Women In The House

DIYANDI - DIYANDI By Linda Kintanar-Alburo () - August 27, 2006 - 12:00am
Finally, my friend Erma Cuizon has written that novel we were all waiting for. Of course, we knew that she would be working on it when she stood up from her editor's chair at the Sun*Star Weekend office. Women in the House (published by UST Press) was launched last night by the Women in Literary Arts (WILA) at the Marriott Hotel. With the book on the shelf, a new Cebuana triumvirate is formed. Erma joins only two other Cebuanas who have published novels in English: Lina Espina Moore and Cecilia Manguerra-Brainard. Publishing in English is of course how one gets national and eventually international notice, as in the case of both earlier novelists. One other Cebuana fiction writer has made an indelible mark in Philippine literature, Estrella Alfon, but before she could produce a novel, her story "Fairy Tale in the City" was voted down by censors and she turned to drama. (She did so with a vengeance, for her plays invariably were prize-winners.)

Last night then was a landmark of sorts, also because Erma's novel was launched together with Marjorie Evasco's Ani, a biography of the singular Boholana painter Hermogena Borja-Lungay. We would have wanted to write too about Ani but failed to get a copy by presstime. Women in the House puts in narrative form an observation that its author made in Vital Flow (essays): that women who are abandoned by husband or lover become stronger as they are "pushed out of the image" of woman as weak or insignificant. In the end the women, who live together in the house on Junquera St. only have themselves to turn to (nope, not one of them is a commercial worker of the sort you had in mind). The novel's central character Ester becomes a successful insurance agent able to move out of her old house to a nicer neighborhood in Capitol Site. The threats of infidelity, Gary's dengue fever, and insurance deals not pulling through are real but passing. Like Ester, her helpers Flor and Pepita are single parents. Flor is "victimized" twice: by her husband Lino, who leaves her, and by her recent boyfriend Allan, a taxi driver, who has a wife. Pepita, who looks after Ester's grader Gary, is herself mother to a son borne out of wedlock after a childhood friend raped her.

The structure of the novel is an interweave of the stories of this female sinug-ang (Cebuano word for triangle, didn't you know) throughout its 21 chapters, whose titles are their names: Ester (9), Flor (5) and Pepita (5). The whole, however, is framed by the opening and closing chapters assigned to Flor's daughter Amy. Amy - who's what, 12 or 13? - is to take the place of Pepita who returns to Bohol to attend to her son, whose bantay has just died. Hasn't this picture - leaving a child to earn money in attending to another's child - now become a national irony with our OFW's?

The Amy chapters that frame the novel are done in the present tense, unlike the rest which are in the past. It's a strategy that foregrounds (contemporary literary critical jargon for "putting in front" but isn't that obvious) what is going on as well as what's in store for the women in the house. A fledgling who dreams modestly of getting good pay for "being able to do household work very, very well" (the phrase that closes the book), Amy still has to experience the heartbreak that the other women in the house have all felt. This is suggested right away in the opening chapter, when a boy in the neighborhood suddenly appears on top of the wall near the tambis tree (of course, not apple).

Mostly hiding their tears from one another, the women in the house are drawn inevitably together by a bond that cuts through social class. There was a first helper, Anita, who is already out of the house when the story opens but is an important figure in the narrative because of an incident that is supposed to have triggered Ester's husband Ben's departure. Typhoon Ruping had left them waterless, so Anita had to trek three blocks to fill their barrel, a task that made her collapse. Her overwork is blamed on Ester's lack of consideration, a fault Ester's husband cannot take much more of.

How Anita is treated in the novel is of interest to writers who will have several options in expanding their own shorter piece into longer fiction. Anita the maid appeared first in Erma's story "Departure," which I realized became the germ of the novel. Erma has changed a few details, and with the addition of Flor and Pepita and later Amy, Anita had to go. In the story she was going to take care of an ailing mother, a role our women take on naturally, but in the novel the mother has long died and it's a daughter she has to return to. The waiting-child-at-home, however, already figures in the stories of the three women in the house and Anita has to have another reason for leaving. After Anita is out of the picture, the movement in the story is in the character of Ester: from the cold to the compassionate woman who helps Pepita with some capital for a small business in Bohol, and the promise of sourcing goods for the store. What some readers of the story may miss (if they don't read the novel, that is) is the strong hint of an affair between Ben and Anita. There's that detail of Ben's underpants in the maid's room, and why leave almost at the same time that Ben does? So that must have been the real reason for the departure, and Anita is closest to a "bad woman" in this light, but all this is conjecture. Subtly clever.

On the title page of my copy, Erma wrote "Cebuano kini," telling us that not by the language a book is written in do we judge its authenticity. Yes, Erms, I agree. There is Junquera, the tambis, the folk song "kon ikaw mangita'g pamanhonon," the tao-tao in the mango tree, etc. More than these is the Cebuano's faith symbolized by Ester's small icon of the Sto. Niño, and the love of Cebu that shines through this jewel of a book.

One will have to get hold of the novel to find out why a brief review like this cannot give justice to a labor of love newly born. Meanwhile, congratulations, Erms!

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