Filipinx American Spotlight: Interview with AJ Joven
AJ Joven is an artist and activist working out of Southern California. Inspired by Christ, his work on social justice intersects with the type of art he likes to create - whether essays, poetry, or music. All photos on his site, Fake Plastic Drafts, are his original work. Find Joven on Patreon for prose and poetry once a month.
In your biography (on your personal website www.fakeplasticdrafts.com) we read that you are “inspired by Christ”. What is the story here?
Well, I’m a practicing Catholic. I was raised in the faith, and that’s a thing that is probably one of the easiest through-lines in what motivates how I see justice and the work that I do. It is a complicated relationship, of course. Because there’s a difference, I think, between how I’ve come to receive the faith and how I see the work practically being expressed via various institutions. Add in the natural tension - at least within me - to wrestle with fundamental questions of ethics and faith and, well, it can sometimes be a bit fraught. Ultimately, I’m here because of a truth that I cannot deny. But, my deep lament is that some people who practice my faith unfortunately do not see people from marginalized communities in a way that I believe Christ would: which is with wholeness and with love. It is a difficult path to weave at times, but I believe it is the right one for me.
You are also an activist, an immigrant rights advocate. Can you tell us, what do you see when you look back at the last 5 years of American politics conjuncture?
The last five years have been quite difficult, and I wish there was a way I could say that without it feeling like I’m still grasping at words to appropriately talk about the scale and scope of it all. I’d say that there’s a lot in the past five years that people could point to as examples of various barriers to justice that exist. I think that we as a community have a lot of work to do and am grateful for those of us that I’ve met who are interested in building a more just world.
You’ve also been writing for a sports blog, but your work often takes on the tone of more literary writing. Why is that? Can you tell about your sports writer life?
Ah…this is a great question! I think mostly that it’s because I’ve always loved literary writing. It’s the style of writing that I crave, and even when it comes to things that are maybe more journalistic, I am attracted to writers who adapt literary techniques and affect. Some of my favorite sports writers tend to write in ways that are more literary, or at the very least, less journalistic in tone. I suppose that you write what you’ve read and if that’s the case then I owe a lot to the likes of Ralph Wiley, Bill Simmons, and Shea Serrano.
Do you think that world literature is missing Filipino works because of lack of translation/marketing?
I’m not at all involved in publishing, so I don’t know that I have insight on what’s causing this lack of attention on work from Filipinos/Fil-Ams. But as a Filipino immigrant raised in America, my experience would say that a literary culture that has kind of bought into the idea of a “western canon” as being better or more important or more accessible/universal shoulders at least some of the blame. Art and gatekeeping have always existed, I imagine. And despite the advent of the internet and self-publishing, we know that even when people are actively searching for writers from marginalized spaces, that work is still both hard to come by and often considered niche. I’m not sure how to break that system, but I believe that representation in world literature isn’t going to improve until we can all have frank conversations about gatekeeping and media.
Do you think that magazines play an important role in a poet’s/artist’s publishing career? Do you have a dream journal?
Yes! My favorite contemporary poets are all poets whose work I first happened upon in journals and magazines. And I still find it so wonderfully thrilling to make my way through a magazine like The Atlantic or America (a Catholic publication run by Jesuits) and see poetry featured. It shows that there is both an appetite for this form of writing in the world and that there are people who feel compelled to publish it. That’s a good thing!
How do you define being Filipinx American for yourself?
Wow…this is a bit of a fraught question! I immigrated to South Los Angeles (shout out Hawthorne!) when I was 5 years old and the community that we moved into was predominantly Black and Latinx. That’s not to say we didn’t have other Filipino families or families from other API communities - we did. But it wasn’t the Filipino enclave that a place like Carson, Rancho Cucamonga, or Cerritos are. If we wanted Filipino food, we’d all pile into the car on the weekends and drive about 20 minutes - without traffic - to Carson for a taste of home. So, I wasn’t raised in the sort of typically Fil-Am (or what I understood were typically Fil-Am) traditions. That caused a bit of angst in me. And knowing that when I finally went back to the Philippines to visit - almost 15 years since having immigrated to the US - that I was considered American, well, that only inflamed that sense of dislocation. I’d lost the ability to speak my language. I had never tried to read in Tagalog. As a writer, that’s a difficult thing to know - that the medium I’m most comfortable in expressing my thoughts is unavailable to me in my native tongue. So, because of that, I think I found myself very confused. Ultimately, though, I guess the thing I think is that I’m Filipino and Fil-Am because I am. I was born of and on and in the Philippines. My family’s home maybe wasn’t like every other Filipino home but it was a Filipino home. And being confident in that has helped. I’ve also been much more intentional about reaching out and making connections with my people and culture. I’ve always loved Filipino food over all others and so I’ve maintained that first by continuing to seek out Filipino restaurants and then learning how to copy my mom’s cooking. It’s not perfect and I know I’ve probably made some changes myself to some of the dishes to suit my taste, but that’s kind of how culture evolves. Lastly, I’ve been trying to force myself to speak more in Tagalog. The ability is there. I know this because when I go back I can at least piece things together. So, I’m just gonna try and re-learn cause I’d like that for myself. But perhaps the most important thing in my journey is back away from categorizing what a Filipinx is. Like, sure, we’ll have things that are maybe broadly agreed upon as a people, but just looking at the fun (and rather passionate) discourse on tocino vs longanisa on Fil-Am twitter reminds me that we’re not a monolith. And that’s ok, too!
