Thursday 5 November 2020

A new short fiction collection from multi-awarded Filipino American writer and poet Eileen R. Tabios

PAGPAG The Dictator's Aftermath in the Diaspora (Paloma Press 2020)

My first encounter with the work of Eileen R. Tabios was in the middle of 1999. I was in the middle of sorting submissions and curating intentionally diverse work for a flash fiction anthology I had proposed to Anvil Publishing in Manila, that eventually came out in 2003, and was called Fast Food Fiction: Short Short Stories To Go. Tabios’ story in this book was a deft piece, just 469 words (I asked for flash of no more than 500 words, and many writers went far beyond that), focusing on a man who puzzles, genuinely it seems, over the aftermath of passion that had evidently gone too far, with the use of a black leather crop. Adding further interest, the title chosen for the story was, “excerpts from After She Left The Hotel Room” and its text was divided into four petite sections headed, “W, X, Y” and “Z”. 

Not only did I love the dark little story, I admired such clever little conceits suggesting to the reader that submerged beneath this sharp tip is an iceberg of more mysterious life, indeed, the entire alphabet’s worth of it. Noting the (many) books she has authored subsequently, I found none called After She Left The Hotel Room. However, further reading led me to an intriguing discovery. On her blog, Tabios has shared the blurbs for her first novel, Dovelion A Fairy Tale For Our Times, forthcoming this March 2021 out of the arts publisher, AC Books. The blurb from France-based Filipino Reine Arcache Melvin, author of The Betrayed (Anvil Publishing 2019), ends like this, “Tabios uses her pen like Elena uses her whip, provoking tenderness through intense sensation as well as illumination through sensuality and a passionate, hungry mind.” 

Reading this, I stopped short, delighted. Could this “whip” be the same black leather crop owned by the same “she” who “Left the Hotel Room” and is Dovelion's Elena this "she"? 

For this reason among others, I'm keen to read Tabios’ first (and not likely last) novel, Dovelion. Everything I’ve read by her, including the stories in this, her nth book of fiction, Pagpag, strongly intimates something larger in scope, more sprawling, something that is simply beyond. This is not a flaw; on the contrary, the writer who leaves you wanting more, confident there is much more to know, has readers in her thrall, doesn’t she? Nobody cares to finish a book, saying, that’s it; I don’t wish nor need to read anything more. You want readers to want more. Not just more, more of this

There is much to say about this book, a deceptively slim collection out of Paloma Press, an independent, (I daresay, boutique?) publisher that opened its doors the year the world turned upside down, in both the Philippines and in the US. I say deceptive, because these are, after all, eleven stories bookended by two poems with an introduction by the author! What’s more, the book not only makes use of a small font size, but similarly minute leading and kerning. It takes a lot of time to read, jam-packed as it is, and it’s almost as if the author herself is warning you, go slow, you can’t just gobble this up without chewing. You can’t just skim or scan. You must proceed, thoughtfully and with care. 

The kick-off poem, "When I Was" and its black and white photo of the writer as a little girl echoes like the proverbial shot to start a marathon. When we get to the line, "An assassin failed to kill my father…The assassin is another father to my diaspora, we are off and running right into the author's own introduction. Here, Tabios slowly and deliberately reminds us of the rage so many Filipinos overseas, but especially Filipinos in the United States, have forgotten: the fury of a protest they own but have repressed. This same sensation of wanting to run returns, and then you start the first story, "Negros", apparently the first story the author ever published. Again, we are forced to slow down, catch our breath, gather our wits and our wisdom. 

To say the stories in Pagpag are powerful in a way short-changes them. They are not easy—they are not instant. All have moving parts and require more than a measure of a readers’ everyday attention. But they are clearly worth the delving and divining. Powerful, to be sure, they are that, but they are more. They  read as history, memoir and mystery. The pieces, more than a number of them are short. Particularly poignant is “The Man In A White Suit” which is structured simply as a conversation between a daughter and her father, yet it is also a dissection of regret and the object is perhaps, not the dictator from the old country, but the prosaic, quotidian overall undermining of the new. 

In “Redeeming Memory”, I like to think that young Filipino readers might seize the chance to get straight in their heads the abuses of Ferdinand Marcos' martial law, how its corruptive qualities have remained systemic, continuing to lurk and fester anew. And so, even ten years, after the dictatorship, even thirty years after, it is ever present kindling that threatens to burst into flame and raze whatever is left. Tabios also takes us into the tragic story of Flor Contemplacion, the domestic worker executed in Singapore, and we taste the futile bitterness of that, dry and dusty in the mouth, almost impossible to swallow. But we do. And because we do, there is only more to swallow so we might easily choke to death. 

“A Ghost Haunting” is also deeply striking as a very recognizable situation told a little slant, of the American friend in the finance social circle, Jeremy, who takes up with Maritess, a newly arrived Filipino immigrant, a waitress at a club in Greenwich village. The protagonist confesses she knows Maritess only the way she might know a distant cousin. And what she does she know of Filipinos in America? 

 “Unease: a doctor over there, a nurse’s aide here; a college professor over there, a secretary here: a farmer over there, an airport janitor here; a pillar of society over there, a member of the peanut gallery here…I am accosted sometimes at airports, elevators, restaurants and public spaces by strangers who consider me familiar because of a memory lingering from some previous stay in the Philippines where they met women eager to meet Americans. They say I remind them of Vangie, Susan, Josefina, Lillian, Emma, and ‘Baby’ with whom they had quite a rollicking good time. What I always want to say is how totally sure I am that Vangie, Susan, Josefina, Lillian, Emma, and yes, even Baby undoubtedly sought their company solely because of their manly charm—and not because some old parent otherwise would die of starvation back in a village, not because some infant 9 is desperately waiting for milk, and certainly not because there is no alternative for earning daily bread when male relatives are known to have prices on their head for fighting back against the thuggery of a corrupt politician’s private army.” 

The stories in Pagpag are eloquent, well-told and not without wit. But they provoke a fury difficult to stomach, as difficult as holding down the pagpag the book is named for, captured so terribly in Tabios' closing poem, "Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: PagPag", that is, the bits of food thrown in the garbage, picked through, collected, washed and cooked, over again with salt, so it might be fed to a hungry family. 

The wish I have for Pagpag is that it makes its way to all corners of the United States, to the bookshops, the public libraries and the college classrooms in every state. This way, Filipino Americans may come to understand the gray cloud hanging over a certain generation, perhaps that of their parents or their grandparents. This is something they ought to know, as the third largest Asian group in America, seemingly invisible yet possessing might enough in their religious, conservative hands that they could well have been one of the reasons President Donald J. Trump received so many votes in his bid for re-election. 

Finally, I also wish Pagpag might find its way home to the Philippines, where apparently an entire generation has come to adulthood not knowing or not believing the pernicious legacy of the martial law dictatorship. Otherwise, they sadly leave themselves open to another.