Paul Giffard-Foret reviews Fish Hair Woman by Merlinda Bobis
by Merlinda Bobis
Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
Silencing Voice, Voicing Silence: A Review of Fish-Hair Woman
In her previous novel The Solemn Lantern Maker, Merlinda Bobis had developed what the literary critic Susan Sontag once called as an “aesthetic of silence”. Bobis’ sparse, economical style so unlike the usual lyricism of her prose reflected her central character’s very own muteness (aptly named Noland), as well as the difficulty of expressing what can hardly be represented in words, but perhaps only felt catachrestically. Noland’s grim story of child prostitution and abject poverty in the Philippines imposes silence because, and as Sontag argued, ‘ “silence” never ceases to imply its opposite and to depend on its presence.’ What happens out there in the so-called “Third World” thus looms large over our consciousness, disturbingly close from home – and in this silence, we as readers cannot but feel complicit:
There is no room for another time. The hut is too small even for the present. Life must be squeezed to pocket size, breath must be kept spare, so there’s enough left for the next day, so the walls hold up. Be frugal where life is fragile.
What Sontag viewed as a form of ‘impoverished art, purged by silence’ also constituted an attempt by the author of The Solemn Lantern Maker to paradoxically draw attention to the particular timbre of her literary voice, an act of resistance in the face of censure and overdetermined readings of her work. This gesture was similar, albeit in another context, to Arte Povera’s minimalism in the late 60s as a means of thwarting philistine approaches to use-value and the seamless transparency of meaning in art. In her essay, ‘‘Voice-Niche-Brand: Marketing Asian-Australianness’, Bobis quotes Frederic Jameson on the work of Ernest Hemingway to remind that “ethnic” writers, beyond their nationality or gender, are first and foremost artists in their own right.
It is a mistake to think that [his books] deal essentially with such things as courage, love, and death; in reality, their deepest subject is simply the writing of a certain type of sentence, the practice of a determinate style.
While this is not a review of The Solemn Lantern Maker, this novel and the aesthetic of silence impregnating it informs in turn the story behind Bobis’ first (and until now) unpublished novel Fish-Hair Woman (2011). If her previous novel represented an outcry of a mute sort, and had to be first published in the United States after facing initial rejection in Australia, Fish-Hair Woman stands as revenge against fate and what Bobis defined elsewhere in a recent essay as the “gatekeepers” of the Australian publishing industry. In effect, it took more than seventeen years for the novel to be published, interspersed by multiple rejections, editing, and ‘silence.’
As it happens, the novel’s chief “vice” is that it is set in a militarised village in the Philippines during the Filipino government’s crackdown on communist insurgency from the late 70s onwards, and that, therefore, Australia and the “Australian story” appear marginalised. Bobis prefers to deal instead with subaltern voices and to ‘privilege the underclass – peasants, labourers, and the like – as agents of historical change’ in what represents a decolonising gesture akin to the work of Filipino scholars known as Pantayong Pananaw (‘for-us-from-us’ perspective).
The culture industry and its tendency towards compartmentalisation does not wish a diasporic author like Bobis to “dabble” with style; neither is it inclined to giving full reign to the diasporic voice unless it is domesticated, made heimlich. The dominant paradigm for the Asian Australian author has so far been the “migrant story”, a movement from A (Asia) to B (Australia), and sometimes back to A so as to remind the reader that the “Asian story” is Australian enough but not quite. In so doing, the Australian “gate” is safeguarded while “enriched” at the same time. However, Fish-Hair Woman, like Simone Lazaroo’s Sustenance (2010) a year before, reverses this movement in a “conspiratorial” attempt (Bobis’ own term) to regionalize Australian identities and open the floodgates by immersing white Australian characters in foreign, menacing Asian settings instead.
In so doing, the garde-fou (French for parapet, literally “madness keeper”) is let loose, perhaps irreversibly, as an effect of globalising trends and the fact that (Asian) Australian authors are now transnational in what may be deemed a post-diasporic world. In this new paradigm, the hyphen in Asian-Australia is not a straightforward road from A to B that can be easily co-opted into the migrant narrative, but a conflictive zone of incommensurability and “abject” resistance writing back to the gatekeepers of the industry.
Behind the Philippine Commercial and Industrial Bank, among the garbage bags, a vagrant is abusing the security guard. […] He’d been scavenging, throwing out ‘unusable’ garbage onto the street before the guard found him. […] Suddenly, the vagrant jumps up, gripping Luke’s arm and shouting, ‘Mr Amerkano, Mr Amerkano, my bank, my bank!’ He’s pointing to the garbage, demanding affirmation. (119)
As Bobis reflects in her essay: ‘Should one exit from the diasporic narrative to break this bind? Why not shift the gate?’ This is what Bobis does in Fish-Hair Woman, and by shifting the gate she also shifts perspectives. The novel starts off in the century-old tradition of an ‘Australian thriller about a past crisis in some Asian country [with] the questing Australian male (usually) who was tempted and challenged, and muddled through mayhem.’ Centered on the mysterious disappearance of Australian writer Tony McIntyre in the Philippines and his son Luke who sets out to find him, and with all the ingredients of the oriental thriller in place – including a revolution, a corrupt leader, and a love affair with one of the “natives” – Fish-Hair Woman however quickly departs from what the Australian literary critic Alison Broinowski once described as ‘the fictional Asia we used to know and love (or not know and fear).’
It is in that sense that this novel can be deemed “avant-gardiste”, that is, at once one “story ahead” and standing before, rather than inside or outside, the gate.
