We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet: Letters to My Filipino-Athabascan Family by E. J. R. David
You know I’m a reader. You are too; you can spend hours looking at Richard Scarry books. You love inventing stories from the drawings.
I want to tell you about a book I just read. My favorite part of the book is a scene between the author, E.J.R. David, and his three-year-old daughter Kalaayan. Kalayaan, as you know, means “freedom” in Tagalog. As David is putting her to bed he says, “You ready to go night-night, pretty girl?” Kalayaan responds by putting her hands gently on his face and saying that she doesn’t want to be pretty girl anymore, she just wants to be Cool Kalayaan.
This small moment becomes a revelation for David. Thanks to Cool Kalayaan, who is only a year younger than you are, he realizes that inherited oppression can be resisted by the smallest of everyday acts.
One day when you are older, when you can process nuances about history, state violence and health, I hope you will read David’s book, We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet: Letters to My Filipino-Athabascan Family. I hope it will help you with some of the challenges you might face as a Filipino-Puerto Rican in America. I hope it will give you faith in the power of everyday acts of resistance.
Much of the book made me think of you. For example, David starts off his letter to his sons saying, “The two of you drive me nuts!” You know that you also drive me nuts.
David writes this with love, just as I love you unconditionally, even when you drive me nuts. In fact, David’s whole book is a series of love letters to his family urging a practice of unconditional love for themselves and for others—and for the self in others—as an antidote to centuries of state-sponsored hate against Filipinos and Native Americans.
The book opens with a conversation between David and his Inupiaq friend Pum—a friend so close to David that he was like a brother. Pum was shot and killed by a police officer while in his own home. This is the catalyst that drives the rest of the book, as David is moved to reflect on how he can better protect his own children, and how he can better raise them to end devastating cycles of violence.
David is Filipino American like you. He was raised in Barrows, Alaska, one of the northernmost towns in the United States, which has some parallels to how you are being raised in Seattle, one of the northernmost cities in the continental US. David married a Koyukon Athabascan woman, and his three children are what he calls “Eskipino” or “Filibascan”—mixed, similar to how you are mixed “Boricuapino” or “Filirican.”
Both David’s family and our family are affected on both sides by legacies of colonization. This means that our families live with the ongoing consequences of having our ancestral lands, our languages, our bodies, and many other aspects of our autonomy subjected to outside control.
David writes fearlessly about how we inherit legacies of trauma from this historical oppression. This is the trembling that James Baldwin wrote of, that David refers to in his title and then adapts to the post-colonial and neo-colonial experience of Filipino Americans and Native Americans throughout his book.
My son, do you remember how you startle when I raise my voice to call you from across the room? That is part of the trembling.
Also, part of the trembling: the social and health disparities experienced by Filipino and Native Americans. David, a professor of psychology, writes of the disproportionate rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, chronic disease, domestic violence, and criminalization (like the fatal criminalization faced by Pum) experienced by Filipino and Native American communities. He connects these afflictions to the “soul wound” of our ancestors, whose trauma from colonization was never allowed to heal.
This book is David’s latest gesture toward healing. He also wrote Brown Skin, White Minds, which goes into detail about colonial mentality and the therapeutic process of decolonization. In We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet, David explores how his own colonial mentality might affect his family and finds hope for healing historical trauma in the examples of his own children.
David makes plain how hard it is to raise kids in a way that ends cycles of oppression. He writes about how the weight of historical trauma can make parents feel both hypervigilant and also inadequate and weak. This has been a mirror for me, like seeing my reflection in water. My son, I hope that when you read this book, you’ll understand a bit more the choices I tried to make for you, and how I did not make them lightly.
David writes in a style reminiscent of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which I also hope you will read someday. He addresses not only his daughter Kalayaan, but also his sons Malakas and Kaluguran, whose names are Tagalog and Kapampangan words that mean strong and love. While Coates tackles racism and how enduring legacies of slavery, segregation and criminalization affect black bodies, David tackles racism and how legacies of colonialism, discrimination and criminalization affect brown bodies.
