CONTEMPORARY FILIPINO BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS*
By Anna Bernice delos Reyes
A growing list of contemporary Filipino authors and books from the Sa Tahanan Collective community. From exploring person-of-color femininity in a digital age, to navigating migration and duality of identities, these books capture the beautiful complexity of what it means to be Filipino in the diaspora.
*This was originally written for Alserkal.Online in celebration of Emirates Literature Festival in 2021.
1. Tiempo Muerto by Caroline Hau
A Filipino-Chinese author and academic, Caroline Hau explores the notions of homecoming, migrant labor, power dynamics, and the complex culture of servitude through the lives of two Filipino women in Singapore. Despite coming from two different backgrounds, the two women find themselves returning to the same Philippine hometown, where they must reckon with their intertwined scandal, tragedy, secrets and ghosts.
In the climate fiction novel, Daryll Delgado pieces together “spliced recollections'' of narratives from residents of Tacloban City, the author’s hometown and a region that encountered major devastation in the wake of megastorm Haiyan in 2013. Told through the voice of a narrator named “Ann,” the book explores the collective experience of trauma and catastrophe response of the community in relation to language, as the author incorporates the region’s language, Waray, into the text.
Gina Apostol puts women in the forefront of her narratives; in her novel Insurrecto, we see two women in contention of the narrative of Filipino history. She begs to ask, who gets to tell the history of a colonial country? How come our histories are still narrated and framed through the eyes and words imposed by our colonizers? Through contesting and deconstructing the white gaze, Apostol dares to reclaim the narrative of her colonized people.
Triggered by the mysterious death of his mentor and friend Crispin Salvador, and along with his death the disappearance of the only copy of his manuscript, a character also named Miguel sets out to return to Manila to investigate. In his investigation, he uncovers 150 years worth of Philipppine history through the intersection of his and Crispin’s family history. Exploring colonialism, political corruption, and the state of Philippine culture and society, Miguel encounters a reckoning with his position in the midst of his society’s constant decay.
5. In the Country by Mia Alvar
Mia Alvar pieces together nine stories of migrant Filipino men and women from across the diaspora. Exploring a spectrum of family roles, socioeconomic status, and careers to explore the universal experiences of displacement, loss, migration, and longing for home. Exploring Filipino migrant lives around the world, including the Gulf, Alvar touches on a common thread amongst migrants of any nationality: what does it really mean to feel at and build a home?
6. The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi
Kuwaiti journalist and novelist Saud Alsanousi sheds light on domestic work and dual identities in the Gulf through this novel. Focusing on the story of Josephine, who comes to Kuwait to work as a household servant in pursuit of better pay and therefore a better future. She finds herself in a love affair with Rashid, the son of the family she works for, and their encounter bears a marriage and a son, Jose. The book then explores the bicultural, biracial life of Jose, who dreams to meet the father that abandoned him and his mother as he struggles through poverty and personal identity.
7. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino
What is it like to grow up outside of the Philippines, in the Internet Age as a female person of color? Through her nine essays in this nonfiction book, Jia Tolentino cleverly explores the influence of digital interconnectivity, capitalism, religion diet and athleisure culture, amongst others, on the contemporary understanding of the female body. Tolentino reflects on the contemporary female life with an intelligent mix of humor, vulnerability, and intellect.
8. When the Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holthe
This historical fiction takes its readers back in time to the waning days of World War II, back when the Japanese and Americans fought over colonizing the Philippines. The book is narrated through the eyes of the Karangalan family and their neighbors; they coop up together for survival and pass the time telling stories from Filipino myths as the war rages on outside their cellar. A tribute to the magical myths of Filipino literature and culture, the novel also celebrates the Filipino bayanihan culture that endures through time and trials.
9. I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir by Malaka Gharib
Exploring the complexities of mixed-race identities through engaging visuals, Malaka Gharib situates her Filipino-American-Egyptian identity within the larger context of racism, colorism, and migrant life in the United States. The book candidly explores what it means to grow up mixed race in communities and environments constantly divided in white vs. non-white, whether consciously or subconsciously, and alludes to the importance of food, religion, music, and beliefs in strengthening a multi-ethnic identity in the midst of encountering whiteness.
Filipino writer and professor of Ateneo de Manila University explores the intersection of coming-of-age and dictatorship in the form of a memoir told in vignettes. Set in the Martial Law years of the Philippines, the book explores the life of Danilo Cruz, a queer Filipino man grappling with his identity in a dictatorship-filled world. Through mundane anecdotes about life, from moving between rural and urban Philippines to life at home and in school, the book sheds light on the complexities of coming to terms with one’s identity in a culture that is in the space between tolerance and acceptance of queer identities.