VINCE GOTERA Engages
American Son by Brian Ascalon Roley
(W.W. Norton, 2001)
The Last Mistress of Jose Rizal by Brian Ascalon Roley
(Curbstone Books / Northwestern University Press, 2016)
From an American Son
to The Last Mistress of Jose Rizal:
Brian Ascalon Roley’s Diaspora
Brian Ascalon Roley, when his collection of stories The Last Mistress of Jose Rizal appeared from Curbstone in 2016, completed a double-decade arc of fiction writing that began with his widely acclaimed novel American Son (Norton, 2001). The recent collection is best appreciated and assessed in tandem with the earlier novel: the two books along with a short story called “American Son Epilogue” comprise a broad-ranging narrative landscape and tapestry of Philippine family in the diaspora.
In 2002, I addressed American Son in an omnibus review titled “Brave New Archipelago: Recent Filipino American Writing,” which looked at sixteen books—fiction, poetry, a published film script—by such luminaries as Eileen Tabios and Nick Carbó as well as first-book writers like Marisa de los Santos and Roley. Here is the section of that review on American Son (containing comparisons with Bino Realuyo’s Umbrella Country, “the story of dreams and nightmares in the Philippines, where the solution to every problem is America: if we could only get to the US, if we could only be American”).
Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son approaches from the other direction: Gabe and his older brother Tomas live in Los Angeles where, like Realuyo’s Gringo and older brother Pipo, they are surrounded by an intoxicating violence that threatens to seduce and engulf them. Roley’s sparse minimalism renders masterfully the moral desert in which Gabe and Tomas exist. Strangely enough (or perhaps in perfect irony), the solution their mother longs for is a return to the Philippines, where Uncle Betino has offered to take the two boys in hand and reform them. Both Roley and Realuyo (hmm, their names are in poetic consonance) capture the angst of young boyhood memorably and ably, set against backgrounds of lyrical beauty. (North American Review, May-August 2002)
Roley’s debut in FilAm literature—in American literature, more properly—was auspicious and important. He dramatized (for the first time in novel form, I believe) the plight of thoroughly assimilated and Americanized immigrant young men of Philippine ancestry. Perhaps the word immigrant is not exactly right because Gabe and Tomas are US-born and raised. Nonetheless, the point stands: how do these young Filipino American males survive in American (sub)culture(s) and how do their Filipino heritage and their Filipino-ness survive within them, if at all. An added wrinkle here is that the brothers are biracial: their surname is Sullivan, their father an Irish American estranged from their mother. Roley was also first to write the FilAm biracial bildungsroman, and as such he was at the forefront of the hapa cultural movement championing Asian American biracial experience.
With regard to the question of individual survival and cultural legacy, in the case of the older brother, Tomas has taken on the LA/SoCal cholo gangbanger identity of their environs. He wears on his back a large tattoo of Our Lady of Guadalupe, among other street tats. Tomas’s look and attitude are sources of great consternation for the boys’ mother, Ika. The younger brother Gabe, narrator of the novel, is in flux culturally and personally, seduced by the brother’s gangster persona though resisting at first, an honor student at a Catholic high school. Their uncle Betino, who represents the aristocratic history of the Philippines, continues throughout the novel to offer to their mother that he would be glad to take the boys in hand and, in loco parentis, raise them up into good Filipino men well aware of their religious and national heritage. That’s the brilliant set-up of the novel, against which we see Gabe’s coming of age in the US: American? Filipino? Some hybrid of the two?
American Son takes on important questions about the Philippine diaspora and more broadly, the diasporic problems that continue to arise, both literarily and socially. It is a kind of anti-Huck Finn, one could say: Gabe steals his brother’s gangster ride and escapes northward for several days, like Huck lighting out for the territories, but no go. The theme of Chicano identity being overlaid on the boys’ warring Irish and Filipino identities is ironically played out: Tomas, who trains and sells guard dogs, mistakes a customer’s wife as a Mexican maid and the deal goes south; more poignantly, Gabe, to impress a white father figure he has encountered on his journey north, points to his own mother as a Mexican maid.
