Peter Bacho has written several books during his career. His nonfiction book Boxing in Black and White (Holt) made the Children’s Center for Books Best Books List in 1999. He has also won an American Book Award (for Cebu, 2006), a Washington Governor’s Writers Award (for A Dark Blue Suit, 1998), and The Murray Morgan Prize (also for A Dark Blue Suit). Cebu was listed as one of the top 100 books written by a University of Washington (affiliated) writer over the past century. Bacho has been praised as a “major voice in contemporary literature” (Tom Howard), with a “strong, steady style” (Kathleen Alcala), and a “disarming… sense of humanity” (Thomas Keneally). Bacho teaches at The Evergreen State College, Tacoma Campus, in Washington State.

Peter bacho
Leaving Yesler
Peter Bacho
ISBN: 978-1-929355-57-0 Price: $16 (trade paperback) * 285 pages Tentative Publication Date: 15 March 2010

Leaving Yesler features a sensitive, mixed race (Puerto Rican and black) protagonist (Bobby). Bobby’s life is difficult – in short order, he lost his mom to cancer and his older protective brother to Vietnam. His Filipino stepfather is old and not long for the world. The plot, which takes place in the politically tumultuous year of 1968, follows him from his last days in the Yesler Terrace housing project in Seattle to just short of his first day in college. Not only must he survive the dangers within the projects, he must also come to terms with questions about his ethnic identity and his sexuality.

The novel is set within the literary realm of magical realism. The ghosts of Bobby’s mother and older brother continuously reappear to comfort and advise him. It could be classified as Young Adult, although it is clearly not limited to such an audience. Essentially, this is a coming-of-age novel set in an urban environment, and it deals with serious issues in a young man’s growth and development.

"Seattle was different then, in period in between cutting down big trees and making airplanes and becoming the affluent coffee and software capital of the world. In Bobby's time you have to figure out a way out of the world in which you live--do time in Vietnam like his brother, go to college, or simply fight your way up the ladder. At some point in Bobby's life he discovers what the word heroic means even if you find yourself in the wrong war or the wrong neighborhood. Peter Bacho doesn't let readers forget what it meant in that in between time just before we became what and who we are today and how a young man learns compassion
and humanity." – Shawn Wong


From ForeWord Magazine (March 2010):

            Leaving Yesler encounters seventeen year-old Bobby Vincente in the wake of his older brother’s military death; faced with the challenge of caring for his aging father, this young man from urban Seattle’s housing projects is forced to take control of his life and identity as he traverses a period of life-altering change marked by new interests, new challenges, and ultimately, new life.

Author Peter Bacho, a two-time winner of the American Book Award, explores themes of belief/disbelief, arrival/departure, and love/violence, through which he achieves a portrait of embodied strength in his protagonist. Bobby Vincente is sensitive, faithful, and determined not to be defined or limited by anyone other than himself. This struggle takes him to the boxing ring, where his physicality is awakened; to community college, where he studies in hope of passing the GED and avoiding the draft. Out of Bobby's sexual and emotional growth emerges a great capacity for forgiveness, a penchant for cooking, and a deep commitment to family.

Bacho accentuates Bobby’s stressful mental state by making use of a narrative style that is blunt and interrogative. He creates a stream of constant self-definition and re-definition that rides up along the emotional highs of love, success, and pride and down through the lows of rejection, loss, and shame, while also opening the story to a host of literal spirits. These ghosts, the majority Bobby’s deceased relatives or neighbours, coax and provoke him to learn more about himself and about the kind of person he wants to be. Paulie Vincente, protector and tormentor of his younger sibling in life, continues to influence his brother by appearing and speaking to him even at the most inopportune moments. Readers will get the sense that there is a mission here, and Bobby’s growth as a character owes a great deal to his flat-out acceptance of these apparitional lessons as a part of a larger reality.

