Ricco Villanueva Siasoco knows a good lede when he writes one: “Viva wants her boobs back”. So starts the first story in this debut collection.
The boobs in question aren’t real, but a homemade simulation that has been borrowed, as it were, from “Viva—real name Victor” by “Barbarella, linebacker of a drag queen”. The rest of this smoothly-written collection focusing on the Filipino diaspora in the US doesn’t always remain at the level of observational intensity, but Siasoco throughout teases verisimilitude from somewhat less-than-everyday situations. These include the trials and tribulations of a family-run Chinese restaurant in the outskirts of Des Moines, the visit of a teen to his deaf-mute uncle in Manila, the bonding (or otherwise) of two Filipinas in a sign-language class and a mother’s coming to terms with her gay son.
Somewhat surprisingly given that several were published separately in journals over a number of years, the stories are, for the most part, linked through the characters. The teenage boy—who happens to be gay—visiting Manila has a pregnant sister who is the one taking sign-language lessons, and later visited by his mother at university, etc. This is not quite seamless: the first story in linked only through a red-headed waiter who is later said to hail from Los Angeles.
The stories run the gamut of the diasporic possibilities: those that never left, first-generation, second-generation, integration or not, cross-ethnic relationships (homosexual as well as heterosexual). Identity, of course, plays a central role: when the teenaged Noel visits Manila with his mother in the summer before college:
Now that he had lived in the hard grip of Manila for a week, he had begun to realize how his notions had been flawed: he had always pictured Filipino objects, never people. The reality of this place was, more than anything else, throngs and throngs of homogeneous people. Brown arms, brown faces, hair wiry as his own and dark as the Charles River at night… Noel felt ordinary. In Boston there were other Asian kids, of course, but not in these multitudes. Here, he thought, touching a carved bolo on the table, he looked exactly like everyone else. No white kids around to provide contrast or fill the space around him like Styrofoam peanuts.
The stories, even when less than upbeat, display a certain insouciance; that, or exasperation at the world and its ways:
What my father always taught us, she repeated when she was angry at him, was to respect your elders. And then she would smile, unable to remain angry. “You and your sister are spoiled by this country. When you were born, the doctor turned you over and stamped ‘Made in the USA’ on your powet.”
The final story “Babies” seems the odd one out: less obviously linked to the others, this story about a man in a gay relationship getting pregnant requires a greater suspension of conventional disbelief that the others.
Siasoco’s skill at observation and description is particularly evident in the collection’s single story set in Manila—the markets, stray cats, fish wrapped “in the front page of The Philippine Inquirer”, the family’s “crumbling Spanish-style villa”; one wishes on the whole that there had been more.