MAILEEN HAMTO Reviews
Magdalena by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
(University of Santo Tomas, 2016)
In her preface to the 2016 Philippine edition of Magdalena, author Cecilia Manguerra Brainard wrote about the process of harnessing the novel’s form. Departing from a linear style of storytelling that followed the conventions of structure, voice and tense, Cecilia opines that the “cleaned-up version” may appear “fragmented,” “cluttered,” and “difficult to read.” Form follows design and substance, as the novel carries us through the complex narratives that weave the fateful realities of three generations of Filipina women, strong and proud all.
Since the novel’s publication in 2002, Cecilia has reveled in the literary impact of Magdalena on Filipino-Americans. In 2016, the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House released the Philippine edition of the novel to critical acclaim.
Merging patterns of poetry and fiction, Magdalena succeeds in delivering historical fiction that moves gently and steadily to reveal multiple levels of meaning for Filipinos in the homeland and in the diaspora. In Magdalena, the characters embody unique components of the Filipino psyche through traditions and values. The Filipino reader would recognize members of our own pamilya in the multitude of intrigues, secrets, tragedies and heartaches that fill each chapter.
Hard choices and life-altering sacrifices made by Luisa and Magdalena reflect the Filipino values of preserving the family’s honor by protecting it from hiya (embarassment and shame). To a lesser, yet still-significant extent, the actions taken by Estrella,Fermin, and Nestor embodied the tenets of kapwa (shared identity), utang na loob (debt of gratitude), and pakikisama (adjustment).
And this is why reading Magdalena from a Western feminist perspective is a bit challenging. The novel exposes the weakness of Filipino men who philander openly without delicadeza (sense of propriety), as their wives carry the burden of betrayal and the heft of secret heartbreaks. The reason why women choose to stay in loveless marriages built on deception is all too familiar, particularly among Filipinos who understand the age-old querida system. Patriarchy strengthened by colonization has “allowed” married men to “keep” a mistress (or two), as long as they can provide for both households.
Patriarchy has caused two generations of fathers to be absent from their daughters’ lives. There is a vast gap between the circumstances that kept Nestor and Nathan from being present and involved in the upbringing of Magdalena and Juana, respectively. Absence is absence, and a vacuum of affection carries forward to the next generation.
Lives of women in literature are defined by their relationships to each other, to men, to their children, and to their mothers. Although bound by tradition and obligation, the women of Magdalena are not ones to shrink and wilt silently because of pain and loss. Life moves along, and women choose love and desire, while keeping a hardened outer shell. Luisa quietly nurtures a secret borne of deep undying love, tragic because it was never fully acknowledged. Following a betrayal, Magdalena chooses to love in secret, never mind the certain catastrophe of losing a life cut short by a senseless war.
Reading Magdalena from the perspective of a Filipina in the process of decolonization, I relish the appropriate irony of place. Much of the novel takes place in Mactan and Cebu, islands that bore the early brunt of 300 years of Spanish Colonial period. In distinct ways, Magdalena offers metaphors for the disparate cultures and influences that defined period of Philippine history: colonized by the Spaniards, brought under the burgeoning American empire, and occupied by Japanese military forces during World War II. Somewhere in there, Chinese entrepreneurs and merchants continued to make economic advances at the expense of poor Filipinos.
In the lives of Magdalena’s women, the self-serving and violent motivations of colonizers and imperialists are in full view. The Spanish came for souls and land. Fermin’s Spanish family is fixated on controlling their land holdings and wealth, that they took great risks in the genetic lottery. The Chinese came for starting and expanding businesses, and this is why it’s important for April to marry a Manileño. Americans valued the islands’ logistical importance in engaging their enemies in the Pacific, and it’s no accident that Nathan Spencer is a bombardier.
Throughout the novel, war is a constant and all-consuming element of a people’s struggle for sovereignty. For Filipinos caught in the clutches of Western empires seeking world domination, freedom is a far-flung dream. Facing violence and annihilation, one wonders if the characters’ propensity to engage in dangerous dalliances is a way of reminding themselves of what it is to be truly human. For as long as they can still feel desire and take comfort in star-crossed trysts, the true nature of humanity – the one that seeks peace and kapwa with others – is sheltered from annihilation.
Given that the novel was originally released in the United States, it’s hard not to miss expressed sympathies accorded to the Americans. In Nathan Spencer’s lamentation, we learn of his vacillation between carrying out his duties as a soldier and seeing plainly the cruelty of an unnecessary and unpopular war.
“War is about pain, death and destruction,” Nathan writes.
In Magdalena, author Cecilia Manguerra Brainard draws from her upbringing and experiences to tell stories of the Filipino experience. She has every reason to be proud that her sophomore novel “belongs to Filipinos.” And it does. Magdalena’s beauty lies in its unapologetic portrayal of the Filipino psyche. Its power is harbored in its ability to inspire a critical look into the scars of colonization and oppression in all of their forms: political, cultural, social and psychological.
Despite many tragic turns, Magdalena carries a hopeful message drawn from a naked, full-bodied and emboldened depiction of the strong and resilient Filipina.
Maileen Hamto has led equity and inclusion strategies for organizations with expressed values of eliminating poverty, dismantling racism, and creating opportunities for diverse communities. In her work, she is guided by wisdom gleaned from her lived experiences as an immigrant woman of color who is humbled everyday by the journey of decolonization.
Maileen curates content for the Colors of Influence blog, which covers issues from workforce diversity, cultural preservation, community advocacy, health disparities, and social inequities. Born and raised in Manila, Philippines, Maileen currently lives in Colorado, by way of the Pacific Northwest and the Texas Gulf Coast.