detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Friday, March 19, 2004


: . Among the Disinherited

From "Under the Philippines," a chapter from a forthcoming novel by Han Ong. In Conjunctions 40 (Spring 2003), pp. 195-207:
    Finally they turned a corner and came down EDSA, the American sounding (and therefore infinitely preferable) contraction for the throroughfare whose full, marvelous name--Epifanio de los Santos Avenue: epiphany of the saints--being typically Filipino, or (to be fair, since [Roger Caracera] had nothing by which to make such a sweeping judgment) being typically Manilan, exuded a poetic fragrance that referred to no physical fact that could be seen nor was connected to any history or theology that could be explained by him: it hung there like an aspiration that had failed to materialize, an advertisement for dashed hopes, which recurred in so many things that he, in the span of five short days, had made glancing acquaintance with in this city: his other favorite named street, Misericordia (to him, "corridor of misery"), though indeed baleful, could not be said to depart from its neighbors and the streets in other depressed sections in its mixture of dilapidated (and beautifully haunted) Spanish homes, most of which were boarded-up, and hastily erected squat or two-story structures out of which cheap-looking commerce was conducted and which were crowned, just as in Queens in that other part of the world that it ached to ape and would've been ecstatic to know it had come close to, by plastic signs of big block text that spelled out variously either more aspirations that aroused instant suspicion (Eternal Beauty Beauty Shop; Trustworthy Appliances; BetterLicious Burgers) or the punning on words which was among the chief banes of his teacherly experience and which in Manila seemed to be among the industries that kept its population preoccupied...

    General Douglas MacArthur, a man who promised to return and did indeed return, was a secular incarnation of Jesus Christ, who'd made the same promise but had yet to make good on it. The general, it occurred to Caracera, was revered as a symbolic foretaste of the great Liberation about to occur and urgently longed for. Perhaps that was truly why they, the entire procession, were celebrities for the day: not for the pomp, the flamboyance, the money molded by riveting bad taste, but because the image of them galvanized the hopes of an entire city, an entire nation, a whole culture in which death was the central spoke around which everything turned. Death-besotted. Death-longing. People weighted with lives that were the clearest argument for forgetfulness via religion: the ability to see this life as nothing more than a gauzy veil layered over the true picture: a pastoral scene where it was always dawn, the hour at which everything was sheened with a glow of tranquil rebirth. They couldn't wait to cut through the cheesecloth uncertainty of this life to get at the reward of ease waiting behind it.

Beautiful, evocative, and promising but obviously a work in progress. Reminiscent of the penultimate chapter of Jessica Hagedorn's Dream Jungle, but more subdued and more introspective -- a grown up Tropical Baroque. Without question Han Ong is (one of) the most talented Filipino-American fiction writer(s) around. You can listen to an interview with Han Ong, regarding his previous novel Fixer Chao, here (with the added pleasure of hearing Terry Gross make a fool of herself). Also, you can listen to an interview with Jessica Hagedorn, regarding Dream Jungle, here.

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