Sometimes our roots are someplace else and we craft our whole lives in places away from our original source like outsiders wishing earnestly to ‘belong.’ We absorb a lot of what is new and retain or let go of our past. Generations pass, the memory of the roots begin to get weaker, yet it filters through families, countries, history. History absorbs the effects of immigration and narrates his stories, her stories, their stories. We meet people, engage in relationships, progress through situations, and separate moments from our different lives converge at common points of emotional realizations.
This beautiful collection of stories revolves around generational experiences of interconnected Filipino families and brings these truths, these realizations to life. Using the Filipino diaspora in the United States as the stage, Brian Ascalon Roley creates interpersonal performances to play out the often subtle and raw uneasiness that accompanies everything associated with generational divides. His characters have flaws but immediately establish an emotional connection with an audience that has heard of or has experienced such situations firsthand. A lot of where an individual ‘belongs’ comes through the pages of this elegant book and urges the reader to look within for a sense of connectedness, a sense of familiarity amidst different kinds of clashes.
The stories in The Last Mistress of Jose Rizal play out in the structural haphazard pattern of a tree: each story urges the reader to rewind to the complete Navarro Family Tree at the beginning of the book, tracing the origins of each character. Reading through the pages is like looking at an old family album with sepia images: A woman whose daughter married an American holds on to Filipino tradition and secretly tries to initiate fading elements of her ancestry in her granddaughter’s life; a son meets his father after the father’s failed suicide attempt and remembers the crumbling patterns of a broken family and the tremors that emotionally disrupted his mother and his brother; a boy reminisces about changing names when his family emigrated to Los Angeles, his complicated relationship with his girlfriend, and an even more complex equation with his shy little brother; an American-born son introduces his mother to his Caucasian bride and this problematizes his relationships; a violent truth from the past is quietly shared between a grandfather and his grandson and the issue of Identity and of origins is dealt with indifferent shrugs over lunch; two brothers display vastly opposite responses toward a severely wounded Japanese soldier; a brother and a sister face doubt, faith, and emotional conflict after their father passes away and must liberate themselves without surrendering to fear.
The collection is about all these people and more. A single thread of shared blood holds all these individuals together, whether it is by the ties of traditional marriage, sexual affair or liaison, rape, or by children who have their roots because of these unions. It is a very complicated thread of interconnected relationships and sometimes the audience is startled when the past collides with the present or future, leaving behind a trail of multi-layered responses from these individuals toward one another and toward themselves. The sudden revelations in these stories make them very raw, convincing, nostalgic yet lyrical and the endings are filled with a faint whiff of sorrow that will never completely die.
One very good reason to love this book? I have a particular liking for Jhumpa Lahiri’s way of writing and what she chooses to write about: the Bengali Indian diaspora and Indian Immigrants. The Last Mistress of Jose Rizal is an enchanting book for this same reason. As a reader I can immediately identify with all the characters: individuals who have their roots somewhere else than where they now ‘choose’ to belong. Life changes, friends change, families stay back in another country or move to a new place, language changes, memories change and for that matter, in a strange way History also packs itself in our baggage and moves with us.
But there is a certain sense of belonging to dual places, dual cultures, dual history that makes such individuals live a life of twins within their souls. The conflicts, clashes, resolutions all spring from this dual sense of origin and this becomes problematized when individuals are born in another country than from where the parents ‘belong’. Certain subtle things about roots that are of vital importance to the parents are lost in translation to the child and this is carried forward through generations: everything gets twice removed from the original place of belonging. Through this collection of stories, Roley holds the hands of the reader and shows the way Home.
The Last Mistress of Jose Rizal
- Book Type: Fiction
- by: Brian Ascalon Roley
- Publisher: Northwestern University Press
- Date Published: April 2016
- ISBN-13: 978-0-8101-3322-8
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 160pp
- Price: $17.95
- Review by: Sheelonee Banerjee