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Book Review

Engaging Jenalyn

Jenalyn by Marianne Villanueva
Jenalyn by Marianne Villanueva
Published by Vagabondage Books, Florida
Publication Date: January 21, 2013
Kindle Edition

The novella opens with a trial, and we meet Jenalyn, as she sits “in the witness box… no emotion behind her eyes at all.”

We recognize this trope. A young Filipina marries a much older American man, and discovers that life as an exile in Kansas does not exactly live up to her hype. In Jenalyn, however, Marianne Villanueva gives us more than an anti-heroine, one whose “roundness” as a character changes over the course of the novella; Villanueva also re-acquaints us with some of the underpinnings of the society we live in—such as the implications of decolonization, and the shaping of identity in a neo/postcolonial world.

The novella opens with a trial, and we meet Jenalyn, as she sits “in the witness box… no emotion behind her eyes at all.” (Loc 27) The following scenes offer glimpses into Jenalyn’s identity and psyche:

She was born in Cebu… the eldest of six children. Her family lived in a small apartment next to the lumberyard where her father worked as a security guard. Her mother ran a small food stand for the workers. As the eldest, she had to help her mother sell soft drinks, bottled water, snacks. She learned about men that way. (Loc 30-32 of 1073)

On TV, she is so plain. Her accent is embarrassing. People say that she married George just for the money. (Loc 57)

She used to dance in Hanky Panky. To survive. That was the important thing. She liked bright colors. She always wore red nail polish… She was 17 when George Conners started writing her through Cherry Blossoms. (Loc 88-91)

Unlike common representations of the ideal pre-modern Filipina, Jenalyn is not “virtuous.” She is vain and manipulative, and has been around the block a few times too many. And yet, she has the ability to go inside herself:

After Jenalyn moved to Kansas, she learned about another white, the white of snow. She began to think: My husband’s skin is as white as snow. It made things clearer.

She began to connect the two: her husband and her feelings of being cold. (Loc 136-138)

Jenalyn is a novella of development and discovery. Herstory is the story of us.

Jenalyn is a postcolonial trope—she epitomizes for us the dreams and misfortunes of the decolonized poor. Shaped with the societal values and expectations of a developing nation in an increasingly globalized world, she flounders, initially, between ambition and self-deception:

That complexion, like pastillas. Like the expensive milk, not from the can, not from the powder, the milk that comes straight from America.

Jenalyn and her friends were dark. To get a boy’s attention, she had to do things. This was something she accepted. (Loc 144-146)

She was his little monkey. Each letter from him would begin: “Are you my little monkey?”

Jenalyn didn’t like being called a monkey. Monkeys were ugly. You didn’t tell a woman that she looked like a monkey. (Loc 162)

She migrates, and continues the journey inward:

Slowly, a new landscape rooted inside Jenalyn… Green and gold fields, endless. Highways pointing to cities hundreds of miles away. Dry air that stings. She saw herself in her small house in Herington, moving through the rooms like a ghost.

She feared dying there and leaving no mark. (Loc 196-198)

And wakes up to find that she is not in Kansas anymore:

But there are worse things, she knows. Such as having dreams that are too large, simply too large. (Loc 1052)

Jenalyn is a novella of development and discovery. Herstory is the story of us. As Filipinas, we have forged our identities out of necessity, structured by the circumstances of our birth and migration. Jenalyn has always lived within frames—in the Philippines, there was her “house by the canal running behind— all brown sludge, trash, and flies,” and in America, the house expanded to include “three steps from the door of the kitchen to the refrigerator. Three from the refrigerator to the sink.” Within these frames, her character is developed. Diasporic in scope, the story ends the same way most of ours begin, with the idea(l) of home.

© Aileen Ibardaloza-Cassinetto

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