MANILA, Philippines – Author Marivi Soliven was writing for an online magazine when she first came upon a small ad in a newspaper. This was in the late ‘90s, and the ad was by a pen pal agency. “They had a whole range of women and their photos. They were saying ‘Meet the love of your life!’ And beside each of their names was the phrase ‘Add to cart.’” The customers paid to get the women’s mailing addresses.
“And then if you get — I don’t know what the exact deal was — like if you get five, it will be $10 for the addresses of five women. Basta the cost per person went down the more people you ordered. So by the time you were ordering, I don’t know, two dozen, it was like the same price as a pack of beer.”
Soliven recalls that the main selling point of the ad was that Filipino women were “historically conditioned” to love American men because of General MacArthur’s whole romanticized “I shall return” speech. She assured me that she was quoting almost verbatim. Well, at least now we know what has given many a Café Havana-ish white guy the courage to try knocking us off our feet with, “Wow! You speak very good English!”
The Mango Bride, which won the grand prize for the novel in the 2011 Palanca Awards, follows the parallel but contrasting stories of Amparo Guerrero, who is banished by her wealthy, prestigious family, and Beverly Obejas, an orphaned and impoverished waitress. Both leave for the United States, Amparo due to scandal, looking forward to a clean slate, and Beverly in search of a better life, having found an American husband through the pen pal agency, Filipina Sweetheart.
An immigrant wife herself, Soliven moved to California because her Filipino-American husband was working on his doctorate at UC Berkeley. Many of the details of Amparo and Beverly’s lives come from Marivi’s own immigration experience. Like Amparo, Soliven took on a day job as an interpreter for Filipina callers who couldn’t speak straight English. “I was doing a lot of calls where women were being processed by social workers into domestic violence abuse shelters. I don’t think anyone actually said that she was a mail-order bride, and I wasn’t allowed to ask them privately. But I assumed that they were immigrant wives. So I just kind of linked the two.”
Soliven recounted an actual instance, which she included in the book, where she was interpreting for this one woman who was being processed. The social worker who was doing the intake interview left for a few minutes. And while she wasn’t allowed to speak to the other person in between, the woman initiated, “Nandyian ka pa ba? San ka sa atin?”
“They always start with that,” Soliven explained. “They always want to know where you came from back home, like it matters. They want to establish that connection. She then asked, ‘Ganito ba talaga? Talagang minahal ko ang taong yan eh. I didn’t do it for the green card. I really loved this man. Bakit niya ako ginanyan?’”
Not a message book
“I didn’t want it to be a message book,” she says, “but I wanted to show that there comes a point when you are an immigrant, and you come as an immigrant wife, (where) the power dynamic turns out to be so unequal that if your husband turns out to be not as nice as he presented himself to be, then it can very quickly become dangerous. ”
What makes The Mango Bride appealing and easily digestible is the absence of propaganda (if any came across in this article, that was most probably my framing). Despite the controversial material, there is no palpable intention to feed the reader a certain stand, or to pressure them into inciting a preachy change. The pages simply take you into the story as it happens, the way good, engaging literature is supposed to do, with a touch of Pinoy-flavored drama. And perhaps the absence of commentary is what may cause a reader to emerge with his or her own strong opinions.
“The reader sees whatever they want to see in the book,” says Soliven. “I just begin the conversation.”
True to form, The Mango Bride is a very rich story that can be looked at from many different angles. Along with the bigger issues of immigration and grasping for community away from home, the book also touches on classism, shame, secrets, morality, household politics, and the Filipino’s obsession with maintaining a good social standing, sometimes at the expense of other people’s lives.
Still, admittedly, in the midst of all this, the mail-order bride angle is what made the biggest impression on me, perhaps because it has always been such a taboo subject — especially now in an age that glorifies the independent career woman. And while right now it would still be hard to overcome that stigma, especially when there are real implications involved, where there is sweeping and dismissive condescension, there is a corresponding failure to look into the actual stories and perspectives of these people — what inspired their choices, how they ended up where they did, what factors were at play, how it must have looked from inside their skin. In this respect, The Mango Bride’s fluid narrative was a vividly detailed but non-intrusive start to getting off one’s high horse, and after reading, turning back to the real world and wanting to understand more.
* * *