NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Her Wild American Self by M. Evelina Galang
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 1996)
M. Evelina Galang is an award-winning American novelist, short story writer, editor, essayist, educator, and activist of Filipina descent. Born in Pennsylvania in 1961, she grew up in Illinois and Wisconsin. Presently, she lives in Chicago where she teaches creative writing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the author of several books including Angel de la Luna and the Fifth Glorious Mystery, (Coffee House Press, 2013);One Tribe, (New Issues Press. 2004) and Screaming Monkeys: A Critique of Asian American Images, (Coffee House Press. 2003). Her Wild American Selfwon the Wisconsin Library Association’s Outstanding Achievement Recognition Award, 1997.
This debut collection comprises 12 short stories of varying lengths. Some are very short but the majority run to about 20 pages.
On the contents page, the titles of the three short stories shown in italics set them apart from the rest. These are very short prose pieces that act as commentaries on the longer stories within the book.
In the first of these, Galang gives us a taste of what is to come. Standard convention tells us never to begin a sentence with a conjunction but Galang throws caution to the winds. In her opening story, "The Look-Alike Women," every paragraph begins with the word “Because” and several sentences within those paragraphs also begin this way. In fact, it is a word that is used nineteen times within the whole piece. A break in the rules gives us a hint of what is to come. In this short piece which explores the tension between having to conform to a societal norm, driven by male stereotypical perceptions, and wanting to be oneself, that is, an individual and not a collective entity, Galang very quickly progresses beyond breaking the rules of grammar to breaking the rules of a lifetime and gives us a powerful piece of writing in the process.
In the second one, "Lectures On How You Never Lived Back Home," Galang presents us witha study in contrasts between life in the Philippines and life in the United States of America, encapsulating the major themes to be found in the book:
“They raised you to understand that back home, a young girl serves her parents, lives to please them, fetches her father’s slippers and her mother’s cups of tea. Back home a young girl learns to embroider fine stitches, learns parlor dances, wears white uniforms at all-girl schools, convent schools. She never crosses her legs or wears skirts above the knee.”
“You, on the other hand, have never had to obey a curfew because of war, never had to tiptoe through your own house, never had to read your books under a blanket where no soldier would see…You were raised in suburbia in a split-level house, always in fashion, even when you were only two, dressed in your white lace and pink ribbons, toting your very own parasol.”
The shock of trying to reach some kind of reconciliation between these two extremes in terms of attempts at assimilation is painful.
“From the start, you were a piece that did not fit, never given the chance to be like the rest – the one’s with blond hair and red hair and something someone called strawberry…Your eyes have always been black, your hair dark. Straight. No variety. To the kids at school you were no different from the other Oriental girl, the one who spoke English with a chopped-up accent.”
Torn between two worlds, these children in exile know that they cannot live without their family and their history.
The third and final “commentary”, "Mix Like Stir Fry," reiterates what has gone before and shows how, with grit and determination, it is possible to find some kind of acceptance and recognition of one’s place in society:
At last, your voice rises above the others and speaks to you, guides you, brings you to this place where you can find your wild American self…and dances when no-one’s looking.
"Rose Colored" is a study in contrasts. Two cousins meet up with each other from different parts of the U.S. and over a period of two weeks begin to get to know each other again. The claustrophobia of the city is well-defined and their characters sharply delineated.
In "Our Fathers," Galang offers a sensitive portrayal of family life, death and bereavement seen through the eyes of a child.
Artistic temperament comes to the fore in "Figures" which charts the tensions in a relationship between two people, one of whom is very much married to her vocation and needs both the mental and the physical space in which to pursue it. Full of good intention, the husband invades her physical space by filling her loft with furniture and lavish gifts, and her mental space with his presence. The recurring mantra of a trilogy of colors, always different ones but always colors, shows where her mind is focused and where it will always be. The fact that she can only paint single figures and not couples is revealing.
"Baby Lust" is a strong piece of writing which explores the feelings of a woman who has just had a miscarriage and is suddenly more than ever aware of mothers and babies and the envy that this brings.
The difficulties and frustrations of trying to find employment that is commensurate with one’s intelligence when living in a foreign country is sympathetically delineated in "Talk To Me Milagros" where the notion of bottling things up until they explode is related in a parallel story involving two children, is well-crafted. Children, too, have insight.
The most powerful piece in the book "Filming Sausage," an account related in the form of a diary about a Filipina-American who is subjected to unacceptable male predatory behavior while shooting a scene for a breakfast commercial, has a special resonance in our present age.
In all these stories, tension is built up through Galang’s use of contrast to explore the Filipina-American experience. While emotions are sensitively portrayed from the female point of view, the male characters, and there are plenty of them, are somewhat one-dimensional. The stories, which are well-crafted, often begin strongly enough but, in some cases, lack resolution when it comes to bringing them to a close. To use a musical analogy, they are rather like popular tunes that fade out at the end without a closing note. This is an observation, not a criticism. It is more like a strength than a weakness insofar as it can often mirror a real-life. Remember how Galang broke the rules of grammar in her opening piece by beginning each paragraph with the second half of a sentence? She is breaking rules again now. A good short story need not necessarily have a beginning, a middle and an end. It can just be a snapshot in time.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna(White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018). His work has been translated into several languages.