I just finished Leche yesterday, and am planning on teaching this in Filipino American Literature at USF in the Fall.
Some quick thoughts: I like LinmaI just finished Leche yesterday, and am planning on teaching this in Filipino American Literature at USF in the Fall.
Some quick thoughts: I like Linmark's portrayal of Manila, which is one of the principal characters in this novel. Manila is crazy, contradictory, it evades understanding, especially by our apparently ordered American minds. Linmark's "hero," is the balikbayan Vince, or Vicente. So this book is his hero journey through the morass of Manila, to try to figure himself out, as a Filipino, an American, the grandson of a Bataan death March survivor, as a Filipino American whose ancestry is very much the story of the Philippines itself - American soldiers and American teachers, immigrants/expatriates. His family is broken, fractured by immigration and economics. The microcosm/stand-in for the Philippines throughout history is Leche, the orphanage, brothel, museum, sex club, which all of the Philippines' colonizers have had their claws in at some point in time. Even getting there is a chore for Vicente.
Academics, all of his American university reading - the almost hilarious because it's true Decolonization for Beginners - and the travel guide/tourist tips, both of which pepper and forward the narrative at significant places, seem to want to help, but only make it worse - sometimes because they point out the crazy shit in which Vicente is stuck, or because his understanding of the contradictions of the place are only clearing things up to fill him with more confusion and dread.
Speaking of Decolonization for Beginners and tourist tips, these interjections into the narrative are a very good and strategic variance of form within the form of the novel. In addition to these are the screenplay format of the Kris Aquino Show, and the postcards back home to his family and friends in Hawaii. Vicente's notes on these are also these gems of contradiction, irony, and insight. They give the narrative a visual element, and if you look at the book's acknowledgments page, you will see that others have contributed these postcard images. In this way, the novel becomes something of a collaborative effort; this is the enactment of a Filipino value of collectivity, which Linmark already enacts in Leche.
It's a multivocal work, which again, reinforces that Filipino collectivity, as well as the noise! There is so much noise for Vicente to sort through, in order to get to the meat of the matter. How to gauge how much the balikbayan knows about Filipino culture and Filipino-ness; American academics could only teach him so much. Interacting with the popular cultural powerhouses as Kris Aquino, the filmmaker Bino Boca, the nun activist turned actress Sister Marie, then the "common folks," the taxi drivers, the maid, the maid of the maid, the sex workers, the tour guides, the five girls who ring up Vicente's five postcards in the SM store - again, these add to the crazy, the confusion, the muddle.
Ultimately, this is a satisfying read precisely because there is a point where all of this crazy slowly thins out, and the ending is a resolution that is and isn't a resolution. But for me, it is a point of much needed and even empowering clarity. ...more
Looking for Ifugao Mountain is an out of print children's book written by the late Filipino American poet and community activist Al Robles. The storyLooking for Ifugao Mountain is an out of print children's book written by the late Filipino American poet and community activist Al Robles. The story is an adaptation of his poem, "Tagatac in Ifugao Mountain," which opens his poetry collection Rappin with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark.
Because of Manong Al's very recent passing, I have since revisited his poetry collection, and realize that in my original reading many years ago, I missed much of the poetic and political nuance in his work. Looking for Ifugao Mountain is a bilingual story which tells us of Kayumanggi, the Filipino American son of an old Manong. As Kayumanggi encounters Tagatac in Portsmouth Square, SF Chinatown, he is transported back to the Northern Philippines, where he tries to reconnect with his ancestors.
I was very surprised to see how hostile the Philippine tribal people and the animals are towards Kayumanggi, whom I presume is American-born, SF-born. If we go back to the poem, "Tagatac in Ifugao Mountain," we see the "I" must be Manong Al himself, conflicted. He appears to be caught between that romantic indigenous Philippine past, representations of that indigenous past as lowly, base, and writing poems about that indigenous past which are worth less than toilet paper. So I take this reading with me into the children's book.
While it is important for Kayumanggi, and by extension, us readers, to connect with our ancestors, perhaps we are looking in the wrong places. The fisherman tells Kayumanggi it is useless; he is wasting his time. The rice farmer tells him to get out. The carabao and monkeys are ferocious in guarding the pass to Ifugao Mountain. It isn't until Kayumanggi sits with a tribal elder, shares a meal with him while respecting the ritual space, as guided by the tribal elder, that he is granted access to Tagatac of Ifugao Mountain.
