Mga Kuwentong Perlas: The Women of Modern Filipino Short Stories
My appreciation for the short story form didn’t develop until I was in university. As a staunch fan of the novel as a literary format, the focus placed on short stories in my creative writing program might have driven me off were it not for the astonishing pieces that I found and that were shared with me, by professors and friends alike. As part of Short Story Month here at Women on Comics, I’d love to share some of those stories, and the nuances of Filipino literature in general.
The stories I chose share some similarities: they’re written by young Filipino women, and they’re all written in English. Two of them are built around Filipino mythology, one is a deft character study that reflects the influence of wealth and privilege, and the fourth is an ingenious magical realism piece. All of them are brilliant, formative influences.
“Manananggal,” come the whispers in the small town, and for a child who grew up being told that vampires were only a myth, the stories of mga aswang at manananggal have the taste of make-believe too, the kind that you think can be dissipated by a nightlight. In “Santos de Sampaguitas,” you learn that even daylight can’t keep them away.
Alyssa Wong draws readers in from the first paragraph, as a “dead god” pays a midnight visit to Maria Reyes. She informs the god, “you have the wrong Reyes sister,” her tone matter-of-fact, but when he insists that she is his next heir after her mother, she argues back. The news that her mother is dead is the only thing that stops Maria’s diatribe. It adds to the stress Maria is already feeling, with her sister’s impending shotgun wedding to the son of the family they both serve as housemaids. The wedding pulls every hand on deck, including Maria, who is entrusted with the family’s arrhae, or heirloom coins, to be dipped in gold. This task lights the two seemingly unrelated plot threads into a single flame.
I read “Sampaguitas” quite recently, and immediately went back to reread it. Wong’s use of Tagalog words not only made me smile from the familiarity, but they also strengthened the world she was describing. Careful Filipino readers will recognize the clues that Wong scatters throughout the story, bits of the myths that our families have shared with us, and understand Maria’s reluctance to take what the “dead god” offers her. Readers new to Filipino mythology will certainly be unsettled enough to keep reading, and they are rewarded by an ending that is at once satisfying and agonizing.
[pullquote]The face of Yaya was so yellow like the Goldenrod in my Crayola box and my Crayola box has 120 colors and my ex-best friend Alyanna is so inggit because she has 64 only. The lips of Yaya were Red-Violet, the cheeks of Yaya were Magenta and the eyelids of Yaya were Turquoise Blue.[/pullquote]
Growing up with a yaya, or nanny, is more common for Filipino kids than you might think. For many, yaya is the face they see first in the morning, the voice they hear as they fall asleep. But yaya has a life of her own, more often than not coming second to the life of the family she assists.
The young protagonist of Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon’s piece is precocious as one might expect, confidently relaying her Yaya’s dreams and thoughts and proclivities. Yaya is beautiful, described in the colours of a Crayola box, with dabs of Chin Chun Su perfume. Yaya teaches her about good (“Yaya said that mercy is for people that are kawawa [pitiful]”) and bad (“Yaya said the yaya of Alyanna is a bruha [witch]”). Yaya is at the mercy of her small employer’s stubbornness and childish vindictiveness.
de Leon’s ability to draw those afternoons with Yaya is the story’s foundation, grounding the rest of the piece. The protagonist’s voice is quick and light, unable to see nuance or the consequences of her words and actions. She sees the world around her in shades of crayons, defining each of them herself. Even as the story takes a sharp turn into telenovela-worthy drama, it is the protagonist who tells us what she thinks, why she believes the things she does, even as she inadvertently digs a figurative grave. It isn’t about whether or not Yaya is good. It’s about whether Yaya is who she believes Yaya to be, and what that would mean for a woman defined by her role in this child’s life.
The best stories trick you into thinking they’re less than what they are. A story about a baker can only have so many permutations, you see. It’s about love? Well, that’s easy, a clean path from start to finish. Until it’s not.
Our baker, Simon, is a popular man–his bakeshop entices the town women inside, and as they swoon and sigh over him, he chooses one and begins to bake. He shares the secrets of his talent with her, gives her the key to helping or ruining him. She chooses to help, but the nature of the task might ask more of her than she might normally want to give.
Isabel Yap doesn’t give a nudge and wink to her readers in “Eggshells.” She lays out Simon’s work without padding it with too much detail, and the result is an exquisite, frightening piece that calls for multiple reads. It bears witness to the strength of infatuation as a driving force for decisions, and the very human desire to survive. It also has some of the most meticulously constructed and beautiful sentences I’ve read in fiction.
You don’t forget a story like “Seek Ye Whore.” It’s the kind of story that nudges its way in past your skepticism, past your assumptions, and smiles as you reel from the horrifying consequences.
[pullquote]Before he knew it, Foster was clicking on the “Marry Me” button under her picture and inputting his credit card number into the processing form. She didn’t come cheap, but overall, he spent less than what he expected, especially on her travel expenses.[/pullquote]
Yvette Tan eases readers in with a familiar male protagonist, Foster. He’s ordinary, single, and not particularly memorable. When his co-worker Donovan marries a mail-order bride from the island of Siquijor in the Philippines, Foster considers trying a wife out for himself. Tan plays up the dark humour of Foster choosing a woman from the same website, weighing the pros and cons of Vilma (“first in her high school English class”) and Gloria (“who ‘loved to laundry’”), before settling on the “sweet, innocent” Luli. His successful order for Luli is confirmed with a shipping estimation of “three to six weeks,” and when she arrives—well, that’s when Foster’s marriage takes a startling turn into the macabre.
“Seek Ye Whore” was one of the short stories assigned to my senior year thesis workshop for reading homework, and I still remember the shocked murmurs mixed with nervous laughter when we met up the following week to discuss it. There is a simplicity to it that never falters, even as Tan drives Foster into horror after horror. It is a pointed story that frankly addresses imperial colonialism and the fetishization of Filipino women, only made easier by the internet. It is also downright terrifying. Tan never offers an explanation for those moments, though Filipino readers familiar with the legends of Siquijor may have their suspicions. Whether suspicion is enough for Foster to look past his wife’s rather strange disposition, however–well, wouldn’t that be a spoiler?