A Filipino Miscellany for One Shot: Southeast Asia
Today’s One Shot World Tour travels to Southeast Asia. For a complete roundup, visit Chasing Ray.
Here are four mostly English-language books from the Philippines. The first book, and the only novel, is the weakest, so I probably shouldn’t start off with it, but I’m going in the order in which I read the books.
Tonyo’s family is poor. His mother becomes an OCW—an overseas contract worker—in Hong Kong with the hopes of earning more money for her family than she could have earned in the Philippines. And while she is able to send home money and gifts for the family, Tonyo is forced to drop out of school to take care of the chores his mother had previously been responsible for, and his father turns into a drunkard, beating Tonyo and making life miserable for Tonyo and his younger siblings. Tonyo decides that his only course of action is to find his mother in Hong Kong and bring her back home.
Carla M. Pacis’ writing in OCW: A Young Man’s Search for His Mother is smooth and easy to read, the story fast-paced with short chapters. Which makes its idealism and the depiction of most of the secondary characters that much more glaring and disappointing. On Tonyo’s first day alone in Manila, he’s robbed by three street kids, who then allow him to tag along with them and basically become part of the gang as they rob people and sell drugs. But despite all the robbing, heroic Tonyo manages to avoid the temptations the other boys fall prey to and his only desire is to find his mother. From this point on, practically every person he meets is goodhearted and helps him out on his quest. And don’t get me started on the ending.
The publisher says OCW is for intermediate grades to high school, but I think it’s most suitable for upper elementary readers, in the US, in terms of reading level, and there’s nothing inappropriate for that age level. Despite my criticisms, OCW is still noteworthy in that it tackles a subject rarely discussed in America, albeit in what is probably an unrealistic manner. A much better offering from Pacis can be found in Bagets: An Anthology of Filipino Young Adult Fiction.
Full disclosure: I have never been a fan of short stories. But I enjoyed many of the stories in these last three books, and actually finished all the English-language stories, something I don’t think can be said about any of the American anthologies I’ve picked up. Part of it probably comes down to length—the longest story in any of these anthologies was still under 20 pages, and many of the stories were around 10 pages or shorter. But there was also something pleasingly straightforward about the stories, a focus on story and a lack of pretension that I liked.
Bagets, which Pacis co-edited with Eugene Y. Evasco, is a collection of 16 stories, eight written in Filipino and eight in English. Pacis also wrote an introduction to the second half of the collection, the English-language section, called “From Behind the Bookshelf: Literature for Young Adults in the Philippines.” In it, she writes, “The genre of literature for young adults (YA) is still in its infant stages in the Philippines—even younger than its sibling, children’s literature—and not yet fully understood or integrated into the academic and literary circles.” (p. 87) In addition, “No subject is taboo or inappropriate in young adult literature. In the US and UK today, the line between YA and adult literature is almost invisible in terms of the themes and subject matter that authors choose. This is not the same with Filipino YA literature that can be characterized as being conservative.” (p. 89)
Pacis’ contribution, “There Was This Really Fat Girl…,” is one of several stories about prom night. Ana is overweight and has her eye on a prom dress that won’t look good on her unless she loses weight. It’s a brief story, but contains more toughness and harsh truths than did OCW.
The other two stories that deal with a prom are, respectively, the one I consider to the the strongest in the collection and the one that is my favorite. “Cinderella and the Night of the Prom” by Rachelle Tesoro I liked the most because of its bursts of sarcastic humor and several unexpected twists as Darlene relates the details of her prom night with the date a friend arranged for her. The standout, “Sweet and Tender Hooligans,” by Mae Astrid Tobias, is the only story written from a male perspective, and it’s also about the oldest protagonist, a college student named Martin who falls in love with a childhood playmate. Ann Louise is one year younger than Martin. Her strict mother does not want her to date, but Ann Louise has a boyfriend at school.
I don’t know how Ann Louise managed to convince me to play along, but I did. Together we arranged conspiracies to hide her relationship with Baseball Guy from her mother. Every time they arranged to go out, I would be her cover. (p. 147)
Even on prom night.
Other than the final story, “Girl Meets Girl” by Agay C. Llanera, in which Anya wonders if she is falling in love with another girl, there was a rather disappointing lack of diversity in Bagets. All the stories are contemporary realistic fiction and felt similar in authorial style and voice, as well as in terms of the characters and conflicts. I think part of the reason “Sweet and Tender Hooligans” stands out is because it’s written in a different style than the other seven stories. The pace more measured, the narration more deliberate and careful, and the span of time it covers is longer. As for the characters and conflicts, the female narrators seemed largely interchangeable, all from seemingly well-off families. (They all actually reminded me of Vicenza from Melissa de la Cruz’s Fresh Off the Boat.) Which is, perhaps, a bit harsh, because the stories were well-written overall. Perhaps the key is to not read all the English language stories in one sitting, like I did.
Neither Nine Supernatural Stories, edited by April Timbol Yap and Lara Saguisag, nor Afraid: The Best Phillipine Ghost Stories, edited by Danton Remoto, were put together for teens, but both can easily be read by teens interested in the supernatural. Nine Supernatural Stories and Afraid include the most diversity in style and setting. While Afraid is comprised entirely of ghost stories, the stories in Nine Supernatural Stories (only seven of which are in English) are not necessarily scary or suspenseful. This said, Afraid is a weaker collection than Nine Supernatural Stories because, even though the stories are all set in the Philippines, many will seem familiar, or at least predictable, to anyone who has read their fair share of ghost stories.
The best story in Nine Supernatural Stories is the first one, “Beggar of Description” by Adel Gabot. This is a slowly building story with fantastic writing, like
He wore tattered, blackened clothes that were more hole than fabric, held together by grime. Old and thin, the man had long, wet oily hair plastered to his head like a greasy shawl. He was veined with light brown lines where the rain had eroded the dirt on his skin. I suppose I should be thankful that the downpour had washed him off a little. He clung to the bars at the back of the jeepney, leaving grease marks on them. (p. 8 )
The other story I found noteworthy was Emil M. Flores’ “Ghosts of Infinity.” If there is no mystery series featuring Arturo Ganigan, NBI, there really should be. I would read it, at any rate, because of how much I enjoyed the rather hard-boiled writing style and the entertainment factor of this story (at least, until the ending, which got a little crazy).
I borrowed all four books from the library, so I don’t know how readily available they are in the US. But if you can get your hand on them, give them a try, even if you don’t usually like short stories. You may be surprised.