Autobiography of a Stranger
by Kalifa Sobrino Bonnivier
Times Books International
Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, 1993; 224 pp.
The Wandering Self
It was a weekend in the middle of October, 2004, and groups of people came and went through the swinging doors of one of the auditoriums in the George Washington University campus. In progress was an afternoon of variously-themed panel discussions and book talks dubbed as Heritage 2: the Filipino American Book Festival, organized by the Philippine Embassy and Our Own Voice's Remé Grefalda. In one of them, a woman with striking features-mestiza, I surmised; Eurasian maybe?-talked about her novel, which I had not read but which I had seen among the welter of other books on display tables upstairs. The book, called Autobiography of a Stranger, had caught my eye because of its intriguing cover: a woman's sand-flecked hand holding up a carved wooden mask against a background of indigo. On the back cover, a tasteful author photograph against an even darker backdrop, that makes Bonnivier's face, above what looks like a black turtleneck sweater, float like an idol detached from its body.
| At the outset, I admit to having felt a few reservations about the promise and goal of the work implied by its specific staging as "autobiography". Pair this with the idea of writing of something-or someone-one does not really know about ("a stranger"), and you might get a slightly disingenuous narrative...
The panel onstage was talking about a topic that recurred throughout the afternoonthe connections of being Filipino to what these different authors write about and how. The author of Autobiography of a Stranger spoke of spending her girlhood and growing up among the Manongs in the heart of the Filipino American community in Los Angeles; of having a white father who died shortly before she
was born; of a mother who was so "native" she barely spoke English when they immigrated to America. I will confess however that it was when Carlene (or Kalifa) said she and her mother's side of the family were from Baguio (Kalifa was conceived there, and born in Los Angeles) that my ears pricked up even more (Baguio is home, back in the Philippines, for me as well). Later that night, at my host Reme Grefalda's home, I settled in to read Autobiography of a Stranger from cover to cover and by morning I knew I wanted to use the book as required reading in my spring semester course in Women's Literature.
What did I find exciting about this book and why? At the outset, I admit to having felt a few reservations about the promise and goal of the work implied by its specific staging as "autobiography". Pair this with the idea of writing of something-or someone-one does not really know about ("a stranger"), and you might get a slightly disingenuous narrative, contrived to lead the reader to a discovery of something he or she really knew all along; for otherwise, how does the author even know how to recognize and what to call this persona, except in having passed beyond the experience of not knowing, into knowing? Or is it really so?
At the heart of this nonfiction novel is a story that might seem deceptively paraphrasable: Theresa Follette, a hard-drinking, tough-playing, mountain-climbing journalist is straying from her assignments because of the increasing sensation that she is becoming more and more a stranger to herself. She takes a break in order to travel through Asia-Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal, India. Many of the "travel sections" of the book afford lyrical and indelible glimpses into parts of the continent that are not postcard-familiar (but then again, perhaps neither are those sections of the work which are set in a California of immigrants and farm laborers, in the days when anti-miscegenation laws still cast their shadows). Theresa meets and falls in love with Jonathan, but after he fails to turn up at a prearranged meeting in Nepal, she becomes involved with Fritz until the latter, plagued by his own internal demons, temporarily becomes unhinged and opens fire on a group of monkeys that he mistakes to be Chinese soldiers. During her journeys, Theresa oscillates between several points in time-between the present and the past-and narrates how a close family friend called Uncle Miguel rapes her on the night she attends her first public dance as an adolescent. This event marks her with guilt and suppressed anger for the rest of her life afterwards. Toward the end of the book, Theresa participates in the Hindu festival of reconciliation called Thaipusam, and it is there that she arrives at the beginning of some understanding of the various selves that have journeyed with her and that she has only known separately and not acknowledged as parts of her entire self:
"Mothefucking black nigger spick
Nothing good on top of something bad. Panis Angelicus. In cowboy boots
. Cowboys and Indians. Santita, santita, in sacred robes.
In combat boots. Pink bows on the skirt. Feathers and fur. Red, tight curls around my heart-shaped face, kind-hearted, good. In combat boots. Santita, maldita. Both parts must die. Broken rainbows. Isotopes!" (220)
| ...readers will nevertheless not find this narrative readily or completely predictable; nor even completely autobiographical, in the confessional and transparent sense that we conventionally associate with this narrative genre.
Despite Bonnivier's choice of a prophetic Adrienne Rich quote as the epigraph to the work-"I want this to be yours in the sense that if you find it and read it, it will be there in you already"-readers will nevertheless not find this narrative readily or completely predictable; nor even completely autobiographical, in the confessional and transparent sense that we conventionally associate with this narrative genre. Which is not to say that the book fails either as autobiography or even as rudimentary narrative-on the contrary, it succeeds on so many different levels, not the least in its ability to challenge the pattern of linear or chronological life-telling typical to so many autobiographies, so that the spaces within which the disclosures and meditations made by the female persona (who is linked in both an intimate and personal way to the author, as well as in an imaginative and historical sense) may be opened up further to more powerful possibilities of significance-for both herself and for readers.
