At War with the World & Within, with Arundhati Roy

Book Reviews, Fiction

“…she had learned from experience that Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty.”

I was late to The God of Small Things (Amazon | Indiebound) reading party but I distinctly remember reading it at the time that I did — more than a decade later. It was December 2011 and I finally picked up a copy I’ve had for several years. It was also a little over a month after a 4-year relationship ended, so I did the next best thing I can do for a healing heart: read.

I woke up that Christmas morning with one intention: to finish GoST. I’ve been immersed in Arundhati Roy’s world for a few days and that morning, sprawled out on the living room couch, I felt illuminated. A good book warrants a good cry. My face was drenched with tears as I finished the last page — everything that happened in the book finally made sense.

Roy’s newest literary fiction masterpiece The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Amazon | Indiebound) is written with the same effect, at least for me. It isn’t until the very last page that I finally understood the lot of it — a sweeping tale of personal and political liberation, a 400-plus tome about hijras and the Kashmiri conflict.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is essentially two different stories which converge into one. The two main characters — Anjum and Tilo — are brought together by many similiarities, women living in the outskirts of India’s society, upended by many political upheavals, a recurring theme in the book. But first, two main things before I go into more detail: Hijra, and Kashmir.

Also called “the third gender,” hijra is the term used to describe the transgender community as well as intersex people and cross-dressers in India. In ancient, sacred texts, they are believed to be bearers of luck and fertility. But while they are revered in Indian society as spiritual figures, they still suffer from discrimination and harassment.

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Kashmir (or Jammu & Kashmir, also J&K) is the northernmost geographical region of the Indian subcontinent. I first learned about Kashmir in my anthropology class in college, a region bordering India, Pakistan and China struggling for its independence. As seen in the photo above, the region is administered and disputed by three nations. As with any nation vying for self-determination and local autonomy, the Kashmir conflict has claimed thousands of lives with human rights abuses from Indian forces.

The book starts with Anjum living in a desolate graveyard and goes back to her childhood. Roy presents the conundrum of being a hijra as soon as Aftab was born through the character’s mother: Is it possible for a mother to be terrified of her own baby? 

Jahanara Begum was.

Her first reaction was to feel her heart constrict and her bones turn to ash.

Her second reaction was to take another look to make sure she was not mistaken.

Her third reaction was to recoil from what she had created a while her bowels convulsed and a thin stream of shit ran down her legs.

Her fourth reaction was to contemplate killing herself and her child.

Her fifth reaction was to pick her baby up and hold him close while she fell through a crack between the world she knew and worlds she did not know existed. There, in the abyss, spinning through the darkness, everything she had been sure of until then, every single thing, from the smallest to the biggest, ceased to make sense to her. In Urdu, the only language she knew, all things, not just living things but all things — carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments — had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman. Everything except her baby. Yes of course she knew there was a word for those like him — Hijra. Two words actually, Hijra and Kinnar. But two words do not make a language.

Jahanara Begum kept this a secret, even from her husband. Aftab grew up innocently enough, until that undeniable day of natural reckoning. From this came a departure of all sorts — Aftab slowly growing in to himself, as the days, months and years progressed to his initiation at the Kwabgah, a community of hijras in Delhi. He became Anjum, and for a long time, she was the most popular and sought after hijra in the country.

At a point in Anjum’s life, she became a mother. This set off a series of events that led her to the other main character of the book, S. Tilottama. Known simply as Tilo, the conflict in Kashmir unfolded right before my eyes through her. Although never the activist nor the soldier nor the militant freedom-fighter, Tilo was a canvas that brought to light the multifarious weight of the Kashmiri struggle for freedom. There were corrupt politicians, well-meaning journalists, nefarious soldiers, torturers, activists, militant Kashmiris ready to defend and fight for their land and Tilo. Never in it, but always in the thick of it.

Best Books of the First Half of 2017: A Libromance Round-up

Sunday Spotlight

The goal is to get to 54 and halfway through the year, I’m a little behind on my Goodreads 2017 Challenge by three. Nevertheless, I’ve been really happy and humbled by the books my hands have held within the past six months. Whether I was at work, in the Philippines or in my bed, each book has been a testament to the lasting and infinite power of literature to move worlds for me.

Some were good, some were really, really good, and there were a few that were just insanely great. There were some titles that surprised me, and one that I didn’t expect to love so much. All in all, it has been a great half a year for Libromance — I’ve managed to finish every single book I started. Last year, there were a few titles I had to put down (or chuck across the room) and politely say “maybe another time” (or yell “hell naw!”).

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My book reviews of the best books may or may not have done the actual book justice but they are my genuine attempts of synthesizing and opening up a bit of their worlds to everyone. If you’ve read them, let me know what you think of these books in the comments! And if you haven’t — you’re in for a wonderful ride. Trust me.

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
My rating: ★★★★★

I’m not sure where I should start after reading Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing but here are three things I know: 1) reading a story that challenges your own political ideology is tricky, 2) it takes a great storyteller to illustrate the complexity and intimacy — really, the humanity — of the other side, and 3) that the author was fully able to transcend point no. 1 and effectively accomplish point no. 2.

