October 16, 2023 — Jennilee Austria Bonifacio, a rising Canadian Filipino novelist born and raised in Canada, caught my attention for her sensitive handling of the migrant Filipino concept of a good parent.
In her newly launched novel, Reuniting with Strangers, she echoes what she learned early on – a good parent is a good provider, and a good provider is someone who leaves. When someone leaves, he/she/they eventually turns into a stranger who longs to reunite with the abandoned aka fellow strangers.Bonifacio captures the “good parent” in nine chapters peopled with characters from southern Philippines, seemingly unrelated yet pulsate a common parental desire – the good life for kith and kin wherever that is achievable.
Inspired by the documentary on Filipino caregiver families in Canada and the phenomenon of broken families, When Strangers Reunite, Bonifacio’s Reuniting with Strangers aspires to project the Filipino youth’s voices in the Canadian Filipino diaspora so that these voices may reverberate important Filipino heritage of culture, traits, and values.
Filled with the Filipino brand of emotionalism splashed with the resolute will to stand on one’s decision with hints of humor and suggestions of nostalgia, each chapter resurrects key Filipino values of pagmamalasakit (concern), pagmamahal (affection), pagkamaldita/pagkamaldito (rudeness) to highlight the characters’ sacred mission of providing well for the “strangers”.
The Toronto-based Bonifacio, a school board consultant on Filipino community matters, observes how the “good provider” impacts Filipino youth’s academic achievement, integration into new communities, and filial relationships.
The five-year-old character, Monolith, becomes the omniscient voice and the omnipresent character of the abandoned child. Through Monolith’s stream of consciousness, the readers traverse the plot of the Canadian Filipinos’ adventures and misadventures in Osoyoos’ desert, Iqaluit’s perennially dark or bright Arctic, Waterloo and Oakville’s sedate neighbourhoods, Sarnia's Chemical Valley, Montréal’s Côte-des-Neiges, Toronto’s Little Manila, and occasionally make a trip to a few cities in the Asian continent. The characterscome alive as divergent in their values and beliefs; oftentimes, they jolt readers in how they treat Monolith and how Monolith treats them. Monolithdoggedly refuses to speak – a marked rebellion against the Filipino diaspora that seems beholden to the ideals and the promises of the North.
The results of Bonifacio’s survey of over 1,200 Filipino youth in her work with Filipino Talksapparently reflect Monolith’s lack of a strong relationship with the “good provider” of a mother. Monolith’s move to a new countrywhere he feels so estranged only mutes him more and makes him react with increasingly bizarre incomprehensible sounds. Monolith’s mother is depicted as helpless and as reliant on friends whose language of straitjackets and chemically formulated silencers seems to have worsened Monolith’s behaviour. The readers can only sigh at Monolith’s helplessness, and eventually get relieved when Monolith finally meets the more compassionate Jermayne.
Through Reuniting with Strangers, Bonifacio succeeds in juxtaposing young voices with those of the “good provider” and in celebrating the vastness of the Canadian Filipino diaspora. She orchestrates a cacophony of voices rendered powerful through various media of storytelling: a daughter’s monologue of multiple choice items on how she wants her mother to interact with her; two sisters’ email exchanges that escalate from “how are you and my daughters getting by?” to “who is the real caring mother?”; a husband’s soliloquy as he convinces his wife that a family that lives together is a happy loving family only to end up mailing his nth resume to the wife; a clan patriarch’s detailed recollection of his young family’s observance of Filipino tradition, soulful rendition of kundiman, and undefiled patriotism that gets blurry with his children’s move to Canada; a caregiver’s manual of instructions for aspiring caregivers; and more.
Jennilee Austria Bonifacio picks every reader’s brain around the many hopeful stories of Reuniting with Strangers – a must-read!
About the author: MVGC reaps joy bunches from writing about people and their work.