The proliferation of women's autobiographical stories-especially in the fields of third world /minority/Asian American / diasporic women's writing-have been seen to challenge the model of "the life story as a single, linear narration" (Carole Boyce Davies); in so doing they also destabilize other conventional expectations. It is striking to me, for instance, how many published autobiographical stories by "minority writers" or "women writers of color" tend to portray the life story roughly in terms of a progression from victimhood and trauma, to survival, triumph, and assimilation (usually into the body of mainstream American culture): even those old stalwarts The Joy Luck Club, and to a certain extent Woman Warrior, share this trait. As a woman who writes her narrative specifically from the perspective, the subjective as well as collective (in the sense of being part of an identifiable community with shared experiences) history of a Filipina mestiza born to an immigrant mother forced to raise two daughters as "a widow with no education and no skills and no money
[as someone] not even a[n American] citizen" (96), Bonnivier can be said to work with similar material. However, she successfully steers her narrative just short of that moment of final and longed-for redemption by her realistic portrayal of the dilemma known to everyone who wishes to go home but finds that he or she no longer can. It is a condition familiar to those who live in or are produced by diasporic conditions: even if Theresa says at the end of the book that she is "finally ready to go home", what she really means is that she has identified and come to terms with the historical conditions that have led to her physical and psychological "dispersal". Even if she may not "hear back" from all the different people from her past, she states, "it will be all right." (220) Even the tropes of travel that intersperse Theresa Follette's narrative journey can thus no longer be regarded with the same value as they might have for, say, women sojourners in autobiographical narratives that demonstrate the liberative arc of their progress from oppression or confinement to mobility, independence and personal freedom and voice.
| Theresa Follette is also not rigged up as a typical immigrant woman "victim of circumstance". From the outset, she is a woman who has the capacity to wield language and use her voice (she is a journalist and conversant in several languages)...
What critics have admired about this book is its fluid ability to shuttle between divergent moments, so as to make the past and the present organically embodied in each instance of narration without need for cumbersome transitions and time references: Usha Jesdasan writes, "her script is taut and lyrical"; and the book review in the March 1993 Singapore edition of Marie Claire writes of how Bonnivier "jack-knife[s] back and forth, but oh so smoothly, the way the mind does from minute to minute
But what I think is a more singular achievement is how Bonnivier's story reveals a self that negates any simplistic or reductive characterization, and continues to struggle with the weight of its many histories rather than reach for a convenient or unequivocal resolution. Theresa Follette is also not rigged up as a typical immigrant woman "victim of circumstance". From the outset, she is a woman who has the capacity to wield language and use her voice (she is a journalist and conversant in several languages); she has mobility, an editor who for the most part supports the kinds of stories she wants to write. Though she has the requisite Catholic background, she is also portrayed as able to have sexual relationships and she exercises the choice to engage in the same. Though not exactly athletic, she is strong and agile, and does not shirk from difficult physical feats like climbing up and down sheer mountain faces in Nepal, even though she has a fear of heights. As a child, she is precocious and quick-her Aunt Rose tells her, "You are some child. Lord, you are going to be a pistol." (152) At the same time, she knows what petty sibling rivalry is and is frequently jealous of Angel and her dresses.
In the part of her narrative that tells of her sexual victimization at the hands of Uncle Miguel, the latter is seen as a stand-in for the benevolent family patriarch that was never really there in Theresa's childhood, as well as the experienced older man who appoints himself as the guide to induct her into the (erotic) mysteries of the world:
"Why, now I am not good enough for you because you think you are a woman? You don't even know what it is to be a woman. I have not shown you everything yet.
I will be the one to show you. No one else." (200-201)
| Theresa Follette's story disturbs these almost canonical portrayals of gender and sexuality within early Filipino American communities, and allows future generations of scholars to return to these narratives with new questions.
In telling this part of the story, Bonnivier exercises a precision of awareness even over ambivalences in her own nature. She acknowledges not only her awareness of her own developing sexuality, but also at the same time her anger and frustration at the way men in general take for granted that there is only one way to address-or contain-manifestations of female sexual nature:
that I looked like a woman, and it pleased me to see myself through his eyes. I moved closer to him.
Some of my dance partners were only a few years older than I was, and there was one young boy who was very handsome. We were talking and dancing when Uncle Miguel came up and told the boy, in Spanish, that I was his daughter and had to leave for a minute. I was furious, but did not dare to contradict him, not sure what kind of trouble might start.
[But] as soon as we got outside and away from people, I demanded, "Why did you do that? I wasn't finished dancing.
you're ruining my evening. I'm having a good time and you won't let me." (200)
Furthermore, the story of Theresa's rape at the hands of Uncle Miguel is significant in that it pointedly questions the binary in which writers have tended to embody the narratives of Manongs (and by implication the Manangs) in early Filipino American immigrant communities predominantly located on the west coast. In such stories by earlier expatriate Filipino writers Bienvenido Santos and NVM Gonzales, and more recently by writers like Peter Bacho (Dark Blue Suit)-as well as in films like "A Dollar a Day, Ten Cents a Dance", the Filipino Manong is cast in a romantic light as a pioneering hero forced to give up his dreams for a better economic subsistence by a racist and unforgiving America especially in the depression and post-depression era. He is the one who follows the seasons, lending his industry and thrift to work that others condescendingly characterize as "stoop labor"-picking strawberries or asparagus in the farms, and then shipping out to work in Alaskan fish canneries and trawlers. Filipino American scholars like Fred Cordova comment in "A Dollar a Day, Ten Cents a Dance," that at the same time these Manongs were dashing, debonair, and liked to frequent the taxi dance clubs where they always made an impression on women, especially white women. In the same film, Dorothy Cordova explains how the presence of any Filipino woman within these mostly bachelor Filipino communities, came to reverberate with symbolism (and therefore raised her to the status of romantic ideal): she became wife, sister, mother, aunt, friend, confidante, holder of purse-strings, ensurer of tribal continuity. Theresa Follette's story disturbs these almost canonical portrayals of gender and sexuality within early Filipino American communities, and allows future generations of scholars to return to these narratives with new questions.
The presence of these and other similar elements in Bonnivier's work help to safeguard the ability of women writers of color not only to explode some of the myths of their representation in popular media and literature, but also to continue to reiterate the important notion of how readers and critics alike must be diligently attentive to the multiple ways in which life stories and other narratives are shaped, by Filipino American writers as well as by other writers in the diaspora.
© Luisa A. Igloria