#GetLit This Holiday: A Literary Guide to Family Parties

Fiction, Sunday Spotlight

Note: This post was originally published on HellaPinay.com.

You ready for another Filipino family party?

With the end of 2k17 just around the corner, you know there’s bound to be an endless supply of pancit, lumpia and possibly (hopefully), lechon. Not to mention all the do-do’s as my family calls ‘em: asado (stewed pork or chicken dish), menudo (another stewed pork dish), embutido (the Filipino version of meatloaf). You know, the works.

The food will be plentiful no doubt, slowly settling in the nearest chair or corner as family, friends and relatives trickle in, as Jep Paraiso describes hilariously in Filipino Titas on Thanksgiving/Christmas be like…series. I don’t know about you but I’m still *reeling* from those videos, grateful for the laughter welling deep in my belly. Filipino titas (aunts) can cause quite a ruckus and I find it mildly comforting that his tita impressions are not only spot-on, but almost universal.

But what is most profound to me is that in the midst of his wittiest quips were inestimable kernels of truth, a window to the Filipino consciousness. That in a span of a minute, Paraiso was able to give the world a glimpse of our complexities and idiosyncrasies as a people. I guess there’s nothing quite like an effective use of humor to induce a little self-examination, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

What the videos reveal are issues in our communities rooted in the same things that have continued to oppress us for generations; that what we consider as usual banter is actually harmful, hurtful in ways that have prompted us to toughen up. The last thing you want to think of is a Filipino family party turned into a battlefield, a space where you have to learn how to duck lest an off-color remark is hurled your way.

So what is there to do? Culture cannot change overnight. For as long as our lens of what is good and what is bad as a people is colored by Eurocentric ideals, we remain at the mercy of a plate of pancit and lumpia, dodging that one no-filter tita. But fortunately for us, we have gentle teachers at our disposal, amiable fellows to aid us in our journeys of self-inquiry–books.

Below are five contemporary titles I’ve chosen attuned to things I’ve picked up from the videos. These books have been heavy on my mind this year, and I’ve been constantly recommending them to colleagues, friends, and family members in search of narratives of strength, courage, and integrity. They are the work of queer people and women of color, voices that bring hope and light in these necessary conversations.

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On body-shaming, fat-shaming:

Ever had an experience where the first thing your family members comment on when they see you is your weight? Whether you’ve lost or gained more pounds? It isn’t really the kind of warm welcome you were expecting but as soon as you walk through the door, you can’t help but be subjected to it. When I read Hunger by Roxane Gay this year, I was reminded of the ways not just Filipino families, but our society as a whole, view our bodies and scale them up. Women’s bodies bear the brunt of intense scrutiny the most. The size of our bodies become standards for desirability, or objects of either admiration or ridicule. Hunger is Gay’s personal account of living in her body, interspersed with the many ways she’s struggled and triumphed in a weight-obsessed culture.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017)

On anti-blackness:

While Filipinos are known for their hospitality, I was reminded by the videos that there is still an undercurrent of anti-blackness in our communities. Our people have internalized centuries of colonization so deep that White is Right has been ingrained, massaged in our memory. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is a haunting, beautiful read about a black family in rural Mississippi, a story of deep love within a family in the face of life’s greatest challenges. How a family ravaged by death, drugs and racism continue beyond their hardest moments to find joy and beauty in each other. It reminded me of the ways Filipino families take care of each other in the midst of the hardest struggles, how we choose and find the world in each other.

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017)

On queerness:

Your best friend or roommate forever AKA your partner would probably be comforted with the mention of John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, an indispensable read on queerness, family and religion. Set in Ireland, it is the story of a young man living through an era of extreme homophobia, in a country where Catholicism is king. Boyne chronicles the struggle of trying to survive a world that is against you, of trying to live as freely and truthfully as you can. Being Catholic or religious is still a cornerstone of many Filipino families, and The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a resonant story of navigating tradition and heteronormative norms in its most genuine form.

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Little Fires Everywhere (2017)

On families:

No two families are the same, and while Filipino families have quirks that we’ve all become accustomed to, I wanted to bring up Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere which explores the breadth of differences between families. In the book are different kinds of families: a single mother trying to raise her daughter, a mother trying to hold a large family together, childless couples hoping to raise their own, the joys of chosen family. This book is a conscientious tale of mothering, of the struggles of raising a family, even of pregnancy. It magnifies differences, but also bridges them in the pursuit of learning how to love even the hardest part of ourselves.

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Pachinko (2017)

On the role of women:

Bless all titas in the land, to be honest. In spite of the issues I’ve listed here, and how we’ve come to really understand the Filipino psyche, it is without a doubt that women are the bedrock of any family. I thought of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, the story of a Korean woman living at the height of imperial Japan, who has endured many things and whose lineage has always carried the burden of suffering. It is a virtuous story of the woman’s lot, and the ways women carry their families beyond trauma, beyond generations.

