlos explains, “His urge to write was spurred by hate. I recalled another lonely Filipino writer who had committed suicide, and I felt sorry for Florencio. I knew that he would destroy himself like Estevan, who had jumped from the window of his hotel when starvation had reached his mind” (216). Carlos compares Florencio and Estevan to comment on their shared impetus to write. Florencio writes because of hate; his response to the injustice that is dealt to him is to mediate his anger through writing. By juxtaposing the two Filipino writers, Carlos explicitly links hate with destruction. He describes the moment that Estevan comes undone as when “starvation had reached his mind”; as malnutrition starves the body, Carlos indicates that hate starves the mind.
If Florencio and Estevan represent one type of Filipino writer that responds to injustice with anger, Marian urges Carlos to respond with love. Before Marian dies, she requests of him, “promise me not to hate. But love – love everything good and clean” and leaves him with money to attend school (219). Throughout their time together, Marian is constantly telling Carlos to go to school; therefore, education and writing becomes one avenue through which he can “love everything good and clean.” Carlos maintains the countenance that Marian longs for him to express during his time in the hospital. By reading the American authors that Eileen provides him, Carlos feels “that I was at home with the young American writers and poets. Reading them drove me back to the roots of American literature – to Walt Whitman and the tumult of his time. And from him, from his passionate dream of an American equality for all races, a tremendous idea burned my conscious. Would it be possible for an immigrant like me to become a part of the American dream?” (239). Carlos explains that one function of literature is to evoke empathy from its reader. Carlos feels at “home” with young American writers and poets because they speak of issues that affect people across different generations and continents. He is particularly affected by texts written during the civil rights era because he recognizes versions of his experiences within them.
This democratization of writing makes Carlos contemplate his ability to impact the American dream, specifically through literature. Dora Tavers tells Carlos, “ ‘Write more poems . . . I don’t care if you are a communist or not. I like your music. I think you will be a great American poet.’ I was glad. I felt inspired. Yes, there was music in me, and it was stirring to be born” (224). It is noteworthy that Dora tells Carlos that she believes he can be a great American poet because she minimizes his concerns that his race will bar him from writing. For a person who is constantly reading biographies of specifically Filipino and Asian writers to discover how minorities can overcome the barriers to publishing, it is verily significant that Dora tells him that he does not have to stay within a subordinate class of authors because he is Filipino. Writing, then, opens the possibility of becoming part of the American dream. But unlike Florencio and Estevan, who write due to anger, Carlos establishes an ephemeral and delicate connotation in his writing. Both Dora and Carlos describe it as musical; instead of being inspired by hate, Carlos is compelled to write poetry after feeling “a slight tug at my heart” as he watches Dora sleep. This type of inspiration allows his writing to serve as a mechanism for self-invention and autonomy, as a way of expressing something “stirring to be born.”
In America Is in the Heart, Carlos Bulosan presents a dichotomy of writers. It appears that there are “American writers” who write out of love and “Filipino writers” who write out of hatred. It seems that Filipino writers are only capable of writing from a place of anger because doing so is the expected response of a person who has been treated horribly by a country’s laws and people. Carlos, however, demonstrates that through encouragement and counsel from people who care, it is possible to overcome hatred with love. He finally becomes an “American writer” and all that the term embodies.
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