Tagatac of Ifugao Mountain, as it turns out, is the Manong Tagatac in SF Chinatown's Portsmouth Square. Let me backtrack a little here. At the beginning of the book, Tagatac tells Kayumanggi, "Sa ilalim ng luma kong damit ay may bahag ako. Ako'y taga-Bundok ng Ifugao. Malaya at pagbagu-bago and aking isip na katulad ng hangin." That is, underneath these old clothes, I wear a bahag (Ifugao loincloth). I am an Ifugao Mountain man. My mind is free ... as the wind.
If we go back to the poem, ""Tagatac in Ifugao Mountain," we notice there is a tone almost of ambivalence here. The poems are worthless if we do not take the time to sit and eat, to talk with our ancestors. More so, why take this abstract, impersonal journey all the way back to this decontextualized indigenous ancestral past to see what is otherwise in front of you every day of your American life? It's the Manongs who are our ancestors, our source, and the filter through which we come to understand our connection with the land. This was Manong Al's poetics. Sit, share a meal, listen to talk story.
Last thing for now: Manong Al really was ahead of his time. I think of current Filipino American movements centered around indigeneity, and I'm not convinced. I do find these movements abstract, theoretical, impersonal. Certainly, the Filipino American community has grown very diverse post-1965. I am an immigrant with an actual connection to Philippine land. But my connection to that ancestral land is via my Papa, who was of the same generation as the Manongs. Towards the end of his life, it became more and more pressing for me to spend time with him, and to ask him to tell us stories. I didn't sit there with a recorder and typed up sets of interview questions. I did have a brandy or a beer or two with him while he was still healthy, and definitely many meals, and walks through his rice fields. I had to commit everything to memory, and I had to center myself in the experience of hearing story straight from the source. ...more
So this is one of those books in which I liked the story, but I really did not enjoy the writing, which I think was actually kind of tedious, clinicalSo this is one of those books in which I liked the story, but I really did not enjoy the writing, which I think was actually kind of tedious, clinical. I am giving this three stars because of the story, and because I can't give it 2.5 stars. Central to this narrative is witness, the stories of participants, versus what is officially written, with what is officially written being done by the conquerors, and the conquered viewed through the conquerors' lenses. ...more
**spoiler alert** I’ve just finished reading Marianne Villanueva’s debut collection of short stories, Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (Calyx Books**spoiler alert** I’ve just finished reading Marianne Villanueva’s debut collection of short stories, Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (Calyx Books, 1993). There. I’ve said it. I’ve just read this book 16 years too late, and I’ve read Villanueva’s second book, Mayor of the Roses (Miami University Press, 2005), prior to reading this one.
I am tempted to say that I enjoyed this book a bit more that her second, but that’s not exactly a fair thing to say, as the two books are rather different projects. I find I am more interested in Philippines-based stories than Filipino American, most likely because deep probing into Philippine-based lives as products of history is unfamiliar enough to me; whereas a healthy section of Mayor of the Roses is set in the USA, Ginseng, is set in the Philippines, in both Manila and the provinces or countryside, and these stories are set during the brutality of Martial Law. So the characters in these stories are surviving or succumbing to that period’s violence, suppression, disappearances, and economic ruin. Characters here are on the brink of making very difficult choices.
Think of the daughter Nina in “Opportunity”; she is the daughter of poor chicken farmers, and she is equipped with a college education. Her only sister has left them for her abusive husband. The first half of “Opportunity,” centers around Nina’s growing disconnect with her family and this terrible, terrible tension between her and her mother. Nina has had to decide whether to leave them to live and work elsewhere. This way, she reasons, she will be able to provide for her aging parents. Moreover, she has found a man, and he loves her. That’s where she’s going; to be with him. The turning point of the story is that elsewhere with her man: San Bruno, California, where this older American man lives. He is 60, many years older than she, a divorced father of three. He has found her via a mail order bride service.
And so these stories go, as though Villanueva has taken portraits of these Filipino families, and excavated quite deeply to expose to the reader how the political and economic state of the nation has weighted the people down so unrelentingly, broken up their families and familiar social structures, and cast them into such isolation. She writes in the book’s preface that upon returning to the Philippines after a period of absence, in which she studied abroad in California, so much had changed in her home country. She returned to witness the wreck that Martial Law had brought upon its people, what I know as today’s extremely polluted Manila air and streets, filled with so many beggars and child prostitutes.
