Monday, April 15, 2013

CULTURAL SHOCK










Marivi Soliven's debut novel, THE MANGO BRIDE, is more than a story about immigrants and their struggle to adapt to a new country. It is a kaleidoscopic view of a fascinating place where clashes between East and West resulted in a gorgeously rich culture. Told by an omniscient narrator, this is the story of two Pinoya women, Amparo Duarte and Beverly Obejas, whose reasons to leave the Philippines are as different as the social classes into which they were born. Amparo is an upper class university student from family for whom decorum and honour are all important. Beverly, the daughter of a maid, is a clerk at a shoe store. While Amparo seems to have no particular goals, Beverly dreams of a future that will turn her dream of a house with three bedrooms into reality. For that, she is  willing to follow a stranger to America though she risks breaking her connection to her only relative, Marcela, a cook at the Duarte household. Leaving the Filipines is not  Amparo's choice, but rather is a punishment dealt by her biological mother Conchita, a petty,  vulgar woman who delegates nearly everything, including the mothering of her own children to Marcela.

Amparo is Soliven's most successful character. She starts out as a pliant young girl defined by the demands of her family, passively awaiting for a husband to add the finishing touches to her character. When she eventually rebels against the conventions of her social class, her life changes radically. Horrible Conchita, whose only emotion seems to be anger,  waxes indignant. Never mind that Amparo's lapse has to do with a rule so absurdly dated and dusty it is difficult to believe it could have such far reaching consequences. But the Spanish concept of honour, in which the Islamic notions of women's role in society had such a profound influence, appears to be alive and well in Amparo's Filipines. Add to that Catholic morality and you might as well negate any progress women have made since the Dark Ages.
Ironically, it is this outdated notion of honour that propels Amparo out her her stifling bell jar and into a broader, more forgiving setting where she can transition into adulthood. Hers is not the typical struggle of unskilled, economically challenged immigrants. Undoubtedly she misses home, her dysfunctional family and the advantages she had in the Philippines, but compared to Beverly's plight, hers is an easy life. Married to a controlling man who mocks her national origin, who will not allow her to make friends, Beverly endures social isolation, physical abuse and a worst kind of servitude than she could have possibly have imagined.
Solingen does a good job of contrasting the experiences of both women, juxtaposing their losses and gains-- Amparo gains in freedom, but she loses a sense of belonging. Beverly loses her freedom, but gains a different perspective on her old life. Solingen writes movingly about the ache for what these two women left behind. She really shines when she evokes the sounds, scents and texture of the country they left behind.
Unfortunately, America is a blurry snapshot in this story and American men are caricatures.
Amparo's boyfriend, Seamus,the yoga instructor, fares slightly better that the two elderly clients of Filipino Sweetheart, an agency that offers young women “as sweet as mangoes” to elderly American men in search of docile children brides. But Seamus is a stock character—the sensitive blur while Joshua and Lydell are of villains the likes of which have not been seen since The Perils of Pauline.One expects them to twirl their mustachios right after they tie their womenfolk to railroad tracks. Their one-dimensional Filipino counterparts are no less flawed--Conchita is a rerun of Lupita, a grasping, chain smoking harridan hellbent on flaunting her acquisitive and her pedigree. Her friend Carina is just another conspicuous consumer. The anguish of having no real goals, of living with adulterous, childish husbands does not redeem them ecause they are too concerned with the superficial to notice that theirs is a hollow world. Pity they are too old to be mango brides. They and the American caricatures that keep Filipino Sweetheart in business deserve each other. In real life, they might exist in droves, but such is the nature of good fiction that fully realised characters have a few more facets and at least a hint of humanity.
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Unlike some of its characters, THE MANGO BRIDE has depth when it deals with the older Filipino exiles eeking out a living in california. It has tenderness, beauty and brilliant flashes of humour.
Had Solingen had a less indulgent editor, this would have been a better book. Nevertheless this is a promising beginning and a very welcome one. Filipino American fiction writers have been woefully underrepresented in America. It is high time for a change.


Full disclosure--my GP is a liberated Pinoya.

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