David makes specific connections between legacies of slavery and legacies of colonialism. He notes that race was used to forcibly remove African Americans, Native Americans, and Filipino Americans from their ancestral lands, all for the sake of building the American nation and empire. He highlights the continuing health and social disparities faced by all three communities as evidence of the continued trembling from trauma, and also talks about the strong connection to ancestors and deep resilience common to all three communities.
These connections are not often made in mainstream society; colonialism is a topic from which many of us turn away. Especially in Filipino communities, many of us dismiss this as the past, or celebrate the progress of colonization, or believe that discussing colonization means accepting victimization.
But my son, like David, I’m hoping you’ll have the strength to face up to this legacy of oppression. Because whether you acknowledge it or not, it has deeply affected your ancestors on both sides, and unless you face up to the trauma and “metabolize it,” as trauma therapist and author Resmaa Menaakem says, it could continue to affect you.
Though David doesn’t shy away from the pain of inherited trauma, at times modeling the relentlessness of oppression, his book is also filled with hope. Just the act of writing it is an act of hope. And how he writes it is an inspiration.
His writing is a model for how to think intersectionally as a cis-gendered brown man. He grapples with the internal conflict of being both a settler colonialist in America and a victim of colonization in the Philippines. He acknowledges both the oppression he faces due to both his brown skin and his immigrant accent, and also acknowledges his relative privilege as a man, as an American citizen, and as a non-black and non-Native person of color.
David’s writing is also a model for how to be vulnerable as a cis-gendered brown man. In the wake of his friend Pum’s murder, he admits to being scared in the face of racism; he admits feeling weak and paralyzed into inaction. He is brutally honest about the ways he has bent himself to assimilate to make himself more acceptable to mainstream white society. He acknowledges, bravely I think, that some of the “damage” of white supremacy and colonial mentality is permanent.
My son, to me, this vulnerability is not only refreshing, it is powerful. It is powerful to see the example of a cis-gendered heterosexual brown man bucking machismo and toxic masculinity. It is powerful to see him instead dwelling in the tender intersections of systemic social analysis and inner emotional life.
David models how to confront violence with thoughtfulness. He models how to care equally about the emotional lives of his sons as he does for his daughter. He models how to not just be a role model, but how to be an active nurturer in his family life.
My son, in our society we are familiar with the image of the revolutionary brown man who is almost superhuman in his capacity for militant resistance. What we are less exposed to is the image of the revolutionary brown man who is human, whose strength lies in his vulnerability, in his ability to be self-reflective, and in his capacity to face his own complicity in violence while also working actively to break cycles of oppression.
My son, one day I hope you’ll be able to identify with the thinking that David models in his book.
And when you do read We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet, I hope you’ll recognize it for the milestone that it is. With the exception of the work of Leny Strobel, I know of few other non-fiction books on historical trauma written from a Filipino American perspective. It is an important guide for how to talk about historical trauma from colonization, how to process it, and how to face up to it as part of ending the intergenerational transmission of historical oppression.
My son, maybe by now I have driven you nuts, with all my talking of historical trauma and isms and oppression. Let me just end in this way:
You never met your great-grandfather, the one who died fighting for Philippine freedom in World War II. I didn’t either, but his spirit walks with me, and I imagine that what he would say to you, if he could, is something very close to what E.J.R. David shares with his children, and with us, in this book.
My son, you are already a rebel and like to do the opposite of what I ask. So if you don’t read the book, I hope you’ll at least remember this: Remember the example of Cool Kalayaan and how she inspires resistance through everyday acts. And remember this wisdom, which David repeats in lyrical refrain: “Our ancestors have wounds that have not healed. We are connected to them in a very deep and real way, you can feel the pains, but you can also feel the joys.”
This review originally appeared in Slag Glass City, March 2019.
Jen Soriano is a writer and communications strategist based in Seattle. Her writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the Newfound Prose Prize; she writes to connect with Filipinx across the diaspora and can be found at her website jensoriano.net or on twitter @lionswrite and instagram @jensorianowrites.