Review by Dina Klarisse
Navigating Ancient Pain and the Routes Back Home in We Are No Longer Babaylan
In We Are No Longer Babaylan, Elsa Valmidiano explores through short stories and essays the collected and fragmented experience of being a Filipina American. Her voice is lyrical and gentle at times, unyielding and scorching at others, as she guides the reader through wounds both scarred and new, juxtaposing the oral traditions of her babaylan ancestors against reflections on the modern Filipina American experience.
Perhaps the greatest hold Valmidiano has on the reader is through collective memory and experience. From the opening story, “Wait,” the narrator chronicles her grandfather’s passing and the way her family processes grief and loss. In many cultures, death and its rituals act as anchor for families to return to one another. As the narrator’s own family circles around their lost loved one, she contemplates rituals and behaviors that are all too familiar within the Fil-Am experience: family crowding in hospital rooms with no regard to visitation hours or visitor limits, the frequency of funerals of distant relatives or friends of friends of friends, and, one of the most common and pernicious ideals in Filipino family hierarchies: utang na loob. Amidst the chaos and dysfunction that is the extended Filipino family, the narrator dissects utang na loob, a concept difficult to fully translate. As a direct translation it would be “debt of the inside,” as it pertains to a debt of gratitude that is so deeply rooted that it has attached itself to one’s soul. It is an indefinite promise of one’s loyalty and subjugation to their loaner, a reminder that all of our actions are intertwined and can be, must be, traced back to identify what we owe and what is owed to us. From the simple idea of loans and repaying them, utang sounds benign, but when considering the hierarchy that exists in diasporic Filipino communities it can seep into relationships and the way we love. Utang na loob alters the way we see ourselves because we are constantly looking up at who is owed, who we must pay gratitude to for things we may not understand or may have inherited, just as we inherit facial features and trauma. The narrator takes this bitterness of inherited utang na loob while allowing the reader to understand and feel the contradiction of loving one’s family and culture while acknowledging the toxicity that may exist in archaic beliefs and practices.
The narrator continues these revisits to her history and culture through specific memories, resulting in a spiral effect in which the reader meets and revisits the ghosts and spirits of her past.
The babaylan manifests in Filipina American women and how they have learned and unlearned to navigate the waters between their ancestors’ mother country and the adopted land of their family. The narrator speaks of her personal struggles in toxic relationships, weaving together the trauma of caring and nurturing with reflections on the lost and forgotten power of the babaylan. “The babaylan is always thought to be ancient, but she’s still here in our complex society. Anyone can be a babaylan. We have just forgotten, swallowed by the stresses of our lives.” Within the stresses of her own relationships, the narrator ruminates on the power of her ancestors and how they have been lost and watered down through centuries of colonization and forced assimilation. Ancient pain is a constant theme throughout the book, a common thread connecting the narrator to her sister Pinays and Pinxys that despite the wear of time and space has persevered to exist but continues to fade as we drift further from the place we come from.
But there is hope. And hope coexists with ancient pain through Valdimidiano’s essays as she narrates her return to forge old and new connections to her family and culture, as well as the women of the Philippines. The discussion of reproductive health and rights comes up as an important issue in two stories, “Mommy’s Two Bellybuttons” and “Down the Rabbit Hole.” In these, and through close female relationships, the narrator is Alice falling down the rabbit hole of the Filipina and Filipina American experience. In “Mommy’s Two Bellybuttons,” she reflects on the unfair burden that is placed on women to be chaste, the ideas of family planning and choice intermingling and pushing against one another like constantly revolving magnets. Against the backdrop of a nation colonized and indoctrinated into Western, Catholic values, these two issues are pulled together and repulsed in a perpetual waltz of wanting to adhere to the values of one’s community and culture (no matter how much of it is from colonizers and oppressors) and striving for personal and sexual freedom. In “Down the Rabbit Hole,” we also explore the theme of self-insertion and self-centering when it comes to first-generation Filipina Americans as they explore their mother tongues and cultures. Throughout the collection, the narrator has noted her privilege and luck when comparing her experience to family and acquaintances that live in the motherland, but she is also honest about the things of which she is ignorant. In “Down the Rabbit Hole,” the narrator reconnects with a mysterious cousin who seems to elude her as she battles her own personal demons and experience of being a woman in the Philippines. Through the window of reproductive rights and the lack thereof, the narrator finds herself spiraling into the familiar but strange world of her mother country, to which she remains perpetually tethered through ancient blood and ancient memory.
Through her sharp, deep-cut dissections of the Filipino family and the Filipina American experience, Valmidiano reaches through the pages into the reader’s soul, grasping to the roots and channels that tether us to one another and the land of our ancestors. As a Filipina American immigrant myself, I was all too familiar with her stories, searching with the narrator for that route back to our lost motherland, sensing the kinship and separation from a person who looks like me but has not had the same opportunities, and navigating the push and pull of guilt, gratitude, and indebtedness. It is through these ancient lines that we remember and return.
Dina Klarisse (she/her) is a writer and poet living in the Bay Area. She uses words to explore/try to make sense of her experience as a queer Filipina American immigrant and recovering Catholic, as well as her interest in the intersections of history, language, culture, and identity. Her work has been published in ASU’s Canyon Voices, The Daily Drunk Mag, Chopsticks Alley, Kalopsia Literary Journal, and Emerging Arts Professionals SFBA. More of her writing can be found on her Instagram @hella_going and blog www.hellagoing.com.