Kaya Conversations: Zack Frial


By Aldric Ulep, Kaya Co. 2014 Fellow

Prior to the 2017 Kaya Co. Fellows‘ summer experiences, former fellow Aldric Ulep conducted an interview with Georgetown University student, Zack Frial. Zack created a collaborative record of Filipino/Diasporic Literature. It was created in February 2017 with 44 entries and rapidly grew to include 338 entries. In light of Filipino-American History Month, we share Zack’s growing document with you all.

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Zack is no stranger to books. His desk is constantly littered with titles ranging from Filipino Studies and Terrorist Assemblages to Queer Cinema in the World and Global Divas.

Currently a senior at Georgetown University studying Culture and Politics, or as he puts it, the “make-up-your-own” major, Zack’s theme of choice is “Decolonizing Gender and Sexuality,” and he studies the effects of colonialism on conceptions of race, gender, sexuality, and indigeneity. His forthcoming thesis will examine U.S. militarism in the Philippines and its relation to the sex industry, using the murder of trans woman Jennifer Laude as a case study.

Zack loves how he can incorporate his multiple identities into his studies. However, getting to this point has been quite the journey. Coming into his own Filipino identity in college, Zack initially felt hesitant to embrace his culture and seek community with other Filipinos.

Fast forward two years, he spearheads “Filipino/Diasporic Literature,” a compilation of creative works exploring the richness and diversity of the global Filipino community. These literary and academic books, memoirs, and collections of poetry and short stories offer a window into expressions of what it means to be Filipino—places for curious young minds to see their experiences reflected in print for the first time.

There was an incredible energy around this list when it first came out. It’s an elegant idea, a simple spreadsheet shared online around which the community can rally, and a space for fellow wanderers who are also coming into their own identities as pieces of the Philippine diaspora.

A conversation between two people was the seed for a reading list that, just two days later, would come to be viewed and shared by hundreds of people.  Zack and I talked about the project’s inception, the overwhelming response he received from the community, and lessons learned.

2017-10-10Click here to access the full list of Filipino/Diasporic Literature.

Great to be able to chat with you, Zack. It’s what, 10 p.m. in D.C.? Where did you just come from?

I just came from American University, where they were hosting Susan Quimpo, an activist in the Philippines. The event was pretty intense, as she shared stories of her brothers and sisters resisting and experiencing torture under the Marcos regime during martial law. She collected her family’s memoirs in a book called Subversive Lives.

I haven’t heard of her, I’ll definitely look her up. How’d you hear about this event?

I was invited to it by Angela Ng, one of the fellows for Kaya Co. this year.

Speaking of Kaya Co., how did you hear about us?

I heard it about it through my neighbor and friend Trixia Apiado! She just completed the Kaya Co. Summer Fellowship last summer, and she encouraged me (and a ton of others at Georgetown) to apply this year.  Though I was disappointed I didn’t get in, I was invited to join their Facebook group.  Everyone was posting their introductions and their stories, and I was eager to read every single one.

Could you tell me about your diaspora story?

Well, my parents came to the States when they were very young, my dad being two and my mom five. Both of their families started out in the Los Angeles area. Being so young, my parents didn’t retain a lot of the culture and couldn’t speak much to me about life in the Philippines. By the time I came along, they didn’t have much to pass on besides food really.

I grew up in south Orange County, near Irvine, where there are big Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Indian communities. But as for Filipinos, at my high school, I could pretty much count the number of Filipinos I knew on my fingers. I felt like the ones I knew were more engaged in their culture than I was. For example, they were born there or grew up speaking Tagalog, and I couldn’t relate to that experience at all.

When I got to Georgetown University, I was reluctant to reach out to Club Filipino.  I felt like there would be this expectation to be able to speak Tagalog, cook Filipino foods, or listen to OPM. Instead, I found my community in queer spaces and in Latinx spaces like Ballet Folklórico Mexicano de Georgetown.

Let’s talk about your spreadsheet.  Where does the story begin?

So it started out of this conversation with Rexy, who, surprise, I was introduced to by Trixia!  Rexy and I chatted over pho, and then somehow, we started talking about books and how there wasn’t a centralized place to look for books written by the Filipino diaspora.  So he encouraged me to start a list. In the Kaya Co. Facebook group, I remembered that Theresa Pasag had started a thread of books to read, and Justin Martin in particular contributed a ton.

Basically, I made a list of books that I knew, and added the ones from Theresa’s thread and Justin’s recommendations. I shared the list in a post on a Kaya Co. Facebook group and it spread big time! I mean, I met with Rexy on Monday, I made the spreadsheet public on Wednesday, and by Friday—

It blew up!

Yeah!

There must have been a lot of untapped interest around a list like this, and your list made a breakthrough.  It grew from just around 50 entries to nearly 300!  Do you know how many people viewed it?

I made a rough count, but unfortunately, I don’t have an exact number. Through Facebook and Google Drive, at least 273 shared the spreadsheet. Around 50 more were tagged in comments on people’s posts. And to think all of this within just two days.

I also remembered getting an email from UniPro [Pilipino American Unity for Progress]—I had never heard of them before this, but they’re a well-known Filipino-American non-profit based in New York—someone on their board of directors had emailed me that they would now be using my list as their official reading list!.
Wow, and each of those Facebook shares could have reached hundreds of people each, right, like a multiplier effect? Why do you think it’s spreading so quickly?

I was surprised that something like this didn’t exist already. I guess the book list revealed a hunger for this type of knowledge and connection in the greater community.

I was gonna say, there’s this connective and democratic aspect to it, where anyone can just click a link to participate and engage in gathering and generating this knowledge with others.

I’ve gotten like 30 new friends on Facebook, and at that event with Susan Quimpo earlier today, so many people were surprised to meet me in-person—I was like a mini-celebrity! I’m astounded to have affected people’s lives across the country, in D.C., California, New York, Hawaii. And to think it all from a simple spreadsheet!

What inspires you to do what you’re doing?

This ruse that I’m not Filipino enough, queer enough, or “x” enough has been a big driving force in my self-exploration and education, in exploring what I’m capable of and what opportunities are there for me.  How do they shape who I am? Who am I really? It’s this drive toward self-discovery that propels me to where I am today.

Nobody can tell me that I’m not Filipino enough. Our identities are always under question or being challenged, but your experience of being Filipino will always be completely different from mine.  This tension can cause conflicts but can also be positive in terms of curiosity and growth.  There’s always gonna be a search, and though it can be overwhelming, it can also be empowering.

Thank you so much Zack!

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.  To check out and contribute to the Filipino/Diasporic Literature spreadsheet, click here. Add a book, article, or film to the growing collection!

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