Charlson L. Ong , resident fellow of the Institute of Creative Writing and fictionist/scriptwriter/singer extraordinaire, was born on July 6, 1960. He obtained an A.B. in Psychology from the University of the Philippines in 1977, and currently teaches literature and creative writing under UP's Department of English and Comparative Literature. He has joined several writers' workshops here and abroad, and has acquired numerous grants and awards for his fiction, including the Palanca, Free Press, Graphic, Asiaweek, National Book Award, and the Dr. Jose P. Rizal Award for Excellence. His novel, Embarrassment of Riches published by UP Press in 2002, won the Centennial Literary Prize. In addition to this, Ong has served as co-editor of the Likhaan Book of Poetry and Fiction His short stories range from parodies of well-loved Filipino texts to insightful treatments of Chinese-Filipino culture. These have been collected into Men of the East and Other Stories (1990 and 1999), Woman of Am-Kaw and Other Stories (1993) and Conversion and Other Fictions (1996). His second novel is due for publication this year.
It’s Man Territory in Sir Charlson’s 1996 collection–father-and-son relationships, failed or struggling marriages, lost brothers and lost sons, growing up in multicultured Philippines. And cars. Lots and lots of cars and car references that point at YayHeartwarmingMacho.
In “Reprieve,” we join a father and a son on a hunting trip, where heartaches and simmering tempers set the stage for tense, er, hunting. In “Fixing a Flat,” we tag along to a meeting between our narrator, the wife who wants their marriage annulled, and the new man in her life. Oh, dissatisfaction. Oh, the What-Could-Have-Beens. “Widow” feels like an allegory for the Marcos era, particularly Marcos’ death, and that might just be me, but I don’t care. It was lush and creepy, and I loved it. Another non-90s setting was “The Season of Ten Thousand Noses,” about Manila in the 1700s, and the boat that, well, brought in ten thousand noses. “Love Me Tender” is a reworking of the I Just Saw Elvis trope, and that was fun. And surprisingly tender. Heh.
It’s a cool collection. Written for 90s Manila and its fringes, for different periods in Philippine history, for the potluck of nationalities and cultures we’ve crossed paths with. Also, there’s a charming terseness to the stories. A hard-to-pin-down feeling of awkwardness to men who should be self-possessed, or to boys who should’ve had their first influx of confidence and arrogance. That’s why it’ll be stupid to dismiss this as Man Fiction–there’s a depth to the scenes, gritty and dirty as they may originally appear to be. In “Love Me Tender,” a dinghy bar has the potential to be the setting for great redemption. In “Downshift,” what may seem to be your grieving-father story hints at darker themes. Those moments in the stories catch you off-guard. One moment, you’re sitting through instructions for downshifting or burning paper money or buying ladies drinks at a bar–and then, a turn of the phrase, and BAM, epipha-tree heaven.
There’s Traditional Philippine Short Fiction feel to all this (that sounds offensive, haha)–I’ve tried to explain this at length, but I just can’t right now; at the moment, I am content to let it be you gotta know it to get it. Just. Well. Augh. Hahaha. The familiar feel to the voice and the mood actually wants to make me write short stories. Eventually. I like best stories that make me want to write. I think those are the best stories to read.
A lot of people should read Charlson Ong. A lot. Get on it, people.