I’ve sometimes been asked to give recommendations on which Filipino authors to read. While there are over 3 million Filipino Americans today (the second largest Asian American group in the U.S.), books by Filipinos or about the Philippine experience are not as widely available as, say, the Chinese or Indian experience. This relative invisibility extends beyond books: When was the last time you ate at a Filipino restaurant? Or seen a Filipino on T.V. shows or movies?
If you’re compiling your list of books to read this summer, below are a few titles by Filipino or Filipino American writers that I heartily recommend. Many of these touch upon the historic relations to Spain and the U.S., and the rather strange amalgam of colonial influences that resulted – as the saying goes, the Philippines spent “three hundred years in the convent and fifty years in Hollywood.”
If you like Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, you might also find this post-modern novel by Jessica Hagedorn to be enjoyable. Dogeaters is full of humor and inventive plots. It throws you right into the world of its characters – upper-class, dysfunctional Manila family with interesting names (though common in the Philippines) such as Boy Boy, Romeo, and Baby. It’s also set during the Marcos regime in the ‘80s and includes a highly original chapter in which the narrator takes on the perspective of Imelda Marcos in a dream. Like Díaz, Hagedorn doesn’t explain many of the foreign words in Tagalog – but if you pay attention, there are usually plenty of context clues to understand the scenes. To me, Dogeaters is Downton Abbey meets The Dictator, if such an unlikely combo is possible. The novel was nominated for the National Book Award in 1991.
Lysley Tenorio’s collection of short stories is one of the most underrated books to have come out in the last three years. Though this was his debut collection, Tenorio is no novice writer. His previous accomplishments include the Whiting Writer’s Award and Stegner Fellowship, as well as support from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony and the National Endowment for the Arts.The thing I liked most about Monstress is its ability to come up with brilliant premises that announce themselves right at the opening. However, Tenorio’s restraint and graceful prose always make sure that these “hooks” never go out of hand – rather, the stories almost always end with a quiet thump rather than spurious literary firecrackers. Most of the stories are set in the U.S. and some of my favorites include: “Save the I-Hotel” (of unrequited gay love and brotherly friendship during the demolition of a San Francisco hotel in the seventies) and “Felix Starro” (about a con faith healer and his grandson as they traveled in the U.S. to “treat” unwitting patients).
3. Bread of Salt and Other Stories
N.V.M. Gonzalez is like the James Joyce of the Philippines – like Dubliners, Gonzalez’s collection is heavily rooted in a specific place: the rural island of Mindoro off the coast of Luzon. Gonzalez’s stories are all very subtle with just the smallest hints of plot. The enjoyment lies in the author’s detailed eye for describing events, people and place. The arcs of his stories usually start off with matter-of-fact depictions that belie episodic storytelling, but slowly, Gonzalez infuses such facts with significance and meaning to the characters that by the end, I often find myself incredibly moved and wanting to re-read the pieces. Gonzalez is canonized as a “National Artist” in the Philippines and though he spent a considerable amount of time in the U.S. as a professor (he taught at UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, University of Washington, etc.), he is less known here. Gonzalez died in 1999.
The ingenuity of this novel deserves to be included in the list, but Miguel Syjuco’s first novel is not for the faint of heart. Told through multiple narrative threads stitched together in fragments, Ilustrado is a pseudo-mystery story about the Filipino-American writer by the same name (“Miguel Syjuco”) who goes to the Philippines to investigate the apparent suicide of his writer-mentor Crispin Salvador. The postmodern narrative includes multiple POVs and employs an assortment of e-mails, blog comments, fake novel excerpts, fake interviews and references that might be more enjoyable to those steeped in the literary fiction world. Ilustrado was the 2008 winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize.