Philippines’ Modern Heroes

Jose Dalisay, Jr. is widely recognized as one of the pillars of contemporary Filipino literature. His prolific career boasts over thirty published books published, from short story collections to works of nonfiction to dramas. For his books, he has won six National Book Awards (Philippines). He has also won 16 awards at the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, the Philippine equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. These 16 awards spanned five different genres. He has also an extensive resume as a professional editor. Dalisay is also a renowned playwright and screenwriter, of which he is also highly successful. His highly heralded works earned him several awards and citations. Over his long career, Dalisay has produced two novels, so far. His first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place, was published in 1992. His debut novel was warmly received by critics and readers alike.

With Dalisay’s hand full on his other writing endeavors, it took him almost two decades to release a new novel. The gods of literature finally answered the pleas of many when Dalisay’s long-awaited second novel, Soledad’s Sister, was published in 2008. The story started in medias res in contemporary Manila. At Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the Philippines’ main international gateway, arrived a casket. The casket contained the remains of a woman named “Aurora Cabahug”, an Overseas Filipina Worker (OFW). As per the death certificate attached to the casket, Aurora died by drowning in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where she worked as a domestic helper. Aurora has just become part of a notorious statistic. Unfortunately, no one was present to receive the remains.

After several delays, the records clerk from the Overseas Workers Welfare Office was finally able to trace Aurora’s provenance. Records showed that Aurora lived at 17 Gardenia Street, Bagumbayani Village in the far-flung town of Paez. To inform the family of the deceased and for them to retrieve the body, a telegram was sent to the Paez police headquarters. SPO2 Walter Zamora, who received the notice, was surprised by the notice because the Aurora Cabahug he knew was still alive: “The simple if confusing truth was that the woman who was supposed to be decomposing in the box was very much alive; it was someone else who was there, although no one knew it yet.” This, however, does not entail that the body was not related to Aurora. A logical explanation must be lurking somewhere.

“These were the maids, cooks, drivers, dancers, plumbers, draftsmen, welders, able-bodied seamen, and other purveyors of sundry services and trades who had left their kitchens, pigsties, classrooms, fruit stands, videoke bars, shoe factories, and vulcanizing shops in search of better jobs—in roiling sea and burning sand, from Singapore to Stockholm, London to Lagos, Riyadh to Reykjavik, in backstreet bar and oil rig, in nursing home and cannery, in wave after leaping wave across all the seas and oceans that ringed their island.”

~ Jose Dalisay, Jr., Soledad’s Sister

SPO2 Zamora used to be in the thick of the action. He spent the majority of his life investigating brutal crimes before opting for the domesticated atmosphere of Paez. His first encounter with Aurora was in the bar where she worked as a singer. Twenty-one-year-old Aurora, or Rory as she was fondly referred to by those closest to her, made an immediate impression on the policeman. It was for this reason that Zamora wanted to redress the erroneously identified body awaiting retrieval. But he was in for a surprise. Rory confirmed that the remains were related to her. Her older sister, Soledad, left for Saudi Arabia to seek proverbial greener pastures, leaving behind her son under Rory’s care. However, it has been months since Soledad last contacted her sister.

On a van going towards Manila to retrieve Soledad’s body, Dalisay carefully laid out the backstories of the main characters. Aurora and Soledad were orphaned at a young age after an accident led to their parent’s untimely demise. Since then, Soledad, being the older of the siblings, looked after her younger sister. She sacrificed her dreams in order to ensure that they live a life of comfort. In the Philippines, one of the easiest ways to ensure one’s future is to work overseas, as Soledad eventually realized. She left for Hong Kong to work as a domestic helper. However, unforeseen events led her to leave under the cloud of confusion. Circumstances again led to Soledad leaving the Philippines for a second time, but only after assuming the identity of her sister.

With their impact on the economy, the Philippine government has called Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) the country’s modern heroes. In the latest statistical report by the Philippine Statistics Authority, roughly 2.2 million OFWs worked across the globe from April to September 2019. Their remittances totaled an estimated PHP 211.9 billion. Roughly 51.4% of 2.2 million OFWs are working in Western Asia, with Saudi Arabia hosting around 22.4%. Hong Kong, where 7.5% of the total works, is third, behind United Arab Emirates (13.2%). The ratio of women to men is 56% to 44%. Men work mostly as plant and machine operators and assemblers (24.7%) while the women work in elementary occupations (62.5%). Those who are working elementary occupations, where the domestic helpers are classified, account for 39.6% of the total.

