TOUGH AND TENDER FIL-AM STORIES

MANILA, February 21, 2004 (STAR) By Alfred A. Yuson - Rodney Dakita Garcia moved to the USA in 1971, when he was 16. The bio note in his recently released first book, a collection of stories, says he "played guitar in a pub to help pay his way through school." He became a lawyer, while also earning his spurs as a musician, poet and writer. His two-act musical Hacienda has been staged in the Washington DC area. He lives in Maryland with his family.

Rodney came home for a brief visit last Christmas. It was unfortunate that we didn’t get to meet. I knew him to have composed the songs featured in my own three-act play, Luto, Linis, Laba, which had a couple of reportedly successful runs last year in the same tri-state area. Our former PETA colleague, the playwright-director Reme Grefalda, mounted the production by whipping up a cast of Fil-Am amateurs, while also drawing Rodney in for the songs.

Grefalda also published an on-line version of one of Garcia’s short stories, "Swimsuit Edition," in the Spring 2003 issue of Our Own Voice , the literary e-zine which she helps edit. That story is joined by six others in Garcia’s first book, The Right Place and Other Stories (PublishAmerica/Baltimore, 2003).

Also last December, Ed Maranan from London e-mailed an alert over the glowing if mostly word-of-mouth reviews being earned by Garcia’s book.

"Herminia Smith of the Philippine Arts and Letters Media hails the book as ‘a luminous literary achievement.’ She goes on to laud Garcia as ‘a gifted and a masterful storyteller with a remarkable range of style. Whether he is narrating in a macho-like voice… the story of a Manila Mafia, or being campy, contemporary… or being pensive, poetic, philosophical and stoic in a love story that does not quite end happily ever after, Garcia’s writing has a gracefully natural cadence and recognizable realism, with startling revelations. Not only Filipino Americans would enjoy this book… (Readers) of any nationality will find a connection and commonality in the stories that touch on timeless and universal themes.’"

The Philippine Embassy in Washington DC hosted the book’s launch on Oct. 30, 2003, with readings by NBC 4 news anchor Mil Arcega and Thompson Publishing Group editor Joe Lustig, as well as a story dramatization by the theater group QBD, Ink headed by Grefalda.

"I had no agent for this book, but it was accepted by the first and only publisher I sent it to," recounts Garcia. "I’m trying to finish a new manuscript for the Maui Writers Conference next August because Tess Holthe (the celebrated Fil-Am author of When The Elephants Dance) suggested that would be the best way to meet agents and publishers."

Last month Rodney made good on his e-mailed promise to send over a copy. And not because I owe him one for that, nor for his musical collaboration in my play, now that I’ve gone through it I will have to agree with the early raves, that this first book makes for quite a delightful read.

He’s a natural storyteller all right, making great capital of his homeland recollections, mostly urban, while succeeding in juxtaposing these with the transplant’s Americanizing travails.

The tough guy in the Philippines tries to turn a new leaf, but soon learns to get even tougher in his new arena, where racist cops, young Pinoy hoods, blue-eyed blondes and suicidal bombers pose a bewildering, but also exhilarating, variety of challenges.

The first story had me eating out of the author’s craft-wise, tough-tender hand. A quirky father-son relationship is essayed in an appropriately contrapuntal manner, edging sideways and back between exposition and effective dialogue, while serving up lyrical accents by way of the father’s central consciousness.

Devotion to his teen-aged son couldn’t stop "Pasig Boy," a town toughie of ill temper and rough ways, from serving him up with an eye patch after a beating "back home." Now he makes up for it with equal parts diligence and over-protectiveness, even as he tries to make good in South San Francisco, while yet "unsure, troubled by talk of earthquakes, of gangs, of dense shoreline fog, and of failure."

Now aging, the father who doesn’t want to be called Pops but Papa does double shifts in a burger place, where he eventually finds himself confronting his old demons.

"Joseph grips the iron skillet, ambles around the counter, not feeling his knee anymore. He approaches the gang and realizes how small he is compared to them. He smiles at the huge boys. Then he feels like there is a doorway opening and a moment stands right there in front of him, in his face, sneering and fleering, inches away. He is ready to bust that moment open, and scatter its guts onto the food on the table, never to be stitched back."

The ending is riveting and memorable, an escalation of tough-tender, heart-pounding but vaporous images limning dazed resolve, which in turn defines a father’s faith in beating the odds even when all the imagined fears have apparently joined together.

Without doubt, it is the most literarily accomplished of the seven stories in the collection. In a few there may be an over-reliance on dialogue, so that it becomes too serviceable in filling up the backdrop or even advancing the exposition. But they are all good and fast reads, because Garcia’s prose rhythm and cadence serve notice too of realism that is not stark but well-nigh authentic.

All of the stories end with gentle surprises. Or even when it’s expected, the closure still manages to take an offbeat turn.

The title story is particularly haunting for its climax, which pulls out a TNT from his safe haven of a church and sends him inexorably in pursuit of a woman he just met, into a mythic river, right in the foreign city he wants to save because he is a good man who "fixes things." The ephemeral but condensed love angle may be said to be rather contrived, however.

A glossary of terms and places is found at the end of the collection, explaining Pinoyese from balisong to pasyal, masarap to adobo frog legs… ("Daly City, south of San Francisco, has been called ‘Adobo City’ because it is said that in the evening, one can smell the aroma of the dish even driving through Highway 280.")

One wonders why the body text has to have Philippine place names in italics, however, while "barong" avoids being part of that leaning gauntlet. And an assiduous Pinoy editor could have prevented such misspellings as "Kainta," "jurementado" and "minah" (Cainta, juramentado, mynah).

Still and all, this is a fine literary debut for Rodney Dakita Garcia. The Right Place and Other Stories certainly bolsters the notion that the future of Philippine literature in English may depend in large part on the produce of our Fil-Am siblings.

Especially for first-generation immigrants, their wrenching, toughening and eventually enlightening experience of growing up in an adopted country often translates into excellent material for literature.

Essential too are the quality of articulation and the astute choice of literary attack to transform that material into fine reading. Rodney Dakita Garcia has it in him. I wish him luck and more power in his future fiction. All too obviously, he has the voice and the memory to gratify us all.

The book is available at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble stores in the USA. Or you can visit www.rodshacienda.com to read more about this auspicious first effort.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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