Writing and Fighting: Peter Bacho keeps a connection to his past

The Seattle Times
March 1, 1998
By Alex Tizon

LET’S BEGIN WITH HIS pickup truck. It’s green, it runs, its windshield wipers don’t squeak. Those are the nicest things you could say about it. Otherwise, it’s noteworthy only for what it contains in the cab, namely, a world. Peter Bacho’s world. A quick look-around will give you clues to everything you need to know about the man. Immediately, you might notice his world needs vacuuming.

The ashtray overflows with cigarette butts and ashes. He’s been smoking a lot lately, a result, he says, of being celibate (more on this later). Ashes have spilled onto mounds of paper on the seats — “my files” he says. Bacho’s a traveling lecturer on three college campuses between Seattle and Olympia; his truck is his office.

On the floor is a gym bag full of boxing gear. Next to it is “James Brown’s Greatest Hits” on cassette. And next to that is a raggedy copy of Bacho’s first novel, “Cebu,” which won him an American Book Award in 1992.

The award didn’t lead to fame and fortune, but did lead to a second book, “Dark Blue Suit,” a collection of short stories just released by University of Washington Press. Both books tell a different part of Filipino history, and both take place primarily in Seattle. With the release of “Dark Blue Suit,” some are calling Bacho one of the foremost living chroniclers of the Filipino American experience.

At the moment, this chronicler of experience is talking about the rigors of sleeping alone. He talks with one hand on the wheel. He’s on his way to a family gathering in the North End. A cigarette dangles from his lips. With or without a cigarette, he has a ventriloquist’s way of speaking, as if his teeth have been wired shut. The lips do all the work. He opens his mouth wide only to laugh, which he does often and raucously, mostly at his own jokes.

It’s hard to know what to expect from him at any given moment: He can be a bookish professor one minute, a foul-mouthed sailor the next. He’s 47, tall and thinly muscular, with black hair over a smooth brown face. He wears plastic-rimmed glasses from the 1970s. He slumps. Part of his charm comes from his complete lack of concern over appearances. He does not dress well, unless old sweatpants have come into vogue. He’s been having a bad-hair week. This, too, is related to his celibacy.

It’s like this: His wife of eight years, Winona, lives in Sacramento. She’s Native American and heavily involved in Indian issues in California. She, too, is immersed in learning about her culture. For now, their separate quests have led to separate living quarters. She remains the only woman in his life. Once a month, he says, he flies to Sacramento “for sex and a haircut,” in that order.

In the fourth week of the cycle, just before a trip south, Bacho’s hair starts getting lumpy. His nicotine intake increases dramatically. And the topic of sex comes up more and more, like fumes from a rumbling volcano. Much of what comes out of his mouth during this time cannot be printed in a family newspaper. Today, the fumes are hot and heavy. Smoke and ash fill the cab. Eruption seems imminent.

“Men are the simpler half of the species,” he says. “All we need to be happy is a dry place to park and a little (expletive deleted).” His laugh rumbles out.

Meanwhile, his truck putters down familiar streets.

A child of the Central District, Bacho is deeply local. The stories in his books are all Seattle stories, and yet many readers wouldn’t recognize the Seattle he depicts: a world of rough-hewn immigrant men and women from the Philippines, of Chinatown gamblers, prostitutes and prize-fighters, Alaskeros and zoot-suited union men, all stalking the darker quarters of the city.

His characters are based on the people of his childhood, the ones he’s going to visit now — “my family” he calls them. The truck crosses the Montlake Bridge. Just off 35th Avenue Northeast, he turns into Calvary Catholic Cemetery and parks the truck. He snuffs out his cigarette.

The lips move: “We’re here,” he says.

AT THE CEMETERY, Bacho puts a muzzle on his lusty celibate self. He becomes somber, thoughtful, a bereaved son. He knows the grounds well and proceeds to lead a tour of the dead.

“This is my Uncle Kikoy,” he says at the first stop, a gravestone with the name Quirico Daan. “He lived in Chinatown most of his life. He was a tough guy. A very good man. He died penniless.”

Farther down the way, in a brick mausoleum, his father and numerous other “Chinatown uncles” and compatriots rest in peace. They were mostly men, members of the “manong generation,” Filipinos who came to America in the 1920s and ’30s in pursuit of the mythic golden life.

“Manong” is a title of respect given to male elders. These men made up the first big wave of Filipino immigration to the U.S. Thousands used up their lives in the New World as migrant workers, and, like Uncle Kikoy, ended up in cheap hot-plate rooms in Chinatown, indigent and broken. Yet they did great things — “great” as measured by the number of obstacles they overcame. They came to an America that regarded them as unequivocally inferior. They were called “goo-goos” and “monkeys.”

They had come without women, so when they began seeking out the society of American women, laws were passed banning them from intermarrying. They were hounded and beaten by white workers who saw them as threats, and were jailed for trying to organize unions. More than a few were brutally killed in what today would be called hate crimes.

The manongs fought for every inch of ground gained. They fought to form a powerful cannery union. They joined their fellow oppressed in the fight for civil rights. They fought for the company of women. In the course of all this fighting, a good number became prize fighters, and a few became champions. The boxing ring was a natural extension of their lives.

Bacho himself is a fighter — partly out of respect for tradition, partly because it came in handy in the streets of the Central District. He has trained in Asian martial arts and American boxing for 30 years. When asked about the key to his toughness, he responded obliquely: “I can do things.”