What would you change about the mainstream perception of Filipinx Americans?
I think a thing I’d like to divorce ourselves form is the model minority myth - the idea that we specifically and API’s broadly - are a model for advancement despite the obstacles that plague ethnic minorities. First, it’s simply not true, with Fil-Ams often facing worse socio-economic outcomes than their East Asian contemporaries. It also upholds white supremacist and xenophobic talking points while preventing solidarity with our Black and Latinx community members in the struggle for liberation. And that solidarity is so important because I firmly believe that what community means is that no one gets left behind. If we truly believe that - if we truly honor the notion that everyone deserves justice and to live a life that is better than just surviving - then we must recognize that our liberation is bound up in theirs as much as theirs is in ours. Earlier we talked about how my faith impacts my work or worldview and that last sentiment is a prime part of being a practicing Catholic: that we are all accountable to each other.
How would you encourage more involvement of Filipinx American with politics/events in the Philippines?
For me, it’s about trying to stay in touch with my extended family back home. I’m admittedly not great at this, but I am trying to be more intentional. When that happens, I know I’m more apt to check in on news reports from the Philippines. I’ve slowly started finding outlets that seem to provide information that is from the ground and not necessarily just talking points that might be providing the line of a government that I don’t trust. I would also recommend seeking out Fil-Am organizations like NAFCON or Anakbayan who are active in social justice issues and serve as a link between Fil-Ams and the Philippines.
Being Filipinx enough is a concern shared with many Filipinx Americans. Do you feel this? If so, how do you combat this feeling of inadequacy?
I did feel this! As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s all a journey but one that maybe started with reminding myself that I am Filipino. That’s a truth. And I think that if we sort of center ourselves in that, then the aspects of culture that maybe we don’t quit fit into or don’t necessarily have mastery over are less important than the anchor of the knowing that truth.
What do you know about your family history?
Unfortunately, not that much. My experience is a bit like that child-of-immigrants trope wherein the parents don’t talk that often about their experiences back home. I can’t say, though, it was all on my parents; I know that I shoulder some of that blame. I’m trying to rectify that now - both by confirming stories that I remember hearing while growing up and asking my mom whenever she visits with us to tell me more about my family and her experience in the Philippines. It’s important to me that I be able to pass these things down to my daughter as she grows up.
Do you speak a Filipinx language? If so, which one? Does this knowledge influence your work?
I don’t speak any languages fluently, though I’ve decided to begin practicing Tagalog to get my speaking back up to snuff. I was raised in it and used to speak it fluently but have lost that ability because I never practiced at home. I can still understand it fluently, though. Am hopeful that dedicated immersion in it can help me.
What are your thoughts on learning a Filipinx language as a Filipinx American? Is it necessary to you? Why or why not?
I find it important for me, personally, because my passion is in communicating. I know that, of course, communication/expression isn’t limited to language. But I dream of one day being able to communicate in Tagalog, with confidence, with my family members back home. I think that it might help to bridge the gap or distance that I sense - even if that perception exists only within me.
Do you feel obligated to talk about the Filipinx American experience because you are Fil-Am? Why or why not?
No, I don’t. Or, at least, that I do not feel compelled to address things from a Fil-Am framework as a means of communicating my Fil-Am-ness. I think that all of the things that I communicate cannot help but be filtered through the lens of my specific Fil-Am experience. So, I just sense that the most authentic expression I can provide is one that is necessarily Fil-Am. Like, it’s not being compelled as much as it just naturally occurring…if that makes sense.
When did you first realize your affinity for poetry? What is your “origin” story?
I think my love for poetry begins with my love for music. I’ve always been entranced by songs that involve strong literary work in the lyrics - whether that be via strong narrative sense or wordplay. Think of the lyrics of writers like Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, Adele, and Iron & Wine. Lyric writing was my entry point to poetic writing and I think it is, perhaps, the form I wish I could write in most. Balancing melody and tempo are all such difficult things for me to hold in my head. My hope is that while my personal style isn’t necessarily as adorned as others, it does display some of the characteristics of the type of writing I am generally drawn to: musical, pleasing to the ear, and packed with something to say. I don’t know how often I hit the mark, but that’s where I start.
Which is your favorite genre to read? Which is your favorite to write?
