Quick takes from the Philippines

So, 2020, huh?

I thought about writing a little cap to the year–something about being stuck at home with two small children during an international pandemic, and the wildfires here in California, and unchecked white supremacists driving the country to the brink of civil war but…you get it. You’re all there, more or less (except you lucky bastards who live in New Zealand and are going to have to deal with a sudden influx of immigrants once we’re finally allowed to go anywhere), so I don’t have to tell you what it’s like. Suffice it to say, my brain is pretty fried after the past ten months, and while I’m still reading, not much of it is medieval epic poetry from Southeast Asia. I’ve been working my way through the Khun Chang Khun Phaen, a seminal work of Thai literature, since last February. I managed to get through the novels on my Thai reading list and have tentatively moved on to Myanmar/Burma, but mostly I’ve been reading the collected works of N.K. Jemisin and Octavia Butler, with occasional forays into YA dystopian fantasy. I don’t have the wherewithal to write long screeds about individual books that I read in 2018, and I suspect few people would have the attention span to read them right now anyway. So here are my thoughts on a whole bunch of books from the Philippines, in short format. Maybe I’ll come back to one or two of these later, but for now I just want to get them down and move on. Let’s do this.

The Last Time I Saw Mother, Arlene J. Chai, 1996

  • Philippines, #25
  • Paperback, received as a gift
  • Read September 2018
  • Rating: 3/5
  • What’s it about: A Filipina expat living in Australia who has to go back to the Philippines for some reason to find out some secret about her family and/or parentage and also nobody knows that she’s divorced (or maybe just separated) from her husband, who is a musician, I think.
  • Notes: I turned only one page down, towards the beginning (usually a sign that the book didn’t hold much interest as it went on): “In my mind, I have two homes. Manila, where my past is. And Sydney, where Jaime and I came to live in search of better opportunities and a safer place to raise our child. So no matter which home I am going home to, I am always leaving another one behind…Migrants, I think, are a people who are never whole, never completely in one place. Ours is a fractured existence.”
  • My take: This is the book that inspired me to try this new short format. I remember almost nothing about it, and can’t really bring myself to care enough even to rifle through the pages and put together some sort of summary. It was fine. In my mind I’ve blended it together with a bunch of other books about women and their troubled maternal relationships—The Mango Bride, Among the White Moon Faces, The River’s Song—all of which are better than this book.

Smaller and Smaller Circles, F.H. Batacan, 2002

  • Philippines, #29
  • Kindle edition, $10
  • Read September 2018
  • Rating: 4/5
  • What it’s like: The ChinatownExorcist crossover you never knew you needed
  • What it’s about: Some highly sympathetic Jesuit priests—one of whom is a forensic anthropologist and the other a psychologist—investigate a series of gruesome child-killings, while meeting with resistance from the Catholic church
  • My take: I loved this and would totally read a series of mysteries starring Fathers Gus and Jerome solving crimes and doggedly doing the right thing at all costs. I can’t remember how it ends so I don’t know if Batacan left herself open for a sequel; however, given that she hasn’t published another novel in the past eighteen years, I’m not going to hold my breath.

The Undercover Tai Tai, Maya Calica, 2008

  • Philippines, #30
  • Kindle edition, $2.89
  • Read September 2018
  • Rating: 3/5
  • Recommended for: Kevin Kwan fans who can’t wait for his next book
  • What it’s about: Amanda, a nerdy Filipina-Australian living in Singapore, is recruited by a shadowy government organization to infiltrate the world of Singaporean tai-tais, the trophy wives of Singaporean billionaires, who live lives of unbelievably conspicuous consumption.
  • My take: Kind of fun and loopy if you can overlook some seriously dodgy issues of consent (the central romance is between Amanda and her handler, Agent Brian—yes, seriously, “Agent Brian”—who drugs her, beats her up, and then coerces her into undertaking a dangerous undercover mission; I was definitely not on board). I don’t know if I learned anything about the Philippines from this book, and Crazy Rich Asians definitely does a better job of introducing the world of the Singaporean super-rich, but still it’s kind of a fun frivolous read if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing.

Doveglion (Collected Works), Jose Garcia Villa, 2008

  • Philippines, #31
  • Borrowed from San Francisco Public Library
  • Read August 2018
  • Rating: 2.5/5
  • In summary: Jose Garcia Villa was known as “the Pope of Greenwich Village,” although I really don’t know why, and wrote these incredibly annoying poems that have commas instead of spaces (which he intended to be read breathlessly, like a slightly shorter pause than you would take if there was a space there, which is NOT what a comma is for, sorry Jose). He also signed his poems “Doveglion” (hence the title of the collection), a combination of dove, eagle, and lion, which he felt encapsulated his essence (my personal pandemic persona, I’ve decided, is a Gobadgerger: the endless grazing ability of a goat, the natural crankiness of the badger, and, like my childhood gerbil, the potential to cannibalize my own young one of these days if this goes on much longer). I think if he were alive today he would definitely go to Burning Man and probably would want everyone to know that was so much cooler before the tech bros took over. Look, I’ve said it before: I don’t know a lot about poetry. He won a Guggenheim fellowship and the title of National Artist of the Philippines, but he didn’t do it for me.

