Saturday, April 27, 2024


LYNN M. GROW Reviews


 Follower of the Seasons: A Onethology in Symphony by Oscar Peñaranda

(Eastwind Books of Berkeley, 2023)




The Many Dances of Oscar Peñaranda

            This book's title accurately encapsulates its contents. It presents the unfolding seasons of the author's life along with the passing seasons of the year, the latter punctuated by jobs like “Alaskero,” seasonal salmon cannery employment in Alaska. It is a “onethology,” not an anthology, which is often a collection of diverse materials, because the contents are unified by all being aspects of Filipino American experience. Underlying the success of this approach is the Filipino concept of kapwa, which  Peñaranda  specifically invokes on p. 46 in his discussion of the book Liwanag: “The spirit of kapwa,  in all its cycles, persists and prevails”1.  Also, Aileen Cassinetto emphasizes in her “Introduction” to Follower: “ Peñaranda weaves through time and landscapes with nuanced characters, exploring interiors, vernaculars, memory, and shared history, to bring us closer to kapwa...”(n.p.) A comprehensive treatment of this concept can be found in De Guia,2  but for our purposes here the succinct explanation of Eileen R. Tabiosis ideal—the passage concludes “All is One and One is All.” This does not mean that everyone and everything is agglomerated; each person and object remains a discrete entity.

            The short story “Day of the Butterfly” concretely embodies this concept so well that this embodiment alone would be ample justification for its inclusion in Volume One of the acclaimed anthology edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Growing Up Filipino.“Day of the Butterfly, like Peñaranda's other prose fiction, has a linear plot and no complexities of characterization or setting. As such, its thematic focus on kapwa, though unstated, is sharp. The first-person narrative is even paused occasionally by descriptions of the migrant Filipinos' field work.  In keeping with the down-to-earth (quite literally) characters is their grainy diction; e.g., “... he took a shit” (90), “all-around asshole” (78), and “... he would rather be fucking his wife-to-be” (79).  Time and place markers anchor us to specificity: e.g., “... the summer of '62” and “ the summer months all worked in various fields and orchards of California” (74).

            Clearly, though Peñaranda's fiction shares the unwavering empiricism of Manuel E. Arguilla's Nagrebcan stories, the former are anything but the idealized idylls of the latter.  Peñaranda's fictional universe is also devoid of anything like the local color of Arturo B. Rotor's coherent cosmos. Thus, it would be inaccurate to locate Peñaranda's fiction in the proletarian tradition or the hard-boiled naturalism conceptions of Jack London.  Peñaranda's protagonists are not motivated by instinctive primal urges like impulsion to survive in London's “To Build A Fire.”  Peñaranda's fictive world also does not align with Carlos Bulosan's sardonically comic tales of The Laughter of My Father. Peñaranda's working-class characters exist in an often sleazy, even degraded, environment of pool halls, gambling get-togethers, Alaskan salmon packing company bunkhouses, prostitution trysts, and such bodily realities as farting.5

            Peñaranda's works are sui generis. They may surprise us with some of their components, e.g., in “The Day of the Butterfly,” the suddenly elevated diction of a remembrance of the confrontation around which the story is centered: “Some uncontrollable, nameless, nebulous, and amorphous indignation...” or the poetic wistfulness of a passage like “...the lights from Candlestick Park glimmered in the fragile gauze of falling twilight” (81).  But certainly, the most memorable, dramatic surprise is the outcome of the story's centerpiece: the confrontation between the Filipino field workers and the nine prejudiced white college boys driving by in their Cadillac. The impending fistfight ends with Batok's drawing his balisong (butterfly knife). Then, implausibly but fully in keeping with kapwa, the college boys give the Filipinos a ride to their next job and invite them to an upcoming party in a neighboring town. This has been the day of the butterfly after all: the chrysalis of the ugly polarization has transformed into the beautiful butterfly of realization that we, despite external differences, are all human and we should all be respected as such.

