Manila Noir by Jessica Hagedorn (ed.)
Books should stand alone, but it would be incomplete to review the irresistibly entitled Manila Noir, a collection of short stories edited by Jessica Hagedorn, without noting that it is the first entry from East Asia in a now very long series of similar volumes, each focusing on a single city or region, from Akashic Books. Philippine literature is published internationally all too rarely, and short story anthologies are hardly common either, so whether Manila Noir ever would have seen the light of day without this series is—unfortunately—questionable. But such is the reality of contemporary commercial publishing, so we should be thankful for such opportunities when they come along.
Some of the contributors have names that are (relatively) familiar—Hagedorn herself, of course, Jose Dalisay (who was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize), Sabina Murray—while others may well be new and welcome discoveries to most readers, as they were to me.
As might be expected from the title, all the stories take place in Manila—“a city of heat and shadow and secrets ... of survivors, schemers, and dreamers”, in the words of the editor in her introduction—and all, or almost all, involve death. Whether they are all classic noir is another matter: not all involve cops, not all the characters are hard-bitten or cynical, not all the settings are bleak. Some stories contain elements of the paranormal. One, somewhat incongruously, is in comic book form. Hagedorn seems to recognize that the envelope has been pushed a bit: the stories, she writes, “serve to enrich and expand our concept of noir.”
Some stories rely on indirectness, insinuation and cleverness, but overall this is not a collection for the faint-hearted: there is a considerable amount of mutilation and gore and Manila’s dark underbelly is well-represented with drugs, violence, abused wives, prostitutes and sex featuring in many of the stories.
Since short stories by Filipino writers can, at least for those not continually clued-in, be hard to come by, that alone is enough reason to pick up this collection. It helps that the collection is very readable and that some of the stories are particularly good. Murray’s “Broken Glass” is the story of the killing of an intruder in an upper-class neighbourhood home, told from the point of view of a young girl. Dalisay’s “The Professor’s Wife” is the story of a student who buys the car of his professor after the latter had died in it, dead perhaps at the hand of his much younger and unfaithful wife. A situational rather than violence-driven story is Gina Apostol’s “The Unintended”, about a meeting between a would-be movie producer and a translator in a run-down mall named after boxer Muhammad Ali. Hagedorn’s story “Old Money”—which includes narcotics, homosexuality, a squandered fortune and crime, told in what seems to be a drugged-up haze—is among the most manic, and sophisticated.
But it is Manila itself—its heat and throb, its particular melange of Asia and America, its poverty and wealth, its diverse neighborhoods, the iconic pan de sal—that is the main protagonist in the collection as a whole. Hagedorn writes in her introduction:
I like to think of Manila as a woman of mystery, the ultimate femme fatale. Sexy, complicated, and tainted by a dark and painful past, she’s not to be trusted. And why should she be? She’s been betrayed time and again, invaded, plundered, raped and pillaged, colonized ...
An anthology by multiple authors will by its nature vary greatly in tone and approach. Some seem almost American in their directness; others seem more Filipino, littered with the vernacular and particularly manileño references; some are straightforward, others are more sophisticated in language and approach; some focus on situation, others on characterization.
Not all the stories in this collection will appeal to every reader, but every reader—even those with weak stomachs or no particular affinity for noir—is likely to find some that are intriguing, enjoyable or eye-opening.