Book clubs have recently had a revival as a popular pastime in Australia. Friends get together, a book and a date by which to read it are chosen, then you meet again to talk about it and decide upon the next venue, date and the next book. It’s easy, exciting, good fun. You can discover your friends’ reading tastes (without having to snoop along their library shelves), and you are moved out of the comfort zone of your favourite genre back to the place you were in as a student challenged by the set texts of a course of study.
The book club I’ve joined started up only four months ago. Ronald Wright’s “A Short History of Progress” and “The Secret River” by Kate Grenville, two quite different reading experiences, were the first to be digested. It’s been time well spent - reading a book I might not otherwise have chosen, meeting with others who like to read, eating together, food shared always tastes good, and talking - all delicious pleasures.
By the third book it was my turn to choose. I volunteered BANANA HEART SUMMER by Merlinda Bobis wondering what my friends would make of this, their first taste of a Filipino story by a Filipino writer. But not to worry, Merlinda makes it easy. Fluent in three languages and cultures, she knows how to guide you, the audience, while holding your hand ever so lightly across the multicultural bridge. She serves up a feast through your eyes that awakens all your senses, including memories you thought were long forgotten. There is no need for a glossary of unfamiliar words and concepts, there is no uncertainty of meaning in the universal tongue of empathy and passion, in a contextual metaphor we can all understand.
Banana Heart Summer is not just about hunger for food. Even if you have never starved for food - perhaps by circumstance there has always been an adequate provision for you - you might though have hungered for love.
Nenita, the main character, is looking back from her situation in the USA as a 40-year-old domestic helper in “the coldest winters” in Oregon, upon her childhood in the Philippines. She is the narrator of her story as a 12‑year-old in the 1960s, hungry for food and love, growing up in a village on the fringe of a provincial town, swinging restlessly in the summer heat to the music of Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline and the Beatles.
At one end of her street towers Mount Mayon, considered to be the most perfectly beautiful volcano in the country, and at the other end stands the church, symbol of Christian might. Nining, as she is endearingly called, explains: “…we lived between the volcano and the church, between two gods. The smoking peak and the soaring cross faced each other in a perpetual stand‑off, as if blocked for a duel.” And the people of Remedios Street? They too contend. On a daily basis they face the contradictions of loving, hating, living with their neighbours richer and poorer, sick and healthy, dead and departed.
Still a child, Nining has had to mature quickly. Proud of her physical and psychological strength, she sees herself as industrious and thoughtful and though she has only just completed grade six, she leaves school to help her struggling family and seeks paid work with neighbours. Her father has lost his job and her mother, who is not even yet thirty with six children twelve years and under, has a temper so bad she is at the edge of eruption, “…that inverse kinship between the heart and the spleen. The more one broke, the more the other vented itself.”
Any single incident will cause her mother’s anger and disappointment with married life to vent its frustration upon Nenita. But Nenita’s back is broad and strong, she is resilient, and she can endure. She can take the beatings, not like her younger brothers and sister who cower in the corner of their small house or the next eldest brother who stupidly mutters defiance in hushed tones that invite harsher retribution. So Nenita must work and do whatever she can to alleviate the hunger pangs, the pressure cooker of her family’s poverty.
A few weeks before our book club gathering I was enjoying an end-of-year/beginning-of-the-next lunchtime celebration with friends and colleagues at Justice Place. Two of the guests, both of whom work in pastoral care, one an Aboriginal woman Anglican reverend, the other a white male Roman Catholic lay worker, were talking about what advice could be offered when victims of parental abuse seek counselling on how to reconcile their pain with the Biblical commandment to ‘honour your father and your mother’. The Anglican said, “From the perspective of my Aboriginal culture we believe that all elders are our mothers and fathers, and we must honour them. In keeping with this commandment you show respect to your ancestors and responsibility to care about all the world’s children.” I found it very comforting to know that Australian Aborigines and Filipinos share this same basic cultural understanding.
Being the oldest in our book club, during the discussion I mentioned this overheard conversation. Talking with friends about what we read, and what we take from what we read, is another way of sharing our thoughts and beliefs. One participant, a man, shelved Banana Heart Summer in the “chick lit” section, but said he didn’t mean it derogatively. The women talked about: “the flavour of Asia”, the distressing contrast between rich and poor, Nenita’s strength, her positive attitude, the “sensualness” of the writing, “emotive”, “lyrical”, “poetic”.
Comments about the front cover artwork and the illustrations were complimentary. This hardcover edition is beautifully bound, wrapped in a sumptuously embossed hot pink jacket with a touch of gold framing the cover illustration. The drawings of Remedios Street, where the story takes place, are clever and deserve close scrutiny for they illustrate the tale well.
On the whole, I think my book club friends enjoyed it. I certainly did, and because of her superb storytelling skill, I received a special gift when one accepted my offer to lend a copy of Merlinda’s previous publication, “White Turtle”, a collection of short stories. Books, like food, taste best when shared.
To conclude this review, I think a reflection from the author herself would be appropriate:
We all work so hard to be validated as a human being, to be liked or loved, to be accepted, to belong. And accepting this universal need is the key to the writing of “Banana Heart Summer”. I promised myself that while this book is only about a small street in the Philippines, it will also be a collection of our shared hungers and longings, our needs for appeasement from whatever side of the world we're in. This book is our community of hungers. It is a gathering of various love stories, a communion of our hearts and spleens, a way to balance our love and anger, a means to contain that push–and–pull in our bones – so we do not break.
…I grew up speaking and learning to read and write in three tongues: my dialect Bikol, my national language Pilipino and of course English. I have used these languages for my writing and performance. Three tongues have constantly argued in my head, so to speak, much like the way the Eastern and Western cultures have interrogated each other in my multi–media art practice, which involves various art genres in constant negotiation. Writing (poetry, drama, the short story and the novel) and performance (stage, radio and once, even film for a visual arts exhibition) – all in my three languages. In these languages and art genres constantly pushing and pulling each other towards separate directions, I have attempted to still the push–and–pull in the wishbone – to soothe the ache that comes with negotiating between themes of love and anger, desire and revulsion, joy and grief and all the many wrenching engagements that make us fully human.
Merlinda Bobis at the Norfolk Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, 17-22 July 2005.