Frankie Concepcion was born in the Phillipines and currently lives in Somerville, MA. She has written essays for The Toast, Vagabond City Lit and TheRappler.com among others, and poetry for such places as Straylight Literary Magazine, The Fat Cat Review and Literary Orphans. She is also the founder of GUNITA, an online collective for Filipino artists. This is her website.
Fem: Tell us about GUNITA. What space did you feel like it was filling and how has it evolved?
Frankie Conception: I started GUNITA because I wanted Filipinos to have a safe and encouraging space to think about our identities and current events going on in our country. In the U.S. there are so many opportunities to do exactly that, be it on the internet, in schools, or organizations where people can get together and just talk about what they’re seeing on the news, in their communities. But there aren’t many spaces to do that in the Philippines. So I wanted GUNITA to be a jumping off point, a springboard where people can talk about and explore issues that matter to them and be inspired to do something about it.
That’s not to say that free speech is in any way at risk in the Philippines. Lord knows we love our social media and we use it talk about any little thing. But for Filipinos, there is a strong correlation between intellectualism and elitism, due to our colonial past. So sometimes people are afraid to talk about issues they are passionate about for fear of seeming elitist or ‘westernized’. On the other hand, where there are efforts to talk about social issues, often that’s all it is—talk. I wanted GUNITA to be more accessible than that. It’s made for people to be able to submit their thoughts in any form, be it poetry, prose, art, or videos. I wanted to start a dialogue, as opposed to telling people what to think.
GUNITA is actually still a very new project—just a few months old—so my goals for it are ambitious and constantly changing. One of the big projects I was hoping to launch this summer was an online-based nonfiction workshop where writers can learn how to tackle social issues in their writing. I would also like to create a way for like-minded artists and writers to find others who are willing to collaborate on projects.
Ultimately, I want GUNITA to be a community based on art, passion, and social awareness. It is a mindset that’s growing, especially among Filipino youth, and I would love to be a part of that. It’s a way for us to rewrite our stories and take control of the future of our country.
F: In your essay “Between Culture and America” for Vagabond City Lit , you talk about coming to the United States as an immigrant from the Philippines and feeling like feminism is a “Western” issue. Why do you think it felt that way, and how has that changed over the years?
FC: I think it was less that I saw it initially as a western issue, and more that it was presented to me from an American, and mostly white, perspective. I began to think about feminism more seriously as a result of a Gender Studies class in undergrad, and a lot of what was being said resonated with me. But many of the statistics were still mostly about American women, and when other cultures were mentioned, there was a lot of mixing up which country was which and not caring if the facts about these countries were false or inaccurate. And as a Filipino in America, I had seen how easily my country could be misrepresented and how much impact that had on my interactions with people. It made me defensive of my country to the point where I didn’t even want to talk about women’s issues in the Philippines for fear of being seen as a victim! Writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, who recently won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer, spoke in an interview about how many minorities “think of our communities as defined by our victimization.” Like him, I too would like to break that narrative.
So after that class, I found myself needing a kind of feminism that cared about my culture and my country. I think much of that was simply an internal journey of seeing what aligned with the Philippines I knew—its history, its poverty, my own experiences as a woman and that of my female friends and family. It’s a constant process, but its also important to understand the difference between ‘cultural norms’ and societal expectations which were harmful and oppressive towards women. Sometimes the two are one and the same, and you need to be willing to accept that.
F: I was also struck in that same essay by the importance of finding a community with other Asian women living in America. How important do you think community, and finding others with similar experiences, is to feminism?
FC: The community which I refer to in my essay was found very recently. So before then, I had already been thinking and writing about feminism for years. I think the most valuable thing my community has given me is the ability to push and strive for things I never thought possible. They’ve motivated me to do more for myself and for others, because now I understand that what I do actually affects people like them. Like me.
As international students who have only been living in the U.S. for a few years, it is also really valuable to have a community where you feel safe asking questions and making mistakes. I feel like there’s a lot of debate in the social justice community on whether or not you should be responsible for educating others. But in this case, it was nice for all of us to learn together. There are things which are more taboo in the U.S. than in other countries. For example, even mentioning someone’s race can be construed as offensive. But with these people, it was ok to ask each other dumb questions about our cultures, because we knew it wasn’t done out of spite. You get a feel for perspectives which you might not have known even existed.
Likewise, I think the value of community with regards to feminism is in its capacity for learning. After all, we don’t want to just pander to people who already agree with us and know what we’re talking about. The goal is to invite people to see from our perspective and possibly convince them to make even small changes in their own lives. I feel like I do have some responsibility to make change, and to do so by influencing how other people think. Because if not, then what is it all really for?
F: In your essay for The Toast, “From America, With Love, Dating as a New Immigrant,” you talk about what it feels like to be fetishized as an Asian woman. Do you feel as an Asian woman like sometimes men are interested in you only for your race?
FC: I think that it is something that definitely happens to a lot of Asian women. I also think I may have dodged that bullet very narrowly in some of my relationships. But I have that privilege because I live and work in a liberal college town and I try to surround myself with people who are good about that stuff.
I don’t really know how to talk about this experience broadly. Love and relationships are such personal experiences that you can only ever really speak for yourself. As an Asian woman who has been living in the U.S. for a relatively short amount of time, I am especially wary of pretending I know what it’s like to be an Asian-American, i.e. someone who was born here or spent most of their life here. It’s something I think about a lot. I don’t understand the experienced of being othered in your own country because as a non-citizen in the U.S., well, I am an other! So it is a lot less jarring to me when people are interested in my country or my culture. After traveling halfway around the world, I like to think I earned that ‘interesting’ badge, haha.
What I have experienced is people displaying less active racism (no one really wants to be ‘that guy’ anymore) and more unconscious, uncontested racism. I haven’t dated anyone who was outwardly interested in me for solely my race, but there have been many experiences with men who didn’t know exactly how to approach it? If that makes sense? I love talking about my culture and my country, but I fully expect a partner to do their own research, and when necessary, be an ally in breaking down any misconceptions or stereotypes about my country. Race should not be the center of our relationship, but it is important to be aware of how it changes our experience and dynamic.
F: In that same essay, you write, “As an Asian woman, I find that I am often asked to second-guess myself; to forgive and understand others before I am allowed to defend myself.” Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by that? In what ways are you asked to second-guess yourself, and how does that shape your experience?
FC: Nicole Chung from The Toast wrote a really wonderful essay on casual racism which pretty much says everything I want to say on this topic. I honestly am trying to think of what more I could add to it, but it’s just so perfect that I’m going to leave it at that.
F: Which writers are you most excited about right now?
FC: I have been doing some research on the effects of World War II on the Philippines for a short story or novel, so I’ve slowly been working my way through The Pacific Crucible by Ian W. Toll. It’s a nonfiction book, but his writing is so exquisite and well-paced that you don’t even care that he spent like 100 pages on the first three hours after Pearl Harbor. When I need a fiction break, I read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, whom I mentioned previously, and it thrills me to have such a nuanced representation of a Southeast Asian community. I also appreciate it because it addresses the effects of war and western interference on the psyche, economy, and societal structure of an entire country. Not many people know that Manila was the second most devastated Allied city from World War II. So as a people, we understand what it feels like to feel like you have no control over the future of your country.
Finally, I am excited to see where Nicole Chung and Mallory Ortberg from The Toast end up once the website shuts down. The Toast holds a special place in my heart, I was thrilled to be published on it, and I am deeply sad to see it go. But I’m going to stay positive and hope that this means better things are coming in the future!