The Indomitable Filipino Spirit

Touted as the Pearl of the Orient, Philippines has a very long and colorful history. For nearly four hundred years, it was colonized by Spaniards, American, Japanese, and, for a short while, British. The tapestry of Philippine history is rich. With the confluence of different cultures, Filipinos have adapted to an interesting culture that is influenced by these colonizers. Despite the presence of these influences, Filipino culture is distinctly their own. It thus provides a powerful backdrop for literature.

Drawing inspiration from his country’s long history of colonization, Philippine National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin composed a score of short stories and novellas. His works captured several seminal phases of Philippine history. In his first book published in the United States, The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic, Joaquin depicted several scenes of post-colonial Philippines. The collection also includes Joaquin’s popular play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.

“When he had gone home, he had been frightened, he had refused to face what he saw. But he had not really wanted to come home to a land, only to a pas; and not finding the past there, he had run away, fearing the reality, preferring the dream.” ~ Nick Joaquin, The Woman Who Had Two Navels

Nick Joaquin, who passed away in 2004, is one of the pillars of the contemporary Filipino literature. However, just like Filipino writers, his works remained largely obscured from the rest of the world despite writing in English. Writing in English preserves the original theme and bridges the gap for the alterations on the book’s spirit that inevitably result from hasty translations. Even though posthumously, having his work be published in the United States for the first time is nonetheless a triumph for Filipino literature.

With the numerous cultural influences that have altered Filipino culture and social structures, Filipinos, at times, experience cultural identity crisis. These underlying national identity crises were prevalent at the end of the war, and the end of the country’s colonization. This search is the heart of most of the short stories in this collection. The collections’s representative work, The Woman Who Had Two Navels, grapples with this ongoing cultural struggle.

Originally published in 1961 as a standalone novel, The Woman Who Had Two Novels the story of Connie Escobar who experienced hallucinations. Her delusions made her concoct the notion that she had two navels, or belly buttons. She persisted with the notion in order to be treated by society as a special individual. Through Connie, the various heritages of the Philippines were placed under the proverbial microscope to study its impact on the contemporary Filipino society. The two navels can be perceived as allegories of the two prevailing influences on the Filipino culture – Spanish and American.

The same search for identity was portrayed in Joaquin’s celebrated play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino: An Elegy in Three Scenes. In a historical Manila mansion, three generations converge. Looming above this interesting combination of personalities is the patriarch’s masterpiece self-portrait. Under the painting’s observant gaze, the characters struggle to cope with the changing tides. A shell of their old self, the older generation are hapless against the rapidly developing present. The younger generations, on the other hand, yearn to understand the world but are petrified by the overwhelming arrival of libertine ideas and philosophies that stifle the traditional and religious .

“The world was always going to be remade by people who were too busy to remake themselves first and who left the world twice as miserable as before.” ~ Nick Joaquin, May Day Eve

With ten short stories and a play, Joaquin provided a spectrum upon which the Philippine culture can be examined. Different aspects of the Filipino In the Order of Melchizedek, Joaquin depicted the marriage of Catholicism, a Spanish influence, with mystical pre-colonial and pre-Christian beliefs. The short story relates how a cult formed by a defrocked priest who represented himself as a reincarnation of the Messiah. He conspicuously uses Catholicism to reinsert pagan practices and beliefs. The story reverberates as, in contemporary Philippines, such cults are still prevalent.

Contrary to criticisms, feminism plays a seminal role in most of Joaquin’s works about pre-colonial Philippine societies wherein a priestess, or a “babaylan” possesses the highest rank in the social hierarchy. The Summer Solstice, which relates a. The latter, highlighting a mystical festival for women, however, stands out.  In the midst of the jubilation of the festival, a devout Catholic wife transmutes her patriarchal husband to a dog. She made her husband-dog lick her feet in adoration. The role reversal is reminiscent of the role reversal highlighted in The Order of Melchizedek.

Most of the stories in the collection depict what and how the Filipinos are – deeply steeped into traditions. Despite the developments and the confluence of different influences, Filipino culture and society in general remain to be dominated by pre-colonial and pre-Catholic beliefs. The Philippines’ history and unique culture formed a vivid backdrop upon which majority of the short stories were conceived.

In these tales of identity, culture, traditions and history, one thing prevailed – Joaquin never lost sight of who he was. In his works, he wrote in a very sure and concise manner. His writing was both dense and rich. He captured the readers’ imagination and attention with his vivid and masterful strokes, creating a montage that is equally opulent as it is powerful. The stories segue into the next with a natural and interrupted flow.