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9780295993539America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan
My rating:  ★★★★★

Bulosan’s writing, along with the arousal of his political consciousness was a tough reconciliation with the America he longed for versus the America that nearly killed him. There are many parallels to the movement of Filipinos with those of other oppressed populations, and what I’ve firmly believed in has only been cemented after reading this book: repression breeds resistance, and it is only through collective struggle that it can be overcome.

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alvarIn the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar
My rating: ★★★★★

The other seven stories in the book are all mesmerizing on their own right, bringing forth different voices that engage and resonate with readers. Up close, Alvar provides an intimate portrayal of economic and political shifts in action, how they affect people’s lives and alter people’s stories. It’s impossible not to be an activist after finishing this.

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51joe-ijmkl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
My rating: ★★★★★

To understand Alexander Von Humboldt, as told brilliantly by Andrea Wulf in The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World is to see the natural world in relation to everything — philosophy, art, music, poetry, politics and most of all, ourselves.

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9781594634482Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
My rating: ★★★★★

Trust Green Apple, a local bookstore which has been my go-to for a decade now, to hand you the next best read just when you needed it. Right there on the corner of a long table of bargain books was Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies at $7.95. Of course I had to get it. And what a wonderful decision it was to walk away from the bookstore, holding between my calloused brown fingers a world I was about to submerge in, the world of Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite and Mathilde Yoder.

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Desaparesidos by Lualhati Bautista
My rating: ★★★★★

I saw all of these when I read Lualhati Bautista’s book Desaparesidos, a novel about a family’s struggle during Marcos’s martial law. Anna is a mother, a widow, a survivor of torture and a former member of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines that the administration was trying to crush. The book revolves around her struggle and her story, from the time that she was part of the NPA, to her abduction where she was tortured and raped, to the time when she was imprisoned, and up until she went back to her civilian life as an NGO worker.

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Shout-out to Resh of The Book Satchel for the inspiration of this post.

A Return to Sacred Land, With Rosario Castellanos

Book Reviews, Fiction

“All moons, all years, all days, all winds, take their course and pass away. Even so all blood reaches its place of quiet, as it reaches its power and its throne.”
— From the Chilam-Balam of Chumayel, an ancient Maya manuscript 

It’s the last night of my trip to Mexico City (Distrito Federal of Mexico), and I was curled up with Rosario Castellanos’s The Nine Guardians (Indiebound) in a little house on Atlixco, in the neighborhood of Condesa.

I didn’t know about Castellanos prior to my trip to the DF, but a little research on the web told me that I needed to be familiar with her work. A few days before my trip, I dropped by Green Apple Books in San Francisco and picked up The Nine Guardians along with a book by Octavio Paz. I needed a little schooling on Mexican literary greatness.

Back in the bedroom in Condesa, I felt myself loosening up a little. The last few chapters had stayed with me so intensely that I started to feel like all the spirits Nana, one of the characters in the book, was referring to were with me in the house.

Set in the state of Chiapas, the book centers around the Argüello family during the presidency of Làzaro Càrdenas. It was during the time of Càrdenas that the Mexican Revolution was “consolidated” and that agrarian reform started taking place.

Told from different viewpoints, the book tackles the onset of agrarian reform from the Mayan organizers who tilled the farms, slaves to mestizo Spanish families or ladinos like the Argüellos.

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A Tzeltal woman in Bachajón (Source)

The story opens from the viewpoint of the family’s eldest daughter, usually accompanied by Nana, her nanny of Mayan ancestry.

Does Nana know I hate her when she combs my hair? No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t know anything. She’s Indian, she doesn’t wear shoes, and has no other garment under the blue cloth of her tzec. She isn’t ashamed. She says the ground hasn’t any eyes.

The unnamed seven-year-old narrator grows up with Nana, who explains the ways of her people to the curious child, knowing the complications of their own relationship. The wounded, taking care of the master’s child. Nevertheless, Nana stays warm, is tender. A refuge from a life she herself could barely understand.

One day, the family receives unsuspecting news:

“A law has been passed by which proprietors of farms with more than five families of Indians in their service must provide facilities for teaching, by establishing a school and paying the salary of a rural master.”

Homesick for Another World, with Ottessa Moshfegh

Book Reviews, Fiction

It’s rare for me to come across a book where I don’t want to annotate it. Over the years, I’ve learned not to fold the corners, stop writing on the edges or underline/highlight passages for the simple act of preserving them. Instead, I’ve resorted to using a nifty app called Evernote to take notes.

A Means to an End

Reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s book Homesick for Another World: Stories (Amazon | Indiebound) then was a rare case, because I plowed through the book without even going to Evernote once. A barometer for engagement and how I’m in love with the book is how much I would go on the app to take notes (which could be quite annoying but worth it). This time around — a first in Libromance history — there was not one single note.

