Seeing My Filipino Immigrant Self in Ellison’s “Invisible Man”

I wanted to learn about Black oppression, only to discover my own erasure

Photo by Erick Zajac on Unsplash

As a Filipino American immigrant, I’ve been aware of my invisibility from the time I set foot in the United States. I perceived it when coworkers looked past me, when store clerks and waiters talked to my white companions instead of me, and when editors and literary agents told me Filipino stories were unsellable. 

Assertiveness became my armor, and adaptability, my best weapon. When people ignored me, I redoubled my efforts to be heard and seen. At work, I didn’t wait around to be noticed, but presented my ideas proactively. In hotels and restaurants, I spoke directly to people who were not inclined to wait on me. As a novelist, I set aside my unmarketable Filipino stories and “adapted” by publishing romance books about white characters. 

I thought I only needed to work harder to gain visibility. It took Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to pierce my armor and dismantle my weapon. In the novel’s opening paragraph, Ellison’s nameless Black hero says: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” This line alone brought tears to my eyes. Ellison tells it like it is, and it hurt.

I was moved to read Invisible Man after George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police in May 2020. I read books by Black authors to help me understand their experience better. Ellison’s novel depicts one African American’s struggles against racial injustice in post-World War II America. It’s about the journey of the titular Invisible Man from the South to New York City, and his encounters with racism along the way.

Since I’m not Black, I didn’t expect Ellison to speak to me with the force of a spiritual awakening. The experience of Filipino Americans is inherently different from that of Blacks or other people of color. The United States colonized the Philippines in 1898 as an offshoot of the Spanish-American War. The first wave of Filipino immigrants arrived in this country between 1906 and 1935, back when the United States ruled the Philippines as a colony. Filipino immigrants worked in sugar and pineapple plantations in Hawaii, as well as in California farms. 

Since I’m not Black, I didn’t expect Ellison to speak to me with the force of a spiritual awakening.

Filipinos came with a unique status as U.S. nationals, but their legal standing didn’t protect them from racial discrimination and injustice. Businesses banned them with warnings such as this: “Positively No Filipinos Allowed.” For five days in January 1930, white mobs terrorized and assaulted Filipinos in Watsonville, California. Fermin Tobera, a Filipino immigrant, was killed in the riots. His murder remains unsolved today.

My people have endured racism for sure, but unlike African Americans, we can’t claim to suffer from the effects of 246 years of institutionalized slavery. In reading Ellison’s novel, I was looking for enlightenment about Blacks, which I got and then some. He gave me the gift of existential reckoning.

I was amazed at how eloquently Ellison spoke to my immigrant experience almost seven decades after his book’s publication. Invisible Man toppled my misbegotten notion that I can make myself visible in spite of this country’s systemic racism through hard work alone. Worse, my unrelenting “adaptability” unwittingly worsened my invisibility over the years. I just didn’t realize it until now.

In Ellison’s book, the hero tries to be adaptable too. He follows the conventional path to middle-class success by pursuing higher education. He manages to get a scholarship to a state college for Blacks after winning a bizarre, blindfolded boxing match in front of his town’s leading white citizens, but gets expelled for exposing one of the college’s founders to the harshness of Black life. After moving to Harlem, he gets a job as a spokesman for an organization called The Brotherhood through the strength of his oration, except that the leadership eventually tells him that his job is not to think, but to do and say as the Brotherhood dictates. The protagonist realizes the Brotherhood only cares about power, not justice.

Invisible Man toppled my misbegotten notion that I can make myself visible in spite of this country’s systemic racism through hard work alone.

Just like Ellison’s protagonist, I took the traditional path offered by higher education to enter a space of visibility. It opened doors for me and gave me a professional identity as a journalist, and later on, as a marketing writer. I didn’t have to engage in a “battle royal” boxing match, but I won a spot in a competitive minority internship program as a graduate student. The internship led to a news writing job, which in turn led to other writing jobs in corporate America. I felt lucky to secure well-paid positions in companies where I was one of the few people of color and often the sole Filipino American. If visibility is like stepping into the spotlight on a stage, then I was in the wings catching the glare of the light. 

I was comfortable in my place, until I started writing fiction. All of my novels focused on Filipino and Filipino American characters. For eighteen years, I wrote and submitted doggedly. I even managed to sign with two literary agents, first Black and then white. Both tried but failed to sell my manuscripts. The verdict: my novels were not viable because of the subject matter (Philippines, Filipino Americans) and the genre (literary fiction, historical fiction). It’s a fatal combination.

