The heart doesn’t know what it wants. Ask anybody who got what they wanted. Ask the hustling OFW who, piecing together enough to make a new home in white America, finds that the land of the free isn’t as free as it claims to be.
Ask the unfaithful husband, spoiled by his poor wife’s timid will, objectified by his mistress in her own way. Ask the migrants and expats (these two terms are synonyms, really) who, despite a complicated history between the east and west and all the violence therein, believe with their naive hearts that love will meet them at the shore when they cross the sea.
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Cursed and Other Stories is a short story collection by Noelle Q. de Jesus that, in a way, is about how and why the heart acts the way it does. Most of her stories deal with Filipino women and Caucasian American men, and the power imbalances that come with those situations. Through the dynamics of such relationships, she unpacks the lingering effects of imperialism and colonialism on the hearts of the yearning.
I suppose what makes this book different from other books that tackle the Asia X America experience is that Cursed insists on the romantic. There is almost always a spurned lover, an infidelity, a desire that feels wrong. One could make the argument that Cursed is a collection of love stories that happen to touch on themes of colonialism and the diaspora
The book sets the tone with its first story “Posing,” in which a woman named Pilar, having moved to America with her white husband Frank Stone (“She always thought of her husband with his full name. Not Frank, but Frank Stone.”), finds agency and power moonlighting as a nude model for some art classes. Frank Stone doesn’t know. And Pilar, taken by an activity that requires her to be bold, exposes herself to desires deep-seated. The story is sympathetic, erotic, and makes its view on power imbalances clear (in that they are real, and define everything). De Jesus follows these beats in the stories that follow.
Sometimes she hits the ball out of the park, sometimes she doesn’t. One example of the former is “Stamina,” which revolves around foreigner Richard, teaching at a Philippine university on a Fulbright scholarship, and Genny, a precocious Filipina who turns the normal student/teacher, Filipina/American power dynamic on its head. It’s one of the few stories where de Jesus gives us a female character with blatant agency. (Other stories in Cursed give us Filipinas who seem to be in that perennial role of damsel—I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing.) And as de Jesus navigates through the city’s dark underbelly and the corrupt elite who run it, I can’t help but think of Miguel Syjuco.
In other stories, she’s more miss than hit. “Michael” is a short piece with a direct Mocha Uson analog by the name of Lizette del Mundo Cruz, who blogs for the president in support of his drug war. We catch her in the middle of a plight I wish the actual Mocha Uson was forced to deal with—being haunted by a ghost, one of those slain by the drug war. The ghost’s name is Michael Siaron, and he haunts Lizette by harassing her with visions of violence and decay. “In one night, she saw as many as twenty-one deaths—bullets riddled bodies, bodies writhed before her in agony before finally trembling, juddering silent.”
The story is interesting in concept, the way it tries to figure out what it would take to change the heart of a diehard propagandist. But de Jesus’s insistence on the perils of romance fails her here—Lizette del Mundo Cruz’s tale doesn’t need a boyfriend backstory, but she gets one anyway. It also goes too easy with its horror aspect. It is a story told with exasperated rage, pointed and spirited, but it doesn’t make me catch fire.
Cursed basically contains stories of those two types. When a story succeeds, it makes good on its promise to dissect the concepts of love and power, and does so with cultural savvy and welcoming language. Stories like “In Her Country” and “Small Sacrifice” do that. But when it falls flat, it leaves you unchanged, and not wise to whatever point it was trying to make. Those stories also suffer from monotonous pacing, wooden dialogue, and could do with a little more showing than telling. Some examples are “Wanting” and “Dreams in English.”
I am not a fan of love stories, or any story that treats the act of infidelity as a twist, so maybe I’m not being fair to parts of this collection. Cursed might appeal to the kind of reader who likes a splash of eroticism with her tales of intrigue. The book might serve as a gateway to the reader who wants to get into diaspora literature but doesn’t know where to start.
Apt that this book is called Cursed. It paints our complex relationship with the west—which we’ve preserved across generations and nautical miles—as a kind of doom, an inherited punishment, a blight that rational thought cannot explain. Noelle Q. de Jesus recognizes all those things. Thus she gives us stories brimming with life and heartbeat, even though some of those stories remain unsure of their purpose.