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January 16, 2008 > A poet tells his story

A poet tells his story

By Justine Yan

Oscar Penaranda was working at a fishing cannery in Alaska when he received a telegram from a friend. As a student at San Francisco State University, Penaranda had been an active participant of the 1968-1969 strike which eventually led to the creation of the first college Ethnic Studies department in the nation.

"My friend told me, 'We got our demands. Now they're looking for a teacher who's qualified to teach.'" Having recently earned a master's degree in Creative Writing, Penaranda accepted his new post and with fierce determination, paved the way for quality Filipino studies. He was the first president of the San Francisco Chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) and is a member of the Filipino American Educators Association of California (FAEAC) as well.

A few decades following his first tentative steps into this unexpected career, Penaranda is now a Tagalog teacher at James Logan High School in Union City. He understands that there is a "gap" for Filipino youth at the school and can help fill it; Penaranda also serves as advisor to the school's Filipino Youth Association.

Since he was a boy, Penaranda had aspired to become a role model. He recalled a conference with his high school counselor during which the man doubted Penaranda's ideas for a future career. "The counselor asked, 'So you want to be a navigator and sail around the world?' and told me, 'I don't think they do that anymore.' But I knew I'd be a writer."

Life changes provided Penaranda with plenty of material for writing. At age 12, he was uprooted from his childhood in the Philippines when his family moved to Canada. His last year of high school was spent at St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco. During summers, he found work on farms, in Las Vegas as hotel help and picked a variety of fruits in the fields of California. "When I got home I asked my friends what I missed," he related. "And they said, 'You're back! You didn't miss much.'"

With a love for reading, Penaranda found that he could understand Shakespearean plays far better than his peers who had been immersed in Western culture all their lives. At 15 years of age, he realized that many "truths" conveyed in literature are universal, and poetry must be read with heart. Penaranda said that although classic novels were usually set in Europe, he enjoyed all types of literature including those which illustrated Asian American, Latin American, and African American experiences. Today, he feels students should be exposed to literature written by a wide spectrum of people. "It's not taught, and it's a shame it's not taught. Society would benefit from each and every one of our stories."

Looking back, Penaranda realizes that his process of adapting to new environments and moving on in life trained him to survive, often as an outsider. "The changes in my life helped me develop and grow intellectually - because I had to sift things out - and emotionally, because I had to forgo certain things..."

He acquired new perspectives and, if necessary, let them go, while remaining true and honest to lessons of individual failure. "I try to portray personal failures as honestly as I can, but I also admire these people, because we all fail," he said.

As a student, he never sat at the front of the classroom, and the seat nearest the door was always his favorite. He chuckled when he admitted his tendency to "stay on the edge" of the crowd at parties as well.

Literature opened Penaranda's eyes. Books honed his vision for careful observation of the world. He's always loved stories and soon began to write about the little things that often go unnoticed or are belittled in our society. In 2005, Oscar won the Global Filipino Literary Award in Fiction; his works have appeared in several Asian American anthologies: "Screaming Monkeys," "Aiiiieee!" and "Flips." Penaranda has also published a book of poetry called Full Deck (Jokers Playing).

Penaranda fondly mentions friends who have approached him and said, "Wow, you're a writer? You should write about my life." He believes that many people think their lives are fantastic, but these are not the things he writes about in his poems and stories. His poetry is a tribute to desire and loss, dreams and hopes, personal and cultural identity, and the long stretch of road between today and tomorrow. Many have described his style as evocative and resonating. They are at first simple and pure, but at second glance, multi-layered. It is difficult for Penaranda to describe his own style, except by saying that he hopes his writing may be understood by people from all walks of life.

"Don't use too many words," was all he said about the process of writing his poems. And when something has been written, the best thing is to "let it go."

To this day, Oscar Penaranda continues to treasure the memories of growing up in three communities and observing his environment while envisioning a promising future.

When asked about his impact on society, he replied, "My presence. Wherever I go, they hear me tell stories and read poems."

Penaranda doesn't need to shout to be heard. This poet, storyteller, and activist has learned to listen and watch while standing tall and speaking through his art to a world where there are always things to be done.

"You can't deny the power of a writer," said Penaranda. "You [as a writer] don't know your own power."

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