In 2013, my desperation led me to a eureka moment. What if I write a “sellable” novel? What if I write about white characters in a commercial genre? Without knowing what everyone knows today—that 76 percent of mainstream publishing gatekeepers are white—common sense told me that white equals publishing viability. I decided to write a white romance novel. 

For four months, I wrote the book with the intensity of a woman climbing Mount Everest as the final act of her life. The result was a short novel about a blue-collar boxer, a beautiful doctor, and their knockout romance. Not an iota of my Filipino background leaked into my novel. I used a pen name in my unagented submissions.

I touted my experience as a reinvention of my writing career, and advised other writers to be similarly ‘adaptable.’

Within five months, a publisher acquired my novel. Twelve months after acquisition, In His Corner was published under my pen name Vina Arno. It brought me neither riches nor renown, but it gave me a bona fide publishing breakthrough. My old assumption that working hard and blending in will make me visible seemed spot-on.  In an article I wrote for Forbes, I touted my experience as a reinvention of my writing career, and advised other writers to be similarly “adaptable.” 

Publication boosted my morale, enough to make me pick up one of my unsellable Filipino manuscripts and give it another try. In 2018, I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference and mustered the courage to pitch my historical novel, My MacArthur to a publisher. The book is about Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s scandalous interracial love affair with Isabel Rosario Cooper, a Filipino actress, in the 1930s.

Two months after my pitch, Sand Hill Review Press (SHRP) acquired my novel. At the same time, my second white romance book was acquired by another publisher. I’m certain SHRP didn’t acquire My MacArthur because of my obscure romance novel, but it probably lent me credibility that made me more viable than unpublished writers.

That year, two of my novels were published, one after the other. Only one carried my real name and depicted a Filipino protagonist. But together they kept me in the wings of visibility. I was finally getting published.

It took Ellison’s book to open my eyes that my romance novels did not make me visible. On the contrary, they worsened my invisibility. I sacrificed my truth just to be seen, even though my first romance book barely sold enough copies to keep it available today, while the second book flopped outright so the publisher withdrew it from the market two years after publication. Both books represented a missed opportunity to tell meaningful stories that could help shape a Filipino American narrative I could identify with. Like Ellison’s protagonist, I acquired a new name but I remained nameless. I bought into the commercial “ideology” of publishing at the expense of my identity as a Filipino American. The real value of my romance novels lies in keeping my hope alive, so I may persist in writing Filipino stories.  

If only I had read Ellison years before, I could have avoided contributing to my own problem. But in food as in literature, you are what you consume. Growing up in the Philippines, my American-style education fed me white literature. Books written by African Americans and people of color were simply outside of my literary exposure. 

The Filipino educational system is a product of U.S. colonialism. American soldiers opened schools in the Philippines as soon as they took over from the Spaniards in 1898. For more than 300 years, the Spaniards withheld the proper teaching of Spanish language to keep Filipinos ignorant, and therefore, subservient. The Americans did exactly the opposite. Teaching Filipinos their language helped them win Filipino acceptance and made Filipinos abide more willingly. Given their motive in teaching Filipinos, the educational system they molded promoted only the dominant American culture.

It’s no wonder that my own education taught me only about white Americans. Invisible Man was published in 1952 to great acclaim, and won the National Book Award in 1953, but I never heard of Ellison while I lived in the Philippines. My required readings as a student in Manila included J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea

I bought into the commercial ‘ideology’ of publishing at the expense of my identity as a Filipino American.

If only my so-called “American” education  covered the depth and breadth of American culture—and included literature written by Blacks, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and other people of color—it might have prepared me better for my struggles as an immigrant in America.

At the end of Invisible Man, the hero falls through a manhole and into a coal cellar while fleeing from a race riot. It saves him from the violence aboveground, but it also traps him in the darkness below. He chooses to stay underground as a form of hibernation. “I’m invisible, not blind,” he declares. “No indeed, the world is just as concrete, ornery, vile and sublimely wonderful as before, only now I better understand my relation to it and it to me.”

But the Invisible Man isn’t hibernating for long. “I’m shaking off the old skin,” he adds. “I’m coming out, no less invisible without it but coming out nevertheless.”

Thanks to Ellison’s novel, I’m also shaking off my old skin of naiveté in the guise of adaptability. Self-awareness is my new armor, perseverance, my preferred weapon. I’m no more visible than before, but at least, I know better than to write another white romance novel. 

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