NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
The Kissing by Merlinda Bobis
(Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco, California, 2001)
Pacita Abad’s brightly coloured heliconias, which grace the cover of this book, are a small but beautiful reminder of the work of this Ivatan and Filipino visual artist who packed so much into her life. In the space of 58 years, she lived on six different continents and worked in more than 50 countries. When she was in the United States she studied painting at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington DC and still life and figurative drawing at the The Art Students League in New York City. During her lifetime, her work was exhibited in over 200 museums and is now in public, corporate and private art collections in over 70 countries worldwide.
Like Pacita Abad, Merlinda Bobis comes from a Filipino background. Now based in Australia, this writer, performer and academic refuses to be bound by any one tradition. Her writing encompasses many different genres from novels and short stories to poetry and plays which have won her several prestigious awards including the Prix Italia (Radio Fiction), the Steele Rudd Award for the Best Published Collection of Australian Short Stories and the Philippine National Book Award. She is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, New South Wales.
To Bobis, writing is a literary homecoming. Even though she has been living in Australia since 1991, she still refers to herself as a Filipino-Australian writer because of the pull of her ancestral home. However, she does not wish to be tagged with an “Asia / Australia” literary label or even be circumscribed by it adding in an interview with Emily Yu Zong (Mascara Literary Review, October 1, 2015) that “the world is bigger than one’s culture!”
Anyone who has read the novel Banana Heart Summer will know that her texts are multi-layered and endlessly fascinating leaving much for the reader to unravel. Some of them are fused with the Filipino tradition of magic realism: beliefs in which the magical and the real are one. They are transnational moving between different languages and cultures.
The Kissing brings together a collection of 23 short stories many of which were originally published in Australian and Filipino journals. One of them, An Earnest Parable, was broadcast by ABC Radio National as one of the winners of its 1997 Books and Writing Short Story Competition and another, White Turtle, won the 1998 Ashes Trans-Tasman Short Story Competition.
The first story, An Earnest Parable, takes language as its starting-point. There is a sense in which all these stories are earnest parables. Both language and food play a prominent role in many of them as Bobis brings all the senses into play at once.
In Fruit Stall language is the confusion engendered between kumusta and como esta? In The Long Siesta as a Language Primer it is a tale told through footnotes which elaborate on the meanings of specific words. In White Turtle we empathise with the Filipina writer who struggles to find words to make conversation in a foreign tongue when communicating with her audience.
Food in these stories may be served up as a feast for the eyes, it may be the last scrap to stave off hunger or it may be taken as “a mouthful of sadness”. However it is served, it is always a metaphor for something else because behind all these stories lie the real ones: ones to do with politics, feminism, desire, violence and sexual exploitation but also, in the last analysis, the strength of the human spirit.
Many of the stories in this collection are deeply rooted in folklore or take as their starting point a fusion of two distinctly different cultures. Their subject matter is diverse: a woman who fishes corpses with her long hair out of the river; a peeping Tom whose actions are told through the medium of colour; a maid who has to put up with the sexual advances of her drunken master expressed through the medium of a storm, a woman who mistakes an American fighter plane for a flying cross, an encounter by two young and impoverished sisters with “the bright billboard of American cuisine” and a story depicting the struggle of keeping up family ties in a long-distance relationship. Whichever way Bobis chooses to pitch her story, she always manages to surprise the reader, especially in stories such as Storm, White Turtle, Macdo, Jarand Shoes where a sense of drama is created out of things that are not explicitly stated but are only hinted at by implication.Not all the stories in this collection worked for me but many shone with the kind of brilliance that I first encountered when reading Banana Heart Summer. Recommended.
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.