The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
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The Asian Reporter's
TOO STUBBORN TO DUCK. Author Geronimo G. Tagatac near Zagoura, Morocco.
From The Asian Reporter, V16, #22 (May 30, 2006), page 13.
Vowed to see a million places
An interview with Salem author Geronimo G. Tagatac
I met literary fiction writer Geronimo Tagatac in a quiet Salem coffee shop. It was one of those Oregon April mornings, already agitated by contrary Pacific currents, radiant high-altitude flows stopped cold by an arctic low not quite ready to go. I met him way past 9:00am, our appointed meeting time. He had been there a while but there wasnít a hint of irritation on him, though there was nothing casual either. He seems a soldier. Soldatu. Prepared for our interview, but generous with his thoughts, relaxed with our time. A Filipino soldier, if you can imagine that.
Actually, I met Geronimo maybe a decade ago, it mightíve been in another little downtown Salem cafť. I probably asked right away about his mestizo features ó itís certainly important to get that stuff straight, right away, in our southeast corner of our precious planet. Essential to who we are.
The Salem author said his mother was a Russian Jew, his stepmom a Cajun from Happy Jack, Louisiana, and his pop shipped over from Ilocano Norte to work central Californiaís farms and orchards. We talked a lot. That comes easy once guys from our neighborhood get where each is. Many details about his childhood interest in story-telling, he shared freely. In fact, in his introduction to The Weight of the Sun, his recently released short story collection, Geronimo recalls the warm California night he and his farmworker father walked into a plowed field behind the small wooden house they rented from the Italian farm owner. "My father looked up at the star-filled sky and the black hills to the east. He told me about the time the ship carrying him and others from Manila anchored in Hong Kong, and how the lights of the houses on the side of the mountains were so many that he couldnít tell where they stopped and the stars began.
"Standing beside my father" Geronimo writes, "on that soft carpet of earth, I vowed to myself the someday I would see Hong Kongís crowded hills and night sky, and a million other places besides."
From fertile central California soil
For all that time and all that talk, I still know so very little about Geronimo Tagatac. For all those details I learned ó about his familyís ethnicity; about a boy raised on stoop-labor wages; about a young manís long year under monsoon rain, on his belly, between friendly and enemy lines, with U.S. Special Forces; about his ragged return to America and his wandering several continents before setting his mind to work on a B.A. then an M.A. and a Ph.D.; for all I know about how intensely he feels about his lovely teenage daughter ó I still know so very little about his life. Itís not for lack of listening; it may well be because there is just so much to tell. This man has taken his personal journey as far as his parentsí startled genes, as his fatherís yeoman persistence and sailorís longing, can possibly take a California farm boy.
In support of Geronimoís work, local best-selling Portland author and English professor Craig Lesley notes "sometimes a writer comes along with characters so beautifully portrayed and prose so clear and direct that my nerves pulse with energy." Thatís how much life a man whoís done so much living gives his art.
About becoming a writer, which must be about the same story as becoming a man, Geronimo recalls how as a boy he hung around the bunkhouse of unmarried Filipino farm workers. They talked about "the years they spent in the fields, in restaurant kitchens, in the ĎLittle Manilasí of Sacramento and Stockton, and in the taxi-dance halls.
"When I was fifteen, I began working in the summers in the same fields, and in the nearby prune and apricot orchards. Always, mixed in with the creak of ladders and the ring of hoes on earth, were the stories told by these men."
They must have been strong stories. The kind workingmen tell. Stories without subtle premises or ironic endings. Not the kind university MFA programs produce. Stories made from living too stubborn to duck. From living a lot.
This is what Geronimo Tagatac and his art are. The narrative voice in his fiction is solidly male, certain of that, and certain that will be plenty no matter the turns of plot.
Itís a cinch that Geronimo has packed a lot of life into his last half century. Often without much more than what fits in his rucksack. He has lived on Taiwan and in Hong Kong. He has travelled on the Chinese mainland, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines; Mexico, Morocco, Turkey, Western and Eastern Europe. He and his daughter recently wandered through England, Scotland, France, and Ireland.
All this is not to say that Geronimo, the writer, folk-singer, modern and jazz dancer, canít dig in. He has worked as a legislative consultant, a university instructor, a computer systems planner, a container ship cargo organizer, a dishwasher, fry cook, and roofer. Indeed, as long as Iíve known him, heís reported to a tidy ten-by-ten cubicle in a gray slab state office building. Eight to five.
Geronimo sat across from me, on the coffee shop couch. It seemed a comfortable slouch, but I sensed a hum in him, something like a coil-spring compressed. He is not at rest. When he gets up, heís agile and sharp, quite contrary to the apparent arithmetic between Viet Nam and now. He is no longer a young man, but heís still on the move. A kind of prowl, watchful as harimau.
Harimau (Malay): panther.
Mestizo (Spanish, Tagalog): mixed raza.
Soldatu (Indo patois): soldier.
* * *
From The Asian Reporter, V16, #22 (May 30, 2006), pages 13 & 16.
Not nasty or brutal, but tough
Collected short stories of Geronimo G. Tagatac
The Weight of the Sun and other stories
By Geronimo G. Tagatac
Ooligan Press, 2006
Parerback, 175 pages, $14.95
My Uncle Valeriano told me about a time when Augustine had backed the wheel of a tractor over some lettuce crates and, in front the other men, the boss had called him a stupid, slant-eyed, black, son-of-a-bitch Ö Augustineís face became like dark metal, like the thick coarse steel that goes into the heavy blades of bolo knives. That same afternoon, all of the lettuce leaves in the field began to turn brown at the edges. The next day the crop, all nineteen acres, had begun to wither and was useless. By the third day, the whole crop had been burned black, and the men who had to walk its dying rows spoke in whispers Ö"
ĎPlant disease, the boss had said.í
ĎAugustine,í said Valeriano, smiling.í"
So goes the quietly simmering core of a character and a short story named simply "Augustine." So too writes Salem author Geronimo Tagatac. Very male, very good.
Masculinity, or better yet, machismo ó not in that appalled or apologetic mainstream American sense, but in all those true down-to-the-bone ethnic male ways ó is a bit hard to find in fine literary fiction. Itís all over Mr. Tagatacís writing.
Not all of the authorís protagonists are quite so fiercely settled into their center of gravity. The Weight of the Sun, the authorís first published short story collection, sets out an expansive play of Filipino men. And this is also new. Sure, kick-butt (Bruce Lee) silent Asian types are terrific, and of course spineless props (Amy Tanís men) are plentiful in print and on the big screen, but Mr. Tagatacís passive cubicle-dwellers and his troubled combat vets, his straining body-builders and stubborn fieldworkers, are from a much more generous humanity. And it is intentional.
Fragrant lettuce fields to still office cubicles
This expansive masculinity is not only posited in his protagonists, but itís in the tone of the telling as well. Mr. Tagatacís tales are all told in first person, meaning that each storytellerís male voice rings with a strikingly different tone, timbre, and rhythm. Itís easy to forget there is only one writer behind all these carefully sculpted little worlds. "These voices and settings," the author says, "represent the growing complexity of Filipino Americans. Theyíre not your stereotypical Asian characters; theyíre office workers, backpackers, dancers, veterans."
Compare Augustineís clenched rage to an unnamed, solitary salaryman in "God of the Jackals." He waits evenings, until his office buildingís emptied, when his real life starts. After dusk. "I listen to the last sighs of the air in the ceiling vents and the soft creaks that come from deep in the buildingís structure. Itís the concrete, the steel, the air, and the ceiling tiles realigning themselves to compensate for the departures of all those people Ö I let my breath go shallow and listen for the brush of shoe soles on carpet. Nothing." Many of Mr. Tagatacís characters slip warily, as vigilant as a wiry jackal, away from his storiesí odd points of departure. They take us to unexpected places. To places "not nasty or brutal, but tough," as the author characterizes his own life.
According to Mr. Tagatac, most of the stories in this collection are about generations of the fictional Guerrero family, beginning about 1929 and bringing us roughly to present-day Salem, Oregon. This Filipino family turned out stoop-, blue-collar, and white-collar labor; they are college kids, ski bums, and Special Forces soldiers. "Some are broke and homeless; others are just plain lost." You can bet all of them are authentic.
Geronimo Tagatac is a deep writer, but, more to the point, a man of astonishing depth, earned no doubt through living with all his heart. And judging from the expansive emotional experience he delivers in The Weight of the Sun, a lot of that life has not been so pretty. Yet he does it, brings home these dense imaginative journeys, with trim narrative efficiency. Like our big suriya sun, so much mass but no weight.