Rocio Davis introduces Growing Up Filipino: Stories for Young Adults edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
On the Edge: Paradigms of the Filipino and Filipino American Bildungsroman
The process of establishing Filipino and Filipino American subjectivities from within —foregrounding creative imagination as a vital part of the process of self-identification —has reached a turning point clearly resonant with the phenomenological reality of the Filipino/American. Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s compilation of short stories for young adults addresses the layered complexity of Filipino and Filipino American writing that engages the definition and the process of growing up Filipino. This ground-breaking anthology invites the reader to immerse him or herself into the multifariousness of the Filipino experience, a palimpsest of races, religions, languages, customs, allegiances, and affiliations. The intense world of childhood and the passage into adulthood protagonizes these stories of family relationships, rites of passage, friendships, war and loss, adolescence, romance, sexual awakening, and immigration, disclosing the characters’ haunting insecurities and reveling in moments of pure joy. In the contexts of traditional extended families, convent schools, rural villages, wartime cities and towns in Manila, and cosmopolitan settings in the United States, the protagonists of the stories undergo processes of maturity that involve self-identification and make choices that determine their positions. The stories repeatedly highlight diverse metaphors of Filipino-ness, as they suggest that growing up Filipino implies negotiating the consequences of history and family eccentricities, navigating cultural contingencies and personal choices, and enacting individual strategies of self-formation and self-representation.
The collection represents the scope and diversity — and, importantly, suggests renewed possibilities and an auspicious future — for Filipino/American writing today. As Saul-ling C. Wong points out in her recent review of Asian American literary anthologies, the current proliferation of specialized anthologies linked by genre or theme may be considered "a measure of the field’s professionalization" (237); the addition of Growing Up Filipino to the group of existing anthologies of Filipino and Filipino American writing makes a significant statement on the vitality of the field. The contributors to this volume — Filipinos and Filipino Americans, established writers and emerging voices — confirms the stimulating development and increasing maturity of Filipino and Filipino American writing in English, as each creatively engages the shifting ground between self and culture, questioning notions of purpose and belonging, using humor and pathos to formulate the nuances of the Filipino personality acting upon the world. Moreover, to publish writing by Filipinos and Filipino Americans in the same volume stresses the continuity of Filipino writing in English, and the emergence of mutually enhancing forms of discerning and articulating the Filipino experience. This strategy also highlights the fluid nature of the Filipino/Filipino American divide and allows individual writers to dialogue with the community of voices assembled by the anthology: the resulting polyphony offers a kaleidoscopic vision of the Filipino psyche.
The stories are driven by their writers’ attempts to organize and make sense of personal and collective experiences that are often contradictory, vexing, and paradoxical. They repeatedly demonstrate how Filipinos cross the boundaries of unity and diversity to claim multiple and complementary relationships to distinct communities, languages, and cultures. As Eric Gamalinda points out in the introduction to another anthology of Filipino writing, Flippin’: Filipinos on America:
Philippine writing remains one of the most vibrant in the world, an on-going tradition that can no longer be contained by the strictures of language or even of geography: for Philippine literature is a complex, multifaceted, multilingual organism, written in various dialects (and in English) in the archipelago, in Australia, in Europe and America, by people who have never seen America, people who have never seen the Philippines, or people who have seen one or both, but who feel continually called upon to make sense of this unique and sometimes flabbergasting culture. (4)
These texts confirm Gamalinda’s claim to the continuing resonance of writing by Filipinos, in particular through the appropriation and manipulation of metaphors specific to the Filipino/American experience. Relatives, rites of passage, food, and language are among the most loaded metaphors. By highlighting these metaphors, the writers construct texts that emphasize their own awareness of the multilayered nature of Filipino-ness. In particular, for instance, the negotiation with the languages spoken by Filipinos and Filipino Americans becomes one of the recurring issues in many of these texts. Because of the critical position of language as a means of self-expression and empowerment, identifying the discursive realm as one of the terrains of oppression or personal insecurity or as a means for agency allows writers to successfully examine their protagonists’ process of socialization.
Brainard’s specific focus, narratives of childhood, makes this anthology an important contribution to the field by filling a space that was clamoring for recognition. This collection is the first anthology that focuses exclusively on children and adolescents, and is directed towards a young adult audience. By addressing the issues of childhood and adolescent culture, aside from ethnic affiliation, the anthology can also speak to a wider audience. The diverse stories demonstrate how the child archetype, one of the most recurrent themes in many important ethnic writers, can be a powerful means of defining the responses of a country’s artistic minds to its evolving socio-cultural climate. Literary texts are emblematic of the structures that generate or manipulate meanings at specific historical moments, by presenting a larger critique of culture and ideology, of the manner in which the inscription of the experiences of particular children bear on or illustrate the development of contemporary societies. Texts that privilege the child character bear a special burden in negotiating the representations of the palimpsestic societies within which they are set. By collecting texts that span decades and cross oceans as they deal with the representation of childhood, this anthology highlights innovative or even subversive perceptions, approaches, and representations of the Filipino’s necessarily transcultural identity. The stories collectively attest that the Filipino identity is not unitary — that it is in constant flux and is subject to being written and rewritten in literary terms. They also explore the fragmented nature of the Filipino collective self, as they examine the limits of history and ethnicity. The vision represented, in highly individual ways, consistently challenges accepted versions of the child character or the form of the child’s involvement with the world. The manner in which the child’s self is constituted and the process of meaning, therefore, stress the child’s subjectivity, as determined by social formations, language, and political or personal contingencies. What is consistent across these stories is the manner in which considerations of the figure of the child, or the child as primary audience for the text, nuance our view of representations of society. The passage from subject to individual becomes a central theme for many of these texts, as the children begin to impose themselves upon the world, transforming themselves into active participants in their stories, protagonists of their own lives.
