Writers Caroline Hau and Criselda Yabes have many things in common – not only are they friends, they also have produced novels that examine the lived experiences of women negotiating relationships, realizations, and survival under difficult and trying circumstances.
Both are also set in imaginary locations that reflect actual locations in the Philippines – Hau’s Banwa is in Negros, Yabes’ Borbon in Cebu – to tell allegories that bring to light the political and social issues that perennially beset the Filipino nation.
Both their latest novels were published under the Bughaw imprint of Ateneo de Manila University Press headed by Karina Bolasco.
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Tiempo Muerto (2019, 275 pgs., pb) is Hau’s first novel. She has already published two collections of short fiction, Recuerdos de Patay and Other Stories (2015) and Demigods and Monsters: Stories (2019).
Hau’s tale involves two women, Racel and Lia. Both are brought up in Banwa and moved to Singapore as adults, but their lives are very different. Racel works as a domestic helper and nanny, Lia comes from an old rich family that controlled Banwa economically through what seems a feudal overlordship via their sugarcane plantation.
Their lives are abruptly interrupted – Racel’s by her mother’s disappearance, Lia’s by a scandal of her making, a sordid affair with her trainer. In both instances, the women fly back to their hometown, where they are inexorably borne back to the past and its mysteries and secrets that they uncover.
In seeking answers to ancient questions, Lia and Racel learn more about each other, their families, and themselves. That they come to their own decisions about the next steps to show how women’s agency can bring about change, reconciliation, and renewal. Through their shared stories runs the common thread of Philippine history and political practices that Hau expertly weaves to create the taut fabric of the narrative.
The writing is clean and sharp as a needle. Hau has a deft hand at description and dialogue, making this novel a joy to read. No clunky turns of phrase or awkward constructions mar the beauty of the prose enriched by Hau’s knowledge of history and unerring selection of themes. One of the many strands woven into the novel is that of OFWs, and her lyrical description of the nature of their situation is sobering:
“We foreign workers are like ghosts. We are visible and invisible, inside and outside, there and not there.
“We live with families without being part of them. We work at home without being at home, we are homebound and homeless. We fade into furniture and walls, vanish around corners, hover on the edges of people’s eyes and minds.”
Tiempo Muerto won the award for Best Novel in English at the 39th National Book Award of the Philippines, organized by the Manila Critics Circle and National Book Development Board.
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Yabes’ Broken Islands (2019, 312 pgs, pb) returns us to the Visayas, this time to an alternate universe Cebu, to a place called Borbon. The year is 2015, just after Typhoon Yolanda came and devastated the area.
The lives and loves of two women are the focus of this novel. Luna is the scion of the wealthy Cimafranca family, Alba works for them. But their relationship is not that simply explained; rather, it is complex, like most relationships are, and why this is so is evident over the course of the tale.
Luna, who has recently graduated from law school, returns to her hometown of Borbon for the Christmas holidays. She still can’t get over the untimely death of her father, while at the same time aching from the petty hurts inflicted by her vain mother.
Seeking to fill the gap in her heart, Luna has affairs with the wrong sort of men and misses the final day of her bar exams. Back in Borbon, she tries to sort out her thoughts and feelings as she seeks to redirect her life and reclaim the energy she needs to move forward.
Alba has a toddler daughter whom she named Natasha after the clothing brand. Alba met the baby’s father in Tacloban City, where she was living when the storm hit. He left her when they reached Borbon, and Alba embarks on a new life as a maid to the Cimafrancas.
Looming largely in the lives of Luna and Alba is Manoy, Luna’s uncle, who is a father figure to both women. However, Manoy becomes more than that to Alba, and Luna accidentally sees it happen. Having lost her father, Luna is unwilling to lose her uncle, so she glosses over Manoy’s faults as does naïve and guileless Alba, who is caught in the unbalanced power dynamic between master and servant.
The novel explores, among other themes, the feudal mentality that persists in many areas of the country and is still a part of its culture. It also takes a hard look at the systemic inequalities in society that prevent many from escaping poverty and want. At the same time, we are reminded of the joy and pleasure in simple things.
In one chapter, Alba looks at her daughter at play: “Look at the children, they see baby frogs in the mud. Tasya goes to them and the children make her hold the baby frogs. They put one on her hand and she is laughing very much, my sweet baby. […] It’s a good day giving us this rain on this new year. I am waiting for the rainbow.”
Dr. Jenny Ortuoste is a board member of PEN Philippines, member of the Manila Critics Circle, and judge of the National Book Awards. You may reach the author on Facebook and Twitter: @DrJennyO