- Jose Garcia Villa’s Collection of “Others”: Irreconcilabilities of a Queer Transpacific Modernism
In 1933, Charles Scribner’s Sons—already known for producing novels by Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway— became the first major US press to publish a Filipino-authored collection of fiction, Jose Garcia Villa’s Footnote to Youth: Tales of the Philippines and Others, a curious hodgepodge of twenty short stories set in the Philippines and the United States. The work’s subtitle emphasizes its contents as resistant to characterization. The bulk of the collection is comprised of twelve topographies of Philippine life and culture. These stories enumerate the regional details of Filipino and Filipina agricultural workers and their families, revise Philippine folktales, or allude to a nationalist literary heritage. The other eight tales, interspersed between the tales of the Philippines, are radically different in form and content. Their classification in the subtitle as “Others” highlights their variation from the Philippine texts: most feature stream-of-consciousness narration or experimental form, with six stories set in the US and two that have no geographic markers. Four of the eight “Others” are numbered, prose poems that collapse chronology and location and meditate on the potential of queer Filipino [End Page 11] masculinity, seemingly available only within the US. With these oppositions, Footnote to Youth presents tempting possibilities for those who might read Villa’s project as containing the Philippines within pre-modern literary and erotic forms, and celebrating the US as a site for a Filipino writer’s modernist liberation.
One such reader was Edward J. O’Brien, founding editor of the Best American Short Stories anthologies, who positioned Footnote to Youth as nothing less than a literary landmark. In an introduction that attempts to reconcile the collection’s tensions, O’Brien scripts a transpacific success story, a narrative of a Filipino immigrant’s aesthetic and implicitly sexual progress. With the rhetorical flourishes of a munificent patron, O’Brien proclaims the collection a “substantial achievement” that “places [Villa] among the half-dozen short story writers in America who count” (5). He casts Villa as a wide-eyed, newly-awakened innocent whose arrival in New Mexico from the “lush, tropical background” (3) of a “totally unrelated civilization” (5) catalyzed a “native sensuousness of perception and expression” (4). For O’Brien, Villa’s new style is influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s work and a Philippine literary heritage that draws on the Spanish short story’s “passionate feeling.”1 Villa’s “innocence of eye” and “virginal approach” to a new American life triumphantly unites US and Philippine literary traditions: “In Mr. Villa’s short stories two widely different cultures meet, and it is interesting to observe the literary result of their successful fusion” (3).
While O’Brien’s introduction is clearly motivated by his desire to promote a new Filipino writer to an unfamiliar US audience, his assessment of Villa’s stories as a “successful fusion” obscures the collection’s most noticeable feature. Villa is certainly interested in the effects of Philippine-US contact, but the fictional products of these intersections are strikingly—even maddeningly—disparate and worth illustrating at some length for their visible contrasts. The eponymous story in Villa’s collection opens languorously with a farmer, Dodong, who meditates on the prospect of telling his father about his desire to marry his sweetheart, Teang:
The sun was salmon and hazy in the west. Dodong thought to himself he would tell his father about Teang when he got home, after he had unhitched the carabao from the plow and led it to its shed and fed it. He was hesitant about saying it, but he wanted his father to know. . . . His father was a silent hard-working farmer who chewed areca nut, which he had learned to do from his mother, Dodong’s grandmother.(“Footnote” 9) [End Page 12]
With such detailed descriptions of landscape, people, animals, and products distinct to the Philippines, the collection begins with the attention to “native” particulars praised by O’Brien (4). The silent, hard-working farmer struggles to express himself, and the narrative of marriage and family is a normative form that, like the father’s preference for...