As the reader soon notices, kapwa is implied in the book's subtitle as well as in the fiction and poetry between the covers. “Symphony” points to the harmony of the book's contents. Though we usually associate the term with music, harmony of sound or color and anything else characterized by a harmonious combination of elements is also symphonic (but not melodic in the way that Tennyson's  poetry often is).  Follower has five suites, and in music a suite is an instrumental composition consisting of a succession of dances in the same key or related keys, and we can well imagine the phases of life constituting the dances here. Tony Robles' “Foreword” enumerates these phases as roles: “He [Peñaranda] is a gambler, farm worker, cannery worker, pool hustler, prize fighter... a bartender... actor, teacher.” Robles could have added “athlete” in order to append basketball and tennis to “prize fighter” and “kali practitioner.”6  All these  varied pursuits and others Peñaranda thinks of as dances. He elaborates on some in his short essays. In “Dance and the Warrior,”(120)  “Athletes are dancers. All sports, even non-human sports... is dance [sic] or it's nothing.” In “the Dance at Work,” (121) “In the salmon canneries of Alaska.... The butchers on the Iron Chink and the Lye Crew danced all hours. I worked in Lye Wash...” In “The Dance at Play,” (122) “In gambling” you are “dancing with your destiny.” And the dance permeates all ages of a lifetime: “I have watched my first grandchild, before she was even five, dance all day.... I see my mother and grandmother dancing the Kuratsa [a dance of flirtation and courtship] in countless fiestas.” And “My Auntie... died at 97. She was dancing and swaying and singing on her deathbed. Her mother did the same.” 
            As we can see, this onethology would be incomplete without the essays interspersed among poems, memoirs, and short stories. But the essays are not all personal; items like “The U.S. ̶Philippines War” (11-23) add the scope of global culture and history to the autobiography, poems, and short stories (even the last item in the book is an excerpt of  short story length from Peñaranda's' novel The Distant Relative) (240-245). “The U.S. ̶ Philippines War” brings out Peñaranda the M.A.-holding college professor, one who was the founder and first president of the San Francisco Chapter of the Filipino National Historical Society.

            Although he did have a relative, Florentino Peñaranda, the last officer and commander of Samar and Leyte under Emilio Aguinaldo in the war, Peñaranda's article is dispassionate. He explains that the U.S. claimed that it had “liberated” the Philippines from Spanish rule and that the Filipino fight against the U.S. was an “insurrection.” Neither statement was true. An insurrection is an attempt to overthrow a legitimate government by force of arms. The Philippines had formed through elective process the Malalos Republic, which survived for seven months  before the U.S. forcibly took the country over.  Thus, the 1899-1913 “rebellion” was, in fact, a war against a foreign invader. 8

                  With his comprehensive knowledge of Philippine and U.S. history and culture and his gift for creative writing, added to his wide range of experience with so many occupations and recreational interests, Oscar Peñaranda is more than a follower of the seasons; he is a man for all seasons.





                                    Literary  and Graphic Expressions of Filipinos in America.  San Francisco: Liwanag Publications, 1975.

                                    Katrin De Guia.  The Self in the Other: World-views and Lifestyles of Filipino Culture-Bearers.  Pasig City: Anvil, 2005.

                                    3  The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku: Selected Tercets 1996-2019 by Eileen R. Tabios.  East Rockaway, New York: Marsh Hawk Press, 2019.

                                    3 Volumes (Santa Monica, California, 2003, 2010, and 2023 respectively). PALH stands for Philippine American Literary House.  The anthology has been nominated for the Philippines Book Award, Anthology Division.  Peñaranda has modified some of his wording for Follower of the Seasons, but these fine tunings do not materially affect the reading experience.  Neither do the typos in the Follower, though hopefully these will be attended to in the forthcoming Philippine edition.