Luke freezes, unable to look away from the man’s demented eyes, the whites turned blue by the light. Stella shouts at the vagrant to back off, he does, and she grabs Luke and they both run to the Australia Centre. Behind them the altercation continues: ‘My bank, my bank!’
She leans against the silver column, both hands catching her brow. ‘I’m sorry…I’m sorry for my country.’
She’s apologising to me? But Luke misses the tone of despair in which he does not even figure. (119-120) (italics mine)
Merlinda Bobis has often described herself as a “border lover” with a deeply humanist and planetary vision. Her work travels wide and far, relentlessly straddling various art forms, genres, languages and cultures, inscribing difference and alterity in place of reified categorisations and the strangleholds of identity-thinking as few writers have been able to. For Bobis, literature starts with the body, ‘a technique which is not just of the word, but of the body.’ Through the bodily metaphor of hair-growing, weaving and unknotting, remembering and forgetting, the reader is caught into the rhizomic nets of “text-ility” in this magico-realist tale of a woman with twelve metre-long hair who fishes out the dead river bodies of a torn cultural fabric, the product of a ‘senseless war’ (9).
My memories weave in and out of death and love. […] I wept over the enemy as my hair grew, its red and black strands shooting from all ventricles up to the scalp, to declare that the heartspace is not just the size of a fist, because each encounter threads a million others. The capillaries of love and war flow into each other, into a handspan of hair. (142)
While we are told that there is no hero in this story, with ‘too many stories weaving into each other, only to unweave themselves at each telling,’ (259) there are also too many vividly painted characters in this family saga à la Garcia Marquez to give them full justice here. The novel spans across three decades and continents, from the Marcos regime’s “Total War” against the Maoist New People’s Army (NPA), the military wing of the Communist Party, through to the February 1986 People Power Revolution and onto the year 1997, as Luke flies to the Philippines from Sydney on a cryptic note sent his father after thirteen years of silence that the latter is dying. There he meets instead with Dr. Alvarado, just returned from years of political exile in Hawaii and who claims to have known his father very well.
These are stories that demand to be told – and heard – stories all too familiar for anyone who is aware that ‘beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror’ (6); stories of farmers’ expropriation, being pushed off their land and turned into landless wage labourers by power-greedy mestizo elites like Dr. Alvarado, alias Governor Estradero and his private army, the Anghel de la Guardia; stories of rape, torture and murder by the State with the complicit backing of the West, including Australia; stories of first-world do-gooders and eco-tourists who ‘look for villages still at one with nature, unadulterated by progress [but] who might just run into problems if the farmer in the village suddenly demands. ‘But I want your BMW too, and your toilets that flush and all your wonderful amenities. Is this possible?’ (121). For those who refuse to hear and see, Bobis will ‘weave an alternative tale about us nice folks brewing this exotic spot with coffee cups on our heads and dancing up a fiesta. A postcard shot if you wish…so you can quell your shudder with a longing sigh for this village in the East.’ (57)
Finally, there is the author’s own meta-story, Bobis’ awareness that she, too, is partly complicit in that ‘your [her] author is only interested in saving a white man [Luke’s father]’ (227). Professor Inez Carillo’s husband was murdered while investigating on the deaths of the villagers of Iraya, north of the island of Luzon, where Bobis was born. As she further explains to the Australian diplomat Matt Baker: ‘the worst are our own expatriate writers, those migratory birds. First they abandon us to fly to greener pastures, then return as vultures to feed on our despair. Then they take off again. Take, then take off.’ (226)
In this complicity, we as readers, along with Bobis’s fish-hair woman, cannot but feel silent – an oxymoronic act of penitence for an author and a book with so fulsome and generous a voice that it leaves one emptied out at the reading end.
But can words ever rewrite a landscape? Can the berries suddenly uncrimson with talk? Can bullets be swallowed back by the gun? Can hearts unbreak, because for a moment its ventricles are confused at the sight of a refurbished coffee grove, besieged by peace and domesticity?
I can dive a hundred times into the river, fish out this or that beloved and tenderly wrap a body with my hair, then croon to it in futile language such as this, but when I lay the dead at the feet of kin and lovers, their grief will just shame my attempt to save it from dumbness. Listen to the mute eloquence that trails all losses, the undeclaimed umbrage at having been had by life. This is a silence no one can ever write and least of rewrite. (58)
 Sontag, Susan. ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’. Styles of Radical Will, Penguin Classics, 2009, p. 11.
 Bobis, Merlinda. The Solemn Lanter Maker, Pier 9, 2008, p. 24.
 Sontag, opcit, p. 13.
 Bobis, Merlinda.‘Voice-Niche-Brand: Marketing Asian-Australianness’, Australian Humanities Review, Issue 45, Nov 2008, p. 119
 Bobis, Merlinda. ‘The Asian Conspiracy: Deploying Voice/ Deploying Story’, Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3, Oct 2010, p. 15.
 Reyes, Portia L. ‘Fighting Over A Nation: Theorizing a Filipino Historiography’, Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3, 2008, p. 241.
 Bobis, Merlinda. The Asian Conspiracy, opcit, p. 10.
 Broinowski, Alison. ‘The No-Name Australians and the Missing Subaltern: Asian Australian Fiction’, Asian Australian Identities Conference, 27-29 September 1999.
 Bobis, Merlinda. ‘Border Lover.’ Not Home, But Here: Writing from the Filipino Diaspora (Igloria, Luisa A ed.), Anvil Publishing, Manila, 2003, p. 128.