The engagement with childhood and the contingencies of history, ethnicity, family, and social class are highlighted by the stories’ status as bildungsroman, the classic narrative of formation, which, as Lisa Lowe argues, is "the primary form for narrating the development of the individual from youthful innocence to civilized maturity, the telos of which is the reconciliation of the individual with the social order" (98). The traditional bildungsroman functions as a strategy for identification with the accepted social order and value system, as it chronicles the protagonist’s assimilation of his or her society’s values. The ethnic bildungsroman departs dramatically from the traditional pattern, to engage the individual’s process of awareness of particularity and difference, and the choice of identifying with or rejecting the models society offers. The stories in this collection manifest this singular approach: rather than merely appropriating accepted societal perspectives, the protagonists explore the nature and predicament of the child on the cusp of change. This renewed position postulates an identity that is self-defined, rather than merely a product of traditional influences; it makes reevaluation as important as learning. As such, these stories can also be read as strategic interventions in psychological or literary constructions of ethnicity, gender, and culture. The process of selfhood and the Filipino or Filipino American child’s evolving subjectivity are the covert themes in much of this fiction, and the politics of identity and self-formation find in these writings fertile ground for discovery. The focus is on the process of becoming, rather than on the act of being; a program that cannot be divorced from the act of representation.
The recurring theme is evidenced in the title of the anthology: the stories are about "growing up." Interestingly, substituting the preposition with others multiplies meanings, and reflects some of the stories’ central concerns, while challenging conventional limitations and exploring diverse themes and approaches. The stories in Brainard’s anthology are not only about "growing up," but also importantly engage the process of "growing into" Filipino-ness, "growing with" Filipinos, and "growing in" or "growing away from" the Philippines. Two oftentimes complementary, but sometimes oppositional, processes are enacted in this anthology: the natural biological/psychological journey from childhood to adolescence to adulthood; and the process of becoming Filipino, awakening to and integrating the specificities of one’s cultural milieu or heritage. If a literary revisitation of the time of childhood means, in a sense, re-creating that childhood, then revisiting the complex manifestations of Filipino culture as apprehended by a child or adolescent becomes a creative journey into identity and self-formation.
The twenty-nine stories in the anthology are divided into five sections, "Family," "Angst," "Friendship," "Love," and "Home." The first section explores a variety of family relationships and cultural norms and expectations. Grandparents are the focal point of several stories, such as Paula Angeles’s "Lola Sim’s Handkerchief," where a sixteen-year-old Filipina American whose relationship with her grandmother had soured as she became more and more Americanized, chooses to keep only her grandmother’s handkerchief after her death, a memento of their most harmonious moments together. In Libay Linasangan Cantor’s "Tea and Empathy," a young girl recalls her grandmother’s maid, who had taught her to drink tea, and understand the insidious nature of class divisions. Veronica Montes’s "Lolo’s Bride" is a subtly humorous story about keeping up appearances, as the narrator’s mother refuses to accept that her recently-widowed father has actually returned to the Philippines and come back to the US with a new, very young, wife. A young girl’s true awakening comes in Marianne Villanueva’s "Grandmother" when she understands her liminal position between her grandmother’s frustration and her mother’s tragic life. The experience of a deception played on an older relative is the theme of Ruby Enario Carlino’s "Blue Fangipanis," where the narrator learns that her dying Aunt Julia has been tricked by a young man who has taken advantage of her loneliness. Complex family relationships are explored in both Linda Ty-Casper’s war story, "In Place of Trees," and Gemino Abad’s urban narrative, "Houseboy." These sophisticated stories center on young boys negotiating their family relationships, grief, and hidden secrets. Culture shock and inadaptability to the land of heritage characterizes Rico Siasoco’s "Deaf Mute," where an American-born boy about to go to college visits the Philippines for the first time and meets his family there.
The section entitled "Angst" suggests that loss, violence, and insecurity are constituents of the process of maturity. "Voice in the Hills," by Alfred Yuson, set in a rural village, recounts Bingo’s several rites of passage: his circumcision, a growing awareness of the nature of violence, and lessons in loyalty. The violent nature of the racial divide that characterized the United States in the 1960s is the thematic center of both Vince Gotera’s "Manny’s Climb" and Oscar Peñaranda’s "Day of the Butterfly," where groups of boys and young men, aware of the role of their race in their interactions with others, have to make decisions about where they stand. The effects of violence also surface in "American Son Epilogue," which begins where Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son ends. Here, the biracial adolescent Gabe negotiates the consequences of beating up a schoolboy, the lies he’s told his mother, his brother’s imprisonment, family and religious belief, and the hope for another chance to return to school. Albert Florentino’s young protagonist, Annette, in "Indian-Giver," cannot forgive God for taking her baby sister away. A mother’s acceptance and support of her son’s sexual orientation and his need to explore the limits of this choice is the theme of Joel Tan’s "San Prancisco."
