04 June 2014


Option 25: Butterfly People by Robin Lim
(Scroll down for the Rafflecopter and read the Giveaways page for more information)

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.

Let's not ask where reality ends and fiction begins,
but whether the True, the Beautiful and the Good
are to be found both in her life and in her novel.

(They are!)

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


Carmel @ Rabid Reads said...

I think this book might be a little too out there for me, but thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks for reading! =) Butterfly People isn't the sort of book I normally read, either, though now that I'm done with it, I'm glad I didn't give up after the first few chapters.

Sheila said...

Your last sentence settles it; this one is for me!

Re: American racism -- it's sadly real. People who wouldn't hesitate to be friends with different ethnic groups still get upset when their kids actually try to *marry* outside their ethnicity. My husband's parents got a lot of grief for marrying. His Irish-American family would have nothing to do with her because she was Dominican. Only John's grandfather (who, ironically, was philosophically extremely racist and constantly ranted against Mexicans, Russians, and Jews) took the time to be kind to his new daughter-in-law. John tells me that only when his father *died* did the rest of the family really accept his mother as a full member of the family.

And I know a woman whose parents moved to Seattle (about the most unracist place you can go, apparently) because they got so much persecution in Mississippi for being one white and one black.

I don't hear much about it anymore, but one Irish-American friend of mine was despised by the family of her Polish-American boyfriend because "Irish girls are just out to get a meal ticket." Nasty stuff.

Me, I could have brought home a purple guy and my dad wouldn't have cared so long as he didn't vote Democrat. ;)

I can't think of childbirth as a punishment for sin either. I don't think it was meant to hurt, but the fact that it is painful seems more of an unavoidable consequence of being conflicted about our nature than something that was imposed from outside. Just like God didn't *make* us ashamed of being naked .... it's just what happens when you are more concerned with "being like Gods" than you are with being what you were made to be.

Violence isn't the way things were meant to be either, but to win a noble battle is considered a great victory for men. Childbirth is the same way for women. It's a very triumphant and powerful sort of thing. I didn't feel that way the first time around -- I felt like a victim because everyone around me treated me like a victim and kept me from taking any control of anything -- but I did the second. It's certainly something I feel very proud of, and I feel sad for all the women who don't get such a sense of achievement.

Enbrethiliel said...


I actually thought of you a lot while reading this! Have you come across "lotus birth" in any of your research? If anyone I know (besides myself--LOL!) would be open to trying it, of course it would be you! ;-)

I'd say that labour pains are a punishment in the same way daily labour is a punishment: they're both crosses to bear, but also such a natural part of being human in a fallen world that they don't have to get us down.

How interesting that you seem to have noticed the same parallel between labour and battles that Lim did! =) I wonder if male warriors or soldiers ever make the same connection.

Sheila said...

Daily labor can be a cross or a joy, depending on how you look at it. Of course I would rather loaf around eating bon bons, but would I feel as *good* after a day of that as I do when I've just finished the dishes or mowing the lawn?

I have heard of lotus birth, but I think it's kind of dumb. ;) Sorry. It usually involves either the conviction that somehow the soul isn't entirely in the baby at birth and needs to migrate out of the placenta, or that this is somehow "traditional." And it isn't really traditional -- the only cultures who commonly practiced it, did it only because they didn't have metal implements to cut the cord with. I hear it was also done by the American pioneers, because their environment was so filthy they feared infection in the cord stump. All other traditional cultures and all animals cut that thing off within a couple hours of birth. Anyway I imagine it would get pretty stinky, and taking care of a newborn is enough trouble without worrying about a dried-out placenta dangling off the baby.

Now I do believe in waiting to cut the cord till the blood has all drained into the baby, which actually has science behind it, but ten minutes should do the job fine. Eating the placenta? That's traditional, and may be healthy, but we all have our crunchiness limits and that's mine. Our midwife asked us if we wanted it, and I said "nope" so I guess she took it and threw it away. Didn't even plant it under a tree or anything. I was just too busy worrying about the actual baby.

Enbrethiliel said...


Now that we've been redeemed, daily labour and the labour of childbirth are both a cross and a joy: at once consequences of the Fall and sufferings that we can unite to the Cross. Feeling great about them is a bonus--and better than bonbons! ;-)

Now, this probably isn't something I should be "saying aloud," but I deal with stink pretty well these days. =P Thanks to the diabolical tag team of my office's air conditioning and my home's air conditioning, I developed what I believe Americans know as "winter itch." In the tropics. In June. (I know, right?!?!?!) And the connection to stink is that the only thing that really seems to help my skin is a combination of aloe vera gel and virgin coconut oil, which smells surprisingly bad until it gets fully absorbed. ("Surprisingly" because I trained my nose to like the scent of apple cider vinegar on my pillow, but cannot seem to get it to deal with this.) Yet I keep slathering it on after every shower anyway. And all this is my long-winded way of saying that I can deal with a stinky placenta for a few days, as long as I have enough salt and dried herbs for it!

Sheila said...

Marko's cord stump smelt really vile before it fell off. I mean really, it is decaying flesh. Lucky Michael's fell off after only a couple of days. Some babies keep theirs for three weeks -- I am not sure how I would bear that! Especially when newborns otherwise smell so delicious. And then when they're baptized it's even better.

I have a very, very sensitive nose. Always have, but after having kids it's been even worse. I've been known to insist about things like my husband's deodorant choices ... I might not be able to keep all nasty smells out of my house (with two kids, two cats, and a dog, I absolutely cannot) but those smells I can get rid of, I do.

Enbrethiliel said...


Admittedly, I have no idea what pregnancy will do to my sense of smell!