In the early 1930’s, a time of economic turmoil and inequality, and a period of deep national tensions and divisions, Carlos Bulosan immigrated to the United States from the Philippines to find work as a migrant laborer. He was far from the first from his country to do so; indeed, there had been Filipino American communities since before there was a United States, dating back to the first fishing villages in mid-18th century Spanish Louisiana. But he came at a time of rising hostility and xenophobia toward his culture, and encountered much discrimination and oppression—along with anti-labor crackdowns, institutional racism, and police brutality—at every turn. Yet he not only persevered and triumphed, but wrote a unique, compelling, shattering, and deeply moving autobiographical novel based on his experiences.
That autobiographical novel is America is in the Heart (1946), and if I were to nominate one book that all Americans desperately need to read and discuss in 2017, I might well settle on Bulosan’s. It is perhaps sufficient to note, for example, that the most famous (self-identified) undocumented immigrant and spokesperson for that community is José Antonio Vargas, himself a Filipino American writer and activist. Or, for another example, I could highlight the racist and xenophobic laws that were directed at Filipino Americans in the 1930’s, culminating in the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act which limited Filipino immigration to the U.S. to the ludicrously small number of 50 persons per year. Or, for a third example, I might point to the ways in which Bulosan seeks solidarity with his fellow migrant laborers and impoverished Americans, only to encounter consistent racial and ethnic prejudice from white communities that should have been able to empathize entirely with his situation yet who see him instead as (as California Judge Sylvain Lazarus put it in ruling in favor of anti-miscegenation law directed at Filipino Americans) one of “these Filipinos, scarcely more than savages.”
In those and many other ways, Bulosan’s book feels ripped from the headlines, as if it could have been written and published in our 21st century moment with few if any substantive changes. Any literary work that can endure across seventy years and still speak to us and our society and culture so strongly is well worth our reading and response. Indeed, while ideas of the “classics” sometimes posit their timeless or universal qualities, I would argue that for an American book to endure, it has to include some engagements with American history and identity, ideals and realities, so that it is relevant to readers and communities at many different moments.
Yet though it is neither an autobiography nor a novel— but a combination of the two genres, it is not the same as a political essay or a public scholarly argument. And Bulosan, who would write enough poetry in the course of his lifetime to fill multiple posthumously published anthologies, infuses his book with a lyrical style, with poetic moments and images that both complement the social and political realities and brutalities he was experiencing, and offers his readers glimpses into a perspective and world far different from those darkest sides. America is in the Heart is as beautiful as it is terrifying, leaving its readers as inspired as we are chastened, and imagining a best version of ourselves while forcing us to confront many of the worst. For all those reasons, now more than ever, it is a book we should all read.