The Nostalgia of Memory

The Philippines has a long and colorful history. Interspersed throughout this historical span are the triumphant cries of heroes and the guttural screams of defeat. By being colonized by Spain, the United States, and Japan, Philippine culture is a rich mixture of different heritages. Interwoven into Philippine’s rich cultural tapestry is a bevy of folklore and mythological elements that were handed over from one generation to another generation. These preternatural facets of Filipino culture renders it a distinct landscape and texture.

In her 2014 Philippine National Book Award-winning masterpiece Fish-Hair Woman, Filipino-Australian writer Merlinda Bobis integrates the rough contours of Philippine history with the rich and magical tapestry of its folklore. Set 1987 in the fictional village of Iraya, it relates the story of Estrella, the titular Fish-Hair woman. With the government intensifying its war against insurgency and with the prevalence of insurgents in the area, the once sleepy village of Iraya was militarized overnight.

As the military and the insurgents make their presence felt, slaughtered bodies started to surface from the river. With her 12-meter long hair, Estrella trawled the dead bodies from the water. Estrella’s mother, Carmen, died during her birth and since no one has any iota on who her father is, she was adopted by her mother’s best friend, Mamay Dulce. As the story progressed, it was discovered that Estrella is the illegitimate daughter of the most powerful man in the village, Mayor Kiko Estraderos.

“In between corpses, allow me to also lay down the little reckonings and executions – what about these little griefs? They nibble around the edges till the self begins to diminish, bit by bit, till it completely disappears. Because the little griefs have eaten and summarily displaced it. Because they have conspired to become the new self. Watch it grow fat like an eel, slippery and uncatchable, until you sink your teeth into it.” ~ Merlinda Bobis, Fish-Hair Woman

Merlinda Bobis depicts the struggles of far-flung villages and their denizens who are caught up in the crossfire between the military forces, the communist insurgents, and private political armies. Insurgency remains a relevant concern in the Philippines. On the wake of this violence, civilians are stabbed, young girls are raped and accused insurgents are abducted and tortured, leaving a trail of blood and horrific images. Fish-Hair Woman resonates the stories of conflict, abductions, and disappearances that are prevalent the world over.

Beyond Estrella’s corpse-trawling is the emergence of another seminal plot line that pervaded the Fish-Hair woman’s tale. Tony McIntyre is an Australian journalist who traveled to Iraya to cover the escalation of the Total War. He got acquainted to Pilar, Estrella’s “older” sister, who took arms and retreated to the mountains for the “cause”. A romance blossoms between the Tony and Pillar but Estrella finds herself falling for Tony as well. The tangled web resulting from this love triangle produced a multi-layered narrative that touches on several subjects and themes that permeates in Philippine society.

Through the person of Mayor Estraderos, or also known as Doctor Alvarado, Fish-Hair Woman underlined several glaring realities in the current Philippine political scene. The first profound reality is the prevalence of private armies. In a country overrun by several political dynasties, having a sizable private army is in vogue. Several contemporary studies show that a majority of the ruling political dynasties in the 81 provinces of the country employ their own private armies. They serve two purposes – to instill fear in the voting populace and to protect the politician and his/her family.

Whilst the main action occurs in 1987, the story was related mostly through the perspective of 1997. Pilar and Tony has long since perished or disappeared because of their deep involvement in the insurgency. Kiko or Doctor Alvarado lures in Tony’s 19-year-old son, Luke. From Australia, he traveled to the Philippines under the pretense that his father is still alive. However, this is just one of the schemes Doctor Alvarado employed in order to sanitize history, thus, ensuring his unscathed return to the world of politics.

“Why my memory weave in and out of death and love, or why I wept over the enemy as my hair grew, its red and black strands shooting from all ventricles up to the scalp, to declare that the heartspace is not just the size of a fist, because each encounter threads a million others. The capillaries of love and war flow into each other, into a hand span of hair.” ~ Merlinda Bobis, Fish-Hair Woman

Historical revisionism is a salient point underscored by Bobis. In the current Philippine political climate, it is a relevant subject. Shrewd Politicians are brazenly attempting to rewrite portions of Philippine history, tipping it towards their favor. They capitalize on the Filipinos’ gullibility to ascend to influential positions once again. This is despite the fact that they have been ostracized and condemned in the past. Filipinos can be naive and very forgiving. Philippine history is rife with examples. In the contemporary more than ever, everyone must put their guard up on these attempts.

Fish-Hair Woman is a multilayered narrative that touches on several subjects such as political unrest and village politics. It also explored the complex links of romantic and familial love and relationships. Bobis underlined several realities of quotidian Filipino living such as corruption, vote buying during elections and the undying presence of nepotism and despotism. Interwoven into the rich tapestry is the weight Filipinos place on formal education over practical skills.

Interspersed into these layers are personal histories and memories which Bobis aim to preserve through the narrative. Estrella’s hair is the allegory for memory. Whenever she remembers, Estrella’s hair grows a hand span. Even though it is painful, memory makes us relive experiences we’ve buried in the past, restore images of the people who have disappeared, and retell the stories that we’ve been meaning to share to the rest of the world.

