Saturday, August 4, 2018

Book Review - Cecilia Brainard's Acapulco at Sunset and Other Stories by Les Adler (Pilipinas)

by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
Anvil 1995, softcover, 157pages
Pilipinas, No. 26, Spring 1996
by Les Adler

Introducing this collection of seventeen short stories, written over a period of eight years, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, a Cebuana residing in Southern California, hopes readers will "learn something...about Filipinos or about manking in general." Adding to her cast of Filipino characters in Philippine settings during the twentienth century, Brainard includes other nationals, Mexican and American settings, and the eighteenth century to communicate universal and timeless truths. Nonetheless, Filipino experience and the Philippines are palpably on display, since the non-Filipino content is incompletely developed as an arena of forces influencing Filipino thought and action. For instance, American reactions to Filipinos stay at a superficial level: "Great people, Filipinos. I was there during World War II," an employer in "Welcome to America" tells a prospective green-card holder looking for work. This sort of exchange is less than informative of the range of Filipino-non-Filipino interaction outside the Philippines. However, Brainard's treatment of Filipinos and cultural assumptions and social practices regarding men and women, marriage, and social roles and relationships across the life cycle is insightful.

Although writing from outside the Philippines, Brainard uses the Philippines and Filipinos as "either the original or terminal reference point." This narrative strategy, which Oscar Campomanes argues characterizes literature written by Filipinos in the U.S. or Filipino Americans, opposed to "ethnic" literature, which addresses immigration and settlement. It is best described, Campomanes suggests, as a literature of "exile and emergence" (Discrepant Histories: Translocal Essays on Filipino Cultures, ed. Vicente L. Rafael.) Brainard enriches the conventional understanding of exile by applying the concept to Filipino experience in the Philipines. She is thereby able to show the cultural and social issues that a Filipino/a faces while in exile are universal Filipino experiences.

This is not a happy book. Exile induces mental suffering, which Brainard's characters experience as nostalgia, bereavement, or grief for relatives, friends, former beaus, language, fragrance, foods: in a word, one's baggage. Typically, they feel their sufferings through memories, dreams, or conversations with the deceased: narrative devices which estrange a character from everyday world, much as exile separates an actor from a familiar environment.

In the opening lines of the tale from which the collection takes its title, the Filipina Maria forbids her gardener from destroying a spider and its web, positioned snugly for two weeks now on her ocean-view verandah in Acapulco. Sitting there, in a light rain waiting for the Manila galleon and its letters and treasures, she shuffles among memories of relatives and old suitor, whom she loved but whose marriage proposal she refused because his prospects for making a secure and comfortable living were poor. She cannot literally visit the past, but neither can she move beyond her memories of home and subversive longings for an erstwhile romance. "I too am creating a web, am I not?" she asks. In both corporeal and mental exile, she spins imaginary nets to savor the past which then leave her "no other place to go" since the present is second-rate.

This view that a life lived in exile is also physhic entrapment is amplified in the fourth and fifth stories, although they are set in the Philippines with Filipino actors, hardly exilic circumstances. Therefore, the focus of the stories shifts to Filipinos concerns in any time or place, lending thematic unity to the collection. In these stories, again, the issue centers on the choices made about appropriate life course pursuits. A culturally based tension surfaces as a central motif:pursue personal desires of sacrifice individual plans to help out with needs of larger social units, like the family or society. In Cebuano Visayan discourse about life's paths, striking out on one's own to advance materially, fulfill career ambitions, or follow love and marry a sweetheart are goals young people are expected or encouraged to fulfill. However, individual wishes are always considered against group needs, and the latter often take priority when the two conflict, necessitating some compromise or surrender of personal goals.

In two psychologically rich tales, "Casa Bonita" and "The Virgin's Last Night," Ricardo and Meding, the respective central characters, have chosen culturally fitting roles but not without psychological and social costs. Since Ricardo's father abused and crippled his mother, the son has "had to take care of her" and manage their store. Unhappy in this role, for he aspired to be a priest, he boils with discontent. As the story unfolds, a new neighbor, attractive and flirtatious, arouses Ricardo's romantic impulses. He realizes he can never express his love because she, unlike him and his mother, is wealthy and socially inaccessible. Blocked not only from achieving his vocational aim, but also from connecting satisfyingly with the neighbor, he grows darkly obsessed, killing her in order to possess and protect her.

