Hi everyone! It is the second of the week and in a couple of days, we are all off to the last four months of the year. 2021 is already within sight. I hope that in the coming months you will all be showered with blessings; that you receive the fruits of your hard labor; that you be granted what you’ve been praying for. I wanted to start off with a positive note.
A couple of years ago, a friend tagged me in pictures of quotes lifted from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Of Love and Other Demons. These are references to “Filipinos” and “Philippines”. His suggestion piqued my interest – “studying how the Philippines and the Filipino people are portrayed, whether in significant or trivial details, by international known authors in their novels.” It was a question that resonated through my mind. I took up my pen and notebook and wrote instances where the Philippines and Filipinos were mentioned. I must say, that even after reading nearly 800 books, there aren’t that much reference. This is the reason I have put off writing about this. (Or I guess I was just too lazy).
Last month, in back-to-back books, I encountered references to the Philippines in unexpected novels. The first reference came in Abi Daré’s The Girl With the Louding Voice. It was mentioned that Nigeria’s nouveau riche prefer hiring Filipino maids rather than hiring one of their own, e.g. Big Madam’s Adunni. I am cognizant of the reputation Filipinos has as domestic helpers. I didn’t, however, expect that Nigerians also hire my countrymen as their house helps. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t look down on house helpers, it is a job with integrity. For me, it is a testament to the hard work and dedication of Filipinos, their willingness to go and above their means to ensure their family’s future.
My second encounter came through Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. The mention came in the closing paragraphs of the novel, when Lydia was reestablishing her life in Arizona. She met a Filipino immigrant who had the same circumstances as Lydia’s. The American dream agenda wouldn’t be complete without the Filipino migrant experience. With over four million Filipinos living in the US, they have a established community and presence in the US. After Chinese-Americans, Filipino-Americans make up the second largest Asian-American community in the USA.
These surprising encounters prompted me rethink about this writing project that I have been delaying for so long. How does the world, through the lenses of popular international authors, view Filipinos and the Philippines?
The Bright Side: The OFW Story
Encounters with Filipinos and the Philippines in global literature is very meager. From my memory, I can recall little instances of such references. Not only were they few, they were far in between. Looking at the list I have, I can surmise that some of these novels were alluding to industriousness of Filipinos. These allusions, often times, were implied rather than explicit.
Although Filipinos are known as hard workers in a variety of fields, two vocations stand out in literature – in nursing and in domestic help. I have discussed the latter in the earlier paragraphs. The depiction of Filipinos as domestic helpers is also found in Barbara Taylor Bradford’s To Be The Best. Although it was the third book in the Harte Family Saga, it was my first Bradford book. Phillip Amory’s butler (I think, someone who helps in the household) was a Filipino. To be the Best was also one of my earliest encounters with Philippines/Filipinos in literature.
A Filipina maid worked for the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia, as mentioned in Jean Sasson’s Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia. This book, unlike the others mentioned in this piece, purports to be a true story. In Ian McEwan’s Saturday, which I have read earlier this year, there is a reference to a Filipino nurse. The novel’s main protagonist is a neurosurgeon.
The Filipino migrant story was slightly John Hamamura’s Color of the Sea. The main characters’ neighbors in Hawaii were Filipinos who moved there pre-war to work for the pineapple plantations there. The Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) experience is also encapsulated in many novels written by novelists with Filipino roots.
With its beaches and cerulean waters, the Philippines is also a popular tourism destination. This was how it was depicted in a postcard sent by Rosie’s parents to her in Cecilia Ahern’s Dear/Love Rosie. There are mentions of Filipinos as well in her other works. I can vaguely remember the mention of Filipino tourists in one of her works.
The Dark Side: The Gate to Hell
Vestiges of the darker sides of the Philippines and its history are also found in popular works. Perhaps one of the most popular of this is in Dan Brown’s Inferno. Referring to Manila as “gate to hell”, it earned the ire of many a Filipino; it even made the local headlines. After the outcry has died down, and maybe owing to the Filipino’s forgiving (or forgetful) nature, the backlash was soon forgotten. It was actually this outcry that reeled me into the novel.
The most extensive reference I have encountered in a non-Filipino novel is in Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown. Shalimar, a terrorist/mercenary-in-training traveled to southern Philippines, in the island of Mindanao, he be trained in a remote terrorist camp and training ground. Southern Philippines has a reputation for that. Until now, the presence of Jemaah Islamiyah strikes terror to everyone who hears of it.
Of Drugs and Other Demons depicted the Philippines in another light. Filipinos were referred to as drug traffickers: “In the taverns she experimented with cannabis from India, turpentine from Cyprus, peyote from Real de Catorce, and at least once, opium from the Nao of China brought by Filipino traffickers.” Garcia Marquez mentioned the Philippines again in the same novel, now as the country a rocking chair was made in.
Drugs and rocking chairs (or even postcards) are not the only products coming from the Philippines. In Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love, the Philippines was mentioned as the source of shells for one of the character’s collections. Apart from the literary works mentioned, Philippines was also mentioned in Shusako Endo’s Silence for the presence of the Archdiocese of Manila; and, in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as part of the track of the voyage.
The Bataan Death March was mentioned in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. The Price family patriarch Nathan was a soldier stationed in the Philippines during the Second World War. Injured during the battle, he convalesced in the island of Corregidor. Viet Nguyen Thanh’s Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Sympathizer, also mentioned the Philippines in his works. The novel’s main protagonist traveled to the country to take part in a film recording portraying the Vietnam War. From the description, I have surmised the city described was Baguio City.
Through the Looking Glass
I realized how there’s very little mention of the the Philippines and of Filipinos in major literary works. Often times, like in Moby Dick, the reference was casual or just matter-of-fact. Whilst most of these works offer very little detail about the Philippines and its people or culture, I am still happy to find them, especially if the positive Filipino values are portrayed.
I hope to find more works with as substantial details as the one in Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, although, of course, on a more positive light. I get it, the bad must be taken in along with the good but there is so much more to the Philippines – the place, the people, and the culture – and I want these to be highlighted as well. I mean, who wouldn’t, right? This study is going to be perpetual because I know I will be encountering more works in the future. From what I have read so far, there is little detail upon which to derive a solid conclusion on.
How about you fellow readers? What references to the Philippines have you encountered? I hope you could share it as well so that I can check them out.