Full Title: The Oracles: My Filipino Grandparents in America
Author: Pati Navalta Poblete
Publisher: Heyday Books (2006)
Number of Pages: 122
How long it took me to read: 4 days
Where I bought this book: After I attended a reading of Asian writers at the Bayanihan Community Center, in San Francisco, I went exploring in Arkipelago Bookstore, a small Filipino bookstore inside the center. I’d been looking for fiction written by a 2nd generation Filipino-American author. Although it wasn’t fiction, this book came highly recommended by the sales clerk.
Like a Moth to a Flame
I’ve been working on a piece of fiction that comes from the perspective of a Filipino child growing up in America, and I wanted to see how other Filipino-American writers handle this perspective. In her preface, Poblete compares the sound of her grandmothers breaking off the ends of Chinese green beans to the rhythmic snapping fingers in a jazz club. She provides a glimpse of her grandfathers working in the vegetable garden or sitting on the patio, drinking ice cold San Miguels. These were the same sounds and images I grew up with; I had to read more.
I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book (cut from a shortlist of 14 and a long list of about fifty) are:
5. “During that first week after I got my license, I had driven Grandma Fausta to every Asian market in town, loading the trunk of my blue Honda hatchback with bags of fish, crabs, taro root, eggplant, cans of coconut milk, sacks of Jasmine long grain rice, and heaps of Chinese long green beans. Grandpa Sunday and I went to various department stores, spending hours in their electronics and music departments as he loaded up with more country cassette tapes. He popped them into my car stereo and began moving his head to the honky-tonk beat and lyrics he didn’t understand.” (p.77)
4. “She tried to prepare him for the culture shock, something no one had done for her. In America, she explained, everyone works. When you’re old, nobody pays attention. In the Philippines, there was always something to do and somewhere to go. There were trikes (rickshaws), jeepneys (converted jeeps used as taxis), and various other modes of cheap transportation to take to public markets and shopping malls. Relatives were always coming in and out of the house, checking on each other and just keeping each other company.” (pp.19-20)
3. “I didn’t understand what was happening. I only knew that whatever it was that she was feeling, I could feel it too. I began to cry, releasing a deep sorrowful, soulful sound that gave me the chills and made the hairs on the back of my arms stand. It was a sound brought over from another place and time, where people longed and suffered and worshipped and rejoiced.” (p.68)
2. “Do you see the hairs on the back of my arm standing? Oh I am so cold. That means there is a ghost nearby. I will get my rosary and pray to my Santo Niño to protect me before I sleep. Barree, barree, barree. That is what I say to keep the evil spirits away. Are you not afraid? There are spirits all around you. That is why I always keep my statues of the Santo Niño and the Virgin Mary close to my bed as I sleep. Without them, I dream that so many evil spirits are circling around me. Do not laugh. You must learn to believe.” (p.33)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “I filled bowls with cherry tomatoes from the garden and sat under the sun dipping the small fruits into a little heap of salt and savoring the mix of flavors. Grandma Fausta hung clothes from a line of rope she had strung from the house to the fence, once again ignoring the washer and dryer in the laundry room. I sat under freshly washed clothes, looking up at the white sheets flapping in the warm breeze and taking in the scent of the season. I love summer vacation.” (p.22)
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’ve been having flashes of my father. I wonder if it’s because I’m reading this memoir or because this month is the anniversary of his passing nearly two decades ago. My earliest memories are of him carrying me, at four years old, in his arms. He smelled of pomade and Old Spice. My father would have his Navy buddies come over to our small apartment in France and sit around the kitchen table. I listened to them banter back and forth, the staccato rhythm of their Tagalog often interrupted by bursts of laughter. I’d laugh too, not because I understood anything they said, but because the sound of my father’s laugh was contagious.
“Poblete transports me back to my childhood. Through her humorous and honest reflections, she convincingly captures the voice and character of a child growing up in a Filipino-American household. I enjoy all the generational voices that come out in the memoir, from the grandparents to parents to the narrator herself. They are distinct from each other and yet quintessential of the Filipino culture.”