These titles are not only great to bookend the year with, but also function as holiday gift recommendations to those who are curious, those who are interested in understanding ourselves, each other, and the world better. After all, we need a little more prodding within so we can be gentler on each other. And instead of trading light-hearted barbs at the next Filipino family party, think of tenderness. It’s the best way to #GetLit.

Nesting on Fire, with Celeste Ng (A Book Review of ‘Little Fires Everywhere’)

Book Reviews, Fiction

Sometimes all the hype turns out to be the real thing.

You know a book’s about to be B-I-G when all the book sites are talking about it, when emails pop up in your inbox with that one book over and over again.

Before I even knew what it was about, Celeste Ng‘s Little Fires Everywhere (Amazon | Indiebound) was that book. I had to get it.

Turns out, the hype wasn’t just noise. It was actually substance. A lot of it.

Little Fires is Ng’s second novel, following her first book Everything I Never Told You which became an instant bookseller, bagging numerous awards.

In this book, Ng portrayed what the nuclear American family should look like, in a pretty progressive place too nonetheless, that she was able to effectively support America’s delusion into thinking that it is, for the most part, doing the right thing.

She begins by detailing the life in Shaker Heights in Ohio, close to Cleveland, a haven of manicured lawns and matching houses where most folks are upper middle class. A small town where most people come back to live from college and nest quite comfortably.

At the center is Elena Richardson, a white woman, a mother of four who lives in relative stability in Shaker Heights. She is married to a lawyer and is a successful journalist. Except for when she went away for college, she’s spent her entire life in the community. When she takes in the recluse artist Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl as tenants at one of her smaller homes (she sees it as charity, a gesture of goodwill), she didn’t realize the ripple of change that move would set.

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October’s Reading List: 5 Things You Should Know

Sunday Spotlight

ima read ima read ima read
–Zebra Katz

While the line from Zebra Katz above is used in an entirely different context, ima take it. In the midst of intense political upheavals, a crumbling of the U.S. government at the hands of the incompetent-in-chief, I have Katz lines in my heart and head.

The last few weeks had me immersed in the voices of European writers as I tried to wrap up my #FinestFiction challenge. After the shortlist was announced, with about two books left in the pile, I decided to forego the last one and wring my hands in frustration at the current title I was holding. I just don’t get it is an honest way of saying it, but I prefer I think I’m way off my preferred genres but I will give this another try. And so I did, until I came to a point where I just didn’t care anymore.

The first day of the month found me in sunny Los Angeles, and I was grateful to be holding Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere in my hands. I was somewhere in the Fairfax District, drinking an overpriced matcha latte accompanied by an equally overpriced avocado toast. I was really going for an aesthetic that matched Ng’s book cover with my food and drink, but I realized after I’ve devoured everything that I was too engrossed in the text to even remember taking an Instagram-worthy post. I was mildly comforted and repulsed at the same time with the thought. Such are the times.

October is officially fall, although it feels like the onset of a real summer here in the Bay Area. I was going to say that now would be a good time to cozy up with a book, but when is it never a good time? My commitment to reading last month’s list is half-assed at best, because I only really finished four out of the eight I listed. I tried to finish three others (one was written in deep Tagalog, the other one was too weird, and the last just didn’t interest me). The eighth one I never even bothered to crack upon because I knew it wasn’t really up my alley.

I want to be more intentional this time, and really trust my gut feeling when it comes to literature. Sure, there is a lot to gain by being exposed to other genres and books I wouldn’t normally pick up. At the same time, I feel like I wasted hella time giving some of these titles chances, only to give up halfway. Lesson(s) learned.

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Little Fires Everywhere (Amazon | Indiebound) by Celeste Ng
Pachinko (Amazon | Indiebound) by Min Jin Lee
Goodbye, Vitamin: A Novel (Amazon | Indiebound) by Rachel Khong
Don’t Call Us Dead (Amazon | Indiebound) by Danez Smith
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (Amazon | Indiebound) by China Miéville
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories (Amazon | Indiebound) by Carmen Maria Machado

I’m so excited for this month’s list which is composed books by three Asian women authors, a queer black poet, a queen Latina author and an English fantasy fiction writer. I’ve got six brilliant books, which I may be tempted to add some more if I finish the list early. Here are five more things to know about October’s reading list:

  1. Three of these books are shortlisted for the National Book Foundation awards (Smith’s for poetry, and Machado and Lee’s for fiction).
  2. Half of my reading list is supplied by the book subscription company Book of the Month which I truly adore. Sign up here!
  3. I just reviewed a book (Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City) chosen by Rachel Khong for a quarterly magazine in Oakland.
  4. Miéville’s book is as timely as ever as the October Revolution led by Vladimir Putin happened in October 25, 1917 (or November 7, new style) and here we are in 2017, a decade later caught up in election scandals with Russia.
  5. And that there will definitely be more books added to this list since I’m already halfway through the third one.

Are you reading any of these books right now? Let me know in the comments below!