9 Books About the Complexities of Filipino Family Bonds

Monica Macansantos, author of "Love and Other Rituals," recommends stories about the ties of kinship

Still from Easter Sunday

It is only in the Philippines that I feel my individual identity disappear in the eyes of others: in a society that sees people in terms of their kinship ties, rather than their individual achievements, I am a daughter first, an adult woman second. Living abroad in my twenties gave me some clarity about the person I wanted to become, since I wasn’t just a daughter or potential mother: I was a writer, a student, a woman eager to enjoy the sensual delights of the world. And yet, even as I sought to build my own identity while living far away from home, the stories I wrote inevitably confronted the alienation and loneliness I felt abroad, while bringing to light the joys I felt as a daughter, cousin, and aunt in my homeland. These are stories that have come to form my debut collection about Filipinos at home and in the diaspora entitled, Love and Other Rituals

Kinship ties form the backbone of Philippine society, and the way we relate to others and to ourselves is inextricably linked to the tightness of our family bonds. For many, these bonds can also be a source of pain, since they don’t necessarily foster understanding, tolerance, or even care. The complicated nature of Filipino family bonds has been a topic of interest, even of obsession, for many Filipino writers both at home and in the diaspora. Why do we seek reassurance from our elders, even if they repeatedly disappoint us with their inconstancy and lack of affection? Why do we expect so much from our siblings, children, or parents, despite our own awareness of their shortcomings? How do we find ourselves capable of loving our blood kin despite their thoughtlessness or even abuse? In my book, and many excellent works of fiction and memoir written by Filipinos, we explore how the solace offered by these tight and complex bonds can also be intertwined with some complicated feelings.  

The Body Papers by Grace Talusan

Talusan takes an honest look at the fragility of her family during the years they spent as undocumented immigrants in the ‘70s and ‘80s. A culture of saving face, exacerbated by the secrecy with which they lived because of their immigration status, forced a young Grace to suffer in silence for years while being abused by a family member. This memoir is ultimately a love story, in which a parent decides to defy his feelings of indebtedness to a relative in order to protect his child. Though Talusan is critical of the culture of indebtedness or “utang na loob” that undergirds family bonds in Filipino culture, her memoir proposes a realignment, rather than dismantlement, of these values. These bonds, she rightly believes, can be built on love and care rather than obligation. 

Gun Dealers’ Daughter by Gina Apostol

Philippine politics is run by families, as the recent return of the Marcos family to power sadly proves, and Gun Dealers’ Daughter is the perfect novel to understand the dynastic politics that have held the Philippines in a stranglehold for decades. Soledad, our narrator and anti-hero, belongs to an upper-class family that directly benefits from the Marcos dictatorship’s bloody crackdown on the communist insurgency, amassing a fortune by supplying arms to Marcos’s military. Burdened by the guilt of her parents’ sins, Soledad decides to participate in a violent plot that she believes would give her the opportunity to turn against her family and class. The novel’s shocking ending shows just how powerful family ties are in the Philippines, and how elite children like Soledad remain trapped in their snare. 

Abundance by Jakob Guanzon

Praised for its searing depictions of economic injustice in American society, Abundance is at its heart a story about how fathers and sons confront their differences to give voice to what is often an unspoken and complicated love. Told from the point of view of Henry, an immigrant son who has lived a troubled life, this heartbreaking novel follows the struggles his father faced in understanding Henry’s maladjustment, while also wrestling with his own disappointments as an academic forced out of his teaching position after a racist altercation with a student. Henry’s and Papa’s differences are generational as well as cultural, and it is when Henry has a son of his own that he begins to truly understand the challenges his own father experienced in giving full expression to his love.

Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades

Narrated by the choral “we”, Andreades writes about a group of female friends from a diverse neighborhood in Queens who find solace in each other’s company when their immigrant families cannot fully understand or embrace their hopes and aspirations. Andreades’s observations of immigrant families are tender but honest—showing how the bonds of filial obligation that these young women chafe against become a source of comfort in their later years, when they finally understand the fierce possessiveness that their immigrant parents, especially their mothers, had for them. Beautifully told, Brown Girls shows us how the families we are born into, and the families we create for ourselves, can sustain us in spite of their many flaws. 