It’s not that the books is bad, but it was an unusual read for me. Homesick is a compilation of short stories about people you’ve met or will never meet, people whose lives are all shrouded in the kind of “normalcy” we all refuse to acknowledge. A lot of freaks and kinda freaks. There’s Jeb from An Honest Woman, pining for his new neighbor, decades younger than he is. There’s the story about the small town boy in pursuit of his acting career in Hollywood, who spends most of his time with his tabloid-astrologer-landlady. There’s the story Mr. Wu, a nondescript man obsessed with the cashier at a local arcade. And then a teacher who keeps calling her ex-husband to leave him voice messages (reminiscent of Girl on the Train), drunk and drugged up for the most part:

“Dear Principal Kishka, Thank you for letting me teach at your school. Please throw away the sleeping bag in the cardboard box in the back of my classroom. I have to resign for personal reasons. Just so you know, I’ve been fudging the state exams. Thanks again. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

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I got really uncomfortable many times throughout reading the book, with a sickening feeling on my mouth. I guess it’s true that she Moshfegh’s work is Flannery O’Connor-esque. I’ve always looked for the “universally relevant” in my book, and I think reading Homesick takes a little more digging.

It’s not for everyone. If you do want a dose of weirdly, dark lit about the other side of the people you know but you’ve never imagined — this might just be your book.

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All artwork is made by the amazing Michael Kerbow.

51zp1zkt38l-_sx328_bo1204203200_Homesick for Another World: Stories (Amazon | Indiebound) by Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press (304 pages)
January 17, 2017
My rating: ★★
Homesick for Another World

Filipinos for Export and Their Stories, with Mia Alvar

Book Reviews, Fil/Lit

About 6,000 Filipinos leave the Philippines each day, off to countries around the world in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families. Off to any place where any currency except the Philippine peso is stronger, where dreams of living large are bigger.

In the 80’s, the term “Overseas Filipino Worker” or OFW became a real thing. They were touted as the modern heroes of the country, as they raked in dollars or euros or riyals all bolstering up the country’s GDP. Remittances became a huge boon.

This is the premise of Mia Alvar’s book In The Country: Stories (Shop your local indie store), a compilation of nine short short stories of family, love and migration — and also of neoliberal economic policies.

The book begins with a short story titled The Kontrabida, a word which translates to “villain.” Images of Miss Minchin (from Sarah, Ang Munting Prinsesa) and Angelica Panganiban as Madame (from Pangako Sa’Yo) immediately popped up in my head. I’ve watched enough telenovelas to understand the depths of crazy there is in a kontrabida character, so I was expecting a grandiose tale of the bida or the “hero” at the end of the story victorious, the kontrabida slighted in some way.

But that wasn’t the case in this story. It revolves around a family of three: a son (Steve) who works as a clinical pharmacist in New York City, his ailing father in the Philippines, and his mother the caregiver who also vends household items from their sari-sari store. The best part about it is that you can’t really tell which character is the kontrabida, each with their own ghost from the past.

For years there’d been no question of how much she leaned on me, like any mother on her overseas son. It never dawned on me how much I’d leaned on her: to play her part, stick to the script. Her saintliness was an idea I loved more than I had ever hated him.

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By Jose Ibay

Libro-Resolutions: 2017 Projects

Sunday Spotlight

Though 2016 brought so many of us anger, grief and bewilderment, may 2017 be the year that we reckon with our humanity, fully.

While reflecting on the many lessons the past year has brought through literature, I started thinking more about the purpose of Libromance and what it meant for me as the blog’s creator and curator.

The books I wrote about were carefully selected, each brimming with a promise of enlightenment. They were also almost always socially and politically relevant, affirmations but also challenges to my own beliefs.

So many of the books I read and the pieces I published revolved around deepening political consciousness and nourishing emotional intelligence. This year, I resolve to do the same but focus more on specific themes:

  • #DiverseBookBloggers: If there’s anything that I love more than anything, it’s finding out about the existence of book blogging communities online — and on Twitter nonetheless. I found out about #DiverseBookBloggers, folks who explore and write about books celebrating diversity and related issues. My challenge this year is to contribute to the conversation at least once a month, and encourage others to read books by diverse authors.
  • Fil/Lit: Last year was all about Alain de Botton, a British philosopher whose work I admire and tout quite religiously. This year, I want to read and feature more work by Filipino writers; I’ve already started by reading Mia Alvar’s In the Country. Midway through last year, I read Juan Miguel Severo’s book of poems which broke my heart in a thousand ways. His work reminded me of the tenderness of Filipinos and Tagalog, and the many ways that my folks live and love.
  • Book Look: I had ambitious projects for 2016 — none of which came to fruition as I tried to find the rhythm of posting three times a week while juggling reading, working full-time and organizing with the Filipino community. I have a better grasp of my capacity after a year’s worth of work, so I want to delve into a project called “Book Look” which will feature beloved readers in the community. I’m partnering up with Bay Area based-photographer John C. on this project, the genius behind thextinct.

While I’m getting ready for these projects and prepping behind the scenes, here’s a preview of this month’s book list:

Have any reading projects you’re starting this year? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!