Category Archives: Postcolonial Literature

The Umbrella Country by Bino A. Realuyo

Synopsis from

The Umbrella Country by Bino Realuyo“Certain things are better kept than said. . . .
But certain things you have to find out now. . . .”

On the tumultuous streets of Manila, where the earth is as brown as a tamarind leaf and the pungent smells of vinegar and mashed peppers fill the air, where seasons shift between scorching sun and torrential rain, eleven-year-old Gringo strives to make sense of his family and a world that is growing increasingly harsher before his young eyes.

There is Gringo’s older brother, Pipo, wise beyond his years, a flamboyant, defiant youth and the three-time winner of the sequined Miss Unibers contest; Daddy Groovie, whiling away his days with other hang-about men, out of work and wilting like a guava, clinging to the hope of someday joining his sister in Nuyork; Gringo’s mother, Estrella, moving through their ramshackle home, holding her emotions tight as a fist, which she often clenches in anger after curfew covers the neighborhood in a burst of dark; and Ninang Rola, wise godmother of words, who confides in Gringo a shocking secret from the past–and sets the stage for the profound events to come, in which no one will remain untouched by the jagged pieces of a shattered dream.

As Gringo learns; shame is passed down through generations, but so is the life-changing power of blood ties and enduring love.

In this lush, richly poetic novel of grinding hardship and resilient triumph, of selfless sacrifice and searing revelation, Bino A. Realuyo brings the teeming world of 1970s brilliantly to life. While mapping a young boy’s awakening to adulthood in dazzling often unexpected ways, The Umbrella Country subtly works sweet magic.

There is a tendency among expatriates to romanticize their homeland; I certainly understand such an impulse, being of the Filipino diaspora myself. Bino Realuyo does exactly this in and attempts to exorcise his past and his origins. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing; the expatriate experience is rich, ever-evolving, and certainly deserves to be chronicled. However, it may be that more time needs to pass before the author can deliver his ideas in a more cohesive way.

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Monkey Bridge by Lan Cao

Synopsis, courtesy of

Monkey Bridge by Lan CaoHailed by critics and writers as powerful, important fiction, Monkey Bridge charts the unmapped territory of the Vietnamese American experience in the aftermath of war. Like navigating a monkey bridge–a bridge, built of spindly bamboo, used by peasants for centuries–the narrative traverses perilously between worlds past and present, East and West, in telling two interlocking stories: one, the Vietnamese version of the classic immigrant experience in America, told by a young girl; and the second, a dark tale of betrayal, political intrigue, family secrets, and revenge–her mother’s tale. The haunting and beautiful terrain of Monkey Bridge is the “luminous motion,” as it is called in Vietnamese myth and legend, between generations, encompassing Vietnamese lore, history, and dreams of the past as well as of the future. “With incredible lightness, balance and elegance,” writes Isabel Allende, “[Lan Cao crosses] over an abyss of pain, loss, separation and exile, connecting on one level the opposite realities of Vietnam and North America, and on a deeper level the realities of the material world and the world of the spirits.”

Monkey Bridge is the story of Mai and Thanh, recent immigrants to America from Vietnam. Through the kindness of Uncle Michael, an American GI and family friend, Mai was able to leave before the fall of Saigon; her mother, Thanh, followed through the American airlift shortly after. The novel highlights the struggle for Mai and her mother to assimilate in America. For Mai, the struggle is not too difficult. Within a few months, she has learned to appreciate America’s shopping malls, has gotten used to the chill of Virginia, and speaks American English without a Vietnamese accent. For Thanh, the adjustment is more challenging. In Vietnam, Thanh’s French convent school education gave her fluency in French and a love for the French classics. In America, she is just another immigrant who spoke no English.

In their effort to assimilate, Mai and her mother have ignored the riddle that continues to prey on their minds: on the day that her mother was airlifted out of Saigon, Mai’s grandfather, Baba Quan, was left behind. Mai is confused by her mother’s alternating grief for and seeming indifference to Baba Quan. When Thanh suffers a stroke, Mai hears her call out for Baba Quan. This incident sparks Mai’s resolve to find her grandfather, because she believes Baba Quan is the only person who can ease Thanh’s disquiet.

Lan Cao has clearly written an autobiographical novel. In the book’s jacket, the author is described as having left Vietnam in 1975. The photo, naturally, is the requisite black and white. Lan Cao is wearing black, standing against a stark background with her arms folded, unsmiling. Clearly, this is a very serious book about a very serious subject from a very serious writer.

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Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of

Once Were Warriors by Alan DuffOnce Were Warriors is Alan Duff’s harrowing vision of his country’s indigenous people two hundred years after the English conquest. In prose that is both raw and compelling, it tells the story of Beth Heke, a Maori woman struggling to keep her family from falling apart, despite the squalor and violence of the housing projects in which they live. Conveying both the rich textures of Maori tradition and the wounds left by its absence, Once Were Warriors is a masterpiece of unblinking realism, irresistible energy, and great sorrow.

Reading this book was such a colossal chore, which is why I didn’t finish it. Don’t quote me but I believe F. Scott Fitzgerald once dismissed Jack Kerouac’s novels as an example of “typing, not writing.” I believe the same sentiment applies here.

Once Were Warriors focuses on the Hekes, a Maori family living (if it can be called that) in the slum of Pine Block; the Hekes’ home is directly adjacent to the palatial mansion of the pakeha (meaning white, and therefore much loathed, apparently) Tramberts. Way to kick a brother when he’s down, right? Beth and Jake are both too drunk and disillusioned to care much for their kids: Nig, who has joined the local gang; Boogie, who was sentenced to a juvenile correctional facility (his parents were unable to attend the sentencing as they were both too hungover and Jake had beaten beth to a pulp the night before); and Grace, who is the fragile, sensitive girl and, in keeping with Alan Duff’s cliched characterizations, is doomed by her situation.

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Filed under Debuts, Film Adaptations, Postcolonial Literature, Postmodern Literature