What these statistics failed to capture are the plights of OFWs. Filipino domestic helpers (DH) are highly regarded across the world. They have been repeatedly lauded for their industriousness and their hardworking attitude. However, behind these praises are horror stories of discrimination, rape, sexual and physical abuse. News reports of OFWs being abused have become ubiquitous. Some hosts hide the OFWs’ passports so that they cannot leave while some hosts don’t let them eat timely. Most DHs are overworked, and are, oftentimes, not allowed rest days. Depression incidence among OFWs is also high. Compound it with the heartbreaking reality of being away from home and loved ones, these are just some of the sacrifices that OFWs have to make in exchange for the allure of a better life. These are ugly realities that Soledad experienced and as fate would have it, she would be part of the unfortunate statistics of OFWs returning to the Philippines in a casket.

“The unexpected, perhaps unintended, directness of his question struck her in the ribs. Where, indeed was everyone but gone, no starker reminder of which exited than the woman in that box that was her blood and one, no matter how different they became as tried to be.”

~ Jose Dalisay, Jr., Soledad’s Sister

Beyond the Filipino diaspora, which has become a commonplace subject for Filipino writers, Dalisay captured several concerns that continue to hound contemporary Filipino society. We see a system driven by corruption, greed, and incompetence. With papers continually getting mixed up, it was chaos that reigned. It is a system where who you know is more important than what you know. Tagging OFWs as modern heroes due to the impact of their remittances on the economy reeks of complicity. It sends the wrong message that they’d rather export Filipino labor than create organic job opportunities. The increasing problem of criminality was also underlined in the story. These bleak facets aside, we see a group of people who has a flair for singing. Filipinos are internationally recognized as among the happiest and most hospitable group of people in the world. Karaoke is a staple. Families are also valued. These cultural details rendered the novel a distinct texture.

Dalisay vividly captured the tender story of two sisters. The story of Soledad is one that many Filipinos can relate to. It has become commonplace for the eldest sibling to persevere for his or her younger siblings. Many a firstborn was forced to mature earlier for they recognize the weight of their responsibilities. The sad reality is that several firstborns have sacrificed their own dreams to support their younger siblings. Rory, on the other hand, was extroverted and ambitious. But her ambitiousness did not cloud her vision as she was more than willing to lend her sister a hand. She worked as a singer and entertainer at Flame Tree while looking after her nephew. She also has Despite their differences, Soledad and Rory’s love for each other cannot be denied.

The believable and relatable portrayal of the sisterly bond that ties Soledad and Rory is a nod to Dalisay’s remarkable talent for conjuring characters. Dalisay was masterful at narrating personal histories. We learn even of Walter’s own backstory. Walter’s wife left to live abroad. He was also forgotten by his family and he hoped that in accompanying Rory, he could reconnect with them. Dalisay made the readers inhabit their minds through shifting points of view. This provided intimate glimpses into their strengths and motivations. Beyond their veneer are individuals with harmless deceptions, fears, and insecurities. This rendered them real rather than figments of imagination. The complexity of the characters makes up for a good character study. Despite this complexity, they remain characters one can root for or sympathize with.

Dalisay did not spare any detail as even minor characters came alive under his masterful portraiture. We read of the struggles and motivations of a motley cast of characters, including an indifferent airport employee, a coroner who stamped the body just to complete his task, a politician, a dysfunctional Hong Kong family, a gullible Indian maid, and even a car thief. This diverse set of characters makes for an interesting ecosystem. But it was also this attention to details in the characters that is the novel’s own undoing as it distracts the readers from the main storyline. Nonetheless, it makes up for an immersive reading experience.

“She knew that she would miss him, but duty, she thought was also a kind of love, perhaps a superior one even; it had alwys been about duty, about doing the right thing by and for others, even if they didn’t know it, and no matter what it cost.”

~ Jose Dalisay, Jr., Soledad’s Sister

All of the novel’s elements were carefully and masterfully woven together by Dalisay’s adept hands. There was a lyrical quality to his prose that made up for a beautiful reading journey. The descriptive quality of his prose made each of the novel’s facets come alive. Snide remarks, cynical comments, and brilliant asides added a level of dark comedy to the story. The novel’s conclusion, however, was underwhelming. After building up brick-by-brick a mystery, the biggest mystery was left unsolved. Dalisay did well in revealing and studying almost every level of the characters and the events upon which the story was built but the reason for Soledad’s death remained shrouded in mystery. It eroded the idea that the novel was a work of mystery fiction. There was no dramatic revelation. Rather, Dalisay added more chaos to the chaos that was already palpable from the onset.