Whew. Wow…how much time do you have? I love so many things across genres. I think the themes that draw me in are stories or pieces that center voices we don’t often hear, that feature a seeking of truth, and generally serves to question presumed truths that run against an ethic of inclusivity. The technical or literary markers of work that I love involve a strong sense of imagery, direct and courageous language, and a sense of musicality - especially in poetry, but I also love building rhythm into prose work, such as essays. In terms of writing, I love to work in poetry and in essay writing. My essays sometimes blend memoir, pop culture critique/analysis, and social commentary. In terms of poetry, I enjoy writing about things that have current relevance, but I’ve recently found joy in challenging myself to write in forms that I am not always comfortable in. I am generally a writer that bends form to fit the expression - which is maybe grating for some? I’m not sure lol. I presume it might be! But I’ve been trying to teach myself the technical aspects of writing in a form so that I can learn the feel of these forms.
Do you feel like your poetry falls under a certain category, such as experimental, contemporary, etc.? If you could have your work associated with another poet, who would it be and why?
Honestly, I don’t think I’m studied enough as a poet to declare the style of my poetry fitting into any type of designation and would defer to those more knowledgeable than me to classify me. In terms of the poets I’d love to be grouped among, the likes of Eve Ewing, José Olivarez, and Hanif Abdurraqib are people who influence my writing. I am constantly chasing the ways in which they play and mold language to declare the humanity of their communities into existence; to force people to reckon with the wholeness of the communities they speak from. I would hope that, if I were successful, I’d be doing something similar for my people.
Do you participate in spoken word/slam poetry? If so, where can we find your performances? How is writing spoken word different from ‘traditional’ poetry?
I don’t…yet. I hope to get out and perform some of my poetry at some point but have not had the time as the working father to a toddler. I also would like to study this form of performance a bit more. That being said, having had a background in music and performance, I feel like this would be a fun, new art form from which to express myself. I’m looking forward to doing this at some point!
When writing poetry, do you write from emotion? What usually inspires you? When putting together a chapbook/collection of poetry, what do you keep in mind? How do you keep it a cohesive piece of work?
I am a deeply emotional writer. Meaning, I do tend to write from a space that is an expression of some deep, emotional moment. What I’ve had to learn, though, is that I don’t need to be in an emotional state to write. I guess the closest approximation I can make to it is how an actor might draw from a well of past experiences to place themselves in the emotional space to properly perform a specific character: you might bring yourself there for that moment or that performance, but you don’t have to inhabit that space entirely to perform. Additionally, you don’t have to only work when you’re in that headspace - that the writing can only happen during a moment of deep personal upheaval. That lesson was a hard one, because otherwise I could not write when I was happy - when life was generally satisfying. Learning to write as a discipline - not necessarily a daily task of putting pen to paper, per se, but rather a regular dedication to the process of writing - has helped to provide me with the lessons I needed to be able to write across the entire emotional spectrum and not merely when it feels like I’m going through something difficult or intense.
What are your methods for overcoming ‘writer’s block’? What do you do when you can’t seem to find inspiration?
I allow myself to find other ways to be literary or “write” without putting pen to paper. One of the most important things I’d heard was Glen Hansard - a musician and one of my favorite lyricists - speak on a podcast (I believe it was You Made it Weird) about his writing process. He essentially said that the act of writing is more than just getting the words on the page; that the life you’re living is an act of writing if you are attuned to it. I took that to mean that since we write from our experience, I should be ok with allowing myself to know when the well’s gone dry and to simply reflect on where my life is. Also, to be so locked into the moment that we may be able to see opportunities in future stories as they’re coming. Hansard said something to the effect of the daily things we do - a ride on a bus, a walk in the park, a quiet moment with the ones we love - are all aspects of writing. So, it’s ok if words don’t happen right then, just be aware that you’re collecting stories even if you’re not writing them down. That being said, I would say that, once I’ve gotten to the point of collecting stories, it’s important for me to at least write down the ideas for me to return to. Because my memory isn’t always the best and in order for me to accept the gifts of The Muse, I’ve got to put them somewhere. Perhaps I’m not able to draft the essay or poem or short story right then. Well, I take a note and make sure I have it to return to if and when I’m able. I’ve found this all works well for me.
Are there any immediate events or publications that you have coming up that you want the readers to know about?
I’m very excited to have two poems appear in Dryland Literary Magazine - a publication in South Los Angeles. It is so meaningful as someone raised in Hawthorne - a neighborhood in South LA - to be featured in a magazine like this. The poems will be published this year, 2020, in their 5th Anniversary edition. I’ve also recently launched my Patreon at patreon.com/ajjovenwrites and am very excited at being able to have another space for my writing to be housed.
Interview conducted by Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu, who is the Interview Editor for Marías at Sampaguitas. She is an author from Turkey, enthusiastic traveler, Feminist activist, and Mother of four cats and countless animals all over the world. Full-time resident in Georgia, escaped from the oppression in Turkey. Has 5 published books in Turkish. For further information: www.nazlikarabiyikoglu.com.