Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Monday, January 30, 2012

"Magnificence" by Estella Alfon A Powerful Early Short Story from Cebu

 "Magnificence" (1939, 6 pages) by Estella D. Alfon-

Note added July 14 2012-1000s of people from all over the Philippines (I am in Quezon City) are now reading this post which is great, of course.  Please let us know how this story related to your family life and tell me why you were drawn to read this post and if it is for a school assignment.  Please leave a comment of some kind so I will know a real person was here-thanks

Estella Alfon
 With a note on the development of the Literature of the Philippines

My Prior Posts on the Literature of the Philippines

Today is the second post for  what I hope will be a long term project featuring  short story writers from the Philippines.   In a joint venture with Nancy Cudis of Simple Clockwork we will be spotlighting once or twice a  month the work of a short story writer from the Philippines.   Nancy is based in Cebu City and focuses according to her profile on  PHILIPPINE LITERATURE, CLASSICS, CHILDREN'S and MIDDLE-GRADE BOOKS, CHRISTIAN FICTION, and clean ROMANCE.    Her blog is just getting started and I can already tell she has a great passion for what she does and I hope a lot of my readers will also follow her blog.    She recently did a very insightful post on O. Henry.  

Be sure and read the post on Simpleclock work for an insight into the literature of Cebu  that you will find no where else. 

Estella D. Alfon (1917 to 1983-Cebu, The Philippines) is considered to be one of the very best early short story writers of the Philippines and perhaps the first woman to have written from the point of view of the ordinary woman of the Philippines.   She was a student of Paz Marquez Benitez on whom Nancy and I have previously posted.   

When the Spanish established their rule in the Philippines (1521 to 1898) they found  that in many parts of the area (of course it was not a country then at all) women had the right to inherit property, rule over households and even territories.    Upper class (most people were slaves or near slaves) women were taught how to write.  There was however, as a practical matter, really nothing to write on.   What writing was done was on banana leaves, hardly a medium for literary composition.   The Spanish did not believe in women having basically any freedom at all and they abolished all women's rights.   For the long years of their rule, they did not start or even allow schools.   Promising and docile young men were taught Spanish by the church and they became the administrators for the Spanish.   Women were not allowed to learn to read or write and the very idea would have been considered ridiculous and reading anything not approved of by the church was very much not done..  Under these conditions it is not surprising that literature did not thrive at all.

When the USA became the ruler of the Philippines in 1898 they at once established public schools for all, including women.    The medium of instruction was English.    Ambitious students (and their parents pushed them) began to realize they must master English.    The indigenous languages began to be almost looked down upon by the elite classes.   Of course the teachers were a mixed lot, just like today, but some were totally wonderful and began to expose their students to the best of American and English literature.    From this some students began to express themselves in short stories in English.    The first authors who had been educated fully in English came into their 20s around 1920.    This why when one speaks of the early short stories of the Philippines we mean short shorties from the 1920 and 1930s.

Estella Alfon was from Cebu. Almost all of her stories are written in English.  She attended the University of the Philippines and was later given a position of fellow of the University Institute of Creative Writing.  She had five children.  Her parents were shop keepers, not highly educated people as most of the parents of other writers of this era were.    Her stories are told from the point of view of the non-elite woman during 1930s to 1950s.   Some are about the Japanese occupancy period, I really wish these were online but I could not find them.

"Magnificence" (1939) has a shocking and disturbing ending.    It also tells us of the near powerlessness of poor women in an era with no laws to protect them or their children.   I will briefly give the whole plot of this story (it is powerful enough to be read knowing the basics of the plot).    Pencils were very prized by school children and needed in school but very expensive for the poor.   To have two pencils was a wonderful thing for a child.   One day the central female character in the story is out in the park with her children, girls and boys all under 12.   She meets a bus driver who complements her on her children.   Of course she is flattered and begins to see him periodically for simple conversations in the park.   The one day he offers to give each of  her children five pencils (and amazing gift for a working man).   At first she says no she cannot accept then she says if he will come to her house and meet her husband and have dinner with them he can personally give the pencils to her children.    To compress a bit, the man calls her ten year old daughter, a big for her age girl, over to sit in his lap and give her the pencils.    Then he begins to bounce her up and down on his lap over and over until she becomes frightened and call for her mother..   When the mother realizes what he is doing she attacks the man with her fists and he strikes her back.    As the story closes we see the mother totally debased emotionally cleaning up her daughter and washing a stain out of the girl's clothing.   When she tells her husband what happened he blames the mother and tells her she is an idiot who should have seen this coming.

This is a short story about a period in time  most readers do not know a lot about (I know I do not).   Alfon deserve a wide international readership.    For a period of years some conservatives in the universities felt her stories where somehow too bold to be taught in schools but now she is rightfully celebrated as one of the very first feminist authors of the Philippines.    In  just a few pages she opens up a new world to us.   As I said, the language is a bit formal but we understand why.

Cebu where Alfon lived and where most of her stories are set is on a separate island from the main island, Luzon, where Manila is located.   In the 1920s when Alfon wrote most of her stories it was almost culturally as if it was a different country.

We plan to make this a once or twice a month feature.   Any and all are invited to join in also for this event.   You can either pick your own author or we can all work together to post on one author.  

Please share your experience concerning short story writers from the Phillippines with us.   In the next few months we will focus mostly on older short stories.

Nancy's post provides some very interesting background information on the literary history and culture of Cebu.

"Servant Girl" can be read online here (reviewed on Simpleclock Work)

"Magnificence" can be read online here

Great resource on short stories of the Philippines

Mel u


Nancy said...

I just learned more about Estrella Alfon by reading your post. Magnificence is indeed a disturbing story. I admire Alfon's initiative to present her period through clear-glass stories, no sugarcoating and all. I think because her parents are merchants and she does not belong to upper society, she presented her stories in a more relevant and unpretentious way. Ironically, I've read somewhere that her writing is her "rice and salt" (or "bread and butter" in American English). Wonderful post! As decided, our next post will be on the works of Loreta Paras-Sulit. I could read and review her "The Harvest", if that is okay with you, Mel. She has another story called The Peril in the Lagoon Please let me know you thought. Thanks!

Mel u said...

Nancy-yes our next post can be as you have in your comment-I learned a lot from your great post

Anonymous said...

Magnificence and Dead Star are two of the stories that stands out in my memory from College. I agree that it's a little disturbing since it has been more than 2 decades. But our professor was brilliant in getting us engaged in the story that we read between the lines and make the relevant deduction. I find that the mother's last act is truly Magnificent. Funny 2 decades after such still occurs. Maybe through time this social issue will be addressed properly. Thankyou for this initiative it gives the younger generation something to think about and learn from as I have!