Though the novel takes place during the Vietnam War, this tale of a mixed race, impoverished, and soon-to-be orphaned American rings true to a contemporary setting. A critique of organized Christianity also weaves throughout the book that, combined with Bacho’s technique of magical realism and the value placed on self-determination, presents with a strong message of non-conformity. Leaving Yesler is accessible, contains fears and joys to which young people can relate, and offers a great deal to ponder. (March) Patty Comeau

INQUIRER Global Nation

Tough guys and ghosts in Filipino America

By Benjamin Pimentel

First Posted 09:14:00 02/21/2010

Filed Under: Migration, Literature, Religion & Belief

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CALIFORNIA, United States—Filipino-American novelist Peter Bacho’s latest work is partly about ghosts. They’re tough ghosts, street-smart spirits, trying to settle unfinished business. They come from a part of Filipino America that few people, including many Filipino Americans, read about, or even know about.

That’s what makes “Leaving Yesler” (Pleasant Boat Studio, New York, 2010) an important work.

In the classic “America Is in the Heart,” Carlos Bulosan chronicled the plight of the first major wave of Filipino immigrants to America, the farm workers, called the “manongs,” who endured racism, violence, and isolation.

Bacho tells the stories of their children. He is one of them, the son of a manong. Many of his generation came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, as America was reeling from the Vietnam War, the civil rights protests, and the identity-based activism that swept through many ethnic and immigrant communities, including Filipinos.

Many of these young FilAms led a tough life, as children of working-class Pinoy immigrants. This is the world Bacho portrays in “Leaving Yesler.”

Yesler is a well-known public housing project in Seattle, home to working class people, including many Filipino families. For Filipinos in Manila, think Tondo. It’s a community where a certain level of toughness is required to survive.

It was a world Bacho got to know pretty well in the 50s and 60s.

“There were a lot of Filipino families in the projects back in the 1950s and 1960s,” he told me. “I knew a lot of them because the community was very, very close and geographically centered, and the projects were part of Seattle's FilAm world.”

The novel’s protagonist, Bobby Vincente, is a mixed race FilAm teenager. He has lost his mother to cancer, and his elder brother to Vietnam. His dad, a Pinoy old-timer and one-time boxing sensation named Antonio, has been struggling to recover from psychological wounds from World War II.

In many ways, he is typical of the Pinoys of his generation, the manongs who struck out on their own in America at a time when Filipinos were seen—and rejected—as outsiders. They were hard-working, tough men. Bacho knew many of them growing up.

“My dad was a pretty hard, tough guy,” he says. “But I loved him and admired him—even though he was sometimes distant. I knew he did the best he could do, given who he was.”

In “Leaving Yesler,” Bobby is setting out with his dad to move on. And he gets some help—from ghosts. One of them is his late older brother, Paulie, who helps Bobby wrestle with issues of identity, their parents’ past, love, and sex. The fine points of young adulthood.

I’ll stop there and not spoil the story.

“Leaving Yesler” is a fun, engaging read. It’s Bacho’s first attempt to write for a young adult audience. And he succeeds wonderfully, telling a moving coming-of-age style in a relaxed, elegant style, that pulls you into a world of struggle and violence, but also of courage and perseverance—a world where Pinoys fight on despite the odds, and where Bobby Vincente, the hero of the story, eventually learns not to lose sight of what’s worth fighting for.

This was Bacho’s world.

The war in Vietnam loomed large among young people during his time. He himself almost got drafted. A military doctor “flunked me out on my 18th birthday,” he recalls. Many of his friends weren’t as lucky.

“The war screwed up most of my friends, most of whom were draftees—or joined up to avoid the draft and negotiate a better deal,” he says. “Of those Filipino Americans I knew in the Seattle area, about 80 percent were drafted...the Filipino kids then, for the most part, were regarded as not ‘college material,’ especially in the public schools, which meant they were meat for the draft.”

“In my generation, there wasn't much wrestling going on, at least for the guys,” he says. “We were Pinoys, and we wanted to be like our fathers...and that applied to the guys who were mixed race as well. It was a very powerful culture, in my opinion.”

And it’s a culture that he is taking on now in fiction aimed at young people. That’s particularly good news for Filipinos in North America and beyond. There’s such a dearth of material on the Filipino American experience, especially the stories of the children of the manong generation.

Bacho, who won the American Book Award for his novel “Cebu” and who has won praise from other writers such as Thomas Keneally, is doing us a big favor. And fortunately, he’s also having a good time.