In “Overseas,” Villanueva show us the disrupted families of the OFW’s, here primarily men, who have left their Manila slums for construction jobs in Saudi Arabia. Their intent of course is to better their families’ situations by sending their earnings to their families back home, given so little opportunity in Manila. But the story here, in “Overseas,” is what is left behind, the jeepney driver father who is never around, and the little sister, Sepa, twelve years old and dropped out of school, with no guidance of any kind, no reason to think about her future, already having sex in movie theaters and cheap hotels with random men, maybe for a little money, maybe just because no one is there to tell her otherwise. She invariably gets knocked up and seems to have no concept of that means.
In the book’s introduction, Virginia Cerenio references “the timelessness of the [Philippine:] countryside,” in Villanueva’s stories, and I am inclined to disagree with Cerenio. The countryside which Villanueva portrays, its people, are forever changed. In the story, “Siko,” we see a broken family of poor rice farmers. The old woman Aling Saturnina’s husband and many children have one by one left home for the city, and have never returned. One son, Siko, ends up a thief, one daughter renames herself “Pepsi,” becomes a prostitute in Olongapo, and the mistress of a powerful colonel.
There are ghosts still in this countryside, and while we can attribute this to the people’s superstitions or old beliefs, think about this blue jeans wearing, bullet-ridden ghost of Aling Saturnina’s son Siko, murdered by the military, because he tried to murder the colonel, because he was trying to save his sister. Not long after, Aling Saturnina and her remaining daughter are taken by the military and are never heard from again. The remaining son in law gradually falls into a state of resignation and futility. The people of this countryside appear broken, hopeless.
Whatever kind of enchantment or romance there may have once been in Villanueva’s memories of the Philippines, as we see in the point of view of the narrator Cecilia, in final story, “Island,” we see that as she examines her memories more deeply, there is an undercurrent of socioeconomic disparity and its consequences rising to the surface of her narrative. Cecilia is an expatriate, a Filipino American, and we can see her as representing Villanueva’s own position. Her husband calls her on her idyllic memories of Bacolod, and soon we begin to see the bourgeois position of Cecilia’s family, surrounded by those with much less means.
I am thinking about the allegorical component to these stories, or tales. While I have been reading them quite literally, and finding in this literal reading much political commentary being made, I suspect there is much more being said about the dictator, a nation in a state of disrepair, a pervasive lack of safety feeling throughout the collection. Think of these old, once lush gardens now barren and neglected. Think of these once powerful men now reduced to cripple and hallucinating invalids.
In the Manila noir-ish story, “Memorial,” the political (anti-dictatorship) graffiti artist, Fajardo, witnesses the aftermaths of the killings, dead bodies rotting in the streets, during his walks this now unfamiliar city that is his home, chalk scrawling political and poetic lines on the walls of the city to whomever cares to read them. Fajardo is a memorialist, and this is important, because when so many people go missing, the circumstances surrounded their disappearances are covered up, and they are forgotten. This is how their city ceases to be familiar to them, and ceases to be theirs. In “Memorial,” Villanueva asks who memorializes the memorialist when he goes missing.
Again, the theme of remembering amidst a dictatorship that is rewriting the nation’s history is seen most strongly in “The Special Research Project,” in which the building of the National Archives is leveled to dust. Housed in this building were the original writings of Jose Rizal, MH del Pilar, Francisco Balagtas, et al, the nation’s thinkers and intellectuals. Forgotten inside the building is Nicanor, the ghost writer of the President’s Special Research Project, a rewriter of the president’s biography and the nation’s history. It’s through his eyes that we see the crumbling of this dictatorship, the once grand presidential palace growing more empty, rat-infested and cavernous, the dictator himself growing more wan and exhausted and irrelevant to an exhausted and apathetic people. With so much revisioning, he has also lost his grip on his personal identity and the nation’s identity. Indeed, losing one’s control over the Master Narrative is to lose one’s control over the nation and its constituents.
