Bulosan Descendant: ‘Took me 50 years to read all of Carlos’ books’
NEW YORK – R. Sonny Sampayan shares vicarious memories of celebrated Asian American writer Carlos Bulosan, the granduncle he never met.
TF: Exactly how are you related to Carlos Bulosan?
RSS: My paternal grandfather, Marcos Sampayan, and Carlos’ mother, Meteria, were siblings. So, it’s Carlos Sampayan Bulosan.
And you never met.
No. Carlos died in 1956, I was born in 1957. According to my dad and my uncle Lorenzo – in Binalonan, Pangasinan, Lorenzo and Carlos were just one year apart. When they were kids they basically grew up together. They were very close, and Lorenzo told me a lot of stories about Carlos. He told me Carlos was so “maitim” (dark-skinned), and when they were kids, he liked boxing a lot, and my uncle said he had an outstanding left hook.
Tell me about Josephine Patrick. This episode sounds like Jose Rizal and Josephine Bracken to me.
She was the longtime girlfriend of Bulosan when he moved to Seattle. She was a Quaker, and the group did a lot of work among immigrants and foreigners. That’s how they met in 1952; he died in 1956. Josephine was already madly in love with Carlos from all the poetry that had been published. Carlos went from L.A. to Seattle and basically Carlos and Josephine hitched up. They had made a pact: I will write to you and you write me back every single day.
Why didn’t they get married?
She was married. Plus, at the time you couldn’t just marry an American, and Carlos never had the money. He was a one-day millionaire. When he got all his writing money he’d spend it all in one day.
What did they write to each other about?
Whatever was in his mind, whatever he read in the newspapers, anything. They wrote to each other every single day of their lives. Then for two or three days, there was no letter. Turns out a friend and Carlos went drinking and he fell ill, so they took him to a hospital. When they learned he was Carlos Bulosan, they tried to revive him, but it was too late.
The only time he missed writing her a letter, when he died.
She donated his letters to the University of Washington Library. She had a son, Tim, who looked up to Carlos. Josephine died in Spokane many years later.
Did you say Carlos has two brothers and one sister, Escolastica?
There were I believe seven of them, but only three came to the U.S. I met Escolastica when I went home to Binalonan. She had a story to tell. She said she never benefited from his writings, not a single centavo. She was trying to understand who benefited?
How extensive is the Bulosan memorabilia?
The UWL has them all on tape, I would love to listen to them. They gave a copy to Josephine and I don’t know where those tapes are nowadays.
Much of your information came from your father, your uncle Lorenzo, Escolastica and Josephine?
Are Fil-Ams aware of who Bulosan was?
In 2004, John Liu, who was then a councilman, had City Hall declare Nov. 2 Carlos Bulosan Day in New York. I was told by some people that in California, Carlos Bulosan is part of the course in Asian American Studies. I’m hoping it is not just concentrated in California, but also elsewhere in the United States. Carlos is part of our history so it should be taught in American universities.
Have you read all his books?
It took me 50 years to read all of them because every time I read his books it’s an emotional reading for me. America is in the Heart is now in CD. If not for that I wouldn’t have finished the book. It’s too much for me.
Is there a sense of regret that your paths did not cross?
When I came to the U.S. my father told me, “Hey, maybe one of these days you can help me find his grave.” I posted something on the Internet about trying to find my uncle’s gravesite, and one person responded. She said your uncle is buried in Seattle, in Queen Anne Hill. I called my dad just to let him know I found the gravesite and wanted to ask when he wanted to see it. That same morning that I called him, I was told my dad suffered a massive stroke. (Pauses, wipes a tear)
I’m so sorry, Sonny.
There’s an original manuscript of Bulosan that I bid on in Ebay. It’s called Freedom from Want. He was commissioned by Roosevelt to write it. It was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943. It says: Text by Carlos Bulosan, Painting by Norman Rockwell. The manuscript was signed by Norman Rockwell. I bid a hundred dollars, I figured nobody’s gonna get this. I finally won, but I was under a lot of stress because I didn’t know how much money I had. The final bid was close to a thousand dollars.
Who put it up for bidding?
I can’t remember.
Did Lorenzo finally track down Carlos?
Word is that Carlos was either in L.A. or Santa Barbara or Paso Robles or in between. From San Francisco, Lorenzo went to L.A. He went to the LAPD, carrying with him the Saturday Evening Post copy of Freedom from Want. He went to the desk sergeant and asked, “Can you help me find my uncle. His name is Carlos Bulosan.” The policeman said, “Oh, Carlos Bulosan is your uncle?” He was told: Go up one block this way, ring the desk and go up six floors and that’s where Carlos is. And before Lorenzo left, the desk sergeant said, “By the way your uncle is a communist.”
What was the meeting like?
The way Lorenzo described him, whatever Carlos was doing he concentrates on and shuts out the whole world. His window was blackened with paper or something. There was no light coming in in his apartment hotel. There were trash papers all over. Carlos would write on napkins, wrapping paper, anywhere. As a matter of fact, when he wrote, he had a jug of cheap wine beside him. He was like, “I’ve been busy, had no money. It’s hard to send money home.” Carlos’ plan was to bring Josephine to Binalonan.
R. Sonny Sampayan, a retired U.S. Air Force KC-135 boom operator, works at the BNP Paribas Bank. He lives in Queens with his wife Edith.