“It's fun,” he says of writing for young people. “I can take risks and insert humor with greater freedom—and it’s adolescent humor, aimed at the youngsters who will be reading this.”

(Peter Bacho will be reading from “Leaving Yesler” on May 1, at Eastwind Books, in Berkeley. For more information, check out the Pleasure Boat Studio website.

Copyright 2010 by Benjamin Pimentel


Leaving Yesler by Peter Bacho
Pleasure Boat Studio
Softcover $16.00 (250pp)

REVIEW by Sharon Mentyka

People who read novels know that fiction can sometimes get closer to the truth than facts ever can. For young readers, this is less of a revelation than an expectation.

Leaving Yesler is Seattle author and Evergreen College professor Peter Bacho’s new novel set in 1968 Vietnam-era Seattle about the truths 18-year old Bobby Vicente discovers about his past. What Bobby learns about his past weaves and merges fluidly with his present reality to ultimately shape his future—a forward-looking recipe young readers will take to heart.

Bacho is a child of Seattle’s Central District himself, and the majority of his books deal with the Filipino experience in the United States. But Leaving Yesler, due out in late March from Pleasure Boat Studio, is his first foray into writing for young adult readers. The author describes the book as “a Filipino American novel without a Filipino protagonist.”

Leaving Yesler tells the story of Bobby Vincente, a “one drop of black blood Pinoy” looking for a way out of the Yesler Terrace housing project, the only home he’s ever known. Bobby is not the first in his family to want out of Yesler Terrace. It’s the dream as well of his aging father, Antonio, a former prizefighter who settled in Seattle as part of the first wave of Filipino immigration to the city in the late 20s—part of a generation who “hope for the best but get ready for the worst.”

Bobby’s baby steps include passing the GED and making it into community college (also his way of avoiding the draft). What he hasn’t figured into his plan is falling in love with sophisticated, worldly Deena. Nor has he planned on the stirring inside him of the familial allure of boxing, nor his nightly conversations with his dead brother Paulie, killed in Vietnam.

Bobby’s day-to-day world is strictly bounded by the International District—though he admires the Olympic Mountains in the distance, he’s never been there—yet his ordinary life is endowed with a kind of grace. Food and cooking make a lovely appearance as symbols of love for both his father and Deena. Gradually, and with a trust that sometimes comes from strong family ties, Bobby gives himself up to the pull of destiny and comes to perceive a greater, more extraordinary life existing right at his fingertips where “the erasure of the line between life and death becomes as normal as Seattle’s December rain.”

There’s considerable debate these days over what makes a novel fit the Young Adult (YA) genre. At some point, the argument becomes moot. Kids pick up books that interest them regardless of where marketing professionals have placed them in the bookstore. A book’s primary appeal might very well depend simply on the voice—too much filtering through an adult retrospective lens will sink it. Bobby Vicente’s voice—Bacho’s voice—is right on target.

YA novels are steppingstones, not destinations. YA readers study them not to see who they already are, but to discover what kind of adults they may become. In Leaving Yesler, they may discover a way to look back at the same time they look forward, and like Bobby, they may find “lives that, under the circumstances, had been pretty well-lived.”

Sharon Mentyka

Peter Bacho is a prolific author and native Seattlelite who currently teaches at Evergreen State College. Two of his books, Cebu (University of Washington Press, 1991) the story of a Filipino American priest who arrives in the Philippines to bury his mother in her homeland, and A Dark Blue Suit (University of Washington Press, 1997) won him American Book Awards. A Dark Blue Suit, a collection of short stories that trace the struggles of the Filipino community of Seattle from its beginnings in the 1920s through to the present, also received the Washington Governor’s Writers Award. His YA novel, Leaving Yesler will be published by Pleasure Boat Studio the end of March, 2010.

Interviewer Sharon Mentyka: Many of your stories and books seem to deal with similar themes—religion, boxing, the immigrant experience as does your first Young Adult (YA) novel Leaving Yesler. To your mind, how does it differ from the others?

