My rating: 4 of 5 stars
**DISCLAIMER: This review is written by one of the contributors from the anthology. Please read with discretion.**
In her Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa writes of the mestiza consciousness: “The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be a Mexican from an Anglo point of view. She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates on a pluralistic mode–nothing is thrust out, the good, the bad, and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else.” The Filipino-ness, as discussed by Rocio G. Davis in his introduction and depicted by the twenty-plus authors in this anthology, develops more than a tolerance for contradictions but zeroes in on the good, the bad, and the ugly, drawing strength, voice, character, and meaning out of the ambiguity that lies at the inherent core of Filipino and Fiilpino-American experiences. Filipino history is Pluralism, and Cecilia Manguerra Brainard through her keen compilation and organization of these deceptively simple tales shows readers the complexity of individual experiences and stories in this beautifully orchestrated anthology.
Chandra Talpade Mohanty once explained ethnic writing as fiction where the “story does not serve to describe only an individual’s struggle, as is often the case with Euro-American autobiography. Instead, one speaks from within a collective as a participant in a larger struggle. This process is also known as validity-as reflective accounting allows for interaction between the writer, the topic, and the sense-making process (Altheide & Johnson, 1994). However in this anthology we know none of these stories can tell us what a true Fil or Fil Am experience is because there is no such thing as one true experience. We find only paradoxes. Some characters want to participate in a larger struggle, others deny the struggle or can never participate because their life is not reflected in an idealized larger collective. We’ve moved beyond the idea of one size fits all, and, reading these stories we find there’s no need to validate an identity through some conforming sense-making process. Sense-making for a collective group is not the intent of these stories, but sense-making for an individual, a living breathing and conflicted character, sense-making for a single moment in time as told through a unique point of view drives each of these stories, and this is ultimately what separates Art from politics.
Amalia Bueno’s “Perla and Her Lovely Barbie” knocks image and identity off its feet, reflecting the oppositional forces of white versus brown, pale and delicate versus dark and sturdy. Bueno presents these tropes through the fresh eyes of youth, and we can only hope that our young protagonist doesn’t fall for the simplistic dualism that seems to run rampant throughout her Hawaiian neighborhood. Bueno’s main character simulates a funeral to bury the iconoclastic Barbie Doll and metaphorically puts the image and all that the Mattel bombshell stands for to rest. Barbie’s sway no longer holds power over these young girls. Many of the stories in this collection take advantage of play-making to shatter preconceived notions: “We made our own rules because it was our funeral,” Bueno writes. Leslie Ann Hobayan’s “Double Dutch” also deals with images but from another end of the spectrum when the young protagonist Maria Elizabeth Ramos plays with her African American neighbors, and her parents give her a scolding when she gets home. Hobayan creates some wonderful details that really prick the skin. Her story juxtaposed with Bueno’s shows us how racism pervades each culture. We are none of us innocent. This realization is due to the excellent editorial work of Brainard who took great care in ordering the stories so they speak to one another and build and circle back on different themes, patterns, and motifs.
“Nurse Rita” by Paulino Lim Jr. presents the plight of OFW’s (overseas Filipino workers) who are shuttled into vocational schools to eke a living and support their families, crammed into statistics as their lives are turned to factoids, stripped of flesh and blood experience. Lim deftly reflects the struggle of raising a child as a single working mother. Dean Francis Alfar’s “How My Mother Flew” is one of the most startling stories in the collection, the characters will haunt readers. “I learned to understand my mother’s silent language when I was young, the flicker of pursed lips, the quickening of an iris,” Alfar depicts an unsettling, yet profoundly beautiful bond between mother and child. The ending is shockingly powerful when the body becomes a vehicle for a meaning larger than life. Marianne Villanueva, in her “Black Dog,” writes about mangkukulam’s or native healers. Villanueva deliciously serves up a tale about a mother’s language, sharing stories and making meaning through the magical connection between a mother and daughter: “…because she so enjoys seeing my eyes grow rounder and rounder, there is never anything like this in the Literary Reader. I have to slog through in Grade 6 at the Assumption Convent, the nuns at my school have no imagination and they are nothing, nothing like my mother.” The protagonist is hungry for narrative, and, like her, we lick our lips, ready to devour the suspense and find out what happens next. The story has no satisfying ending but leaves us wanting more, keeping its grip on us. In “Vigan” by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s, she turns our attention to a historical city in the Philippines:
“Vigan boasted of having been founded in the 16th Century Juan Salcedo the Spanish Conquistador who conquered Manila. In its heyday, it was the port of entry of the Spanish galleons coming from China and headed for the Walled City of Intramuros. The ships sailed up the river and moored at the edge of Old Town, near the Cathedral and Archbishop’s Palace. The merchant’s houses and warehouses clustered near the river. Here, the traders exchanged items such as indigo, cotton, silk, pearls, tobacco, porcelain, hemp, for silver and gold.”
Brainard navigates us through the twisted past of death, family customs, race, hierarchy, and the clash between Spanish and Chinese delineations in our protagonist’s family. Her story reveals wonderful details where regionalism on the islands cleaves rifts between families. If its not economic circumstances that divide people then its ethnicity or ideology. Like Villanueva’s protagonist, Brainard’s main character doesn’t fit in school and takes to stories and narratives outside the institution to define herself. The young girl tries to process her fractious and disparate world, and the legend of the black dog also reappears. A very nice juxtaposition of stories, once again, is reflected in the “Old Witch of San Jose.” Jonathan Jimena Siason weaves different folk myths and mythical creatures together. Scarier than a black monster, our dark pasts, our secret histories, the mistakes and regrets we carry with us are the truly terrifying haunts that can eat us alive. Charlson Ong’s “A Season of 10,000 Noses” covers an uprising in 1766 when another rift between tears a people apart. Ong reflects the multiplicities inherent within Filipino culture and shows us the complexity of pluralism. The best compliments to a short story is wishing it was a novel when the reader wants to know what happens next, and Ong keeps us breathless for more.