Ilustrado, Miguel Syjuco, 2008

  • Philippines, #33
  • Hardcover, $5 from Powell’s City of Books in Portland
  • Read October 2018
  • Rating: 4/5
  • Short take: Do you like postmodernism? Cool. Read this. Otherwise, probably skip it. I liked it, but it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of super meta matcha kombucha.

The Mango Bride, Marivi Soliven Blanco

  • Philippines, #37
  • Borrowed from San Francisco public library
  • Read November 2018
  • Rating: 3/5
  • What it’s about: The plot revolves around two Filipina women who move to America under very different circumstances. Amparo Guerrero comes from old money and is banished by her family after a scandal, ending up in Oakland, California, with an American boyfriend and a job as a translator. Beverley, meanwhile, comes from an impoverished background and marries an older American man that she meets through a matchmaking service in hopes of a better life (spoiler alert: this does not work out as well as you might hope). The two women are connected, though they do not know each other, through the Guerrero family cook, who is a surrogate mother to both of them. Their paths cross again in unexpected ways. It’s a pretty heavy-handed story, filled with improbable coincidence and predictable tragedy, but pretty readable nonetheless.
  • History lesson: A side plot focuses on the plight of Filipino veterans, who fought for America by the thousands during World War II, and then were denied their promised veterans’ benefits when the Philippines won its independence after the war.
  • Unexpected bonus: this book is set largely in San Francisco and the East Bay, where I live, so I enjoyed recognizing familiar landmarks. Kind of ironic, given that the point of this project is to travel vicariously and learn about distant lands, but hey, everybody loves a hometown shout-out.

In the Country, Mia Alvar, 2015

  • Philippines, #38
  • Borrowed from Berkeley public library
  • Read November 2018
  • Rating: 4.5/5
  • What it’s about: a collection of short stories that, despite the title, mainly center on Filipinos living outside of the Philippines (I’m sure if I were less sleep-deprived and quarantine-addled I could come up with a startlingly elegant exploration of Alvar’s choice of title juxtaposed with her subjects). Stand outs include the story of an American model working in Manila; a Filipina expat caring for a profoundly disabled child in Bahrain; a New York pharmacist who returns to his native Philippines to help his mother look after his dying abusive father. According to NPR these stories are morally complex and finely drawn; I don’t remember but sure, sounds good.

Love and Gravity, Samantha Sotto, 2017

  • Philippines, #39
  • Kindle edition, $5.99
  • Read September 2018
  • Rating: 3.5/5
  • What it’s about: A cello prodigy in modern-day San Francisco finds that when she plays a certain melody in a certain emotional state, she can open a window through time to see Isaac Newton. They fall in love. The amazing thing about this book is that it all seems reasonable when you’re reading it.

America Is Not the Heart, Elaine Castillo, 2018

  • Philippines, bonus book
  • Hardcover, $27 from Green Apple Books in San Francisco
  • Read December 2018
  • Rating: 4/5
  • Why I included it: This book technically doesn’t meet my requirements for this project, because Castillo was born and raised in the US. However, it got so much buzz that I was going to read it anyway, and I was interested to see how it answered Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart.
  • Comp lit: At first I didn’t think the two books spoke to each other much. Bulosan’s characters are rootless, poor, male, heterosexual, and alone, while Castillo’s are settled, middle class, largely female, and queer. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that Castillo’s novel acts as both an expansion and rebuttal of Bulosan’s. The Filipino characters of the earlier book were destitute itinerant laborers, buffeted at every turn by racism, violence, and loneliness. America Is Not the Heart looks at Filipino Americans of two generations on. A lot has changed: Marcos has risen and fallen. The Philippines has gained its independence from the US, and at the same time the American Filipino community has expanded and settled. The characters of Castillo’s book are not wanderers, even though many of them are expats. They are rooted in a solid community (in fact, very few non-Filipino characters appear in the novel); in fact, like the narrator of The Last Time I Saw Mother, they are doubly rooted, torn between two homes in two different continents. Their lives are complicated, and so are their desires, and so, above all, is their relationship to America. America may be in the heart, this book says, but it is not the whole thing.

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