In "The Virgin's Last Night," Meding, during her last night alive, is engrossed in conversation with her once and only beau, Mateo, dead now for some time. Clearly still in love but also annoyed with his reputation as a philanderer while married to someone else, she upbraids him. What else, he wonders, could he have done? She refused his proposal for marriage, forcing him to marry someone else whom he did not love. When that "prickly and shrill" marriage failed, he turned to "girlfriends." Meding reminds him she loved him but had to assume responsibility for Petra, her sickly sister, after their parents' death. Morever, she wants him to know her life was not unsatisfactory: "...I've had a good life. Just because you did a fine job messing up yours doesn't mean I wasn't happy. Petra and I have done our part serving the church, society, doing the best we can." Mateo challenges her to explain why she chose not to marry him - for surely they could have accommodated Petra? She breaks down:

The truth of it, Mateo, the real truth, is that I was afraid. I loved you so much, too much, and I was afraid...of being hurt. It seemed to me that love begot pain. And love is terribly unreliable. Papa loved Mama, and she died...You know he died in his mistress's bedroom; the shame of it. Love wasn't real. Pain was, and suffering...Don't protest, Mateo, I've seen it happen too many times, men falling out of love...What would have happened to me?

In this cultural scenario which actors have had to abort personal desires for group demands, the opposition of passionate love and sexuality to marriage as a passionless, sober experience is a favorite Brainard theme. That is, she illustrates the tension between individual and group through discourse on marriage. Throughout most of the stories, being married holds little appeal; relations are cold, emotionless, without passion or joy. Husbands are usually unfaithful while wives/mothers are plaintive and bitter. "All my life I have borne my cross, worked myself to the bone,"Epang, Ricardo's mother, tells her son after the physically appealing neighbor has left their store. Marked a "slut" ("Casa Bonita)" or "an experienced girl ("The Dead Boy"), this other woman stands for the passionaate sexuality and love which are possible outside marriage, much as Meding and Mateo's consummation at the story's end of their first-love courtship, not in marriage but in a dream-like embrace, he from the land of the dead and she about to depart from the living.

Thus marriage and sexuality/love/passion are incompatible. Structurally, marriage is the province of reproduction, material provisioning, and parenting, while sexuality as romance plays a background role. Male sexual activity outside marriage is a foregone conclusion, given the cultural interpretation of male sexuality as naturally insatiable: Ben, telling his first romantic attachment, Lucy, "what it's like to be in an unhappy marraige," reveals to her, "Yes, I have girlfriends. They give me something I don't get at home." Similarly, in "A Very Short Story," everyman cruises hotels for an "afternoon of sad, hot-blooded lovemaking," after which, Brainard narrates, "Face like stone, you tell your wife whom you have long ago stopped loving, that you had a late business meeting..."

In these stories, marriage emerges as the instrument of cultural, social, and biological reproduction, that is, the executor of group interests to which individual desires are subjugated. While marriage is a productive relationship, it also is a form of exile. Listening to Brainard's tired wives/mothers who have exhausted their functions as agents of reproduction, income provision, and parenting, often without male contributions, one is struck by the loneliness and rejection staring them down at the ends of their lives: "Yes, I understand my mother's sorrow, fear and anxieties after Papa's death. And no, I cannot change her, and yes I have my own life. And that life is far away from here, far away from her" (Killing Time" also "Melodee"). Husbands, too, endure a kind of exile, a "muted sorrow and anger." While they are responsible for their own misery, having "stopped loving" their wives, they are also victims of their own sexuality, exiled to a culture of masculinity which leads them toward sexual satisfaction but away from the relationships and "laughter and stories" present when their marriages began ("A Very Short Story").

While men's stories are included, women's lives are more continually in the camera's eye. Evaluating them, women seek to avoid pitfalls their mother's faced as they fashion new lives, living, for instance, without men or children while pouring energy into careers and building economic self-sufficiency. This challenges are faintly drawn, however, for the careerists are depicted in the midst of fresh pursuits and how their lives will take shape is unknown. Indeed, exile generates its own conditions, whether the setting is eighteenth century Acapulco or American in the late twentieth. In both cases, a return to home is impossible, just as integration into the new surroundings is less inviting. And so one is trapped. However, the story is incomplete, since Brainard only tells about exile in relation to home but not exile becoming settlement. It will be interesing to learn whether the dilemmas Filipinos experience in marriage and life cycle roles and relationships are transformed in different environments or whether the logic of exile precludes significant change.


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