Flaws aside, Soledad’s Sister is nonetheless a riveting story. At its heart is the heartwarming portrait of a family where tenderness abounded. Soledad, Rory, and even Walter are equally memorable characters who all came alive under Dalisay’s vivid and powerful writing. Soledad’s Sister was a story both foreign and familiar. It grappled with a bevy of subjects while delving into the memories of the people who have left us. Shortlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007, the novel tackled dark and ugly realities that continue to hound a society, a city, a country, that remains chaotic as ever. Dark subjects permeated the novel but it was also brimming with hope for a better future.

Ratings

78%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 
21%
Writing (25%) – 
22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
11%

Unfortunately, my knowledge of the local literary scene is very limited. It is something I have been trying to redress in the past few years. In 2021, I read two novels written by Filipino authors, the third consecutive year I managed to achieve this feat. When I first encountered Jose Dalisay Jr. and his novel through an online bookseller, his name barely rang any bell of familiarity. Imagine my horror when I read of his extensive resume. He is a writer, a blogger, a lecturer, a professor, a dramatist, a poet, an editor, a screenwriter, and a playwright. Among his lengthy corpus are two novels, one of which I feel lucky to acquire. Soledad’s Sister is a rather slender novel but its wealth of character study made me admire Dalisay’s prose. The subject was something that has become familiar not just in books but in television. Beyond the familiar, what I admired was how Dalisay made me inhabit the minds of the characters. I also liked the language and the prose. The lyricism of the prose had me riveted. However, the cliffhanger of an ending was lamentable. For this year, I am hoping to read more works of Filipino writers.

Book Specs

Author: Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr.
Publisher: Anvil Publishing
Publishing Date: 2018
Number of Pages: 194
Genre: Mystery

Synopsis

A casket arrives at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, bearing the body of a woman manifested as “Aurora V. Cabahug” – one of over 600 overseas Filipino workers who return as corpses to this airport every year. The real Aurora, however, is very much alive, a karaoke-bar singer in the distant town of Paez; the woman in the box must be her sister Soledad who used Rory’s identity to secure a job in Saudi Arabia. No one knows for sure how this woman died; the body bears signs of foul play and abuse, and now waits to be claimed at the airport.

A Paez policeman, Walter, is assigned to drive out to Manila to pick up the body, accompanied by Rory. Both Walter and Rory, who vaguely know each other, find their own lives redefined by the sudden return of the dead: Walter has been left by his wife and son for a new life in England; Rory feels herself standing on the brink of great prospects, ambitions that her sister never achieved. Somewhere on its long way home, the body gets stolen, and things get even more confused than ever.

About the Author

Jose Y. Dalisay Jr. was born on January 15, 1954, in Romblon, Philippines. He completed his primary education at La Salle Greenhills and his secondary education at the Philippine Science High School. After initially dropping out of college, he returned to school. In 1984, he completed his Bachelor of Arts in English (Imaginative Writing) degree, graduating as a cum laude at the University of the Philippines (UP). He earned an M.F.A. from the University of Michigan in 1988. He earned his Ph.D. in English at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. He graduated in 1991 as a Fullbright scholar.

Since graduating from UP, Dalisay has authored more than 30 books. Published in 1984, Oldtimer and Other Stories was his first published work. His first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place, was published in 1992. His second novel, Soledad’s Sister (2008), was shortlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in Hong Kong. On top of this, he has written a score of short stories, essays, dramas, a poetry collection, and works of nonfiction. Six of his books earned him National Book Awards from the Manila Critics Circle. He has also won 16 Palanca Awards in five different genres. In 2000, he was elevated to the Palanca Hall of Fame. Dalisay also worked as a professional editor, working with different clients such as the Asian Development Bank, the Ayala Foundation, the National Economic and Development Authority, and the Office of the (Philippine) President.

Palanca is also a renowned playwright and screenwriter. He has written over twenty screenplays, including Miguelito (1985), Tayong Dalawa (1994), and Saranggola (1999). For his plays, he has won five Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) awards. He also won FAMAS, URIAN, Star, and Catholic Mass Media awards and citations for his screenplays. He was also named as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men in 1993. In 1998, he made it to the CCP Centennial Honors List as one of the 100 most accomplished Filipino artists in the past century. His long list of accolades also includes the Premio Cervara di Roma in Italy which recognized his efforts in promoting Philippine literature overseas. Dalisay has also received several fellowships from various universities across the globe.

Dalisay currently teaches English and Creative Writing as a full professor at the University of the Philippines. He also serves as coordinator of the creative writing program and as an Associate of the UP Institute of Creative Writing.