Books: You Can Go Home Again

May 3, 2012

Going back home takes on epic angst for those who left their
motherland for greener, or just less fraught, pastures. A classic immigrant
dilemma has always been, and will continue to be, the feeling of living between
two worlds -- never quite belonging in either. As Roxas says in her preface,
they are “the migrant souls suspended in worlds ‘between and betwixt.’” So what
happens when you try to go back to where you came from? Is it truly a
homecoming, or are you a stranger in a world that’s changed in your absence?

In Hangang sa Muli, editor
Reni R. Roxas compiles memoirs, poetry, short stories and essays about transplanted
Filipinos (or their children) returning home. The stories and narratives bounce
between expressing intense nostalgia, alienation, enlightenment, and an almost
oppressive homesickness in their return to home. While some of the pieces run
together in a sort of familiar, and not wholly original, immigrant woes song
and dance, the collection is eventually balanced out by a few standouts that
offer an original voice and perspective on the immigrant experience of
returning home.

The collection opens with “Ghost Town,” a memoir by Jessica
Hagedorn, and it arguably sets the tone for the entire collection. Hagedorn and
fellow expat Filipino pals throw nostalgic get-togethers -- eating Filipino
dishes and watching movies that remind them of home. This nostalgic
self-indulgence about the home left behind (Hagedorn herself a teenager at the
time of her exodus) stubbornly pierces through the rest of this collection. Hagedorn
wryly observes that “[the real Philippines] is a nostalgic cliché, romantic
bullshit, I know -- yet I surrender to its spell.”

This bold admission in its sharp self-awareness is what’s
missing in many of the stories that follow. In James Constantino Bautista’s “A
Cherished Haunting,” the author as a teenager visits his parents’ home in the
Philippines, meeting family members for the first time. In his short visit, he
feels that he has known his cousins “his entire life” and compares his return
home to “a death.”  Unlike Hagedorn,
Bautista doesn’t observe this instant nostalgia with any self-awareness, and it
comes off just a tad overdramatic. The teenage angst loses weight in a story
that doesn’t offer much meat beyond missing relatives back in the Philippines. Just
when the homesickness for these second generation Americans begins to feel
heavy-handed, Toni M. Bajado’s poem “First Visit to Balogo: Ancestral
Philippine Farmland” breathes some fresh air into the collection. The narrator sits
on a truck headed to her family’s hometown, luxuriating in the textures of a
place she has never been, and she beautifully describes her journey as:

I have been sleepwalking

for miles, across continents,
and decades

to return to the beginning.

Often paired with this longing for home is guilt-laden regret
for having left in the first place. Marivi Solen Blanco returns back home to
attend her father’s funeral in “Mourning Flight,” and the unrelenting burden of
knowing “I was not home” haunts her the entire flight. Forging a new life so
far away has its consequences. One misses births, graduations, weddings, and
then ultimately, they miss the opportunity for final farewells. Aimee Suzara’s
poem “this house” takes the narrator back to her grandparents’ house after
their death, and she is assaulted by memories buried in the ailments that
plagued her grandparents at the end of their lives. Her absence during their
sickness is merely hinted at, but Suzara spells out her regret and pain in
dense but lovely, choking prose. It is one of the few moments in this
collection that feels visceral and raw, revealing a relatable vulnerability.

Carlos Bulosan’s “The Laughter of My Father” and “America is in
the Heart” open the short story section. With trademark elegance, Bulosan offers
a different perspective on the homecoming narrative; one character looks back
on a very specific coming-of-age memory in the Philippines, and another runs
from his demons to find his brother, and what he hopes is home, in prohibition-era
California. These characters attempt to return home through memories and the people
who share them in a time while struggling in an unforgiving foreign land.

The pervasive theme of immigrant alienation takes root in this
section. In one of the strongest stories of the collection, “The Axolotl Colony,”
alienation comes in the form of a bewildered Filipino graduate student blindsided
by the unthinkable -- his wife leaving him for an American. When he finally
sees the fruits of his wife’s academic labor, experimenting on mutilated salamanders
for her zoology doctorate, he feels a sickening empathy with the pathetic
creatures: “He thought of the drugged apparitions in fishbowls, living on an
over-rich diet of chicken liver. In the forest and warm lakes of Mexico, in
their element, they could have been the fierce golden creatures they were.” And
so the divorcé misguidedly thinks of his marriage as well, that it would have
lasted if they had only stayed in the Philippines.

This distorted idealization of life in the Philippines is
exhausted in several of the stories and essays in the second half of this
collection. “Filipinos in America” follows the obsessive longings of a woman
whose friends have left for the U.S. She cannot reconcile the idea that they
may have found better lives with her own feeling that no one would ever want to
leave their home country. And in “Sleepwalking Through Korea, Awake in Manila”
the narrator’s mulish refusal to enjoy even a moment of a temporary stay in
Seoul is so unsympathetic that it’s almost a caricature of homesickness. More
than a few pieces beat this dead horse, and it’s the biggest weakness in the

Luckily, the collection ends with a sober but descriptive
account by Jeff Rice in a piece called “Sambayan.” Rice, as a young Filipino American,
visits the Philippines after joining a Filipino political organization in the
U.S. There he witnesses the Philippines in all its grit, political turmoil, and
industrialization. His love for the people of the Philippines isn’t driven by a
hazy nostalgia for something that may not exist. Instead he believes the
people’s spirit and passion can form the roots for change and progress. This
progression forward is the most appealing voice in the collection. For when
Bulosan’s character cries “Please, God, don’t change me in America!” it is a
futile plea that hangs onto the past. Because change doesn’t necessarily obliterate
your history. You can return home, but not in the form of a fixed memory -- it
will always evolve to fit into the many different steps in an immigrant’s

she's not road raging through her hometown of Los Angeles, Maurene Goo spends
her days writing and designing.




I read the collection this week and think this is a very nice, encapsulating review. Jessica Hagedorn is certainly a hard act to follow in the anthology, but in defense of the subsequent memoirs, what the reviewer calls a lack of “self-awareness” is often just the absence of a particular voice of irreverence or self-deprecation. This is a more fitting critique in a fictional story, perhaps, because one’s feelings and memories may sound corny, romantic or melodramatic, but their lenses of experience are indisputably honest. James Consantino Bautista, if he’s as young as his bio suggests, is assessed a bit harshly in this regard. It is stated that “the teenage angst loses weight in a story that doesn’t offer much meat beyond missing relatives,” but I found that particular memoir to be more about a boy stumbling upon an important tomb, longing to see a particular ghost, than just an anecdote about missing one’s cousins. Obviously there are masterful works, new and old, in this book that require no defending, such as “Scent of Apples,” “The Axolotl Colony,” Carlos Bulosan’s classic excerpts, and the thoroughly entertaining “Where’s the Patis?” Overall, a good review of an anthology that hits home with a broad spectrum of Filipino-American (or American-Filipino) experience.