Dear Charlie and Jack ,

(I wrote this a while ago, back in October, and only now am getting the chance to share.)

I’m thinking of a popular song from my Girl Scout days. As I remember it, there were only two lines, each repeated three times like a prayer:

This little candlelight of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

This little candlelight of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

This little candlelight of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

 

All around the neighborhood, I’m gonna let it shine.

All around the neighborhood, I’m gonna let it shine.

All around the neighborhood, I’m gonna let it shine.

 

Let it shine, let it shine, all the time.

When we sang this song, we would stand in a circle with our candles. A child, somewhere in the circle, would light their candle and pass on the flame to the next child until all our candles were lit.

I started thinking of this song several weeks ago when a thousand copies of my Mama, Mama book arrived at our doorstep. Up until their arrival, the work that I knew I needed to do to spread the books was merely theoretical. Now…

Now I find myself up against a wall. My wall. My precious wall that allows me the luxury and privilege to choose not to see what I consider to be ugly and sad and trivial parts of the world so I could go on with writing, dancing, raising you boys, every once in a while date nighting with your Papa, and hanging out with like minded friends to whine about our high cholesterol counts. More importantly, my wall shields me from other people’s eyes. It doesn’t matter whether their gaze is friendly or not, whether it means to compliment or criticize. I’ve never liked drawing any kind of attention to myself.

For as long as I can remember, I have always had this wall. I am a very private person. I am slow to share my talents, and only when prodded by parents or other authority figures, or pressured by friends.

In dance classes I take the last row and, in my own little corner where I’m convinced that no one’s watching me, I dance up a storm and choreograph on the fly. When people ask me whether I’m a professional dancer or choreographer and I say no, they say I should be. I shrug their comments off.

Whenever I go to writing circles and somebody appreciates my work dealing about the Filipino experience in the diaspora, I dismiss it. People tell me I should write and get published. I shrug their comments off.

When I get my clients’ difficult immigration and bankruptcy cases resolved and my happy clients give me lumpia or suman to say thank you, my colleagues tell me I should “market that shit up!” I shrug their comments off.

“It’s nothing, no big deal,” I’d say.

I say the same thing now when friends tell me I’ve done a good job with publishing a trilingual children’s book, the first of its kind here in the US (that I know of).

A few months ago, I attended a federal government sponsored grant writing workshop specifically geared towards Asian American communities. One of the facilitators pointed out that we, as a community, don’t know how and tend not to self promote, self-laud. It seems that we are  too modest or we have been systemically conditioned to be silent over the years. Either way, as a result, the federal government does not see or hear us and we don’t get the resources we need to help us secure our seat in the American table. That our excessive modesty is costing us may have been the most important lesson I learned from that workshop.

I agonize about what I need to do as the Mama, Mama book’s author and founder of the small press. To get the books out means I have to put myself out there, as well. The mere prospect of stepping out exhausts and terrifies me. And yet…

I have to keep reminding myself that I first decided to forge ahead with this project because it bothered me that you, and other children of color like you, were not seeing your realities reflected on the books you read. I wanted you to have books that celebrated your being.

I didn’t realize it then but I do now that when I wrote the book, and later when I decided to create a small press after seeing the need for more children’s books that feature children of color, I was stepping out, past my walls, and joining the rest of the world. I was slowly, tentatively, making my way out, with my lit candle in my hand, activating my voice to join in the demands by communities of color for inclusion, not only in children’s books but also in the greater community.

I’d rather just write and be left alone, sure. But the truth is, what I write are protests and assertions of my community’s rights to being. If I don’t try to get the message heard, what’s the point of my writing/creating?

So here I am, singing a childhood song that finally makes sense to me after 30 years or so of marinating in my brain. My direction is clear: I have to toot my horn, shine bright like a rock star, dare say, “Yes, I wrote this awesome book. Buy it and help make the experiences of children of color count!” Because if I don’t, the hard work that the press and its supporters have put in to publishing this book- from writing the story, hiring and working with an illustrator, raising thousands of dollars, coordinating with the printer- would be for nothing. The books have to reach the hands of the many Fil-Am kids and children of color like you who desperately need to see yourselves and your experiences in the books you’re reading.

In this journey towards diversity and inclusion, there is much work to be done and everyone is needed. I no longer have the luxury of modesty, disengaging, and keeping to myself behind my precious wall. I accept the world’s offerings of beauty and pain and strife. I have to offer up mine.

Today, I answer the call to light my candle and shine. I likely have to burn my wall, too, but I’m okay with that.

Thank you for helping me grow.

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