The stories in the section entitled "Friendship" highlight the idiosyncrasies of childhood or adolescent relationships, as well as the anguish and insecurity children feel. The need to be part of a group, to conform rather than to be different, becomes a driving force. Wanggo Gallanga’s "The Purpose of Malls" is a slice-of-an-afternoon scene that reflects the pivotal position of the mall in the performance of Filipino adolescent’s dating rituals, as well as the evanescent nature of those attachments. Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s "The Eye of the Needle" and Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo’s "The Magic Glasses" focus on young girls at school, and their efforts to belong to the group. In the first story, the narrator allows herself to be blackmailed by another girl who threatens to tell the head nun about an episode of the former’s "immodesty"; in the second, a girl experiments with strategies to become popular. Edgar Poma’s story about differences in sexual orientation is set in a migrant camp, and foregrounds the lives of the children of these workers. Mar V. Puatu’s "It’s a Gruen" centers on a boy’s hero-worship of an older cousin, and the young adolescent’s typical desire to be older.
The section entitled "Love" takes some of the issues of the previous one a step further by focusing on moments of defining relationships for the adolescent protagonists, and revising the question of attachment and identification. In M. Evelina Galang’s "Her Wild American Self," the narrator recounts the story of her "wild" American-born aunt, who was sent back to the Philippines in disgrace, stressing a bond between them. In Cecilia Brainard’s "Last Moon-Game of Summer," the narrator crosses the border between childhood games and adult relationships, knowing that things will never be the same. Marily Ysip-Orosa’s "The Curfew" is the interior monologue of a young mother who remembers dating as a young girl as she waits up for her daughter to come home from a prom. Though she promises herself that she will not commit the mistakes her own mother made, she finds herself falling into the trap. Consciousness of his lack of sophistication and his failure at speaking proper English does not prevent the protagonist of Anthony L. Tan’s "Sweet Grapes, Sour Grapes," a village boy at University in the city, from dreaming about a popular girl. Ruth T. Sarreal’s experimental story interrogates a protagonist on the nuances of relationships, and the reasons behind her choices.
The last section, "Home," focuses on specific metaphors and experiences peculiar to Filipinos in the Philippines, that make them reflect on attachment or being accustomed to a place. Rogelio Cruz’s "Flooded," captures a typical experience after a typhoon, as Fritz and Jan try to make their way home after a flash flood in Manila. Connie Jan Maraan’s "The Boundary" has the protagonist, a Filipina American living in the Philippines contemplating the chasm between a Quiapo market and the sterile environment of an American hamburger chain, and reacting violently at the Filipino’s obsession with American goods and mimicry of American accents. Alex Dean Bru "The Spirits of Kanlanti" is a valedictory for one of the most important persons in a small town, the priest, told from the perspective of a young boy who later also joins the priesthood. In M.S. Sia’s "Below the Belt," a biracial boy’s friends come to his aid against another classmate who makes fun of him. Poor children singing carols in the streets, hoping for hand-outs from tourists evoke memories of his own childhood for a Filipino immigrant to Sydney returning to Manila with his wife in Erwin Cabuncos "I’ll be Home for Christmas".
In diverse ways, the stories in this collection dialogue with the Ricardo M. de Ungria’s sentiments in his poem "Room For Time Passing": "Whichever side of the ocean I’m on/ completeness will seek me and the world exceed/ the surprises I spring on it with these same words." Negotiating the paradigms of cultural formation and singularity, these stories collectively identify and illuminate the metaphors writers today use to arrive at conclusions about the nature and possibilities of childhood within the multiple contexts of Filipino and Filipino American culture. Questions about self-representation are answered through narratives that articulate stories of survivors in a shifting world. The manner in which these writers have appropriated the child character and the characteristics of the bildungsroman as a metaphor for the fragmentation and multiplicity of transcultural lives is itself an articulation of new awareness of subjectivity and the complex process towards self-identification. As such, the multiple impressionistic perspectives and formulation of the metaphors of culture emphasize possibilities of renewed insight into contemporary Filipino and Filipino American societies and children, engaged in the process of transformation and growth.
Gamalinda, Eric. "Myth, Memory, Myopia: Or, I May Be Brown But I Hear America Singin’." Flippin’: Filipinos on America. Eds. Luis H. Francia and Eric Gamalinda. New York: The Asian American Writers’ Workshop, 1996. 1-5.
Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1996.
Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. "Navigating Asian American Panethnic Anthologies." A Resource Guide to Asian American Literature. Eds. Sau-ling Cynthia Wong and Stephen H. Sumida. New York: The Modern Language Association, 2001. 235-251.
Rocio G. Davis is Professor of Literature at the University of Navarra.