Love’s wreckage
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - July 18, 2020 - 12:00am

Noelle Q. De Jesus’ first book, Blood: Collected Stories (Ethos Books, Singapore) won the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Award for the Short Story. A French translation from Editions has just been published. She has an MFA in Fiction from Bowling Green State University in Ohio and is now working on her first novel.

Her new collection, Cursed and Other Stories, is a fitting follow-up to her first one. This is one of the first fiction titles from Penguin Random House South East Asia, with headquarters in Singapore. The 13 stories swing between the twin poles of homeland and overseas, between hope and heartbreak.

In publishing school in the UK, we were taught that one way to hook a reader deciding to buy a book of stories is to put the most seductive story up front. This book does not disappoint in this respect. The first story, “Posing,” is about a woman who does work as a nude model for graduate-level drawing courses. Pilar is married to Frank Stone; she calls him by his full name.

“She had no desire to take a class in something practical, as her husband Frank Stone had suggested, something like desktop publishing or computer programming.” She gets the job and one of the students falls in love with her. She buys the perfect white robe.

“After all, one could not simply burst out naked from behind a folding screen. One had to walk to the platform placidly but professionally garbed, disrobe in a deft motion and then hang the garment over the back of the chair that sat on the platform. She might pose standing or sitting. It all depended on the class.”

It’s a tragicomic story told well. De Jesus has the gift for showing us the inner worlds of characters with a few deft strokes, like the strokes of calligraphy.

Inner conflicts breaking through the seemingly calm surface of suburban lives is also found in the story, “Wanting.” Doctor MacKenzie falls in love with his Filipina neighbor, Eloisa, newly transplanted to the US and unhappy there.

Voice is another strong suit of De Jesus as a fiction writer. Her characters are strong and individual; you could almost hear them talking to you, sitting in front of you. Listen to this lovely paragraph, where nature is used to mirror the turmoil within.

“All at once, I became certain  that leaving Elizabeth and making Eloisa happy would bring me the greatest joy of my life. With Trish in college, and Josh leaving soon, would it be so horrible? All these emotions sprouted in me like vegetation from some chance thrown seeds, now thickly overrunning what was previously an orderly and well-tended garden plot.”

This paragraph is the wellspring for the choice of Elaine Roberto’s beautiful painting as the cover design of the book. The Filipino artist, like the writer, also studied at Ateneo de Manila University in their undergraduate years. Both of them now live in Singapore.

“Small Sacrifice” captures well the narrative arc of the lives led by our Filipino workers overseas. Teresa is a part-time caregiver of a senile Irishman in Dublin. But she did not always scrub floors for a living or clean the soiled sheets of dying men.

“So many years ago, when her husband had lost his job in Manila, Teresa only worked harder and then she was promoted to head nurse. When he still could not get a job, she applied to be a nurse overseas, and received an offer from a UK recruiter to be a nurse at one of Dublin’s large government hospitals. She has worked tremendously hard, most days a week and for long hours. She sends money home every month. This paid – and still pays – for all of them, for their two boys to go to school, for their home in the Philippines. Teresa has always kept her head down, done her job and stayed out of trouble.”

This is the most Joycean of De Jesus’ stories not only because it is set in Dublin, where the great writer James Joyce was born. The set pieces in this story are epiphanies in themselves: illuminations into the characters’ loves and losses.

Not just the personal but also the political is found in some of these stories. “Michael” is a brief story about the extra-judicial killings running riot in the land, its words bristling like spears. “Real People” deals with a callous broadcast journalist who would do anything to get a scoop, and catch the most dramatic footage on video.

The ironically named Chona de Dios is looking for an old market vendor she would interview for her news report. To save time, she retrieves an old tape of Mrs. Bartolome, a public-school teacher singing praises to the new government. She goes to the slums, where Mrs. Bartolome lives.

“Beside Chona in the back is the fat makeup-and-hair stylist who will perform magic. It’s not likely that anyone at all will recall that the public school teacher, Mrs. Bartolome, so pleased and transformed by the last President’s new education program is now Aling Rosy, the market stall vendor who can never ever make ends meet and wants more from a new government. Still, Chona thinks, better safe than sorry.”

For my money, the best story in this collection is “Trash,” a perfect fusion of the personal and the political. Aaron, the son of a domestic helper in Singapore, swims on vacation with his mother’s white boyfriend in a sea of trash. Here, setting is also character and searing indictment of what the country has become. The teenaged Aaron, like all teenagers everywhere, seems indifferent, but nevertheless treasures every touch given by his mother.

“Dreams in English” is the obverse of “Trash.” It is set in the USA, where the father Pablo goes to look after his comatose daughter. Her American boyfriend is also there, both of them hoping she would pull through. In the last story, “Cursed,” Rosario is torn between her newly arrived Filipino boyfriend, Dennis, and her new American boyfriend, Jon. Distances physical and metaphysical are found here.

“Jon stretched out his hand across the sofa to touch hers. She stayed where she was. How could they live together and yet be so distant from each other, almost as though they sat on opposite sides of an immense ocean?”

These well-crafted and moving stories are some of the best written by a contemporary Filipino writer.

*      *      *

Cursed and Other Stories is available at National Book Store and Amazon Kindle. Danton Remoto’s website is www.dantonremoto.com

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