detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Friday, August 16, 2002


: . The Subaltern Speaks:

Finally, Ninotchka Rosca' Sugar and Salt. Again, please let me know if there are any typographical errors in the text so I could correct them promptly. An excerpt:
    Overnight it seemed, land sprouted in the far horizon and the natives took to crisscrossing the oceans. Some of their women followed. They never found their males’ routes, though, and were scattered to the earth’s five corners. Here, to erase their longing, they built homes which, being outside of time, creaked and groaned at daybreak and dusk, the sound touching the exiled females with fingertips as cold as blue porcelain jars.

Rosca's prose teeters on the edge of a schmaltzy magical realism that many less-talented American multicultural women writers seem to be so fond of. Think Isabel Allende on a bad day but with better politics. In Sugar and Salt, Rosca offers an overview of Philippine history as a series of gifts profferred by 'Tandang Sora,' whose wish to die and let loose her soul is frustrated by the accumulated wisdom weighing her down to the earth. 'Tandang Sora' in pomo/poco-speak is a 'woman, native, other,' a 'subaltern' whose forms of knowledge have been suppressed by colonialism and official histories to the detriment of her fellow 'natives.' Her Philippine history unfortunately reads as if it were lifted from the romantic fantasies of some New Age feminisms: once upon a time women were held in high esteem as healers and priestesses until the white man in conspiracy with 'native' men turned their world upside down. There is a 'truth' to her tale of course and it has a certain 'progressive' appeal. Certainly, one has to resort to romanticism and other forms of 'strategic essentialism' to counter the overwhelming force of patriarchy, Enlightenment thought, and colonial scholarship. However, such tactics can make one vulnerable to charges of exoticism and of 'othering the other.' Rosca, a fierce critic of imported and home-grown patriarchies, seems to have forgotten to paint dark clouds and menacing figures in her too happy portrait of pre-colonial martiarchy. And notice the details Rosca cites to add depth to the separate 'native' and foreign' worlds brought into collision by Imperialism. The 'native' world abounds with guavas and blue porcelain although as Nick Joaquin (I know, a canonical male writer) writes: 'The Filipino boy washing the fresh wound of his circumcision in guava-leaf ointment seems so immemorially a part of our aboriginal culture that we are startled to discover that the guava tree came to us only with Spain.' Also Joaquin elsewhere writes that blue porcelain jars are not only a sign of 'native' healing practices and rituals; they also signify the decline of 'native' pottery making and a kind of cultural denouement. And what about Rosca's foreigners? Rosca implies that they were responsible for bringing sugar to the islands but as the anthropologist Sidney Mintz writes, the domestication of sugar cane was bought to (what is now) the Philippines from (what is now) New Guinea as far back as 6000 B.C. Perhaps Rosca meant refined sugar. These are petty observations, of course. (To this one can add John Larkin's claim, supported by ethnographic studies of Northern Luzon, that 'in Mountain Province, the expansion of the great rice terraces may well have been facilitated by the addition to the Igorot population of refugees from Spanish-controlled territory.') But Rosca's imprecision, minor though they may be and unavoidable in any work of fiction, makes the various 'tropics' conquered by the west somehow interchangeable and collapsible. (More later.)

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