When The Elephants Dance

When The Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza HoltheAuthor: Tess Uriza Holthe
Publisher: Penguin Books (2003)
Number of Pages: 368
How long it took me to read: 1 week, 4 days
Where I bought this book: I purchased the book because it was recommended by a very knowledgeable store clerk at Arkipelago, the Filipino bookstore on Mission in San Francisco.
ISBN: 978-0-14-200288-9

Like a Moth to a Flame

Much of my writing comes from the immigrant experience, of one born in America and raised by parents with much different cultural values and traditions.  Having each foot in a different world has uniquely shaped my writer sensibilities.  On the other hand, it makes me question if my writingwhether in voice, language or characterizationis authentic enough. I wanted to see how another 2nd generation Filipina-American writer approached writing about our culture as if she had been born there.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “The evenings in our cordillera village were always deliciously hot, with a scent of white sampaguita flowers that grew like flakes of snow around our house.  The heat trapped in our valley by the lush jungle–covered mountains of green on either side and the rice terraces like giant steps of velvet jade on the northern end.” (pp.31-2)

4. “We turn up a ridge, leaving the flatlands and the waist-high cogon grass bending in the wind.  We pass the sugar cane plantations, with the cordillera mountains far north in the distance.  We climb alongside rice terraces, the ground soggy from the recent storms.  The moon is a slice of lemon above us.  White orchids freckled with coral and magenta bloom in abundance.” (p.215)

3. “Our beautiful city is burning.  The scent of broken churches, charred flesh, and a fallen people carries like ashes in the wind.  They burn great fires, and the evening sky mingles with the heat and flames a blood red.  A bad sign.  This is the story at the end of the bible.  This is Judgment Day.” (p.119)

2. “In between each dwelling, coconut trees sprouted, inhabited by lime green parrots, chattering mynah birds, and the red-hornbilled bee eaters.  The large branches cast shadows on my face at noon.  Our farthest neighbors were a few feet away, the nearest ones at arm’s length.  The houses were so flimsy that during the tempestuous monsoons, our father ran around with palm leaves, patching the holes carved in by the strong gales.  The winds were so forceful that the purple salamanders crawling upside down on the ceiling lost their footing and fell kamikaze onto our beds at night.” (p.236)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “She looked away from me.  She did not reach out a hand to braid my hair or tuck my shirt in.  I knew then that I no longer existed for my mother.  Her heart could not handle my sister’s death.  It was as if I died with her. I was like a walking ghost.  A rose thorn woven into her clothes, poking her.  A sore reminder of the child she lost.” (p.175)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“I’m interested in the historical aspect of this book.  It begins in the middle of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in WWII, with two brothers, ages 10 and 12, who are venturing out from the safety of their cellar to forage for supplies, but they get caught up in the brutality of their military occupiers. My mother and father survived WWII as children.  Neither of them talked very much about their experiences.  I only know my father and one of his brothers, somehow avoiding the Japanese, were among those who made the long trek on foot from Manila to the mountains to hide. I feel as if a curtain has been pulled back briefly, and I have a glimpse into my parents’ childhoodof not having a safe place to live, perhaps knowing, or worse, witnessing family or friends beaten, taken or killed.  It’s impossible for me to fully fathom the kind of intense fear and helplessness they must have experienced during the war. I understand now why they wouldn’t share those memories.”

“Holthe takes the framed story to another level. The brutality, which is unflinchingly rendered, of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during WWII, frames the stories recounted in the cellar of the central characters’ home. These stories (I have read two so far) have me falling into a dream, where the previous pages of torture and violence thankfully fade into the distance.  While I know I’m returning to that world in a few pages, the joy of great story-telling overshadows my distaste for what surrounds it.  When the characters are huddled on the cellar floor, telling their tales, I’m back in my parents’ home, sitting at the dining table after a holiday meal. An ornate, gold gilded frame displays Da Vinci’s Last Supper on one wall, while the tiki-carved, dark walnut fork and spoon, which are supposed to bring fortune and luck, hang almost ceiling to floor on another – the sacred and the supernatural, the colonial and the indigenous, encapsulated in one room. My mother’s good silverware and china lay scattered on the table, while the smells of fried oil, garlic and steamed rice still emanate from the kitchen.  Even though everyone has had to unbuckle their belts a notch or two, my mother brings out coffee and dessert.  If we’re lucky, we’re treated to biko, the Filipino sweet sticky rice cake, and my father’s recollections about his family and life in the Philippines.”

“The central characters in the main, framing narrative, are vibrant, sharp and believablejust like their environment.  The characters’ characters, those who exist in the stories being told, are tragic, dreamy, mythic.  I love how the book captures the Filipino culture’s reverence of the inexplicable and the every day acceptance of things happening in the universe we cannot see.  As a child, I remember being fascinated by my father’s stories of his relatives’ restless spirits, who came to visit us every now and then. Matter-of-factly, he would tell us of his sister or his brother visiting him in a dream, followed by the sudden flickering of a desk lamp. Sometimes, the music box on the fireplace mantle would start playing by itself, and he’d remark it was my grandmother checking in on us.”

“So far, the only thing I don’t like is how every Tagalog word or phrase is directly followed by a definition or translation.  While I understand the author is trying to reach a larger audience, I prefer stories with foreign words to reveal their meanings through character action, dialogue or thoughts, such as in Junot Diaz’s Drown, where Dominican Spanish is used without a corresponding definition.  Sometimes I could figure out the meaning on my own, but often, I had to look words up.  But then, I like stories that challenge me a little.”

“The stories-within-the-story are as diverse as the characters who tell them.  They’re part confessional, part folklore, and part ghost story, in that the storytellers are haunted by their pasts.  I found “Ghost Children” the most difficult to read.  The narrator was the least sympathetic of all the storytellers, yet she earned my sympathy wholeheartedly by the end of her tale.  It is my favorite story, perhaps because it is the most heartbreaking.”

“The book is quite an engrossing read.  The framing story, told in three parts, from three different character perspectives, is a hero’s journeygritty, relentless and filled with adventure. There are moments when the prose hit high melodrama, which I think, is due to Holthe’s tendency to overstate or repeatedly bring attention to certain clues.  During those moments, I wish the author would have trusted me to figure things out on my own.

“The images of the war are disturbing, making the book a challenge to read at times.  Was the Philippines really like that during the Japanese occupation?  It saddens me that there are places in this world today, which are hardly any different, where genocide, rape, torture, and other grave human rights violations go on unhindered and unpunished.  And yet, as this novel illustrates, I am always amazed at the resilience of the human spirit, especially in the Filipino people, and their power and strength to endure, and even thrive, after experiencing such horrific events.”

Lisa Abellera

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