KASAMA Vol. 13 No. 4 / October-November-December 1999 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

a collection of short stories by

Reviewed by Dee Dicen Hunt

Merlinda Bobis is a superb storyteller. She can take you into the precious intimacies of her characters with such ease that you are left breathless by the rhythm, the motion, the prevailing currents with which you've entered the mood of the tale. Like the old woman in the title story of this collection who sings her chant and calls up the white turtle from the sea to join the guests of a writers festival in Sydney, Merlinda keeps alive the Filipino storytelling tradition.

White Turtle is a collection of 23 short stories written with an artist's eye for the significant detail. Each one is a gem, smooth as a stone washed by running waters; each one has its unique shape, taste, aroma, colour, tone, texture. Like the old woman, Merlinda reaches out to you, so you can know other beings that have their place alongside all of us.

It was an unusual creature even then; it had a most important task. It bore on its back the dreams of Iraya's dead children as it dived to the navel of the sea. Here, it buried little girl and boy dreams that later sprouted into corals which were the colour of bones.

Fish-Hair Woman, also in this collection, is the core of Merlinda's current work-in-progress. It is to be her first novel - the story of a women who uses her 12 meter long hair to fish dead bodies out of the river.

I am a Filipina, tiny and dark as a coconut husk, but what red fires glint on my head!

In 1998 at the Brisbane Writer's Festival, Merlinda spoke of desire as: "heart-rendingly urgent and beautiful… our dignified, feeble attempt to circumvent our own mortality…"

"When we desire it is inevitably for something out there, something not quite here yet. Hence, desire is our means to extend this temporal moment… When I write about death and loss, I will my characters to outsmart this finiteness by desiring passionately and bonding more intimately.…

"Gana - this is the word for desire or appetite in my language. You have gana for food, sex, life; and all the time gana tries to outwit death. And if death is usually the result of armed conflict, as in war, then gana, or desire, might just be able to combat war. Ridiculous logic, perhaps.

"But what a gift it is to be able to resurrect the tongue in the midst of so much unspeakable violence. That is why sometimes for me writing visits like grace, writing is the un-petrifying of the tongue. The greatest gift of the writing process is the comfort, if not the joy of transformation. In an inspired moment anguish can be made bearable and injustice can be overturned because they can be named with words."

He owned the hacienda where my grandmother served as housemaid. They sent her away when she grew a melon under her skirt. Melons have their secret, too.

Merlinda Bobis is not just a skilled writer of social commentary, she is multi-talented; a performance artist, she reads, sings, dances her tales; in poetry, prose and drama she writes for you to read and sing along; she writes for others too, so you can hear their way of understanding the diversity and the common place of our many realities.

I am a fan of the short story format, as I ride the public transport system, and this book has been my companion for a while. I wish I could hang it on my wall, as it is a tapestry woven from the threads of our lives in countryside to city, from the Philippines to Australia, and back, and forth, again and again.

Gingered chicken in green papayas, smothered with coconut milk, never fails to keep the tongue moist long after the meal is over.


White Turtle
published in 1999 by
Spinifex Press
504 Queensberry Street,
North Melbourne VIC 3051
Phone: (03) 9329 6088 - Fax: (03) 9329 9238
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