PB: It really doesn’t. Different cast of characters but the same social setting—a multiethnic working class-to-poor sort of context. What unites it all is that most of the books take place in the same general neighborhood, the Central District of Seattle, which was the best place in the world to grow up as a kid in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, it was an especially rich area, at least in terms of cultures, full of folks from almost every conceivable race—lots of African Americans, Filipinos, other Asians, mixes of all kind. We made friends across the “barriers” that nowadays divide at least some of us.

SM: So I have to ask: Is Leaving Yesler really a thinly veiled autobiography loosely disguised as fiction? At least tell us if you box.

PB: Yeah, I used to box as a kid. I still hit the heavy bag and do the exercises—just focus on breaking a good sweat nowadays. Somewhere in the back of my head, there’s a thought that a good right hook might come in handy in my dotage, too. You never know who you might have a beef with in a nursing home…
But seriously, as a young person, I was obsessed with boxing and the entire male ritual of self defense, etc. etc. I used to watch it with my dad and uncles. But no, I didn’t live in Yesler—32nd and Thomas, still part of the Central Area but not Yesler Terrace. The notions of love, though, the admiration for Catholic education, the disdain for the hyper-machismo street “mack,” even Bobby’s southpaw stance and how he boxed, opposition to the Vietnam War—yeah, all that’s mine.

SM: I’ve noticed that several of your books (Nelson’s Run, Entrys) have young protaganists. Yet they were marketed towards a general audience. Why do you consider your forthcoming book Leaving Yesler to be specifically for young adults? Do you expect or hope the book may cross-over into the general book audience?

PB: I like YA, because the humor can be so goofy, and adult reviewers might not get it, but kids will…like Saint Polycarp, Paulie and Poly, etc. [ed: character names that Bacho plays with in the novel] I think I wrote something like ‘Polycarp flew to the James Brown Review at the Apollo and went black and never went back’ or words to that effect. Goofy, but for a kid, I think they’ll get it. But when writing Yesler, I got into being 16 again, thinking what would make me laugh, and I had just a helluva good time writing it. And no, I don’t object to adults padding my bank account.

SM: As a professor of Liberal Studies at Evergreen College, you have easy access to 21st century youth culture. Does that influence your writing at all?

PB: Yeah, it does influence my writing. I teach in the Evergreen Tacoma program, which is interdisciplinary. Here and everywhere else I’ve taught, I keep an ear open for what young people are saying, what they’re doing, what’s going on…When I was raising my daughter, I was always able to make her laugh and that’s because I always paid attention to her context, her world, her unending list of dramas and issues which I knew from my own days. Things don’t change that much, you know. Although I think great American Music stopped with the Sam and Dave, Junior Walker, Jackie Wilson, James Brown and the hot, unmatchable R & B of the late sixties and early seventies—the bands with the great horns—I’m sure some young blood somewhere is just itching to prove me wrong.

SM: So what keeps you in the Pacific Northwest? Is the pull of family and culture that so often informs your themes still alive and kicking inside you?

PB: Family and memory and the beauty of the place. The old community no longer exists, and that makes me sad. But I still kind of like going around to the old places and just remembering. Sure, there are a lot more Filipinos here, but that overwhelming sense of community that I knew—it’s just not the same. So in many ways, my stories are an homage to a community that no longer exists.

SM: Tell us about how you balance your life: writing, family, teaching. Who and what are you currently reading?

PB: Effective teaching to me remains a passion. I love my wife and friends, and family. I make sure to spend time with my pals, some of whom go back forty years. I love writing, but I write only when I have a story to tell, and then it becomes a two to three year obsession. But I’m not obsessed all the time, and certainly not now…I’m just wired that way. March Madness, a Pacquiao fight and the start of baseball season are coming up and I have to clear my schedule.

SM: What do you hope a young adult, possibly one of Filipino heritage still living in the Seattle area, might come away thinking about your book?

PB: That we—my generation of old (or getting old) goats lived interesting lives and that he or she not be afraid to do that. Young writers can’t tell my generation’s stories, but maybe they can tell their own.

