Luis H. Francia, poet, critic, editor, and longtime Voice contributor, has two island homes: Manila, where he was born and raised, and Manhattan, which has been his adopted home for the past several decades. Pondering his divided, “mestizo” self, Francia sets off on a journey through Philippine and family history, and back to the very real streets of Manila itself (where the canals, he finds to his horror, are being dredged of dead bodies). As he walks down a tawdry and littered memory lane—past his old haunts, now lit up with the blinking lights of karaoke bars and brothels—his “recollections are as much elegy as anything else, not just for the city but for my childhood.” It is, as Francia says at one point, “as though I were engaged in an anthropological dig of myself.”
Francia plunges even further, however, on his quest to cover the entire archipelago: up into the mountain camps of religious sects and Communist guerrillas; on long, tottering bus rides to leper and penal colonies; on wind-tossed ferries to reach islands where shamans, feminist activists, and Vietnamese refugees, for example, beckon his curiosity. The book is actually made up of many trips taken over the past two decades; and, as such, some of it may seem dated (references to People Power and the 1986 overthrow of the Marcos regime dominate; and his ironic musings on breakdancing and Rambo symbolism seem a paler version of Pico Iyer’s ’80s travelogue, Video Night in Kathmandu).
Yet what truly propels, and distinguishes, Francia’s modern journey is its immersion in the country’s bloody history of resistance and revolt—its legacy of fighting foreign domination by the Spanish and Americans, its tradition of student activism and underground militancy. Francia leads us through an oral history of radical movements and their splinter groups (the text is cluttered with the acronyms of their names). All of this, clearly, is still relevant to the Philippines today, as recent protests in Manila remind us. But it is on the island of Palawan, where he meets a young Vietnamese refugee, that Francia faces the paradox of his own relation to his homeland. “Like myself, he may have been touched by the exile’s fever, the inability to consider a place, no matter how bountiful, as a singular blessing, to never fully arrive, never having completely departed one’s place of birth.”