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  • Writer's pictureMarías at Sampaguitas

Review by Noreen Ocampo

Elsa Valmidiano’s debut essay collection We Are No Longer Babaylan (New Rivers Press, 2020) seamlessly interweaves the family and the self, loss and healing, love and not-love in a candid exploration of the Filipina American experience. Throughout the collection’s nine parts, Valmidiano unveils the persistence of old wounds and memories, which together form a haunting undercurrent as her body of work pushes toward a place of healing. Set to release on November 1st, 2020, We Are No Longer Babaylan juxtaposes what was with what is while imbuing all that hurts with a resilient tenderness. Finish Filipinx American History Month on a strong note and show Elsa Valmidiano your support!

Because I’d like readers to experience the potency of this collection for themselves and without my preface, this review will focus primarily on the first part of We Are No Longer Babaylan. The opening of the collection immediately enraptured me; Valmidiano writes in the second person, speaking directly to her readers and transporting us into her work and childhood memory, which, for me, reawakened a host of neglected emotions in the remembering of what was and no longer is. Valmidiano then brings us to upstate New York, where “you” begin to cope with a new loss. As Valmidiano guides us back and forth through time and space, an undeniable longing saturates her prose while she grapples with the complex nature of family bonds and the waning of precious rituals and traditions. These themes and powerful longing are so intricate yet so universal and are just a few of the reasons that I believe this collection would grant an unforgettably moving experience to any reader, regardless of whether or not they are Filipinx.

At the same time, We Are No Longer Babaylan is undoubtedly centered on the Filipina American experience. As I have become more acquainted with work by fellow Filipinx writers and artists, I have learned the unparalleled feeling of being “seen” by someone through my connection with their work. However, I can say with full confidence that We Are No Longer Babaylan connected with me in a way that I have yet to experience — so intimately that I was stunned. Between her early portraits of loss and betrayal all written in such an immersive style, Valmidiano not only ensures that her words will find a permanent home with her readers but also encourages us to think deeply about our personal experiences and find where the hurt persists in our own lives. (While I wholeheartedly recommend We Are No Longer Babaylan, I do want to mention the content warnings of death and sexual assault.)

Valmidiano’s prose later transitions into the first person point of view, and the collection remains as poignant as ever as she expands her exploration of ancestry, spirituality, identity, friendship, the motherland — and all the ways in which these ideas intersect and circle back to each other in unending cycles. Despite the emphasis on the unrelenting nature of painful emotions and memories, We Are No Longer Babaylan celebrates resilience in a way that never oversimplifies struggle or the wounds and scars left behind. In Valmidiano’s words, “Fortunately, there was a resurrection. Not in three days’ time. But in time.”

Noreen Ocampo (she/her) is a Filipina American writer and poet based in metro-Atlanta. She studies English, film, and media at Emory University and currently writes for COUNTERCLOCK and {m}aganda magazine. She is also a regular contributor for Marías at Sampaguitas. Say hi on Twitter @maybenoreen!

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