11 June 2015


Option 32: The Day the Dancers Came by Bienvenido N. Santos
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As soon as Fil woke up, he noticed a whiteness outside, quite unusual for the November mornings they had been having. That November, Chicago was sandman's town, sleepy valley, drowsy grey, slumbrous mistiness from sunup till noon, when the clouds drifted away in cauliflower clusters and suddenly it was evening. The lights shone in the avenues like soiled lamps centuries old and the skyscrapers became like monsters with a thousand sore eyes. Now there was a brightness in the air and Fil knew what it was and he shouted, "Snow! It's snowing!"

. . . Fil [was] smiling to himself as if he had ordered this and was satisfied with the prompt delivery. "Oh, they'll love this. They'll love this."

"Who'll love what?" Tony asked, his voice raised in annoyance.

"The dancers, of course . . . They're arriving today. Maybe they've already arrived. They'll walk in the snow and love it. Their first snow, I'm sure."

I don't read much "Migrant Lit," but I get the impression that the most successful books about immigrants end happily. That is, no matter how sad the beginning and how agonising the middle, the ending will always affirm that the first generation made the right decision for their descendents. Of course, I may be wrong, and there may be quite a few ambivalent or deeply regretful memoirs out there. But the US-set stories of Bienvenido N. Santos, who has divided his life between the Philippines and America, tell a different story. His new American citizens can barely admit to themselves that they made the biggest mistake of their lives.

Surprisingly, sometimes that big mistake is not choosing America, but not choosing America. (Does that sentence make sense?)

No, Val was not ashamed of [his American girlfriend]. If he could only have his way he would marry her and show her around to his friends with loving pride. But Val was weak, he was a coward, he knew he was a coward, he felt that he couldn't do anything, he dared not do anything without his father or mother, or the great family council passing judgment on what he should do. Perhaps it was the way he had been brought up, but Val knew that he lacked strength. The fears that preyed on his mind had mostly to do with the great Rustia family, what they would think of a girl like Fay. Not that Fay was objectionable because she came from a broken-up family or that she herself had spent a few years in an orphanage, but they would object to his marrying anybody just now, when they were out of touch. He remembered his father's words, "The greatest offense you could do would be to lose your head in America." And his own mother had expressed the same opinion.

-- from "Quicker Than Arrows"

Another recurring character type in Santos's US-set stories is the Filipino migrant who never marries and has a family, but has had at least one affair with an American woman that went nowhere. Quicker Than Arrows is the story of one such romance, which parallels the War in the Pacific down to the latter's explosive conclusion. It is the also the biggest tragedy in this collection--made more haunting by the suggestions that it is the tragedy of an entire group and not just one person.

How much of all this is a faithful depiction of the dark side of immigration that no one wants to talk about and how much is his own projection of the agony he felt when the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour stranded him in the US, separated from his family, for four long years: I'd have to be a proper Santos scholar to answer. Off the top of my head, I'd say that social historians wouldn't quarrel with his details . . . but that he definitely dials up the drama with three different Filipino characters, in three different stories, who develop mysterious wasting diseases in their new homelands. And it's not just "Americanitis": one of the stories is set in Japan. (Nor is it just Filipinos: one American who moves to the Philippines in Santos's novel The Volcano--which inspired Locus Focus: Take Seventy-Six--finds a comparable fate.)

But the best thing about this collection is that it's not all Migrant Lit--for Santos could write other stories well, too. Apart from the three set abroad, the two others with Filipinos who eventually found their way back home, and a play with characters who are about to leave, there are three that have nothing to do with emigration at all. The Weight of This is about a man who can predict the weather but can't see more personal disasters building, The Vision of Sir is a haunting encounter between a career teacher and one of his worst students, and Look for Dancing in the Streets is one of two lengthy "deleted scenes" from Santos's novel Villa Magdalena. They all fit together oddly, but well.

You should choose this book in the giveaway if . . . you've long wanted to read an important writer from another culture but have been holding out for the perfect way to begin.

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Banshee said...

Maybe that's why he set the books early, but my impression of Filipino immigrants in the US has always been:

1. Cheerful
2. Very friendly and social with family, other Filipino immigrants in the area, and even with new people they've just met
3. Very strong in Catholic faith
4. Not scared of anything
5. Fairly quick about figuring out they want to marry somebody, and making it happen (much to the bemusement and willing capitulation of any non-Filipinos they marry)
6. Tending to stay married and raise good kids
7. Not people to mess with!

So it seems like he's writing stories about Filipino immigrants who don't fit in with other Filipino immigrants, or he's providing a shadow figure of the things Filipino immigrants feel but don't allow themselves to do.

I don't know if this is a fair assessment, not having read the book or been Filipino!

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks for sharing your impressions, Banshee! I don't often know how Filipinos appear to others.

#3 is very encouraging. A friend from another part of the US has told me that when he meets Filipinos these days, they are invariably Evangelical (or perhaps Iglesia ni Kristo). =( It is the South Koreans and the Vietnamese who tend to be more consistently Catholic. #5 is really funny, though!

You're right that Santos is writing about the Filipinos who don't really fit in--whether with their fellow immigrants or with their new compatriots. And they really don't see the tragic ending of that coming: for one character, it is literally true!

You know, if you enter the giveaway and win, you will have a chance to give as fair as assessment as you like! #hinthint ;-)