Option 25: Butterfly People by Robin Lim
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On the day Fativa would become a mother, the hilot, Nanang Vicenta, saw the pain of a scared and damaged girl in the eyes of her daughter-in-love. She comforted her like a baby. Wiping the sweat from her brow, she promised, "No one will ever cut you again. Just breathe and let your baby come."
When the contractions became unbearable, [Fativa] gulped air and whispered [to her husband] . . . "Christians circumcise their sons, yes?" Nico nodded: Yes. "Then promise me now--or I will die holding this child back--that, boy or girl, you will never circumcise my children. Promise!" she screamed.
On his knees, Nico said, "I vow to protect your children no matter what. I will never cut them. This I vow."
She allowed her legs to open and the baby crowned . . .
Have you ever tried to write the history of your family? If you had to tell the stories of previous generations, how far back could you go? And most importantly, why would you want to do it? Midwife and author Robin Lim can go all the way back to 1854, to her great-grandparents' generation--and she opens Butterfly People with the birth of her extended family's first "witch" healer or manghihilot, in whose footsteps she has chosen to follow. The whole book weaves the family's collective memories with Lim's own fictional embellishments so tightly, that it is difficult to tell what was real and what has been made up.
The results are both fascinating and disturbing. Take the wartime story of one Filipina girl who falls in love with an American G.I. When he informs his family in Philadelphia of his intent to marry her, his scandalised grandmother informs him that they will never accept a daughter-in-law from a culture that eats dogs . . . or any culture but their own, for that matter: "We have never mixed our good pioneer blood with that of foreigners. We don't have any Negro, Mexican, Italian or Jew friends." That's a direct quotation from the character's letter--and such bad writing that I find it hard to believe as a plot point, although I'm certain that interracial couples from that period would have encountered similar resistance. But if it didn't happen, that means that Lim made it up out of her own understanding of white Americans, which really gives me pause.
but whether the True, the Beautiful and the Good
are to be found both in her life and in her novel.
Lim happens to be half-white herself: the daughter of a Filipina mother and an American father. She spent the first decade of her life in the US, on her father's military base, in the 1960s. And as a record of what that was like for her, she has channeled all her childhood memories into the character of Zenaides Lim Baker.
I'm sure that it was difficult to be half-Filipino in such a place and such a time, but some of the cruelest white characters are also the most two-dimensional, and Lim doesn't really sell them as villains. Or perhaps it's just I who don't buy them . . . Lim reminds me very strongly of a woman I know in real life, who grew up in the big city but has such a heart for nature and for the Philippines' pre-colonial traditions, that she prefers to live and to work among our indigenous peoples. She and Lim even look alike and manage to dress alike. But the uncanniest similarity is the negative attitude they both have toward Americans. As in the scene when an adult Zenaides's American husband complains that all the Filipino food and furnishings in their house make him feel that his own culture has been crowded out, and Zenaides snaps, "OK, Danny, tomorrow morning I'm going to K-Mart and I'm going to buy a framed mirror with 'Budweiser' etched across it." My proudly ethnic acquaintance has told me of similar disagreements with her many American boyfriends.
That's the weirdest thing, really. Lim and the woman I know are the sort of Filipinas who believe that the native populations were getting along beautifully until the Europeans came and interrupted everything . . . and yet the former has been married to a white man for decades, while the latter literally only dates foreigners. Their experiences are reflected in the lives of many of the women characters in Butterfly People.
As for me, I'm the sort of Filipina who thinks that the day we were claimed for Christendom was the day our history really began. And I'm not too keen about all the Catholic priests in Butterfly People turning out to be theological or moral weaklings--though, in fairness, all the fathers in this novel are weak in some way. I believe this echoes what Lim would have experienced as as a traditional healer or manghihilot. I can't imagine her getting along with stronger Christian men, and vice versa.
So there is truth in Butterfly People. But much of it is the dubious sort which G.K. Chesterton (Strong white Christian man alert!) warned us about when he said that good novels tell us the truth about their subjects, while bad novels tell us the truth about their authors. Lim's novel is somewhere in between: far too rough and sophomoric in places to be good, but occasionally so lovely and wise that I don't want to call it bad.
There is also beauty here, for those who have eyes to see it. There is a scene in which a woman in labour is described "the most beautiful sight [the Chief Medic] had ever, would ever, see," and Lim writes it so well that it's almost Marian.
As for the good . . . it's tricky. Like Lim's social work, her novel is driven by the contrast between our violent world and the peace that we want to give our children. Over and over, Butterfly People juxtaposes the pains of childbirth and the sufferings of war, with mothers who are made pregnant by enemy soldiers or who have to give birth as widows. But here she and I diverge again: I doubt that Lim thinks of labour as woman's punishment for sin and a mark of a fallen world. Instead, she sees childbirth as something healing, both to the mothers who must suffer and to the whole world. There is something tending to Christianity in that, I love Butterfly People inasmuch as it gets that far. But like the whole pagan world before it, there is only so far it can go before it must stop short.
You should choose this book in the giveaway if . . . your favourite archetype of womanhood is Mother Earth.
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Image Source: Butterfly People by Robin Lim