Feminist Fiction From the Philippines, Written 50 Years Ago

« Feminist Fiction From the Philippines, Written 50 Years Ago » by Melissa Chadburn, 01/09/2017, The New York Times

To enter the world of “The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic,” your faith must bend to the following: Time travel exists. Shapeshifting is possible. And a woman could be in power.

Nick Joaquin is considered one of the Philippines’ greatest writers. By introducing him here, the publisher Elda Rotor continues her careful curation of Filipino classics for Penguin’s roster. With authoritarian threats surging in both his home country and the United States, Joaquin’s re-emergence feels especially timely. Born in 1917, and a young man during World War II, he depicts war’s effects on a population still capable of rebellious celebration. Fluent in Spanish, Tagalog, and street slang, Joaquin wrote in English but summoned a space between languages. He was not a joiner but a man of singular pursuits. “I have no hobbies, no degrees; belong to no party, club or association,” he once said. “I like long walks … Dickens and Booth Tarkington, the old Garbo pictures, anything with Fred Astaire.” He was also defiant, even against dictatorship: When he was named National Artist of the Philippines in 1976, he said he would accept the honor only if Ferdinand Marcos freed the imprisoned poet Jose F. Lacaba. Marcos obliged.

Drafted in an age of strongmen, during the first two decades of the country’s postcolonial period between 1946 and 1965, the 11 works collected in this volume — 10 stories and a play — read as feminist. The story “Three Generations” presents a battle of two masculine wills, but a woman’s inner life drives it: The patriarch is mystified “by a certain nakedness in his wife’s mind; in the minds of all women, for that matter. You took them for what they appeared: shy, reticent, bred by nuns, but after marriage, though they continued to look demure, there was always in their attitude toward sex, an amused irony, even a deliberate coarseness.” Though they may lack the trappings of external power, women maintain the emotional and sexual self-possession to direct Joaquin’s narrative outcomes.

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