American Son is brilliantly written. Roley is one of the most adept writers I have read at using spare description for crisp characterization. In one scene, after the boys are in a bloody fight with a man Tomas is trying to punish, as they escape their attack dog Greta is described as also bloodied: “On the window she has left red smudges which glow like translucent rose petals clinging to the glass.” This image, observed by Gabe, hints that he has an artistic or creative disposition, even in the aftermath of violence, so that the novel could be a story of the making of the artist. Except that it’s not. The power of violence is just too seductive. Especially because such action is an empowering alternate to the self-silencing, the voicelessness that Gabe endures in social contexts (both American and Filipino) because of his inferiority complex as a person of color. Gabe and Tomas lie and prevaricate throughout the novel because that is a way of survival when language is the only problem solution available.
Roley published an afterword to American Son in a FilAm fiction anthology, Growing Up Filipino. This short story, titled “American Son Epilogue,” continues Gabe’s life after his brother Tomas has been arrested and seems likely headed for prison. In this epilogue, we see a poignant narrative of the young man’s attempts to put his violent (immediate) past behind him. He grows closer to his mom and his Irish American aunt as, expelled from his Catholic school, he prepares to make a bid to be readmitted and thus resume his American dream. Very telling is a scene where Ika and son enter a church to pray before Gabe goes to see the school principal Father Ryan (who had been a mentor for him previously). Gabe imagines, “the chapel in the Philippines, on our farm, where they have cobwebs in the rafters and dolls of the saints that poor tenants place on tables. Instead of putting candles below the Virgin’s feet that you can light for money, they strung up light bulbs—the big colorful kinds, like tacky Christmas lights old people use, bright red, green, yellow, and blue.” Here we intuit that Gabe’s penchant for creativity can be rekindled; clearly he has regained his eye for beauty and lyricism. Again, brilliantly written—characterization through visual description and point of view.
Roley’s Last Mistress of Jose Rizal is an appearance equally auspicious to American Son: a demonstration of the prowess of this writer in the middle of a strong literary career. These short stories constitute the continuation and expansion of the family in American Son. A much larger extended family in both the Philippines and the US. The larger arc and matrix of the collection follows the pedigree rooted in the patriarch Santiago Navarro, grandfather of Ika, Tomas’s and Gabe’s mother. Santiago is the aristocratic landowner whose hacienda is the farm with chapel Gabe imagines in “American Son Epilogue.” Roley includes a two-page family tree, a savvy move since the stories range over several generations and locations—LA (as in the earlier novel), the Philippines, the American midwest, etc. There is even a story about a non-Filipina woman, the mother of the European American husband of Ika’s sister Dina. In this collection, therefore, we see a broad range of life and experience surrounding and comprising the FilAm diaspora.
The title Last Mistress of Jose Rizal refers to the Navarro family’s nationalistic pride in their relation to the Philippines’ national hero, the writer and physician whose novels and poetry resulted in his martyrdom at the hands of the Spanish colonial powers. Ika, mother of Gabe and Tomas, is the “great-great-grandniece of Jose Rizal, poet, novelist, revolutionary, martyr, a surgeon in Europe and a linguist in nineteen languages [who] had six mistresses in six different countries.” The family’s pride in this legacy is not only nationalistic then—it is internationalistic and aristocratic—but does it survive into the American context? Ika’s Aunt Candida (a name that resonated for me because that’s my mother’s name) identifies not only with Jose Rizal but also with Josephine Bracken, his Irish mistress. Candida’s granddaughter, a biracial girl in the US, becomes interested in Bracken and Candida fosters this fascination actually to save the girl’s immortal soul because she feels that her daughter’s family, Protestants, are not sufficiently correctly religious. In this story we encounter a theme that Roley only tangentially touched in American Son: how does religion, specifically Philippine Catholicism, fare in the diaspora?
