Reviews / September 2010 (Issue 12)

The Undersell: Growing Up Filipino II

by Alice Tsay


Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, editor, Growing Up Filipino II: More Stories for Young Adults, PALH, 2010. 257 pgs.

If you're a fan of the sequel but the blockbusters that screened at your local movie theater this summer have struck you as too glossy and lacking in heart, Growing Up Filipino II may be a follow-up project that is more your cup of tea. Have you heard of it? No? Well, there may be a good reason why. It's definitely not for the reader who carries or even reads books for cultural cache. The red patterned cover is emblazoned with two rows of decorated flip-flops in every imaginable color, and the subtitle specifies it to be More Stories for Young Adults. In other words, not the type of book people tend to purchase for themselves. This combination of marketing decisions basically limits the main audience within the targeted ethnic demographic to girls of a certain age possessing either well-used library cards or bookstore-frequenting aunts who enjoy giving gifts—that is to say, only a very partial sampling of those who can find something valuable to take from the stories in this book.

So let's put aside the fact that these twenty-seven stories "written by Filipino writers in the Philippines, the United States, and Canada" most likely weren't meant for me or you. Being the subject of writing with a motive is usually a cause for suspicion anyway, which is probably why the introduction—a defense of the content that is a minefield of academic terms—falls a bit flat. We don't really read stories because of the "shifting discourses of ethnicity" that they "interrogate," the "models for cohesion" or "negotiations of transculturality" they provide. No, not even for the "multi-layered specificity" of an author's prose—at least not in the first burst of emotion that determines whether or not we like something we've just read.

Fortunately, the best stories in this collection wiggle skillfully out of the various boxes crafted for them, viewfinder attached. The girlish, juvenile fluff suggested by the cover and the ponderous analysis of the introduction have little to do with offerings of Growing Up Filipino II. Instead, the book offers a selection of pieces that use young central characters and unfussy English as ways of entering into the complications inherent in subjects such as religion, cultural identity, immigration, death and family. Oversimplification and condescension, the two banes of fiction "for" the young, are thankfully the exception rather than the norm. While there are some exceedingly dissatisfying entries in this volume, as a whole the stories reflect artistic philosophies close to that of Maurice Sendak, who has said of his work on picture books such as Where the Wild Things Are, "I never set out to write books for children."

If the short story told through the perspective of a young boy or girl can be considered a genre, then the bar for this genre is almost certainly set by Ernest Hemingway's 1924 "Indian Camp," in which a boy follows his father on a doctoring round that goes awry. Though contributions such as Edgar Poma's "Clothesline" and Oscar Peñaranda's "The Price" don't quite approach the compressed force and understated precision of Hemingway's piece, they are still achievements in their own right. Like Hemingway's Nick Adams, Poma's Robby and Peñaranda's unnamed narrator are honest depictions of boyhood in its first instances of contact with the bafflements presented by the world at large—Robby in encounters with an artistically inclined old man and new stepfather who is like "a garden gnome come to life," Peñaranda's protagonist in an experience with "fragile Uncle Andres" and a contested piece of land.

For readers unfamiliar with Filipino fiction, though, the most welcome discoveries in Cecilia Manguerra Brainard's selection here will probably be the stories by Veronica Montes and Dean Francis Alfar. In "My Father's Tattoo," Montes tracks the story of a couple's tense relationship through the eyes of their daughter. Her prose is rich in wry, telling details, from "the young artist" who "surrounded it [the problematic tattoo of the title] with elegant curlicues at no extra charge" to the little verbal game the girl plays with her father to the conversation that the girl's father and uncle have when they go to wake her up from a nap. It closes with a moment of uncertainty that tips over into resolution with just the right light touch.

Similarly engaging are the stories by Dean Francis Alfar, particularly "How My Mother Flew" and "Something Like That." The former frames its narrative with a child's study of her mother's face over a succession of family reunions, largely avoiding cliché as it moves toward an unfurling of silent action in its final lines that is like a breath suddenly expelled. The latter traces the shifting stream of thought as a newspaper article about a tragic death is read:

…People die, life goes on.

But you look at the accompanying photo and see the girl, half-burnt, sprawled in her bathroom, partially covered by singed towels that were soaking wet when she entrusted her life to their questionable abilities. The bathtub is intact, which makes you think "she must have been too terrified to climb in" and maybe you're right.

Or maybe not.

Maybe she didn't want to get boiled.

Or something like that.

In these lines, Alfar juxtaposes the specific and the vague, the carefully reasoned with the patently slick. The measure of insouciance that repeatedly resurfaces despite being repeatedly suppressed gives the story its unsettling texture, initiating that unwelcome spark of recognition with a flawed character that only good writers can deliberately orchestrate with success.

All greater a pity, then, that this is a book whose fate will almost certainly be determined by its flowery face and by its promotion in the Preface as an anthology designed to "inspire discussion" and serve as "a useful tool" for educators—a double kiss of death, as far as garnering a widespread literary audience is concerned. Though its intentions are noble, Growing Up Filipino II hobbles itself by associating itself so strongly with adolescence, whose diminished relevance in the long run is aptly summed by Aileen Suzara in "Period Mark": "The moment came, and went." As it stands, this anthology may be broadcasting its transience so loudly through its apparatus that its contents have little chance to make a case for themselves. However, despite the fact that it inspires the same denials of attachment as its cousin, the vacuous cinematic sequel, this second short story collection edited by Ms Brainard is worth settling down with for an afternoon if you get a chance. Just say, if you need to, that it was purchased by a well-meaning aunt.

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