Among the requirements of the “Young Adult” – or “YA” – category of “juvenile literature” are that there be an older teenage protagonist; and that sex, drug use and language be strictly limited.
So, why is the “m__f__” word there in Peter Bacho’s new YA novel, “Leaving Yesler”?
“For the most part, I refrain from graphic expletives – kiddies’ young eyes and such,” Bacho said. “But, an occasional expletive realistically reflected the setting, which isn’t Broadmoor.”
Bacho, author of the award-winning novel “Cebu” (1991) and the short-story collection “Dark Blue Suit and Other Stories” (1997) initiated himself into the YA world with the publication of “Leaving Yesler” last March. He said he thought writing for the YA genre “would be fun.”
“The more I thought about it – a Filipino American novel without a Filipino protagonist, at least not biologically – I think it also reflected the mores of this community, and why I love it so much, where culture – Filipino American, or Pinoy – trumps racial or linguistic purity. Most of my peers are mixes of some kind or another.”
“Leaving Yesler” is set in Seattle in 1968. Seventeen-year-old Bobby Vicente lives alone with his Filipino father, Antonio, in the Yesler Terrace low-income housing project. The reason: Bobby’s mother, Eula, a multiracial former beauty, has recently died from stomach cancer. So has older brother Paulie, killed in action while serving in Vietnam. Paulie was Bobby’s protector in the tough projects with a “bloody reputation as a chest-pounding brute.”
Just short of graduating from high school, Bobby, the more sensitive, artistic and good-looking of Antonio’s sons, is pulled out of school by his father. He blames the school for the inferior education that resulted in Paulie’s unwillingness to enter community college, thus allowing him to be drafted. Antonio, part of the turn-of-the-century Filipino immigrant or manong generation, escaped from the back-breaking migrant workers’ life by becoming a professional boxer; he is now a spent man who still loves his wife and is nearing the end of his life. Bobby’s strongest bond with Antonio is the simple but tasty meals he cooks for his father (with the cooking described in detail).
Antonio’s goal for Bobby is for him to do what brother Paulie didn’t: enter community college and escape the draft. Still needing to earn his GED, Bobby is then pulled in the multiple directions of adolescent emotions and questions, not the least of which is, How does a “pretty boy” survive in the tough ‘hood?
Bobby undergoes a few salvations. Encouraged by his father and his manong friends, Bobby puts on the gloves and becomes a boxer with promising potential. At Seattle Community College, he meets Deena, a Persian/Spanish looker who runs Bobby through a turbulent lesson in what love is and isn’t.
Then there are the family issues, the missing pieces in the Vicente family history that will resolve Bobby’s obsessive questions about his own identity and origins. Coming to Bobby’s rescue are the ghosts of his mother, brother and 1st century Christian saint Polycarp who help Bobby navigate the terrain of the surreal – “the erasure of the line between life and death.”
Employing elements of the literary tradition of “magical realism” in which spirits become major players in a story, Bacho added that, also, “Filipino life is full of ghosts, full of that sort of realism.”
And of all ghosts, why St. Polycarp?
“Paulie and Polycarp – why not?” Bacho said. “I got to be silly writing YA – thinking what it would be like to be 17 again.”
Despite some cerebral stretches that slow the plot’s momentum and some absurd ghostly antics, the novel’s strength is its re-creation of time and place, and at its evocative best with the portrayal of the manong generation – “… he’d never seen his father – or any older Filipino man he knew – run. Or even walk briskly.”
In “Leaving Yesler,” Bacho, 59, incorporates his own life experiences, including his upbringing in the Roman Catholic Church – a common experience among members of the Filipino American community.
“Yeah, almost from cradle to grave,” Bacho said, “thanks to my mom who can telephone Jesus collect. I am no longer practicing [Roman Catholicism], but the ethical lessons stay with me. Can’t help it.”
The story also includes detailed descriptions of boxing technique.
“[I] started as a teen, in conjunction with being part of the old Bruce Lee School,” he said. “Bruce was big into boxing, thought it was realistic. In my 20s, we picked up the pace, where boxing became part of the training curriculum. We had our own gym, ring, heavy bags. We sparred hard: knockdowns, bloody noses, one broken nose, as I recall. We boxed other guys from other clubs. It was mostly gym-rat level …”
And then there was the military draft, a constant reality for any male teenager during the late ‘60s. Bacho attended Seattle’s O’Dea High School and planned on going to college.
“I thought I wouldn’t last, and then what? Draft meat, right?” he said. He then enlisted if assured of a non-infantry assignment, and took his physical on his 18th birthday.
“And this nice, blonde-haired Army reserve doctor took a look at the form and saw that I had written that I had asthma,” Bacho said. “And he looks at me and says, ‘That means if you go to a hot, dusty place, there’s a chance your asthma might act up.’ I didn’t reply because I wasn’t sure what to say. Then he asks me again. And I finally catch on. In his own way, he’s trying to save me from a war that makes no sense.”
Currently a teacher of writing, literature, foreign policy and environmental policy and law at the Tacoma Branch of The Evergreen State College, Bacho said “Leaving Yesler” can be considered as “an antiwar novel that also critiques the hypermasculinity that was so much a part of my peer group.”
“I figure kids should know these things because they are the ones that have to clean up the messes that adult leaders – like LBJ [President Johnson] – created. I tried to get my readers to make judgments about Vietnam, and why not? There are more of them on the horizon, and it’s their butts that will be on the line.”