Interestingly, although Gabe from American Son surfaces in the collection, as a young boy before the events of the novel, it is Tomas rather than Gabe whom we now see as narrator. Very interesting because we learn how Tomas has reformed himself and become a productive member of society who, in the short story, reignites his relationship with his father Russ Sullivan (whom he had beaten up in American Son), now ill and old. Fascinating to see Tomas not just as the gangster and overbearing older brother but as a grown man who is now (we find in another story) a secret father to the son of a woman we had seen in American Son as a girl, a distant cousin. Tomas is now sensitive and responsible and wants nothing more than to be simply a real and regular father. We see the basis of these feelings in Tomas’s care for his brother Gabe when they were children, before the time covered in American Son.
The Last Mistress of Jose Rizal is essentially a dynastic story cycle, going back to WWII and before, then coming forward to our present day. The oldest setting in the collection, interestingly in the last story in the book, is of Ika and Betino and Dina’s mother who, faced with an arranged marriage being imposed by her father Santiago, the Navarro patriarch, escapes to a convent and is then forcefully brought back to continue with the destiny her father intended for her. In an article, Roley detailed this specific story as one that comes out of his own family legends. The collection reads like the experiences we all had as young people first hearing our family stories. The lion’s share of Last Mistress concerns the family of Ika’s sister Dina, married to Seth, a European American, and their children Matt, Becca, and Ben (nicknamed Twig), who is disabled. A very interesting parallel here is that a boy whom Tomas and Gabe beat up in American Son is seen in “American Son Epilogue” as a figure in a wheelchair, also named Ben.
A writerly skill significantly prominent in Last Mistress is Roley’s skill with plot. American Son is elegantly plotted, yes, but the arc of the narrative unfolds over a couple hundred pages. In the short story collection, by necessity, structure is much more compact. In the story “New Relations,” Matt (now grown, a grad student) has eloped with Carolyn, a scion of a wealthy Chicago family of European American ancestry. After their wedding, they must make it up to their families and so the newlyweds travel to Chicago so Matt can meet her parents, and they bring along his mother Dina. The dramatic context thus sets up for culture and generation clashes, conflicts about class and wealth, regional difference (the West vs. the Midwest), and most specifically American vs. Philippine mores. In the Philippine custom of pasalubong, Dina as the visitor brings a gift to Carolyn’s parents, a blue Ming vase that she does not know is probably “a cheap Philippine knockoff of something Chinese [but which] had belonged to her dead father, and was a family item.” This begins a series of misunderstandings on all sides, especially when both sets of parents and the young couple visit Carolyn’s hipster Uncle Robert (“a professor of South Asian studies”) who had married a Filipina “mail-order bride.” There follows a contentious and uncomfortable dinner where Dina, after perhaps too much wine, defends her own family’s aristocratic history (and the Philippines by extension) against Robert’s Marxist-leaning stories about American imperialism in the Philippines and the rampant poverty there. But this is all still rising action. The crisis of the story doesn’t come until the newlyweds are alone and argue about what had happened. In the climactic action, Matt “aimed my fist at her parents’ antique leaded window. I managed to veer it away at the last moment, however, and my knuckles slammed against my grandfather’s fake vase instead. . . . It smashed against the wallpaper and porcelain pieces fell onto the carpet. My hand came away torn and I felt warm dripping beneath my pajama sleeve.” This is plot creation at its best. I’ve maybe revealed too much here—should have typed “spoiler alert” above—so I won’t say more about what this means. My point is that the plot of the story is elegantly and brilliantly structured, with the internal climax within Matt’s character revealed through decisive action and bravura description.
American Son and The Last Mistress of Jose Rizal are Brian Ascalon Roley’s paeans to diasporic FilAm life: the earlier novel’s two sons finding their American-ness at violent odds with their Filipino-ness, then the later collection’s various family members striving to bridge the old and the new, the Philippines and the US. Roley’s American Son and The Last Mistress of Jose Rizal should be required reading for all of us in the diaspora, but don’t read it like it’s required! Enjoy. Salamat, Brian.
Vince Gotera is a Professor of English specializing in creative writing and American literature at the University of Northern Iowa, where he served as Editor of the North American Review. Poems appeared recently in The American Journal of Poetry, Altered Reality Magazine, Delirious: A Poetic Celebration of Prince, Dreams and Nightmares, Eunoia Review, and Parody Poetry Journal.