Earlier in the week he sparred at a local gym. He did things. Provoking him would not be advisable. It’s possible. Bacho fights for the same reason he writes: to keep a connection to his forefathers. It’s a connection, he says, too many younger Filipino Americans — and young Americans in general — don’t bother to recognize. In the last story of “Dark Blue Suit,” he writes:

“The newcomers didn’t know what the old men had done, and, quite frankly, couldn’t care less. They wouldn’t see the connection between their own comfort and what others had struggled to build. They couldn’t see that the old men had heart and did the most with the least, and with a style they can never have and that I’ll never see again.”

It’s bad enough, Bacho says, that most historians ignore the presence of Filipinos in the American story, ignore the fact that Filipinos for a long time have been one of the largest Asian minorities in the country, and the largest in the state of Washington. Some 40,000 Filipinos live in the Puget Sound area alone. It’s deplorable, he says, that many Filipinos today know nothing about the people who paved the way for them.

He writes about the manongs so history won’t forget them, he says. Also because his own story is built upon theirs. His father, a manong migrant worker, had a fourth-grade education. His mother didn’t get beyond high school. Bacho spent some of his first years in farm camps. From this humble starting point, he has sprung to notable heights.

His abridged resume goes like this:

Graduated summa cum laude from Seattle University in 1971; earned law degree from the University of Washington in 1974; became assistant professor in Ethnic Studies at the UW in 1988; hired as staff attorney for Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1989; wrote editorials for the Christian Science Monitor until 1991; won the American Book Award for “Cebu” in 1992.

Now “Dark Blue Suit” is getting praise from the likes of Thomas Keneally (author of “Schindler’s List”), who calls the collection “a superb performance,” and Shawn Wong (author of “American Knees”), who calls it “an important link for teaching Asian-American literature.” Bacho’s books are used as texts in major universities from California to Virginia.

“God loves fools,” Bacho says of his success. You’d think he would drive a better car.

YOU DO NOT want to press this bad-car joke too much because, as suggested earlier, he can squash you with his pinky finger.

Mostly, though, it’s a joke among his friends. Bacho is as unself-conscious about his green pickup as he is about his highwater sweatpants. He doesn’t care. He’s driven by a different set of imperatives. Fancy cars don’t have a place in his realm of wants.

It’s another day. Bacho is in a third-floor suite at the SeaTac Doubletree Inn. He’s sitting up in bed, wearing shorts and a tank top, a cigarette clamped between his lips. He’s talking to us in his ventriloquist way, the cigarette bobbing as the words come out. This hotel holds special meaning for him, he says. He used to rendezvous with his wife here years ago. Now, once a year, he comes here by himself, takes off his clothes and – types.

With a small word processor, a pack of cigarettes and room service, he has everything he needs for a writing marathon. This is the way he works, he says, in binges — long, drawn-out, smoke-filled orgies.

Although much of what he writes is autobiographical, his writing voice does not reflect his demeanor. If the man is a slob, his prose is as clean as the surface of a new boxing glove: spare, smooth and nicely curved and quirky enough to be likable.

He’ll occasionally slip into History-channel mode, sometimes disrupting the narrative, but usually not. Accurate history is important to him. Bacho, like other writers of color, feels his art must also tell the story of his people. “The burden of the ethnic writer,” James Baldwin called it.

Yet the best of Bacho’s stories rise to a level beyond the specific story of Filipino manongs to tell of immigrants, dreamers, explorers everywhere. Ultimately, his work is about transplanted souls.

Like other writers, Bacho may have to work a long time in relative obscurity — national awards notwithstanding — followed only by a small clique of fans. It’s the kind of obscurity experienced by Amy Tan before “The Joy Luck Club,” by Terry McMillan before “Waiting to Exhale,” by Cormac McCarthy before “All The Pretty Horses.”

All it took was a breakthrough book, one piece of work that captured a portion of the public imagination, and — boom — they were stars whether they wanted to be or not. Bacho’s agent, Elizabeth Wales, is convinced her client has that potential.

His next book, she says, could have that breakthrough quality. Titled “Nelson’s Run,” about an American who tries to copulate his way through a Philippine island, Bacho is just finishing a revised draft. He says it will be a combination of John Updike’s “Rabbit Run” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” He says it will be “darkly comic.”

If money starts pouring in, he knows exactly what to do:

“I’d get a big-screen TV, a satellite dish with 200 channels, spend a thousand dollars on potato chips, and I won’t ever go out into society again.”

He laughs. That mouth of his can stretch to surprising proportions when it wants to.

If the big money never comes, he has other means. He’s a lawyer, for Pete’s sake. And universities up and down the West Coast have given him open invitations to teach. He’ll always get by, and he intends to keep writing no matter what. He writes, he says, because he needs to. Whether anyone reads what he writes isn’t his problem. It’s the anthem of the artist soul.

He reaches for another cigarette.

His most pressing need at the moment, outside of his writing, has less to do with his artist soul than with the geology of the body. The volcano is rumbling, and this native is restless.

“Do you want to know what I’d really like to do?” he says, cigarette bobbing, eyes glinting. He tells us. The fumes rise up. Ash spills over. He proceeds to talk about Sacramento, that land of sweet caresses. It’s the fourth week. The final countdown. And he really, really needs a haircut.