A confession: Conversion and Other Fictions is the first Charlson Ong book I’ve read. Evahr. What self-respecting Creative Writing student (with a Literature minor, to boot) dare have this oversight? Me, that’s who.
I’ve met Sir Charlson about twice. Once was at a launch of a poetry book (Joel Toledo‘s, I think). My then-professor Alfred Yuson waved his whiskey around, and I took that as an introduction. The next time I saw him was months later (last year, actually), at a ceremony for a writing award. A story of mine had placed, he was the chairman of the board of judges, and he congratulated me. He was wearing a blue long-sleeved shirt, and he was smiling at something far-off, and said, “Congratulations.” And that was that. Man of few words, that Charlson Ong.
A few months ago, an MFA student of his told me he was teaching my story. My story, being taught–in Charlson Ong’s MFA class. That was a Whoa moment for me.
Shameless how I keep talking about myself when I should be talking about his book, no? Har.
So. It’s Man Territory in Sir Charlson’s 1996 collection–father-and-son relationships, failed or struggling marriages, lost brothers and lost sons, growing up in multicultured Philippines. And cars. Lots and lots of cars and car references that point at YayHeartwarmingMacho.
In “Reprieve,” we join a father and a son on a hunting trip, where heartaches and simmering tempers set the stage for tense, er, hunting. In “Fixing a Flat,” we tag along to a meeting between our narrator, the wife who wants their marriage annulled, and the new man in her life. Oh, dissatisfaction. Oh, the What-Could-Have-Beens. “Widow” feels like an allegory for the Marcos era, particularly Marcos’ death, and that might just be me, but I don’t care. It was lush and creepy, and I loved it. Another non-90s setting was “The Season of Ten Thousand Noses,” about Manila in the 1700s, and the boat that, well, brought in ten thousand noses. “Love Me Tender” is a reworking of the I Just Saw Elvis trope, and that was fun. And surprisingly tender. Heh.
It’s a cool collection. Written for 90s Manila and its fringes, for different periods in Philippine history, for the potluck of nationalities and cultures we’ve crossed paths with. Also, there’s a charming terseness to the stories. A hard-to-pin-down feeling of awkwardness to men who should be self-possessed, or to boys who should’ve had their first influx of confidence and arrogance. That’s why it’ll be stupid to dismiss this as Man Fiction–there’s a depth to the scenes, gritty and dirty as they may originally appear to be. In “Love Me Tender,” a dinghy bar has the potential to be the setting for great redemption. In “Downshift,” what may seem to be your grieving-father story hints at darker themes. Those moments in the stories catch you off-guard. One moment, you’re sitting through instructions for downshifting or burning paper money or buying ladies drinks at a bar–and then, a turn of the phrase, and BAM, epipha-tree heaven.
There’s Traditional Philippine Short Fiction feel to all this (that sounds offensive, haha)–I’ve tried to explain this at length, but I just can’t right now; at the moment, I am content to let it be you gotta know it to get it. Just. Well. Augh. Hahaha. The familiar feel to the voice and the mood actually wants to make me write short stories. Eventually. I like best stories that make me want to write. I think those are the best stories to read.
A lot of people should read Charlson Ong. A lot. Get on it, people.
PS – That’s one of the prettiest covers I’ve ever seen, for a book published here in the Philippines. I’ve had this theory that so few Filipinos actually pick up their own authors because of poor cover designs–and the feel that most literary books are designed like textbooks (newsprint pages, strange cover material, that self-defeating preface). More on this later later later. I am eating cake. This needs a lot of brain cells I currently can’t sacrifice.