“Grandma Patricia is a delightful bundle of contradictions. Along with being quite superstitious, she’s a devout Catholic and passes out condoms in her village. She is the grandmother I imagine I would have had, not just because of her liberal ideas on contraception, but because my father also believed in the spirit world. He believed our deceased relatives watch over and protect living loved ones, often conversing with us while we sleep. My father sometimes mentioned offhandedly that his mother, sister or brother had visited him the night before in his dreams. Now he visits me in mine.”
“Today I planted a few seeds from a bok choy plant I’d grown in the spring. Rather than harvesting the entire plant, I’d cut its wrinkled, deep forest green leaves and let its stalks flower and seed. I sat back in my chair after the seeds were planted and watered. It’s been a few months since I last dug my hands into dark chocolate colored soil. I’d almost forgotten how much I love playing in the dirt. A pair of black birds, who have a nest nearby, chase a jaybird who seems to revel taking chunks out of my young pears, just now beginning to form on gnarled branches. It is my sister who has inherited my father’s talent for gardening. I hope that some of it has rubbed off on me. For now, I imagine my father sitting beside me as we watch over my garden together.”
“Each of the Oracles has their annoying yet endearing qualities, which Poblete renders with heart and humor. I catch myself laughing aloud while on my bus ride to work as I read about their trip to Reno, which is a contrast to my childhood experience of the city. My mother could spend hours on the slot machines, and back then, they were hand cranked. My father preferred blackjack. He figured it gave him a greater chance of winning. I wonder if he liked it because sitting at a table with other players was more sociable. Or maybe there was a sense of control, feeling the stiff waxy card in his hand and making the decision to hit or stay. When I’d asked how he did, somehow he always broke even. Now I know where I got my fondness for fiction (who breaks even when gambling?).
“There’s definitely a story or two about my father’s life somewhere inside me. Maybe about him as a child with his brother making it up the mountains on foot to escape their Japanese occupiers, or about his travels around the world as a cook on a Navy aircraft carrier, or about the medals he was awarded after the Korean war which he kept in a small wooden box. Yet when I think about writing his stories, it becomes clear how much I didn’t know him. My sister and I put our impressions together like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. I imagine, over the years, our cobbled version of my father has become more creative, funnier, and nobler than the actual man that he was. Perhaps that’s why I’d have to write his stories as fiction.”
“While I read about Poblete’s reunion with her Grandma Fausta, I find myself getting choked up as if Grandma Fausta had been my lola. Maybe these tears aren’t for her grandmother but for mine, whom I never knew. I’d like to believe mine was a hybrid of Grandma Fausta—the constant gardener pruning and shaping young Poblete, and Grandma Patricia—the keeper of the dark and mysterious, rich conditions in which a young girl could grow.
“A friend of mine recently gave me some calamansi seeds. The calamansi is a native tree of the Phillippines. Its citrus fruit is similar to limes except more sour. My father would use them in his cooking. The seeds are fat and round, like cream-colored capers. As I drop each seed gently into the dark, moist soil, I remember my father planting the fruit trees in our backyard. I wonder what he’d think of my orange, lemon and pear trees. They were here before I bought the house, and I imagine, will be here long after I’ve gone. If all goes well, I’ll have calamansi seedlings by next month. I’d like to give one to my sister as a way to commemorate his life rather than mourn his death.”
“As I near the end of The Oracles, I have to stop. On my bus ride home from work, I start feeling the rise of tears. I quickly wipe off a couple that manage to escape so my neighbor won’t see. Thankfully his nose is buried in his smart phone. It’s just too soon for my relationships with the Oracles to end. I haven’t had enough of Grandma Fausta hanging linen in the back yard and cooking dinengden and kare kare in the kitchen. I want more of Grandpa Sunday rocking out to George Strait on his Walkman, of Grandma Patricia practicing her Filipino black magic and of Grandpa Paterno offering up his funny stories and sage advice.
“Like me, Poblete is from the Bay Area, and although I may be a few years older than her, there is a familiarity in Poblete’s childhood experiences, which is perhaps universal among immigrant families. She dramatizes, with humor and honesty, the cultural schisms that often occur within the immigrant family and between generations. It’s been such a pleasure inhabiting the world of the narrator, who is funny, self-deprecating and makes me wish I’d grown up in her family. Poblete’s memoir is like a savory slice of biko, the Filipino rice cake. It’s sweet, sticky and a little nutty.”