Thursday, August 2, 2018

Book Review of Cecilia Brainard's Fiction by Filipinos in America by Pilipinas

Edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
New Day, 1994, 240 pages
Pilipinas, No. 24, Spring 1995
by Sheng-mei Ma

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard professes in her brief "Introduction" that this present volume was conceived in the early 1980s when she found that "Filipinos were rendered voiceless" and that she wished to "find the elusive 'Filipino voice'"" (8). The result is a collection of stories, some frequently anthologized, such as the ones by Carlos Bulosan, Bienvenido N. Santos. N.V.M. Gonzalez, and Jessica Hagedorn, balanced by other lesser known pieces published recently by the younger generation. In contrast, Brown River, White Ocean: An Anthology of Twentieth Philippine Literature edited by Luis H. Francia (1993), an anthology of more canonized Filipino writers published the same year, includes, among its thirty-one prose writers, only the aforementioned four authors from Brainard's book. The nature of Brainard's anthology -"Filipinos in America" - justifies the exclusion of many famous writers and entails a juxtaposition of both established and burgeoning writers having resided or residing in the States, who may be first-generation, one-and-half-generation, or their descendants. This juxtaposition, however, is not as balanced as it sounds. There is in this a collection a move from, so to speak, Philippine-ness to American-ness. The earlier, longer pieces by an older generation of writers focusing on the Philippines - its culture, the Japanese Occupation, the American involvement in Southeast Asia, and Filipino migrant workers in the U.S. - give way to subsequent shorter vignettes by younger writers dwelling on the American-born generation. This change is somewhat signaled by Jean Vengua Gier's autobiographical piece reminiscing the Filipino working-class community revolving around weekend dancehalls. Stylistically, older writers are quite polished, presenting jewels of subtlety and irony, whereas younger writers tend to experiment with innovative forms of expression.

Most pieces in this anthology are not only set in the West Coast of the U.S. but reflect writers' own experiences associated primarily with that area. It seems that only two exceptions exist: Santos's "A Scent of Apples," which takes place in the Midwest, and Erlinda Villamore Kravetz's "Song From the Mountain" occurring in New York. One wonders whether it would be more accurate to entitle this collection Filipinos in California. Nor is one certain if this lopsided arrangement mirrors the concentration of Filipinos in California or if it ignores Filipinos scattered across the continent.

Is there, however, a more powerful organizing principle in such writings than the fact that these writers reside(d) in the States? After all, a number of stories were published in the Philippines, dealing with the island-nation exclusively (Gonzalez and Olimpo, for instance). Perhaps all too heavy an emphasis has been placed on one's national origin and physical location. The notion of "Filipinos in America" underscores writers' national and ethnic identity, hence suppressing two key characteristics of nearly all the pieces: language and class. As the subtitle of Francia's book suggests, a linguistic community of English both in the Philippines and abroad makes possible the consumption of these texts. A colonial legacy, the use of the English languages pulls Filipino texts away from purely nationalistic confines and places it squarely in postcolonial studies which has heretofore focused on Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia. Moreover, the degree of facility with the colonizer's language often corresponds to one's socioeconomic class. As a result, it is intriguing to see if stories in Brainard's book indeed capture the essence of "the elusive 'Filipino voice'" or simply that of an elite expatriate class.

With few exceptions (Bulosan being the best known), the contributors to this collection are from the educated class who are privileged in having acquired an emigre status. Some served in the Philippine Foreign Service, others spent their lives in the academic world. Their background by no means precludes them from reflecting common Pinoys' life. Juan C. Dionisio, an overseas student turned diplomat, exemplifies this through his piece on the harsh experiences of workers in the Alaskan salmon canneries. A host of writers herein likewise demonstrate an expanding of petty bourgeois concerns to reach other social classes. However, the phenomenon of so many intellectuals going abroad to pursue advanced study, perhaps becoming naturalized U.S. citizens and giving birth to Filipino Americans (whose works are also anthologized), and converging in such a collection has to be traced back to the immediate cause of Cold War and post-Cold War politics and economy, which create a global bourgeosie migrating from developing countries to the West, from "the margins of culture" to its "metropolitan center." The nostalgice glances at the past and the reconstructing of a sense of "home" or "rootedness" so abundant in these stories bespeak a self-contradicting desire characteristic of third-world, middle-class professionals dwelling in the West: while seeking a better life in exodus, they often bemoan the loss of the essense of their being, be it national or cultural identity; nor could they possibly return home, which exists only in their literary imagination. With the advent of postcolonial studies, there is now a trend to institutionalize these exiles' subjectivities and desires in publication and in academe itself. These predicaments, however, have to be contextuatlized in the histories of colonialism and neocolonialism rather than be naively treated as individual angst.

Many stories, for instance, demonstrate an inextricable link between the Philippines and the U.S. or the West in general. Alberto S. Florentino's "Sabrina" follows Puccini's paradigm of Madam Butterfly in intersecting politics with private romance. The romance of an innocence Asian woman and combat-fatigued American soldier from Vietnam is obstructed by another Asian male, Sabrina's brother, and eventually destroyed by the Tet offensive where the solidier is killed in action, one day after his request for marriage with the Filipino woman is granted. Interracial conflicts in war and in love are used by Florentino to critique both the imperialistic American policies and the simplistic nativist rejection symbolized by Sabrina's brother, while showing great sympathy to individuals - American and Filipino alike - embroiled in the struggle.

Reflecting an earlier time which was directly under U.S. colonialism, Linda Ty-Casper's "A Swarm of Sun" caricatures town leaders and American colonialists, while finding their flaws almost endearing, a move similar to Florentino's theme of loving one's colonial masters. This love-hate paradox is perhaps the core of (neo-) coloniazlism and recurs in this anthology. One distinct manifestation of this relationship is the theme of interracial romance of the idolization of white women by Filipino men: the white Goddess Clarabelle duping a Filipino laborer in Bulosan; the intellectual Michelle, with "her whiteness against (the Filipino Jesuit's) brown skin" (155), in Paulino Lim, Jr.; and the affair in Kravetz, a materializing of the alleged dreams of "Asian men...making love to a white woman at least once in their lifetime" (203). While love and illicit affairs happen just as commonly among Filipinos themselves, this recurring motif of interracial eroticism denotes a curious convergence of the Philippines and the U.S., proving that the human body and its desires continue to require de-colonization in this fin-de-siecle, sonething this anthology has begun to engage in through its attempt to represent the ambiguity of Filipino existence.


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