Saturday, August 4, 2018

Book Review - Cecilia Brainard's Contemporary Fiction by Filipinos in America by Harold Augenbraum

Edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
Anvil , 1997, softcover, 254 pages
Available in Kindle

Review by Harold Augenbraum
MANOA, Vol. 13, No., 1, Silence to Light: Japan and the Shadows of War (Summer, 2001) pp. 201-203

A couple of years ago, I asked a colleague of mine who was preparing a comprehensive
anthology of world literature which Filipino writers he was going to include.He wasn't aware of any, he replied, adding that they probably hadn't been translated yet.

I explained that many of the best Filipino writers in the Philippines wrote in English, a legacy of American colonialism from 1898 to 1946. With great enthusiasm and some hope, I mentioned a half dozen that he might want to consider, including N .V. M. Gonzalez, L inda Ty-Casper, and F.Sionil Jose. I wasn't surprised, however, when the anthology appeared without a one.

In the United States, the Philippines has always been esteemed for its strategic importance while Filipino culture has been almost invisible.The truth is that the Philippines has a rich literary heritage, extending from the archipelago to the various other countries in which Filipinos have settled, including former colonial masters Spain and the United States.The writers who have made a name for themselves in the States-Carlos Bulosan, Bienvenido Santos, Linda Ty-Casper, Ninotchka Rosca, perhaps Nick Carbo, and certainly Jessica Hagedorn - are few, though their writing is powerful and consistently good. Hagedorn is the most honored: her nomination for the National Book Award literary lord, such as Cecilia Manguerra Brainard. The University of Washington Press has loyally for Dogeaters brought some attention to lesser-known Filipino writers toiling in the vineyards of the kept Santos and Bulosan in print, as well as brought Gonzalez to the attention of the American public - about as much as a small university house can do for these writers.

The anthologies of Filipino and Filipino American writing published in the States have also appeared infrequently. In 1966, Leonard Casper, a prominent critic and the husband of LindaT y-Casper, compiled an extraordinary collection called New Writing from the Philippines. A few Filipino American pieces were included in the seminal 1974 Asian American anthology Aiieee! though the vastly different experiences of Filipinos in the States, and a wholly different literary tradition, resulted in two separate introductions to the book: one for Chinese and Japanese Americans; the other for Filipino Americans.

In 1992, Luis Francia edited the marvelous Brown River,White Ocean, which thrived despite the publisher's barely useable design. F rancia's next contribution was 1996's Flippin' Filipinos on America, which he and Eric Gamalinda edited for the Asian American Writers' Workshop, based in New York. A writer's book, composed half of poetry and half of prose, it is filled with the sheer pleasure of literary achievement and remains the best Filipino American anthology available today.

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard's 1993 anthology, Fiction by Filipinos in America, was a low-budget collection published by New Day Publishers in Quezon City, Philippines. For it she collected a good cross-section of Filipino writers, from the little known to the more accomplished, producing a good introduction to Filipino writing in America.Contemporary Fiction by Filipinos in America, also published in the Philippines, covers some of the same grounds even of the twenty-five contributors were included in the earlier collection, though it is comforting to see Gonzalez and Ty-Casper again.

Since the late nineteenth century, the Philippines has been wracked by political difficulties: its revolt against Spain in 1898, American domination, a Japanese invasion, and the Marcos plutocracy. Yet except for the hints of this situation in Gonzalez's story "Confessions of a Dawn Person," and the migrant background in Alma Jill Dizon's promising "Bride," the stories in Contemporary Fiction by Filipinos in America focus little, if at all, on the history of the Filipino experience in the Philippines. This is a favorite theme of at least one U.S..-resident writer who is not included here, Ninotchka Rosca, who weaves that history into the fabric of her work.

With its political legacy omitted, the Philippines is neither idealized nor demonized. As an ancestral home, the place of one's consciousness before coming to America, it becomes another "worldly" place: subtly powerful, vivid, and distant. Within the Filipino a nd Filipino American world, trials and tribulations focus the self within a social context, but not on the context. Even in Brainard'cs ontribution, "Flip Gothic," in which an uncontrollable young woman on the verge of
 adulthood is sent by her family in the States to live with her grandmother in Manila, the national culture of the Philippines is subjugated to the household culture, and the homeland is affective, but amorphous.

By pulling these personal, fictional quests together, the reader indeed comes away with a varied portrait of Filipinos in America, not the expression of dark causality present in the earlier generations of writers, such as Bulosan and Santos- those fantastic conjurors of Filipino America n literature - but of people cautiously settling into what they hope will be a comfortable position.

In Veronica Montes's "Of M idgets and Beautiful Cousins," a Filipino American teenager and her sister, visiting their cousins in Manila, are taken to a dance club called "Small World," where the entire staf is made up of midgets.The girl is nervous and edgy. Against a backdrop of raucous eroticism - American soldiers hoot at the torch singer onstage - her cousin introduces her to a friend of his who is a waiter there and who shows an obvious interest in her. This makes her feel even more anxious, and she panics. They leave, and as they walk through the rain to their car, the waiter comes running up with an umbrella to shelter her - a sad ending to a sad evening of Filipinos, Americans, and Filipino Americans.

So many of these stories convey loneliness, disconnectedness, and an inability o form lasting attachments. They are stories rooted in rootlessness. Dizon's "Bride" harkens back to the days before World War II, when Pinoys made up a ood part of the migrant workers on the plantations of Hawai'i, California, and Oregon. Cut off from the women of their homeland, they would troll the streets for hours, seeking companionship, drifting in and out of Chinese bordellos and dance bars - pictures that Bulosan drew with pathos and lyricism. Dizon's Candido has left a family behind in the Philippines; his wife has died and his children moved away. Decades pass. H awai'ii s now a state, the gateway to America. An old man, Candido receives a letter from a cousin. She knows a young woman who might want to marry, w hich Candido recognizesa s an obvious immigration ploy. Despite this, he agrees and they wed. She quickly becomes pregnant, an unexpected event since Candido is in his early seventies. Two months after the birth of their child, she commits suicide.

The well-worn ground of the woman in a sanitarium is Linda Ty-Casper's cenario in "Dark Star/Altered Seeds."F rom a lesser writer, the story might be stale, but Ty-Casper is so deft with language - a fact known to readers of literary magazines and the slim novels she has published with Readers International, Inc. - it seems fresh. The narrator's husband has left her for another woman, but his return does not cure the ills that abandonment has caused: Is she pretty? Was that the question that woke her up? Then why did he leave? Every nameless, faceless woman; every young and jubilant face she meets becomes that woman. She. When he holds her now she becomes her, too. The narrator's own identity has been usurped by her husband's thoughtless exchange of women, and even the reader becomes somewhat confused by the manner in which Ty-Casper has placed her pronouns. This collection abounds with such tension.

Though Contemporary Fiction by Filipinos in America could benefit from the addition of a bit more humor and a few East Coast writers - such as Rosca, Gamalinda, Hagedorn, and Regie Cabico - these are quibbles. Brainard has done a fine job of bringing many ;ittle-known writers - and the edginess of Filipinos in America - to the fore.



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