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Love and Other Rituals

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 21, 2022 5:00 am

Monica Macansantos of Baguio City, whom I’ve known since she was a child through lifelong friendship with her parents, the poet-writers Priscilla and Francis “Butch” Macansantos (bless you, amigo), makes us proud and happy with her first book, Love and Other Rituals: Selected Stories, published recently by Grattan Street Press, University of Melbourne,

It collects eight stories, all of whose characters are from Baguio, and are obviously spun (with lofting imagination) out of actual experiences the author had at home as well as in her various fellowships and residences gained abroad as a temporary part of the Philippine diaspora.

The prose is detailed in its dovetailing of the characters’ actions—from changes in facial expression to slight gestures—described to complement their lines of dialogue.

Among the numerous glowing reviews and blurbs for this book, I’ve chosen to share this one by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, author of Barefoot Dogs: Stories:

“In Monica Macansantos’ exquisitely rendered stories about the Filipino experience, both in the old country and abroad, homeland is not a place, but a pang. Wisely and compassionately observed, her dislocated characters long for home with the same restrained ardour they yearn for connection. Because Macansantos knows too well how an upset heart turns, this longing remains always within sight, yet heartbreakingly elusive. Her splendid writing is stirring.”

Homeland is not a place, but a pang.

In complete agreement, I should now highlight particular features of this young lady’s writing. We can start with her studied employment of similes—not too frequent and always carefully-placed. These are from the story “Stopover”: 

“… she felt her old life tightening around her like an ill-fitting dress she had outgrown.”

“The shuttle that bore her to her friend’s apartment was like a sealed capsule with its windows rolled up, shielding its passengers from the greyness that spread itself before them like the stale pages of an unread book.”

We never find the omniscient voice obtrusive, even as it often renders optional equations that flesh up a character.

“She hadn’t been back to the old country since she had left and this was the next best thing to coming home—meeting a character of her past whom she could overwhelm with her knowledge of America.”

The prose is detailed in its dovetailing of the characters’ actions—from changes in facial expression to slight gestures—described to complement their lines of dialogue. The way they’re attired and, in the case of the ladies made up, are all cross-hatched on an expanding map of familial or social relations, through all the ups and downs of recognition.

“She hadn’t been back to the old country since she had left and this was the next best thing to coming home..."

But all the fine detailing provides graphic context that always slides into inclusion of emotional tweaks or psychological reckonings.

“Nothing Cathy did, it seemed, could bruise Evangeline’s calculated calm—even her anger was perfumed with care, as though she had practiced these gestures in the event of a quarrel.”

As Cathy says goodbye to her old college friend Evangeline whom she has visited in Austin for a couple of days, both realize the gap that had grown between them in the country of their temporary migration. They conclude a final obligatory hug before Cathy takes to the cab for the airport.

Wisely and compassionately observed, her dislocated characters long for home with the same restrained ardour they yearn for connection.

“If this scene were taking place in Manila, she would’ve been walking towards her cab amidst car honks, wailing babies, lines of dripping laundry and the footsteps and laughter of passers-by. In their homeland, there were too many noises, smells and sights to distract them from the silence of inevitable partings. It took a trip to America for them to realize that they had parted long ago.”

In “The Autumn Sun,” Tony and Socorro, both of Baguio, are reunited in Newark’s University of Delaware.

“Now, in another time and place, Tony wondered if there was anything hiding beneath her dark pupils, or if it was merely his imagination they awakened. Her eyes seemed to gaze from an inconsolable blackness of long ago.”

This serves as a foreboding of the awkward, tentative pas de deux they would mince steps through for four seasons — while speaking of emptiness almost as much as imagining and feeling it. It’s a deftly told story, weaving through the pattern of parting and loss and rediscovery as the natural cycle loops back to early autumn leaves.

In “Leaving Auckland” , Macansantos provides the canny cognizance of distinct facets of the diaspora.

In “Leaving Auckland” — a long story that swings from Buenos Aires to Wellington, again Macansantos provides the canny cognizance of distinct facets of the diaspora.

“Paulo had been away from the Philippines for so long that he has become a foreigner to the ways of these guests, and he found himself unable to appreciate their servility when confronted with his mother’s demands to rake up the leaves in the backyard, to wrap Christmas presents, to scrub the pots and pans. One guest had scrubbed the rubber coming off a brand new set of cookware, mistaking it for dirt.”

The narrative structure succeeds as nimble tango steps despite the back-and-forth of location, location — so that it convinces me that the writer is already well-poised to take on the hasher demands of a novel.

After an online launch in Melbourne on Oct. 7, with the author appearing virtually while attendees gathered in person, a second took place on Nov. 2, on Dia de Los Muertos or the Feast of All Souls, in keeping with the spirit of the first story that takes place entirely in Baguio (as three other stories do) — where a child learns lessons from a visit to a cemetery with her mother. Complex relations with mothers and fathers are favored themes, while the rest of the stories revolve around academic life abroad.

The narrative structure succeeds as nimble tango steps despite the back-and-forth of location, location — so that it convinces me that the writer is already well-poised to take on the hasher demands of a novel.

That second launch was sponsored by Bel Canto Books of Long Beach, California, and had the author in recorded conversation with fellow writer Grace Talusan, who’s set up the recording at monicamacansantos.com.

On Nov. 10, the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, Washington staged on online conversation between Monica, already back in Baguio, with Donna Miscolta.

As for availability, Fully Booked has already approved stocking copies of the 208-page paperback. Meanwhile, Book Depository is a good alternative for free and fast shipping to the Philippines, via this link.

US-based readers can share this purchase link from Bel Canto Books.

Monica Macansantos graduated the University of the Philippines Diliman, earned her MFA in Writing as a James A. Michener Fellow from the University of Texas at Austin, and her PhD in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington. Her work has appeared in Colorado Review, The Masters Review, Day One, failbetter and Katherine Mansfield and Children (Edinburgh University Press), among others. She has received fellowships from Hedgebrook, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the I-Park Foundation, Storyknife Writers Retreat and the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi. Born in Baguio, she spent her early childhood in Newark, Delaware before returning to the Philippines, where she spent the rest of her childhood and young adulthood.