                                    In places,  though, are forays into the dreamy, even the rhapsodic, like the exquisite “Babaylan in Playland by the Sea” (66-71); also in Growing Up Filipino 3 (323-330).  A babaylan is a shaman or priestess with the power to foresee the future.  In this story Amador's prom date is Maria, named, as she tells him, after Maria of Mount Makiling (guardian ancestral spirit of the mountain located in Laguna, the Philippines, and benefactor of the surrounding people).  Sometimes she has been labeled a “fairy,” which is at best an approximate translation of “diwata” or “anito.”  The Maria of the Peñaranda story predicts that “you'll write about us [Filipinos].... You're the gifted one.”  The waves, the ocean, the sea, will wipe them [the footprints of Maria and Amador] all out immediately, but the spirit of our footprints will still be in these sands because you will write about them...” (69)  This  prediction--which of course is applicable to  Peñaranda himself -– is nestled into idyllic descriptions like “the silver-ladened seascape”(70) and “... the sky, with white-edged clouds bathed and drifting by the silvery moon, sea-wind blowing, foaming waves pounding her chiffon dress billowing with the billows of the sea” (69).  These ethereal passages, which comprise the story's sensory beauty, are counterpointed and thus enhanced by the preceding colloquial dialogue of the boys, Priday and Amador, for instance Amador's ungrammatical “' I don't got a date'” and Priday's “' It ain't the looks '” (67).

                                    At one point, Amador and Maria are having dinner at “a small eating place” while the jukebox is playing “Sally Go 'Round the Roses” (1963).  This song, the only hit the girl group The Jaynettes ever had, has a haunting, hypnotic (even otherworldly), if repetitious and puzzling, melody and lyrics. Though Sally is clearly the name of the human subject in this tune, it is also a pink-flowered clematis that becomes a deeper pink in strong sunshine.  Interpretations of the song's meaning as allusion to illegal drug use,  illegitimate motherhood, madness, and lesbianism “gang agley” as Robert Burns would have put it.  Regardless, none of these notions, purely speculative because outside anything confirmatory in the song itself, fits the babaylan motif even remotely.  Far more likely is that the lyrics and melody are inexplicable in conventional terms. Instead, in this story, at least, they constitute a reinforcement to the realization that Maria's gift of foresight and Amado's gift for writing are just that: gifts, having no raison d'etre and needing none.

                                    As in this story, throughout Follower are untranslated locutions:  in “Babaylan,” for example, “gigial” (68) “gnashing of the teeth” and “kuripot” (67) (“stingy'). On a larger scale, entire selections in the book are untranslated, the poem “Ang Lakad ni Rosa Rosal” (118) for instance. For the English only reader, the narrative flow is not significantly impeded by these expressions, and their presence reminds us that they as fictional characters and we as readers—some Filipino and some not—inhabit the same environment. We are all human and thus experience triumphs and defeats, emotions and thoughts, hopes and regrets, all part of being alive.

                                    Kali is an ancient Philippine martial art centered around  use of a sword, not to be confused with Kālï, Hindu goddess of time, change, and destruction.

                                    7   Peñaranda did not include the information in this last sentence, but perhaps it brings into a yet sharper focus the historical background.

                                    Apropos of the U.S. war with Spain that (conveniently for the imperialists) seemed to justify the attack on the Philippines, we know (only since Peñaranda’s essay was written) that the Vreeland investigation of the explosion of the U.S. battleship Maine in 1898 in Havana harbor,  conducted shortly after the event, assigned the wrong cause to the  incident. A mine placed under the hull was a physically impossible cause.  Contemporary underwater demolition experts Hansen and Price definitively ruled out the mine theory on the basis of the hull damage and the condition of the keel. The real cause was a fire in an adjacent bunker, a not unheard-of occurrence on 19th century ships. Thus, it is impossible to assign blame for a tragedy that killed 260 men. The most plausible explanation is negligence of the officer on duty who neglected to include in his duty roster for the day an order to a crewman to make timely inspection rounds below decks or failure of the crewman to fully obey the order.  In any case, the cause of the explosion is no longer mysterious. All that remains so is the question whether insidious intent on anyone's part was involved.



Lynn M. Grow has four college degrees, all from the University of Southern California:  B.A. (English and Philosophy), 1967; M.A. (English), 1968); Ph.D. (English), 1971; and M.A. (Philosophy), 1972.  He has published six books and approximately 80 articles, mostly in his specialty, Filipino literature in English.

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