Needless to say there is so much going on in this text, on many levels. Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila has been described by reviewers are subtle and elusive, but I wonder really how subtle and elusive it really is. It certainly is a dense text that is highly literal and symbolic narrative. It is intensely political. Now, as I’ve begun this write-up differentiating between Ginseng and Villanueva’s second collection, Mayor of the Roses, I will end by saying that Ginseng’s final story, “Island,” is an apt segue into Mayor of the Roses, as it is told from that expatriate point of view, the Filipino immigrant living in North America, and her memories of the homeland. She is prime for a return, and as well, we are ready to know the effect of American life on her Philippine memories, and on her Filipinoness. ...more
I have been meaning to say a few things about M. Evelina Galang’s novel, One Tribe (New Issues, 2006). As some of you may know, this is her first noveI have been meaning to say a few things about M. Evelina Galang’s novel, One Tribe (New Issues, 2006). As some of you may know, this is her first novel. Her very first book is a short story collection entitled, Her Wild American Self (Coffee House Press, 1996).
These will be more like notes rather than anything close to a polished statement. I realize that even though I have recently been reading a lot more fiction that I typically do, One Tribe is the first novel that I’ve recently read that I’ve thought hard about in terms of structure in addition to “story.”
The protagonist: Isabel Manalo, a Midwest Pinay who grew up a minority among white folks. She is socially and psychologically scarred, and/or haunted by her recent miscarriage.
The problem: She’s placed herself among the Virginia Beach Filipino American community, and has never experienced this before, a huge, overpowering, and suffocating Filipino social world. I think about its similarities to the sprawling Bay Area Filipino American communities, though the Virginia Beach Filipino Americans are portrayed as tightly tied to the American military.
**spoiler alert** I’d previously been perusing the stories in Marianne Villanueva’s Mayor of the Roses, and I have also heard her read different stori**spoiler alert** I’d previously been perusing the stories in Marianne Villanueva’s Mayor of the Roses, and I have also heard her read different stories from this book at various Bay Area literary venues.
I think this collection is effective in plumbing the particulars of the narrator’s world, and even her neuroses. Throughout the collection, there are linked narratives: the world of Malou, her husband Vic, their son Johnmel, her husband’s co-worker the sexy Selena. It is and isn’t unclear whether Vic and Selena are having an affair, but it is clear that he is fixated on her, that they’ve moved far beyond “harmless flirtation” (as if there were such a thing for married people) into the realm of inappropriate physical and emotional intimacy.
At least in Malou’s mind, Vic would do Selena if he could, and so his being out of the house without explanation or late home from work becomes cause for Malou to speculate. It’s this kind of neurosis that creeps under your skin as a reader. You want to tell her to stop it, stop making herself crazy, but you also know she’s justified in imagining the lengths to which Vic would go just to smell Selena’s aggressive, animal musky perfume, or touch her hair, or brush up against her thigh. Incidentally, Selena is an Asian immigrant as well, and she is also married.
So I actually find these kinds of stories admirable; Villanueva is giving us immigrant in America narratives. They are about struggling through Silicon Valley job layoffs, the boredom of suburban life, going crazy in cubicle farms. These are average, middle-class people, living, working, thinking that perhaps their son’s schoolteacher is racist but being unable to pin it down to any blatant actions. Vic and Malou love each other, fall out of love with each other, raise a family together, experience middle age together.
There are some stories here which feel more like journal entries that are musings and observations on a few related topics then strung together into a story. I find myself at the end of these stories wondering if I missed something, or thinking, wait, that’s it?
Then there is the title story, “Mayor of the Roses,” which is a Balikbayan woman’s perspective of a brutal gang rape of a local young beauty queen and the double murder of her and her boyfriend, perpetrated by the mayor of a small Philippine town, and his men. The perspective of the Balikbayan woman is important here, in the way she understands the thorough corruption of a system of which she is no longer a part but a spectator, which not only allows this kind of brutality as sport, but also rewards its perpetrators. The role of the speaker is as witness to the crazy Philippine media spectacle of the trial. She is so distanced or removed that even outrage is almost abstract to her.
So this here is a Balikbayan narrative that I also appreciate; little of this stereotypical pilgrimage to the idyllic motherland suspended in mythic time. In fact, her other Balikbayan stories are also rife with unromantic themes; the narrator’s married brother’s domestic violence, her father’s diabetic amputations, the illness and decline of the family’s longtime driver. What does an employer family do with their longtime servants who are no longer useful to them? What is the family’s obligation?
So returning to a “home” that is foreign and surreal, brutal and suffocating, in which the Balikbayan can only be an ineffectual witness and a spectator....more