Flashes of Time in Charlson Ong’s Of That Other Country We Now Speak and Other Stories

Author: Charlson Ong

Reviewer: Tito Quiling

How often do side conversations and casual remarks plant the seed for a story? Perhaps, more frequently than we might think. Over time, one nurtures the seed as it grows into various incarnations and branches off into other territories. In the process, even fictional works can intertwine with the author’s experiences.

For Charlson Ong, whose brand of short fiction treads on the familiar landscape of the Chinese-Filipino identity, his characterization and choice of locales possess some personal inscriptions. Ong continues to underscore a recurring subject in his works, as characters bearing this particular hyphenated identity has been consistently represented through specific depictions of their lifestyle, from witnessing people who honor traditions in the spheres of the community and the household, to the stark presence of crimson and gold in communal spaces, reading birth names in pinyin and the occasional banter between people peppered with Mandarin, Fukien, and English.

Whether it’s taking on a comical stance in the form of characters stiff arming each other over a decision or tramping on a serious tone when strangers unexpectedly walk into a common ground, Ong sparingly reviews how pigeonholed images and stereotypical representations of the Chinese-Filipino in the present time can be looked at in a different light by being more than being lucrative business owners, parents with stringent rules and offspring who have little experiences with financial struggles. The Tsinoys in Ong’s narratives are members of the working class whose day jobs and living conditions depart from their stereotypical attributes. We see his characters as poets, yogi, and educators, troubled tenants in compound apartments, young couples in commuter buses, confused clients conversing with a lethargic veterinarian, middle-aged siblings who are seemingly unperturbed by their waning savings, from investigators with a shadowy encounter as a boy to a province-bred lad returning to his childhood hometown.

The stories in the collection do not follow a singular theme. In this line, not every story delves into the Tsinoy persona exclusively. However, in each of the narratives, there is at least one component that leads into related confessions. Stories take place in well-known areas: from getting a glimpse of the mixed-use houses in Binondo to reminiscing vanished images of the once genteel corner of Malate, all the way to a summer home in chilly Tagaytay—all of which express parallel memories carried by its denizens and visitors. In some instances, narratives flow into another through the occurrence of personal, metaphorical beams and actual sources of light. In a similar vein, the presence of water in the forms of an impending downpour and the sea, which projects an ominous atmosphere, subsequently become objects in focus.

Looking at the characters, quite a few of them delve into recollections that comprise the bulk of the story, marking the narratives with an intimate trace. In this vein, the reader gets a sense of being an observer in the middle of someone’s confession: listening an outpour of secrets and imagined lives. In light of clandestine participation or direct involvement, there are particular characters whose presence seems to change accordingly. For instance, a female name appears in at least three (3) of the stories, taking on various identities—both as a significant voice and as a background.
With time as a primary element in Ong’s work, the purpose of these stories is to become a record of the past, echoing the temper of the times. The strengths of this work can be found in the titular story, which refers to various time periods. Through detailing how familial secrets significantly affect the present and looking at the members of a family relating to their community, a legend pertaining to a dragon and a poet acts as the bookend. In moments where silences pervade the situation, the characters continue to communicate through their movements. Ong’s selection of works in the book cuts across different time periods, as the accounts unfold in a sprawling manner rather than in a chronological order. Following this orientation, the arrangement allows the stories to build themselves in terms of intensity despite the lack of a common thread.

The short fictions in Ong’s latest collection were selected from over two (2) decades of work. These stories have previously been printed in The Philippines Free Press and Philippine Graphic while a number of them were also anthologized in Crime Scene, Vol. 1, The Likhaan Anthology of Philippine Literature in English, and The Likhaan Book of Poetry and Fiction. Ong admits that he took a break in writing short stories for some time, immersing himself in penning novels. In this line, the assemblage of 11 short stories intends to somehow illustrate the changes in his writing, as he continues to compose narratives that revisit one’s identity, recount history, as well as concretizing shared and personal moments that have come and gone.

Reading fiction entails having the fine distinction between what is real and what is imagined, be misconstrued. But at times, fictional works bear more truth than our own realities. This leads us to question whether the goings-on in a work are purely fiction or is in fact, a reflection of one’s aspirations. In a video interview conducted by the University of the Philippines Press, Ong shares that he hopes that more Filipino authors are read by a wider audience. In this time where social media has stronger footing in propagating news and the preferred mode in exchanging stories, it takes a considerable portion of one’s concentration to truly read and understand the printed word in order to foster the imagination and to build a sense of discernment. For any reader, being able to humbly comprehend what’s printed on the page is essential and Ong’s book anchors on its pronounced readability. On another note, for those who are not particularly familiar with Ong’s body of work, it is advantageous to be introduced to his short fiction as it gives one a glimpse of the stimulating personalities of the Chinese-Filipino, Philippine society and history, as well as the multi-faceted features of the city and beyond.

Charlson Ong has won several Palanca awards for his short stories along with a number of Philippine Free Press Literary Awards for his fiction, citations from the Philippine Graphic, Asiaweek, and a Dr. Jose P. Rizal Award for Excellence. His collections include: Men of the East and Other Stories (1990, reprint 1999, UP), Woman of Am-Kaw and Other Stories (1993, Anvil), Conversion and Other Fictions (1996, Anvil), and A Tropical Winter’s Tale and Other Stories (2003, UP). His novels come with merits such as the Centennial Literary Prize for Embarrassment of Riches (2002, UP) and a National Book Award for Banyaga: A Song of War (2007, Anvil). Prior to launching his latest novel, there was Blue Angel, White Shadow (2010, UST). Of That Other Country We Now Speak and Other Stories (2016) is Charlson Ong’s most recent short story collection, published by the University of the Philippines Press.

Note: Additional information about the author and the aforementioned book was collected from a video interview conducted by the University of the Philippines Press (released in August 2016).

Tito R. Quiling, Jr.
August 2016