The father in Brian Ascalon Roley’s “Old Man” is another character who will haunt readers as the rift in this story between father and son takes readers to a more personal, a more intimate edge, which makes the story and characters all the more dangerous. Sticking with the paternal thread, In “My Father’s Tattoo” Veronica Montes creates a seamless, pitch-perfect story about a father and daughter’s unbreakable bond as they selfishly enjoy each other’s company despite the mother’s dramatics. Simplicity is truly complicated because we know, just as the father and daughter do, that this intimate bond cannot last but will have to give way to life’s inevitable changes.
There are some stories where Filipino-ness is incidental and other tales in this collection where plot and the character’s conflict is completely hinged on identity politics, and, if the ethnicity were removed, then all the makings of the story would spin out of orbit. “Clothesline” by Edgar Poma points us to California’s manong farmworkers who gave their lives laboring in the Central Valley. The main character learns his roots and his identity from a special manong, and we get a taste of that quintessential Filipino-ness that has been the backbone to Fil-Am identity. Tony Robles’ “Son of a Janitor” is a rough-hewn story just as pitch-perfect as Montes’ piece, and Robles gives an excellent profile of a working father, a sturdy man who has a solid and rich universe that may, at first glance, seem humble. This short piece will make readers want to shadow Robles’ characters for pages on end. “The Price” from Oscar Peñaranda is also about a father and son separated by a dreamer uncle. We see sibling rivalry, connection to land, and the art of losing a battle worth fighting for when every chance of hope seems stark.
The black sheep of the family are always appealing because they know something just beyond our grasp and have experienced life outside the lines while the rest of tend to stay within the borders. In Max Gutierrez’s “Uncle Gil” we get to step out of the safe zone and see how the other half lives. Geronimo G. Tagatac’s “Hammer Lounge” stands out among the stories in voice, age, and tone. As we’ve progressed through the anthology, we’ve grown up. Life has taken its toll on us, and the narrator looks back to a time when, “[w:]e were in our twenties and our futures were just a couple of fat checks waiting to be cashed.” Tagatac writes of two cousins who took entirely different paths and meet up again in adulthood, trying to capture some of their reckless youth. We see how they wrestle with themselves and each other, all the changes they’ve endured, the missed opportunities and the opportunities taken that have led them to where they are today as they dance around a pool table, slinging back drinks in a dive bar, an old haunt of their misspent youth. We learn in this tale that our friends and memories keep us young though we can never go back. “Be Safe” from Kannika Claudine D. Peña weaves pop culture throughout her narrative, showing us the thought process of her protagonist’s generation reflected in the prism of the eighties. The main character ponders over life and the possibility of what should seem impossible, an inconceivable loss of a baby. The mysterious tale of Dean Francis Alfar’s “The Music Teacher” fills readers’ mind with possibilities about what happened to the central eponymous character. Suspicions are raised and nerves are jarred. Aileen Suzara’s “Period Mark” returns us to youth as the main character tries to will nature and womanhood: “With periods you would look like grown up women. Not only could my body change, but I knew that my period would change me from being nerdy to being something else. It would set everything in logical order.” In “Outward Journey” by Jaime An Lin, the fractured life of a Philippine native is revealed when the protagonist imagines the different experiences his relatives play out in their homes scattered across the globe.
Dolores de Manuel’s “Someone Else” introduces us to the dangers of subtle racism, which are pervasive and serve as a wake up call for a young sheltered college student who realizes that people and circumstances are never what they seem at first. The only story told in second person, Dean Francis Alfar’s “Something Like That” also deals with pervasive dangers that creep up on us and haunt our lives, striking without any warning. The corrupt politics in the Philippines so often leaves innocent casualties and Alfar shows us how disturbing it is that these horrors are all too often accepted as a standard of living. In Maria Victoria Beltran’s “The Veil” we have our first and only story about a Muslim protagonist. Two college roommates, one Catholic and the other practicing Islam each affect one another in transformative ways: “There is an aura of aloofness about her that seems to say yes, we can be friends but not too close, please.” Then 9/11 explodes and shatters the already fragile relationship. “Shiny Blackboots” by M.G. Bertulfo shows us what democracy looks like when a young man wrestles with following his father’s footsteps as the war rages on in the aftermath of 9/11. The young girl in Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor’s “Yellow is for Luck” clings to superstitions wrought out of desperation by her immigrant family who have sacrificed comfort and security to fight in the war against terrorism: No matter how poor you might be, always get at least one yellow primrose to plant in your garden. Yellow is the color of gold and planting a yellow primrose is like planting gold in your garden.” Lastly, but certainly not least, Katerina Ramos Atienza’s “Neighbors” captures the paradoxical expansion and suffocating feeling that Manila embodies. Readers get lost in the wonderful details of youth in the complex and diverse capital city.
Nietzsche wrote, “The more abstract the truth you want to teach the more you seduce the senses to it.” All of the truths in these stories are abstract in that they wind us down a twisted path, often switch-backing, sometimes losing sight of a perceived destination, which turns out not to be true. The journey is never straight forward, never simplistic but complex and contradictory like life. Each writer in this collection has conveyed what Filipino-ness is through their own individual experience, and these stories are made real to us through the craftsmanship of exquisite details, capturing not just what it means to be Filipino but how it is to be human. This is a collection that embodies singular fleeting moments of time made timeless in their telling.