The cliche laps at my feet with every swell of the Caribbean ocean, begging to be acknowledged; it is eleven in the morning, and I have broken my year-long alcohol fast with a tropical umbrella adorned cocktail. It is undeniable—I am every bit the tourist, with my oversized sunglasses and undersized shorts, asking the staff of this beautiful establishment to adjust my beach chair in painfully broken Spanish. All I am missing is an American twang and horrific tan-lines. Little do I know, paperback fluttering listlessly in my napping hand, that the latter is soon to follow.
I am in Santo Domingo, the largest city in the Dominican Republic, and the most highly populated in the Caribbean. It is recognized as the first established city in the Americas, with Christopher Columbus having arrived in 1492. The Spanish speaking Dominican Republic shares a land mass with French speaking Haiti, but from what I gather, they do not share much else.
My introduction to the two countries came by way of books. Penned by authors with an extraordinary ability to transport, transcend, and translate, reading their writing has almost always come with the feeling of the sun’s heat cascading across my skin, the faint smell of coconut permeating the sea salt tinged air. This happens when I read them in Brooklyn, on the plane, in Makati. I credit it to the magic of the islands.
Isabel Allende’s “Island Beneath the Sea” came first, an emotion-invoking tale of a slave in Saint Domingue (which I thought might be Santo Domingo, but turns out to be modern day Haiti), whose muddled relationship with her master sets the spine for a spell-binding story. Literally. Invoking spirits, the islanders burrow through the backbreaking torture of field work and meager conditions, preparing for the time to steal into the mountains and plot rebellion. It is a story of physical and emotional love, of primal instinct, colonialism, and courage. Shedding light on conditions of European colonies at the time, Allende’s writing lends as much empathy for the enslaved Haitian underdog, as it does the white-skinned land lord, balking under the heat and tropical disease, far from the comforts of libraries of leather-bound books, and political conversations over drinks. She is unapologetically honest in the portrayal of all her characters, and brings them to life in between paragraphs of scene-setting poetry.
But it is the little gem that is “This Is How You Lose Her”, courtesy of Junot Diaz, that truly sets the precedent for my Dominican experience. He unleashes a story that lends a voice to every face I pass on the street, from the ample bosomed mother carrying a basket on her head, to the clean shaven young man, his eyebrows so manicured they make me feel disheveled and unkempt in comparison. The story is contemporary, I identify with the nuances of the New Jersey immigrant, the first trip back to the motherland, the girlfriend on holiday, the overpriced drinks at a club sure to leave you with a headache should the tinny techno music not do it first.
I think about the Philippines and wonder whether there is cadence beyond say, Jessica Hagedorn’s “Dogeaters”, that the world might fall in step with when reading about our home. Something that draws our complicated history out through characters, rural and urban, that pokes fun at our Momma’s boys and raises questions about our young martyrs. Writing that forces important deliberation about where it is we are going, by dissecting the conundrum of where we currently are. May such novels come out of the woodwork and find their way onto the oiled laps of foreigners on our beaches, sipping through straws a multitude of colorful beverages made with cheap liquor. Authors that trigger an excitable understanding in a contemporary setting, piecing together “aha” moments—why some Filipino words sound Spanish, why so many of our countrymen speak English, why we cannot understand the concept of a queue, or are quick to offer apologies when solutions would be better. A book is a tool the Department of Tourism may be sleeping on. A book can magnetize, mesmerize, and convert a daydream into an online purchase of a long haul flight destined for NAIA.
Are there writers doing this that I am not privy to? Share a book with me. Or write one. Would you?
You may reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org / Twitter or Instagram: @sarah_meier
Originally published in the Manila Bulletin.