The novel is told through shifting points of view of Estrella, Luke and an omniscient narrator. It was also punctuated with newspaper clippings from the fictional Philippine Daily News. It is an allusion to the lifeless media reports bereft of reality. The prose was also characterized by its strong and vivid imagery, the product of Bobis’ rich and descriptive text. Filipino folklore and culture also form a significant part of this image. The presence of fireflies on the riverbanks, for instance, is a reference to the age-old belief that fireflies lead the souls of the dead.

“Love is our main cause after all; whatever, whoever it is we love or do not love, and whether they can love us back. Allow me to write this slogan for you. No, it does not have any official badge. But I shall write it on this page anyhow, weave it with strands of hair to leave you with something that will not stop growing from both sides of the heart. I should know. Its left and right ventricles are one in this cause, even when it is breaking.” ~ Merlinda Bobis, Fish-Hair Woman

What rises to the surface is Merlinda Bobis’ lyrical prose. She used her language as a powerful tool in spinning a tale that is both powerful and resolute. With a tone reminiscent of Scheherazade’s engaging voice, the narrative flowed with ease, compelling the readers to live in the narrative. On the fringes of the text are some obstinate strands of hair that appear to be out of place. But Bobis created, rather, intoned an enchanting voice and wrote a wonderful language that these wayward strands don’t muddle the rich tapestry.

The several layers of Fish-Hair Woman inspire reflection and rumination. Bobis endeavored to reconcile a bleak past, simultaneously constructing a broader narrative that confronts violence, terror, and history. Contrary to what can be perceived, it is not a story of revenge or of the vengeful. Fish-Hair Woman is not the story of a war or a revolt. It is the narrative of people, the story of memories carefully woven together to produce a rich, colorful, and vivid tapestry.

The confluence of poetry and prose, Fish-Hair Woman is a lyrical story about the powers that our memories and personal histories hold, and how they haunt us. It is a book about the different stories that surround us, the stories that change, the stories that remain stagnant, and the stories that are waiting to burst out from us. In intimates the stories of Estrella, Pilar, Tony, and the denizens of Iraya, Bobis is saving their stories from being incinerated in the vast oblivion of history.

Ratings:

81%

Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 24%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

It was out of sheer curiosity that I purchased Merlinda Bobis’ Fish-Hair Woman from a fellow book reader. I didn’t have any iota on who the author is or what the book is about. I simply wanted to explore a different world. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Bobis has a Filipino heritage! Anyway, I enjoyed the book because it has the perfect mix of historical elements and magical realism. However, the shifting timelines can muddle one’s appreciation of the story. The characters can be confusing as well because of their changing personas. Take Mayor Estraderos who later took on the persona of Doctor Alvarado. Bobis’ poetic writing made up for it. 

Book Specs

Author: Merlinda Bobis
Publisher: Anvil Publishing, Inc.
Publishing Date: 2012
Number of Pages: 304
Genre: Historical, Magical Realism

Synopsis

1987. The Philippine government fights a total war against insurgency. The village of Iraya is militarised. The days are violent and the nights heavy with fireflies in the river where the dead are dumped. With her twelve-metre hair, Estrella, the Fish-Hair Woman, trawls corpses from the water that tastes of lemon grass. She falls in love with the Australian Tony McIntyre who disappears in the conflict. Ten years later, his son travesl to Manila to find his father.

From the Philippines to Australia, Hawai’i to evocations of colonial Spain, this transnational novel spins a dark, epic tale. Its storytelling is expansive, like the heart –

How much can the heart accommodate? Death and love, an enemy and a sweetheart, war and an impassioned serenade and more. Only four chambers but with infinite space like memory, where there is room even for those whom we do not love.

About the Author

Merlinda Bobis was born on November 25, 1959 in Legazpi City, Albay, Philippines.

Bobis grew up in Legazpi City where she attended the Bicol University High School. She completed her Bachelor of Arts at Aquinas University. She holds post-graduate degrees from the University of Santo Tomas in Manila and University of Woollongong in Australia.

In 1990, Bobis published her first work, Rituals: Selected Poems, 1985-1990. She would publish more poetry collections before finally publishing her first prose, starting with a collection of short stories, White Turtle, in 1999. In 2005, she published her first novel, Banana Heart Summer. Her other works include Pag-ibig, Pag-uli, Homecoming (2004). The Solemn Lantern Maker (2008, 2009) and Fish-Hair Woman (2012).

Over the span of her career, Bobis earned a score of encomium. White Turtle won the 1999 National Book Award, Fiction and the 2000 Steel Rudd Award for the Best Collection of Australian Short Stories while Banana Heart Summer won 2004 Gintong Aklat Award (Golden Book Award), English Literature. Her play,  Rita’s Lullaby was the winner of the 1998 Awgie for Best Radio Play and the international Prix Italia. She also won the 2016 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, New South Wale’s Premier Literary Awards for her book, Locust Girl: A Lovesong. 

She is currently teaching creative writing at the University of Woollongong. Apart from teaching and writing, she is also a dancer and a visual artist. She has performed her own works in Australia, Philippines, the United States, Spain, France and China.