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BOOKS: Americana, a Filipino Story

NEW YORK, Sep 30 2013 (IPS) - One of the fastest-growing Asian immigrant groups in the United States, Filipinos are perceived as the most likely to assimilate with ease.  That is, of course, if you’re looking from the outside in.

A closer scrutiny might begin to reveal the complex and often harsh realities of geographical change, social anxiety and family loyalty faced by migrants the world over.

"I give a human face to the newcomer’s emotional traumas, the anguish of nostalgia, and loss of pride and status.” -- Erlinda Kravetz

In her book Krystal Hut: Stories, a collection of short stories about the Filipino-American experience, author Erlinda Kravetz paints vivid pictures of life between the old country and the new country.  Her characters are rich in spirit and deeply devoted to their families, yet caught in the ambivalence of wanting to fit in with their neighbours while preserving their heritage.

“I spent a lot of time nurturing my characters, understanding their deepest desires, dreams, hopes and illusions, following them on their emotional journeys but never losing sight of where they came from and where it all began for them,” Kravetz told IPS.

It is exploring her characters’ emotional journey that allows for a special connection between the reader and the text.

Immigration of any kind is not an easy subject to tackle, and it certainly helps when an author has his or her own personal narrative to reflect upon.  A Filipino woman herself – and one who has endured the challenges of balancing two cultures – Kravetz writes from a place of humility, but also has a poignant understanding of transition.

Americanised

“Coming from a former U.S. colony, Filipinos feel a special kinship with Americans,” Kravetz says.

This special kinship is due to the fact that Filipinos actually harbour more “Americanised” characteristics within their societal background than any other migrant group from Asia.  From education and language to religion and marriage, Filipinos arrive here fairly well-equipped to participate in the economy, quickly joining the workforce and sacrificing whatever they must in order to make a life of their own (as any other immigrant would).

They speak English, have earned degrees (though one must note that those degrees are rarely regarded as equivalent to U.S. degrees), and many have already married and started families.

However, the cultural transition away from deeply embedded traditions is a whole other ballgame, and the crux of the differences between Americans and Filipinos could not be made clearer than in the stories of Krystal Hut.

In Achara, Kravetz describes a family torn between assimilating socially and preserving family ties.

The plot revolves around a family coming together for a reunion in Long Island, whilst coming to grips with the unchanging ways of their mother, the matriarch, who meticulously concocts her traditional recipe of achara (pickled green papaya) in her son’s kitchen, unflinching and unwilling to mix the modern setting with old traditions.

Her children have assimilated in their own ways, some being devout in their individualism and others walking a fine line between two worlds, as described by one of her sons:

“Our father and our eldest brother are dead, making me the head of the family.  I know I don’t have to – now that we’re all in America and have our own lives – but I’ve taken on the responsibility for keeping the family ties intact in our adopted country.  It’s been difficult with everybody living in different parts of the country.”

Building relationships

Krystal Hut is about relationships, with family, with neighbours, with community.  The stories each bring attention to a different aspect of human connection from death and despair to love and suffering, both here in the U.S. and back home in the Philippines. Kravetz is bold in allowing each of her characters to embody great pain with such transparency.

By writing empathetically about immigration, Kravetz offers a new perspective on an experience that many in our global community find difficult to discuss.

“I think most immigrants – regardless of their origin – are aware of challenges, particularly in a time when the U.S. continues to drag its feet on whether to welcome or deport hundreds of thousands of undocumented aliens,” Kravetz said.

“Yes, there are hardships, like working at two or three menial jobs and living in cramped quarters, racial slurs, threats of deportation. In my stories, I give a human face to the newcomer’s emotional traumas, the anguish of nostalgia, and loss of pride and status.”

Indeed, coming to a new country and making a life of your own is not without its challenges.  However, there are also great experiences to share – that of overcoming economic difficulty, of building community and more specifically, if one is able, being able to sponsor more siblings and family members to come and do the same.

Krystal Hut may be fiction, but it also educates, inspires and informs. Kravetz is in more ways as much a professor as she is a storyteller – and a great one at that.

 
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