Women in flux, finding themselves in exile, caught between girlhood and womanhood, struggling to make a go of marriage, seeking their place in new occupations, scheming for ways to get home, these women—and some men—live out their stories in “Blood,” a collection of short fiction by Noelle Q. de Jesus.
Noelle is herself very much like her characters. Born in the United States, schooled and raised in the Philippines, a graduate student in American institutions and now a resident of Singapore, it is tempting to see her and traces of her life in her stories. But what makes her a truly accomplished writer is that she takes the seeds of her experiences and lets them flourish into full-blown characters—figments of her imagination, true, but fully realized, multidimensional, complex and contradictory.
In the title story “Blood,” a girl undergoing menarche discovers not just what it takes to take one’s first steps toward womanhood, but also what it takes to live in a world of adult cruelty and betrayal.
In “Babies” and “The Wash,” two stories that share a single character’s central dilemma, the girlfriend of a graduate business student begins to question her life choices, especially the one she made to leave the home she’s known all her life to join her boyfriend with whom she shares a single, bed-less one-room apartment. De Jesus adheres to a pattern in most of her stories, catching her characters just as they are about to fall into the downward spiral of their lives, standing on the edge of the abyss, contemplating the unknown. She never does take us on that dangerous journey, but readers can feel the nervous tension, the mounting dread.
* * *
The collection is notable for its very short, succinct stories, many of them from a previously released (in 2003) compilation called “Fast Food Fiction: Short Short Stories to Go” that seems tailored for today’s short attention span-afflicted generation. The stories serve up fiction only in spurts and quick shots, just enough to set up a situation, introduce a character, catch a moment.
But fiction is not only for the long haul. In these short bursts of prose are contained lifetimes of conflict and resolution: a chef and his partner cook, bake and eat their way to separation; a teacher is forced to swallow an angry retort despite a burning desire to get back at a rude, insolent student; a lover plays a game of teasing and taunting over the phone, only to be caught by her own mouth and trickery.
At times, a short story may leave the reader panting for more, curious about what is to come, what was left unsaid. But there is in the brevity also a sense of completeness, a sense that nothing more need be said, that the silence that follows is enough.
* * *
“Blood” also augurs a growing body of exile literature, written by Filipinos who are themselves dislocated and thus knowledgeable about the emptiness, the loneliness, the sense of alienation that assault those cut off from home and the familiar.
De Jesus has empathy for these exiles, whether just making their way through the cold to find shelter, navigating strange and alien social situations, or homesick for the sounds of a native Christmas.
The diaspora has dispersed not just the economically desperate but also the frustrated and disappointed, who leave the homeland not just for higher wages but in hopes of establishing a new life, a new identity among strangers. Instead, as De Jesus’ stories show, they are drawn back, again and again, to the home country, if only by way of language, their tongues itching to verbalize with crisp, in-your-face insults.
Not for her, though, the idealization of the Filipino abroad, or the perpetuation of a victim mentality. Her Filipino exiles have themselves willed their way to foreign climes, even the maid who steals the passport of her employer’s wealthy friend so her own daughter could make it out of the home country.
They cope with the hazards of exile and the wages of isolation because they have come with goals and dreams, lofty enough to steel them against the cold, the strangeness, the feeling that they will always never fully fit in, not even at home.
So while Pinoy blood flows in their veins, it is blood steeled by the price they were willing to pay, and will continue to pay in the search for themselves, for who they are in the world.
* * *
Beatles fans—and there are some younger than you would think—may want to score a ticket to “Bach versus The Beatles,” a concert featuring the Manila Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. at the Sylvia Lina Theater, La Salle Zobel, Ayala Alabang Village.
The evening will give you a chance not just to indulge in your Beatles-era memories, but also to take in a bit of high culture (and not a little snob appeal) with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
It will also allow you to help in a noble cause. The concert is sponsored by the Pampamilyang Paaralang Agrikultura Inc., a nonprofit, nonstock foundation behind an innovative school that teaches the children of small landowners farming methods that are efficient, sustainable and profitable. The Dagatan Family Farm School, located in Barangay Dagatan, Lipa, Batangas, also teaches the children the value of staying close to their families while earning a decent living in the countryside. Hundreds are reported to have benefited from this school, creating, it is hoped, new generations of farm families who will continue their mission of feeding our population.
Tickets are available at P500, P1,000, P1,500 and P2,000 each. For more information, contact Lester at 0917-6009347 or e-mail him at [email protected]
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.