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A 21st-Century Filipino-American Fiction Reader

Originally published in 1943, Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart is a cornerstone of classic Asian-American literature. Drawing on Bulosan’s Filipino boyhood, his immigration to the U.S., and the challenges he faced as a first-generation Asian American, it remains a notable inspiration, most recently highlighted in the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s immigration-friendly video of the same name.

Notable Filipino-American writers continue to join Bulosan on the literary dais of significantly impactful, award-winning, bestselling American literature. Perhaps best known among the Filipino-American community is 1990 National Book Award finalist Jessica Hagedorn, a literary pioneer whose novel, Dogeaters, is a much-lauded modern classic. The current crop of Filipino-American literati includes Sabina Murray, who won the prestigious 2003 PEN / Faulkner Award for her story collection, The Caprices; young adult writer Melissa de la Cruz, an evergreen fixture on the bestseller lists; and Erin Entrada Kelly, who made headlines earlier this year when she won the 2018 Newbery Award for her middle-grade novel, Hello, Universe.

For more on the Filipino-American experience via contemporary 21st-century fiction, check out some of these titles, linked to their Booklist reviews when available.

 

Apology, by Jon Pineda

One boy’s impetuous, immature, blink-of-an-eye decision causes irreparable damage to a young girl, changing both their lives and those of their families forever. The boy’s uncle accepts the blame for the accident, enabling the boy to live the rest of his life at the cost of his uncle’s freedom. Winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, Pineda’s first novel is a gorgeous, albeit wrenching, rumination on intention, outcome, fault, and the value of human life. The follow up, Let’s No One Get Hurt, is another exquisite accomplishment. (Click here to read my interview with Pineda.)

 

The Disinherited, by Han Ong

Roger Caracera is the black sheep of his prominent Filipino / Spanish family, the youngest child who lacks the ambition and accumulated status of his two older siblings. Shocked to be left half a million dollars by his estranged father, the 44-year-old deadbeat decides to stay in the Philippines after his father’s funeral to give away what he believes to be ill-gotten wealth. In his quest to purge his inheritance, he learns that so-called charity is sometimes only in the eyes of the beholder. MacArthur “Genius” Han Ong is also an award-winning playwright.

 

 

 

 

In the Country: Stories, by Mia Alvar

Few writers, even the most seasoned, can produce collections of evenly superb stories, but Alvar triumphed on her first try. Her nine stories reflect her own peripatetic background (Manila born, Bahrain / New York raised, Harvard / Columbia educated), featuring a cast of immigrants, expats, travelers, runaways, and returnees caught in constant motion—geographically, socioeconomically, politically, emotionally—as they search for respite while longing for an elusive “home.”

 

Leaving Yesler, by Peter Bacho

Bobby Vicente is five months shy of turning 18. His family has just shrunk by half, his mother lost to cancer and his older brother to Vietnam. His father, Antonio, an old-timer Filipino-American immigrant who once had a glorious boxing past, is determined that his only family will not only avoid war, but somehow make it out their Yesler housing project in Seattle. What happens in that fast-forward week before Bobby takes his GED—falling in love, conversing with his dead brother, encountering a martyred saint, witnessing murder—will determine the rest of his life.

 

 

 

 

Mayor of the Roses: Stories, by Marianne Villanueva

A masterful collection of loosely intertwined short stories from the author of the critically-acclaimed Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila. This collection captures an immigrant life lived in the margins—not quite at home in the old country, painfully awkward in the new. From the unflinching title story about a mayor on trial for instigating the gang-rape of a local beauty queen, to the portrait of an abandoned wife in Silicon Valley, to the lives of three children after the death of their Filipina mother, Roses is a startling mix of sadness and hope, disappointment and exploration, loss and commitment.

 

Monstress: Stories, by Lysley Tenorio

Of the eight stories that comprise Tenorio’s remarkable debut, the eponymous “Monstress” throws together foreign cult horror flicks, a has-been (or two), and Hollywood wannabe-antics – and out of that chaos emerges a heartfelt love story of loss and (almost) redemption. Other standouts include “The Brothers,” in which an older brother begins to understand his unconventionally rebellious younger sibling after his death; “Felix Starro,” which achingly follows a young man’s realizations about his grandfather’s ‘faithful’ business; “The View from Culion,” about two Americans being cared for on a leper colony; and “Save the I-Hotel,” in which two old-timers recall their many intertwined decades together on the eve of the forced closing of the legendary I-Hotel in what was once San Francisco’s Manilatown. Despite the monster / monstress in us all, even the most tenuous links with lovers, parents, siblings, friends, and strangers eventually (hopefully) bring us back to our humanity.

 

People Are Strange: Stories, by Eric Gamalinda

Gamalinda’s latest collection makes a complementary companion to Tenorio’s Monstress; both offer eight contemporary stories that draw on the authors’ shared Filipino heritage and their hybrid identities as foreign-born writers living and creating on the other side of the world. Gamalinda’s strange people—an adopted Marcos “son,” a dead man sending emails to his ex-wife, the Elvis of Manila, a fictional Eric Gamalinda who can change skin color at will, a murderous fly-killer—are all feats of imaginative invention, albeit with varying degrees of curious behaviors, characteristics, and choices. Their strangeness ultimately makes them more uniquely human, each searching for connection in a disjointed, scattered world. A multi-faceted writer, playwright, filmmaker, photographer, Gamalinda was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize for his novel, The Descartes Highlands.

 

Toxicology, by Jessica Hagedorn

Populated with her usual cast of unpredictable characters, the latest novel from Hagedorn—undisputed doyenne of Filipino-American literature—opens with the spectacular death of a beloved young actor. Among the multiplying crowd of shocked mourners outside the actor’s apartment are filmmaker Mimi Smith and her estranged 14-year-old daughter. Across the East River, Mimi’s older brother Melo is trying to stay sober, and down the hall, Mimi’s eccentric, octogenarian addict neighbor Eleanor Delacroix has effectively shut herself in while mourning the death of her long-time lover. Brought together by loneliness—not to mention the flowing booze and drugs—Mimi and Eleanor’s disparate lives dovetail one into the other as both find a strange comfort in their acerbic exchanges and desperate binges.

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About the Author:

Terry Hong created and maintains Smithsonian BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. She was the writer wrangler for the film Girl Rising. She taught for Duke University’s Leadership in the Arts in NYC. She co-authored two books, Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture from Astro Boy to Zen Buddhism and What Do I Read Next? Multicultural Literature. She reviews extensively for many publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SIBookDragon.

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