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Bacolod City, Philippines Monday, July 23, 2012
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The Good Life
with Eli F.J. Tajanlangit

Mothers, daughters and sisters

The Good Life
with Eli F.J. Tajanlangit

It is one of those rare literary works of a Filipino that one can say has “made” it in the international reading circuit in this generation, one that at once engages critics as well as ordinary readers.

In fact, Arlene J. Chai’s “The Last Time I Saw Mother”, has not only gotten published by Ballantine Books, it has also drawn praise from such prestigious book reviewers as those of The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe.

Using the same mother-and-daughter-with-ethnic-roots theme upon which the writing careers of Amy Tan [The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, etc], Adeline Yeo Mah [Fallen Leaves] and Lisa See [The Shanghai Girls] were built, Chai tells the story of Filipino mothers, daughters and sisters spanning three generations.

Like the books of Tan, Mah and See, that told mother-daughter stories against the upheavals in China and often the principal characters’ migration to the United States, Chai sets her own story against the history of the Philippines.

Ironically, from a Pinoy perspective – well, at least to me – the historical background does not interest much, in fact, they sound redundant to me, who knows most of these facts.

This, I think, is also what weakened in the Pinoy market another internationally-acclaimed book written by a Filipino. Hailed as a literary accomplishment abroad, Miguel Syjuco’s “Illustrado” is hobbled by the fictionalization of Filipino historical figures that came off as uncomfortably familiar.

But I guess, in much the same way that we found the works of those Chinese-American writers engaging, largely because of the novelty of the things they write about, people around the world must find Syjuco and Chai’s books charming at the very least.

Chai’s book, says Tan in her introduction, is a “remarkable first novel filled with family secrets and the intersection of personal and world histories…” The New York Times notes that Chai’s book provides rare insight into the three cultures – Spanish, Chinese and Filipino – that co-exist in the Philippines”.

“The Last Time…” basically is the story of Caridad, and how she was adopted by a rich aunt. It is really a simple, thin plot, but with lyrical prose and stunning narrative and structure, it develops into a sweeping story of epical proportions.

While telling the story of Caridad’s adoption, the book also tells the story of the Philippines from the period shortly before the war to the presidency of Cory Aquino.

Like Tan, Mah, See and Syjuco, Chai tells us how historical forces beyond people’s control, in fact, directly affect them as well, turning their stories into little pieces of one giant jigsaw puzzle.

She underscores this by the fact that none of her characters are newsmakers on their own. They are ordinary people, like you and me, and do not even merit a footnote in history. They live, and love, and some of them die, at various points of our country’s history without impacting on the course of history and yet taken together, they are history.

And written with erudition and plenty of heart, their story comes alive through the pages of this book to teach us many lessons, among which is how, amid the inexorable march of time and history, each one of us has, in fact, the choice on which way to go.*

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