Disturbance by Ivy Alvarez

Ivy Alvarez takes a unique and inventive approach to domestic violence in this novel-in-verse about a family gunned down by their own patriarch. By employing verse to reveal the thoughts of neighbors, policemen, and finally, the wife and son of a man who resorts to murder when he cannot get his way with them, Alvarez cuts through the everyday deceptions people often tell themselves to ignore the very real presence of violence in their lives. “My hair has a showroom shine,” the wife says, in the poem, “Family portrait.” “My husband prefers it long. Benign as a leash. I smile and smile.” The lies told by the chorus of voices in this book quickly fall apart under Alvarez’s careful poetic gaze. 

A Tiny Upward Shove by Melissa Chadburn

A Tiny Upward Shove is a powerful novel about a half-Filipino, half-Black young woman who falls through the cracks of the foster care system and into the clutches of a serial killer. The novel starts in Marina’s early years living with Mutya, her affectionate but oftentimes neglectful mother, and Lola, her doting grandmother whose traditional views on womanhood Mutya rebels against. Mutya’s desire to free herself from the conservative Catholic environment of her mother’s household sends her drifting through Los Angeles with Marina, where they find themselves in increasingly dangerous situations. Apart from its honest depictions of life on the margins, A Tiny Upward Shove shines a light on the challenges Filipino immigrant families face in staying intact across generational and cultural divides.  

In the Country by Mia Alvar

Taken as a whole, Mia Alvar’s story collection In the Country presents a colorful, prismatic lens through which the strengths and complexities of Filipino family bonds are tested by exile, physical distance, and political upheaval. Alvar was born in Manila and raised in Bahrain and New York City, giving her insight into the lives of ordinary Filipinos who either remain in the motherland or leave to pursue a better life overseas (or else, to give their families back home a better life through foreign remittances).

My personal favorites are “A Contract Overseas”, about a young writer whose brother, an overseas worker, supplies her with stories about his life in the Middle East that are more compelling than any of the stories she weaves on her own, and the titular novella, “In the Country”, about an activist couple questioning their marriage after paying the ultimate price for opposing the Marcos dictatorship. 

Monstress by Lysley Tenorio

Tenorio has a soft spot for outcasts and misfits who are shunned by their families and closest of kin, and the stories in his debut collection Monstress allow us to fully fathom the impulse to love that continues to endure after these relationships are irreparably fractured. In “The Brothers”, a man reckons with his trans sibling’s sudden passing, and in doing so gains insight into her desire for acceptance in their family despite being disowned. In “The View from Culion”, a young girl in a leper colony befriends a newly arrived American GI who refuses to accept the truth of his condition, and whose friendship reawakens her own affections for her mother, a woman who brought her to this colony and never returned for her. Other stories in the collection examine the loyalties that enable families to tolerate the oddballs in their family, as with the young narrator in “Help” who will do anything to please his Imelda Marcos-adoring Uncle Willie, even if it means getting into a physical altercation with the Beatles. While examining the complexities and frailties of family relationships, Tenorio remains sensitive to the love that remains when these ties are severed, showing us how dormant feelings for a long-estranged relative or friend can be reawakened by the kindness of a stranger. 

Departures: Essays by Priscilla Supnet Macansantos

My mother released her debut collection of essays in her mid 60s, after spending a lifetime witnessing the strange twists and turns in the lives of her relatives who traversed vast distances in pursuit of a better future. In this collection, we meet her father, a cheerful man who spoke in glowing terms about America, while remaining reticent about his deportation for carrying forged immigration papers; her mother, a quiet, determined woman who moved her entire family from their barrio in the impoverished Ilocos region to the bustling American Hill Station of Baguio; and my own father, who as a young man would take the long and difficult trip to Baguio to visit my mother, quietly proving his dedication to the things he cared about the most. Common themes in the collection are the bonds that remain tight, or are tightened even further, as distances are crossed and new lives are built, and the losses sustained while building these new lives, leaving deep wounds that are often difficult to acknowledge. What Macansantos possesses in her writing is the wisdom of years, and the knowledge of how intertwined our own stories are with the people we call our kin. 

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