Bacho delves into the young adult genre — and pulls no punches

Posted on 19 May 2010
2010, Vol 29 No 21 | May 22 - May 28

By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly

Peter Bacho

Filipino American writer and teacher Peter Bacho, a longtime resident of the Pacific Northwest, won the American Book Award for his first novel “Cebu.” The novel was published in 1991. In the wake of “Leaving Yesler,” his recently-published sixth book and first young adult novel, he took a few questions from Northwest Asian Weekly.

When you wrote “Cebu,” which aspects of the Filipino American experience concerned you the most?

It was mostly an American focus, although not one that was blind to the Philippine setting. In the 1970s and 1980s, I was there often, writing on Philippine politics for The Christian Science Monitor and other national publications. It was a hot and very dangerous time, even more so than now.

After 1968, when more immigrants came to cities like Seattle, I was aware that even though we, as American-born members of an established Pinoy (Filipino) community, were in some sense similar to the new immigrants, we really didn’t understand them. Nor did they understand us or our history. Certainly, my [“Cebu”] character Ben Lucero didn’t understand them. I thought that the common religion — Roman Catholicism — would be an ideal prism to explore these vast differences in culture.

How surprised were you to win the American Book Award for “Cebu”?

I was surprised and pleased, obviously. Just by being on the list, it means you have written something important. It’s an addition or a challenge to the canon of American arts and letters.

Please describe your childhood and formative writing experiences.

[My childhood was] initially migrant and then working class. My dad’s life, at first, was seasonal — the crops, then salmon canning, then the crops again. It was a tough way to live. Like a lot of other Pinoys from that era, I was raised in Seattle’s Central Area, which was then, at least, a great place to grow up. I formed friendships with other Pinoys and young people from all ethnic groups. Commemorating that place and time and community has been a major focus of my work. It was a great and very effective community.

There are a lot more Filipinos now, but I’m not sure they have the same powerful bonds — that same sense of community, that we are all in this together — that we did as youngsters coming of age in the 1960s.

Which writers gave you inspiration for your own work, and how?

Bienvenido Santos was one of my favorites. His writing possesses elegance, a poetic quality that’s just lovely. Plus, his way of organizing short stories really helped with my own collection, “Dark Blue Suit,” which did very well, at least critically.

You’ve published novels, nonfiction, and a collection of short stories.  How does your approach to writing differ from one type to another?

I try to become a different writer each time. For example, “Cebu” is written in third person omniscient.

Much of “Dark Blue Suit” is in first person. I think that I change as a writer every time I set out to do a project. Of the difference between fiction and nonfiction, there’s no doubt that fiction is by far the greater challenge because it places on the writer the burden of creating universes and populating them with characters over whom the writer has complete control.

You just published your first novel for young adult readers, “Leaving Yesler.” Do you take a dramatically different approach to fiction and writing for a younger audience?

It freed me to become a kid, to think like a 16-year-old again. It freed me to use kid humor. I was writing for the kids — not adult editors or reviewers — because young teens are the ones that must grapple with these issues of identity, sexuality, masculinity, etc. Plus, there’s a very powerful anti-war theme here — and why not? It’s the teenagers that are asked to clean up the messes made by adult leaders. In Vietnam, for example — boy soldiers — is there anything more obscene? Why not expose them to the world and get them to critically think about this screwed up realm they are about to enter?

What about the Pacific Northwest intrigues you the most?

Its physical beauty. Its memories, especially of that historic community that my family and I were a part of.

Seattle was the home of the [labor] union, which, over time, changed affiliations. Its best known name is ILWU Local 37. The union was militant and tough — and full of memorable characters, like Chris Mensalvas, the communist president who led Local 37 during the McCarthy Era. Imagine that. The union and Chris defied McCarthy and survived — a lesson for me and anyone else who pays attention. It was also important because it gave my dad’s generation a chance to earn enough to eventually stop being migrant workers.

What are the greatest rewards and greatest challenges of teaching writing to young people?

Seeing them grow and have a greater sense of the artistic standards — and how to apply them.

How has your approach to teaching changed over the years?

It always changes. After more than 30 years in the classroom, I am still looking for ways to become a more effective, more challenging teacher. Teaching remains a passion. ♦

Andrew Hamlin can be reached at