Of the novels I’ve read so far in 2020 for Filipino-American History Month, AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART was the one that resonated the most. The Filipino-America these characters inhabit differs from the one in which I came up. But it rings true for all the ways it overlaps with my and my family’s experiences.
The ways Filipinos get by in the aftermath of trauma, whether from the Japanese Occupation during WWII or Martial Law is familiar to me. The stuff they have to go through when the emigrate or help their family members emigrate is familiar. The many secrets, white lies, superstitions, large Filipino social gatherings and the cliques within, the ways class, gender, and education intersect and create tensions that are barely suppressed by utang na loob — maybe too familiar.
The ratio of Ilocano and Pangasinan phrases to Tagalog (the language of my folks) notwithstanding, almost all of us in the diaspora know a Lolo Boy, a Bebot, and a Ka Eddie. We know what gets said about the brothers of a certain family, the doctors tried to make it but couldn’t, the nurses who were the anchors of a family, and the Ate who had more going on under the surface than you might ever suspect if you didn’t know or intensely care enough about to ask.
If Gina Apostol’s INSURRECTO gives an overview of 120 years of Philippine-American history, PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING gives us history’s most contemporary slice.
With President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug war (condemned the world over for its sanction of extrajudicial killing) as a backdrop, PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING shows how a young Filipino-American man faces a choice just about all Filipinos in the diaspora face: How do you live your life in the face of the multiple horrors which have touched generations of Filipinos throughout the last century?
This can be a no-win situation. You can choose to leave the family, the barangay, the country and as a result, feel survivor’s guilt layered with whatever guilt trip others might put on you. You can stay, and escape in other ways like hiding parts of yourself, hiding your convictions, hiding your fears and concerns behind “bahala na” while trying — sometimes failing — to avoid being subsumed by the horror.
To read about a 17 year-old Filipino-American taking up this challenge in ways I never could makes him look like Harry Potter to me. Being 30 years older, let me tell you that it would’ve been easier at 17 if to imagine myself being a wizard than someone who goes “back home” and does what the protagonist here does. If “All of the adults are failing us,” as he declares in frustration, I can offer one possible explanation (though not an excuse, by any means). It could be because I didn’t have a book like PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING growing up.
This has been sitting on my reading list for too long, so I figured October being Filipino American Heritage Month was as good an excuse as any to get started!
Apostol uses several layers of meta to give us an overview of the century plus of commingled history between the Philippines and the United States, from colonial times to Digong. If I’ve read correctly, I generally seem around the age of the protagonists, so a lot of the contemporary touchstones resonate with me — the Thrilla in Manila, the peccadilloes of older Titos, karaoke murders, Filipino Catholic priests, mah-jongg, San Miguel beer, aswang, shabu and extrajudicial killings. The historical touchstones I expected in a novel called INSURRECTO are all there as well: water cures, juramentados, “Damn Damn Damn the Filipinos,” Colt .45s, krags, arnis, and massacres.
But the best part is how Apostol’s centering of women throughout the narrative(s) sharply illustrate colonization’s effects on both colonizer and colonized as the two main characters try to take a good-faith look at a shared history in which they both have a personal stake. And INSURRECTO does it in a way that interrogates the ideas of “Whose story is this to tell?” and “What’s the ‘proper’ way to tell it?”
Structurally the book might confuse some. I’m not the world’s fastest novel-reader to begin with; it took me just over a week to get through this. Totally worth it, though. I don’t think I’ve ever described a piece of art as a “tour de force” before, but that’s exactly what INSURRECTO is.
It reminds me of the notes-like structure of a Mary Robison novel (expanded to full chapters, of course). I happened on a review somewhere (I lost the link) that speaks of a peculiar pattern with the chapter numbering. I’d missed it, but never went back to verify it. That’s okay. The thing that helped me stay centered despite the shifting casts of characters as remembering Armand Ianucci’s THE THICK OF IT and IN THE LOOP — a TV series and film where the same actors play different characters in a similar setting. I know, you’re probably thinking “WTF are you talking about?” Just read INSURRECTO.