LENY MENDOZA STROBEL Engages
The Kindness of Birds by Merlinda Bobis
(Spinifex Press, 2021)
On most mornings in my Northern California home, I watch the house finches, red throated hummingbirds, bushtits and the occasional scrub jay on the feeder hanging in the backyard by the rose bushes. I often wonder how their tiny beaks can crack the black-oil sunflower seeds so fast and furious as they take turns on the feeder. The scrub-jay—too big and heavy—waits by the trellis of the clematis till the tiny ones are done feeding; her weight tips the feeder and swings sideways so she has to try a few times for a more gentle landing. This is my morning delight.
Thus, when I learned that Merlinda Bobis has released The Kindness of Birds I immediately ordered it. To me, Merlinda is a babaylan because she is a conjuror of worlds, a shapeshifter, a weaver of Time, a keen observer and listener of the seen and unseen realms. I’ve seen her do these in her earlier works: FishHair Woman, Banana Heart Summer, The Lantern Maker, Locust Girl. I’ve watched her (perform is not even the right word) tell myths and stories with song, chant, and movement that move my spirit and heart. She stirs something in me—a familiarity or kinship—that I often couldn’t language in English. Often I just whisper: KAPWA.
She does this again in The Kindness of Birds, a collection of short stories that are interlinked by Time, historical trauma, grief, displacement, encounters with “others” and then... Birds: cockatoos, crows, orioles, currawongs, maya, crested pigeons, owls, and others. Companions to grief, guardians of memory, tutors of wisdom, singers of lamentations, bearers of messages from the universe—the birds in Merlinda’s stories speak to me of the magnificence of the multiverses she conjures. The birds remind me that if I have eyes to see and ears to hear them, I will get closer to the truth of Kapwa: interconnectedness. And Kapwa as Kindness.
The literary brilliance of Merlinda is in its fullness in this book. The stories stand alone but then I realize later on that they are actually interlinked. I didn’t know about the historical connections between Australia and the Philippines via the indentured pearl divers from the Philippines in the 1800s who were brought to Australia for the pearling industry. Contemporaneously, Filipinos continue to arrive in Australia—as brides, cleaners, graduate students—who encounter other migrants from Malaysia, Latvia, Germany, and encounters with aboriginal Australians. Colonialism, holocausts, covid, globalization, racial politics all cast a shadow on the lives of the characters in the stories. Consequently, these unacknowledged and unhealed shadows show up in the grief and loss of these lives but somehow there is also release and relief buoyed by the constant and sometimes fleeting presence of birds.
Before I knew of Merlinda’s book about birds, I had joined the FB group Birdwatch Philippines Community and I’ve been marveling at not only the photos of beautiful birds in my homeland but the palpable love and devotion of bird enthusiasts. It saddens me to remember that I don’t have fond memories of relationships with feathered friends. Growing up in Pampanga I often saw blackbirds hawked by the roadside but I never stopped to wonder what their names are, who they are, how we are relatives. Thoroughly miseducated, I wasn’t taught how to dwell in place; how to fall in love with the Earth’s non-human beings. Making up for lost time now.
In The Kindness of Birds, the ancestors are also remembered in these stories where many of them are set in Bicol where Merlinda is also from. The old ones recall the myth of Daragang Magayon and sing the lullaby Dandansoy; they tell the stories of the orioles who accompany the humans they love all the way to their graves. In the telling of ancient stories, the power of remembrance is invoked and wielded like an amulet for the healing of Loss. The descendants of these ancestors are making their way into a world quite different, in Australia, and knowingly and unknowingly are tracking their ancestral stories to make sense of their lives.
I particularly like the story of Freddy Corpus, a 91-year-old grandson of a Filipino pearl diver and his Yawuru wife, telling of the adventures of pearl diving, of “tenders” (the diver is tethered to a rope that is tended to by a partner so the diver can be pulled up in case of emergency). Listening to him is Nenita who had just returned from the Philippines to bury her 91-year old father who had dreamed of “roaming his eyes around Australia” but never did.
The Body also speaks in these stories. Cancer. Covid. Quarantine. Restricted travel. In these stories, the kindness of owls abides alongside the doctors, nurses, and caregivers. I am reminded of a question that a friend poses as she tends to a dying partner: How do I give him a beautiful death? In Merlinda’s stories, death and dying can be beautiful because in the company of birds and flowers, we can breathe Joy. Nothing is ultimately tragic in these stories because the world is large and wondrous.
The Kindness of Birds stands for the invitation of the chthulucene to re-frame and de-center our human-centric story-making to make room for the sideways glance where we might begin to notice the presence of other beings (birds!) and include them in our world-making. Birds, after all, are an older species than humans. Indigenous storytellers always mention that humans are the younger brothers—the last ones to arrive and so must be taught by the creatures before them—the birds, plants, mountains, oceans. Merlinda’s stories in this book do just that.
Leny Mendoza Strobel: Leny, when she’s not in the garden or kitchen, reads and doodles or plays games on her phone. She also is a student of Yoga and is learning to let her mind be in her heart. She is a recovering academic. 😍🤪