Through the surrealist quality of this short story collection, Joaquin’s writing can easily be fitted into the magical realism genre reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s quality and brand of magical realism. But as contemporaries, Joaquin wasn’t necessarily inspired by Garcia Marquez. Joaquin never struggled with his identity and wrote and created stories with a style that is distinctly his own. He even had a term for it – Tropical Gothic.

“They were human, my child. And if we were to reject all worldly authority for that reason, we would have to reject everything: marriage and government and society; the family, the state, and the church. We would have to abolish the world. Is that what you propose to do?” ~ Nick Joaquin, The Woman Who Had Two Navels

Joaquin set on an impossible mission that an ordinary writer would balk to. Capturing national identity is a Herculean task, considering the infinite permutations – cultural, personal, societal – that influence our personal and national. Lest we forget, the vast world and the fast-paced changes continually rewrite and redefine who we are. In this collection of stories, Joaquin showcased the caliber of his writing and the depth of his thoughts. He illuminated a path for his successors.

In ten stories and a play, Joaquin deftly depicted what defines the Philippines as a nation. He wrote about the struggles of the Filipinos whilst capturing seminal and pivotal moments that epitomize the indomitable Filipino spirit. With acuity, he painted a montage that comes alive with a plethora of languages, and identities but what echoes through the din are 7,641 islands becoming one. Underneath the surface, these stories were about the Filipinos, written by a Filipino, for the Filipinos.

As the Philippine National Hero, Dr. Jose Rizal once said, “Ang di marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan, hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.” Translated in English, it means “He who does not look back at where he came from will never reach his destination.” As a country that is divided on many fronts, it is works like this that remind us what we are and who we are. May we, as Filipinos, as a nation, strive to keep our identity, but more importantly, never forget our heritage.



Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic is my first plunge into the world of short story collections. At least the first one that I have completed, after failed two failed attempts, with Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes and Ha Jin’s The Bridegroom. My preference for longer narratives made me avoid short stories. Thankfully, Joaquin’s masterpieces changed my mind, that in trite but dense paragraphs and sentences, rich and powerful stories can emerge.

But this work is more than just about short stories. It is about important echoes that reminded me of the essence of being a Filipino. Yes, Filipino literature is underappreciated, even by Filipinos but I do hope that the tides of time changes this. This book made me realize that. It made me ruminate on what I am missing, and the foolishness of not fully appreciating my heritage.

Book Specs

Author: Nick Joaquin
Penguin Books
Publishing Date: 2017
Number of Pages: 432
Genre: Short Story Collection, Magical Realism


Nick Joaquin’ is widely considered one of the greatest Filipino writers, but he has remained little-known outside the Philippines despite writing in English. Set amid the ruins of Manila devastated by World War II, his stories are steeped in the postcolonial anguish and hopes of his era and meditate on the challenges of the Filipino individual’s new freedom after a long history of colonialism. This collection includes his best-known stories ad his celebrated play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.

About the Author


(Picture taken from Wikipedia) Nicomedes “Nick” Marquez Joaquin was born on May 4, 1917 in Paco, Manila, Philippines. His father, Don Leocadio Marquez fought alongside his friend, General Emilio Aguinaldo during the Philippine Revolution.

Joaquin studied at Paco Elementary School and went to Mapa High School but dropped out during his third year because he felt the need to learn outside of the classroom. Because the Joaquin children were encouraged to have interest in the arts, Nick became an avid reader at a young age, enamored with the works of Anton Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather. He also read American magazines and American authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

After winning a national essay writing contest sponsored by the Dominican Brothers, Joaquin was awarded by the University of Sto. Tomas with an honorary Associate in Arts and a scholarship to St. Albert’s Convent, the Dominican monastery in Hong Kong, where he stayed for two years before returning to Manila. Upon his return, Joaquin joined the Philippine Free Press as a proofreader.

Joaquin’s literary career begun with the publication of his first poem about Don Quixote when he was 17-years-old. The Sorrows of Vaudeville, his first short story was published in 1937. Amongst his prominent works include May Day Eve (1947), The Woman Who Had Two Navels (1961), Tropical Gothic (1972) and Manila: Sin City and Other Chronicles (1977). Joaquin also worked as a journalist with the pen name Quijano de Manila.

Because of his contributions to Philippine literature, Joaquin was conferred with the rank and title National Artist of the Philippines for Literature. He also won a bevy of awards and recognition. He passed away on April 29, 2004.