Penman No. 56: Cheers for The Mango Bride

mango bride final cover copyPenman for Monday, July 22, 2013

IT ISN’T every day or even every year that a Filipino author gets published by Penguin Books—I can think of only Jose Rizal, Jose Garcia Villa, Jessica Hagedorn, and Miguel Syjuco, off the top of my head—so when Marivi Soliven told me a couple of years ago that her new novel The Mango Bride (New York: NAL Accent, 2013) had been picked up by a division of Penguin, I immediately sent her a congratulatory note. But I didn’t realize the extent of Marivi’s achievement until I received a copy of the published book and read the novel in a mad dash to the ending.

Again, that doesn’t happen to me very often; given my crushing workload, it usually takes me weeks and even months to finish a new book, which is why I habitually decline invitations to do book reviews, not wanting to keep the authors and publishers waiting interminably. But Marivi’s case was different, because I was reading the book not as a beetle-browed critic, but as a mentor and a friend; as it happened, Marivi—whose husband John Blanco teaches literature at the University of California in San Diego, where they’ve been living for many years now—was also my daughter Demi’s English teacher in UP, and since Demi herself moved to San Diego, we’ve all kept in pretty close touch.

All this chumminess and this moving around has a point, and it’s directly related to The Mango Bride, which deals with the powerful tides, both social and personal, that continue to deliver many thousands of our countrymen to America. It tracks two Filipino women—the to-the-manor-born Amparo Guerrero, who gets banished to Oakland following an unwanted pregnancy that threatens to bring shame and scandal on her family, and Beverly Obejas, a plucky girl who also ends up in Oakland following the well-traveled path of the mail-order bride.

There is, of course, more in common between these two women than meets the eye, and it will hardly be a spoiler to say that their trajectories will cross. The task of the novel’s plot is to bring these two seemingly very different characters together—Amparo is a carefree college coed, while the orphaned Beverly works as a waitress—and when they do, toward the novel’s explosive climax, the author completes a narrative coup, with both dramatic inevitability and irony.

But more than a story of individuals, The Mango Bride is also a story of Filipino families rich and poor, which is to say that it presents Philippine society as an unfolding telenovela—bitchy matrons, philandering patriarchs, wayward sons, gay go-betweens, suffering servants, and all. This is, unabashedly, the source of the novel’s power, its appreciation of life in its broad, harsh strokes.

But unlike a telenovela, Soliven’s masterful prose lends the novel a fineness of detail that extends the pleasure of reading beyond mere plot and character into language. Here’s how she presents Amparo’s first experience of sex (as novelists know, a sex scene is always one of the hardest things to do well, and do freshly): “If there was something Amparo learned that first night, it was that the rhythm of passion was deeply satisfying for its simple circularity. Mouths making pillows of opposing lips, the call and response of interlocking sighs, a passel of caresses, cascading one into the other as waves folding into sea foam. Afterward, they gathered the thin sheets about them and curled into each other, chin to chin, chest to breast, dozing twins in a cotton womb.”

There’s a brilliant scene where Amparo tries to tell her boyfriend Mateo that he’s gotten her pregnant, but an elephant—literally—strides into the picture, having escaped from a circus and running red lights all the way down EDSA. It’s unexpected pay-offs like this that keep lifting the novel above the pedestrian, that remind us of an important literary talent at work, one with an unfailing feel for her material, whether we’re in Forbes Park or North Cemetery or a grocery in Oakland.

There will, I expect, be some complaining over the coincidences that mark the plot, but even here the improbable seems fated, precisely because of the novel’s implicit message: that we are closer to each other than we think, and might do well to acknowledge and accept that closeness while we can.

Marivi says that she began the novel in 2008 in the frenzy of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month—November, to most people) and completed it two years later. It won the Grand Prize for the Novel in the 2011 Palancas, but was extensively revised by Marivi for international publication.

If you want to buy the book and see if you can share my enthusiasm, it’s available at National Bookstore. But here’s the best part: if you want to meet Marivi herself and get her to sign your copy for you, she’ll be in town very soon for a series of readings and talks, thanks to NBS, which is sponsoring her visit.

She’ll be spending an afternoon with us in UP Diliman on Wednesday, August 7, from 2:30 to 4 pm at CM Recto Hall. The UP Institute of Creative Writing and the Department of English and Comparative Literature will co-sponsor the event, which is open to all. See you there!

SPEAKING OF new books, I was happy to have attended the recent launch of a rather unusual book—unusual because it’s a bilingual Spanish-English edition—titled La Oveja de Nathan (Nathan’s Sheep), by the late novelist Antonio M. Abad. Translated into English by Lourdes Castrillo Brillantes (a professor of Spanish at UP, and the lovely wife of our friend and literary kuya Greg Brillantes), the novel won the Premio Zobel in 1928, and was being published for the first time.

The Premio Zobel was initiated by the pioneering businessman Enrique Zobel de Ayala in 1920 to preserve the linguistic and cultural heritage of Spanish in the Philippines in the face of what Nick Joaquin would have called unbridled sajonismo. The Philippines and Filipinos had imbibed English like it was God’s own drink, and bold measures had to be taken to ensure the survival of Spanish in the new American age. Over the next many decades, the Premio Zobel did just that, and more, granting recognition to the best literary works written by Filipinos in Spanish, as well as the most valuable cultural contributions made by Filipinos to the cause of hispanidad.

Abad’s novel was one of the earliest winners of the prize (which Prof. Brillantes herself would later win), and its present publication by the Premio Zobel Collection, the Filipinas Heritage Library, and Georgina Padilla y Zobel (Enrique’s granddaughter) could not be more timely, as it deals with Filipinos caught between powerful political forces.

I’d have to admit that Sra. Georgina’s thoughtfulness in sending over an invitation to my house, with my name and address hand-lettered with a fountain pen, was what convinced me to drive across town in rush-hour traffic to catch the launch. Of course, the late author’s son, the poet Jimmy Abad, is also a dear friend, and Jimmy’s moving poetic tribute to his father’s legacy (delivered, in customary Jimmy Abad fashion, straight from memory) was well worth the excursion.

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