Windows on Philippine Women, Politics, and Life

Article excerpt

THE tragedy of Philippine history is the main engine that drives Philippine literature. This influence is evident in F. Sionil Joss Three Filipino Women (Random House, 176 pp., $22) and Ninotchka Rosca's Twice Blessed (W. W. Norton, 269 pp., $19.95)

"Three Filipino Women" is a collection of three novellas that were first published in the Philippines. As the title suggests, each novella unveils the stories of different women - as told from the perspective of their men - set against the background of the tempestuous contemporary politics and stifling cultural mores.

Joss collection is an incisive comment on the Philippines' powerful matriarchal foundation. In sharp contrast to the marginal and passive narrative function of the males, the strength of his female characters is pronounced.

In essence, Joss female characters are different faces of the same Filipina archetype. In "Cadena De Amor," she is tough and politically ambitious, a potential candidate for the presidency: in "Obsession," she is a Manila prostitute taking control of her life; in "Platinum," she is a young idealist killed by the security forces of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

These vividly drawn sketches fill the reader with a sense of the women, their motivations, and their social and political contexts. For Jose, whose reputation was built largely on the marvelous "Rosales Saga" - a series of novels published in the Philippines spanning nearly a century - "Three Filipino Women" represents a slight shift. This collection is a contemporary, introspective, and "quieter" work, where history and politics - the manipulation and oppression of the poor by generations of elites - although present, are less pronounced.

Unlike Jose, Rosca has had a higher profile in the United States, in part because her first novel, "State of War," was published by W. W. Norton in 1988. More importantly, she has enough talent to fill the deepest well.

"Twice Blessed," Rosca's second novel, traces the rise to political power of incestuous twins, Hector Basbas and Katerina Basbas Gloriosa. …