Reviews / June 2016 (Issue 32)

Her Words Are All Mixed Up with English: Noelle Q de Jesus' Blood: Collected Stories

by DragoČ™ Ilca


Noelle Q. de Jesus, Blood: Collected Stories, Ethos Books, 2015. 240 pgs.


Blood: Collected Stories is the first volume of short stories from the Filipino-American writer Noelle Q. de Jesus. Published by Ethos Books in Singapore, Blood brings together classic complexities of womanhood/motherhood, marriage, cultural identity and difference, love/duty and the experience of language. While such thematic explorations may fall into a distinctive and somewhat repetitive pattern, the reader shouldn't shy away from Blood, as there is more to be said about the stylistic devices.

The opening story, "A Small Consolation," presents the mixed couple Therese and Ken living in New York's Upper East Side. One day, Therese finds an abandoned black baby and decides to take him home until the authorities take over. The issue of the orphaned baby brings forward the couple's marital problems underlined by Ken: "When Therese? When will you have our child?" to which the protagonist replies "I don't know." After some reflections marked by words and expressions in Tagalog on the differences between the Filipino and American culture, the couple decides to "take a break" as the baby is taken away by a social worker who has found an adoptive family. While the description of the plot sounds simplistic, it is worthwhile to remark on the pressure Ken places onto the career-driven Therese to "become a family." Traditionally, one might be inclined to believe that it is the woman who wants to be a family or become the "angel in the house," yet in this case, Ken stands for the classic male figure. By all means, Ken (even the name), like most of the male characters in Blood adopts a modern Prince Charmingesque pose: well-off financially, foreign, loving, caring and many other adjectives, yet oblivious. Ken can't quite figure out why Therese won't have a baby with him; "[n]o one can tell that Cara is mad at her husband Joel" ("Equivalents"); Stephen Zubiri can't tell Stella Cervantes is playing with him ("Children's Stories") and so on. Thus, while the stories both empower, re-examine and give depth to the relationships women have in different contexts, de Jesus turns the male protagonists into flat characters. Take that, oppressive patriarchal society!

Speaking of which, the descriptions of bodies are fascinating to examine. One of the main problems feminism takes issue with is the objectification of women. However, in Blood, women are described in an almost Hitchcockian-voyeur style: "Her legs were crossed, her top leg swinging up and down, her slipper hanging precariously at the end of her foot like a garment blowing in the breeze … Every move her bare legs made distracted; he could tell there was nothing beneath the robe." On the other hand, "[s]he felt an absurd urge to touch it [a fellow student's skin on a hot day] as he sat there, bent on his books … He wrote with such vigour she could see the muscles in his forearms and wrists tensing." The first quote is from a male perspective, observing an attractive woman lounging by the pool. The second one objectifies the male body, albeit not in such an obvious way. The attention to detail is almost obsessively recounted through the volume, and it is striking to notice how the characters take shape as they are being gazed upon. The bodies are one of the things that stands out in Blood—the way the female body is objectified in an orthodox kind of way, with the added bonus of the male body being objectified as well. This aspect establishes Blood as an inherently feminist collection of stories (noticeable of course through their previous publications in magazines and literary journals by and for women): the woman can make her own choices, has a job and a career (and no time for kids), can choose to not wear anything underneath the robe, but more importantly, she has the urge to touch that hot guy working next to her. It is not hard to picture the scenarios, as they have been seen countless times in other forms: Two good-looking students working in a library on a summer's day with the air conditioning broken? A Coca-Cola commercial. I am aware at this point that the discussion is turning into the all-too-common (counter) feminist discourse about the ways in which one writes "like a woman," how the woman "takes the language back" à la Hélène Cixous. This is why I believe seeing Blood as a feminist text can be off-putting to some readers. Not because of the political aspect and the growing importance of the feminist movement in contemporary discourse, but because of a particular "style" and set of mannerisms the genre falls into.

The woman in Blood is almost always coerced into making a decision—work/marriage, Filipino/Western culture, children/no children, tradition/modernity, identity/language, love/loss. While the complexity appeals in the first third of the book, the read does seem to fall into predictable patterns: what kind of trouble is she going through now? Is it yet another happy-yet-not-quite marriage to a foreigner? Is the protagonist living in another country rather than his/her own? Is it a mother working hard to keep whatever is left of the family together? The extent to which de Jesus draws from her personal experience is obviously debatable, but I believe Blood could have had a bigger impact if it were shorter. By all means, this is not to say the writing is sloppy or bad; however, the rules of de Jesus's literary framework can be easily determined if one approaches it as a feminist text. Naturally, one derives pleasure from this intellectual exercise, and it establishes the premises of her writing, yet seeing the same rules over and over again can make the reading stale.

Another aspect of Blood worth mentioning is the use of Tagalog words and expressions. It made the text feel foreign in so many ways: the gender, the culture, the attitudes and the language. At first, it seems like an obvious device, yet it achieves so much if one frames it within the feminist paradigm. Not only do the stories weigh on a certain difference, it also marks the language of the woman as different from the rest: "She starts talking in her own language. Her words are all mixed up with English; her voice shakes with anger. First 'How dare you!' and then I can't make out the rest." The line, written on the last pages of Blood, sums up the collection's main premise.

This brings me to my final remark. This review tries to frame Blood as a feminist text. The stories subject themselves to such a reading, yet my conclusion is connected with the stylistic predictability of the texts. What does "writing like a woman" mean today? Blood is by no means an isolated case: from Beyoncé to Star Wars to Game of Thrones via Angela Carter, more and more women are taking both the stage and the swords and blasters. However, insofar as the writing is concerned, could it be the case that we are overemphasising the empowerment of women as an artistic device? I agree with Cixous's urge to take the language back, yet somehow this language translates itself into placing a woman as a protagonist (and here I am instantly reminded of Rey in Star Wars telling Finn to stop holding her hand as they run from blaster explosions), empowering her to make her own choices which somehow are still connected to a form of sexual freedom. This is also why I said I would have preferred Blood to be shorter. If feminism means something, it is that women should not (and will not) be placed in a box. Yet by jumping on the women-as-heroes, women-as-careerists-not-child-bearers bandwagon, are we not, in a pervasive way, falling into the same pigeonhole? Or is it a matter of time? Do we need more time to entertain and entrench the idea that women too are capable of making decisions and saving the galaxy by themselves? Can we shake or do we (you?) want to shake the trend of powerful (phallic?) women? I have no answer or replacement for this question, but I read that phallogocentric writing does tend to get boring after a while. 


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