It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (new host of Monday reading: Kathryn T at Book Date). Since two of our friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have been joining this meme for quite awhile now, we thought of joining this warm and inviting community.
These books tap on their country’s history as the primary source of their narrative. In keeping with our current reading theme, The Weight Of Our Sky looks into the tension-filled but loving relationship between Melati Ahmad and her mother, while Insurrecto explores the unlikely connection between an American female filmmaker and a Filipina American translator and the sinuous entanglements brought about by art, history, and current events.
Written by Hanna Alkaf
Published by Salaam Reads (2019)
ISBN: 1534426086 (ISBN13: 9781534426085). Review copy provided by distributor. Bought a personal copy as well. Book quotes designed via Typorama.
The story is set in Kuala Lumpur, 13 May 1969, when racial tension between the Chinese and Malays has reached fever pitch in Malaysia, resulting to genocide and brutal slayings perpetrated by one ethnic group against another. Amidst this historical backdrop, the reader is introduced to a young and guileless teenage voice, Melati Ahmad, who is suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. The stigma attached to mental illness, however, coupled with the lack of knowledge about various mental disorders, has made Melati’s family regard her compulsion (exacerbated by her father’s death) as the work of a djinn or evil spirits.
It was painful reading Melati’s incessant counting as well as her vivid ideations of her mother’s various brutal deaths in the event that she fails to count things around her in a particular way and in a particular order. As a clinician, I could sense that it is her way of trying to make sense of her reality and a means of taking control of the overwhelming fear and anxiety that drive her compulsions.
I found it to be a fearless novel, tackling themes that are usually regarded as anathema in Singapore and Malaysia where discussions on race are actively and implicitly discouraged.
Melati’s youth and voice rang true, not to mention her relationship with her best girlfriend, Saf, with the theatrical air and infectious laugh; and Melati’s fraught but predominantly nurturing relationship with her Mother who works as a Nurse. I appreciated knowing more about this period in history through a young woman’s eyes. I also liked how multiple views were presented in a subtle fashion: while Melati experienced kindness from a stranger through Auntie Bee, the reaction of her other family members to Melati’s presence in their home also made the narrative credible:
I personally found some parts to be overwritten (repetitive) and primarily plot-driven that I found the twists and turns somewhat exhausting somewhere towards the middle and the end. Regardless, the core message – captured beautifully through the title – makes this a not-easily-forgettable read.
Written by Gina Apostol
Published by Soho Press (2018)
ISBN: 1616959444 (ISBN13: 9781616959449). Bought a copy of the book. Book quotes designed via Typorama.
Admittedly, I have a love-hate relationship with this novel, so let me begin with that. I do not think that I am smart enough to really capture all the cinematic and literary allusions that the author is referring to throughout this story-within-a-story with resistance and struggle painfully interwoven through the concentric layers of the meta-narrative that calls itself Insurrecto. However, as the author noted in one of the many chapters that remain incomprehensible to me:
Comprehensibility clearly is not the intention here – otherwise, I would have understood what the numbering of the chapters meant which started off with 20, then moved back to 7 a few chapters down. I am sure I could google the information but I have reached the point in my reading where I honestly did not care enough to find out. I didn’t really understand everything about Les Miserables when I first read it in my early 20s, but it did not diminish my appreciation of the novel. Perhaps that is what Gina Apostol meant in the quote I shared above?
There were certain aspects of the novel that spoke deeply to me – especially since the setting is very contemporary with human rights violations perpetrated with impunity in the Philippines captured with jagged and serrated edges.
I do wonder at the target audience of the novel, or even if there is one, or if the question is moot and academic. The reason I even thought of it is my inner wondering as to whether the story is reaching its intended audience in a way that will move them, or at least make them think deeply about who they are and what it means to be a Filipino citizen at a time when the islands of the country are disappearing and bargained off to the highest bidder, where silence and indifference are conjoined twins allowing evil to proliferate with impunity.
My husband and my mother are both from Samar – the former was born in Eastern Samar, while the latter is from Western Samar. My earliest memories from childhood can be traced to the many fiestas and sarayaw that I attended at age eight to around twelve. I laughed with delight seeing references to silot and moron which I am sure most foreigners who have not visited the country or who have no knowledge of Filipino culture will not understand (see quote above re stories about France and suck it up, readers). Hence, I did coast the wavelengths of the author’s meandering voice in her reminiscences of a period in history that is all but forgotten.
Yet despite the evident literary craftsmanship, the sharpness of the language, the highly intellectual leanings of the story – or maybe even because of all these – compounded with the repartee between the American filmmaker and the Filipina American translator who seem to be oneupping each other as to who is the smartest woman around here – I honestly found reading the entire story such a struggle and a pain that I almost abandoned it. But I kept on because I hosted a Read Along Chat in our Litsy account for this book:
Not surprisingly, quite a few abandoned the novel; while a few were effusive with their praise. Like I said, it does inspire that love-hate kind of reader response. I would most likely go back to read this novel another time when I am older and have watched more art films referenced in the book.
I suppose the intellectualization is a way of rising above the atrocities perpetrated in Balangiga by the white soldiers who were driven crazy by the humidity and heat and homesickness that the story became a cacophony of voices upon voices in a narrative within a narrative until it has lost its meaning entirely – or maybe it’s just me. Then there is also a White woman’s father-abandonment issues, a Filipina-American’s attempt to prove herself as equally intelligent (if not more) and as worthy as any woman gifted with White privilege.
I also resonated with how Magsalin, the Filipina American translator attempted to make sense of a home that is not home any longer but a liminal in-between space that is neither here nor there, and a fierce feral love for it regardless, that can never be contained or replaced by imported chocolates and hot-water toilet amenities taken for granted by people in Western countries. Oh well, just read it. I am certain each reader will have a unique response to it.
#WomenReadWomen2019: 20, 21 of 25 (Malaysia and Philippines – Gina Apostol grew up in the Philippines but is now based in the US)