A BOOK OF HER OWN by LENY MENDOZA STROBELALLEN GABORRO reviews
A BOOK OF HER OWN: Words and Images to Honor the Babaylan by Leny Mendoza Strobel
(T’Boli Publishing, San Francisco, 2005)
[Review first appeared in the Philippine News, Sept.28, 2005]
Understanding the Filipino American mentality can be a confusing task if for no other reason than because of its bifurcated composition. Torn between the influences of a colonial history and of an indigenous heritage, FilAms are compelled to acknowledge their cultural development to both. This duality unfolds into a constant push and pull between the FilAm’s two identities, leaving it up to the individual to decide how to negotiate the polar sensibilities into some kind of accord where harmony and equal standing, not domination by one over the other, are the end results.
Sonoma State University Professor Leny Mendoza Strobel intimates in her book, A Book of Her Own: Words and Images to Honor the Babaylan, that the Filipino identity is in need of a restoration, a restoration that confers upon it an undeniable visibility and autonomy from the irresistible force field of the American colonial and cultural ethos. Strobel is mystical and inspirational with her thoughts on this matter. She is a deeply spiritual and passionate writer to boot, and gifted with a scholarly intellect that has closely-examined the works of prominent post-colonial/post-structuralist writers and thinkers like F. Sionil Jose, Michel Foucault, Walden Bello, Toni Morrison, Carlos Bulosan, Walter Benjamin, Edward Said, and Renato Constantino.
In the foreword fpr the book, Ianthe Brautigan proudly tells us that Strobel, her good friend, has “read herself out of her colonial consciousness.” No longer does she allow her identity to be determined by colonial values and moralisms. Strobel has found the courage to finally jump out of her colonial skin and touch bases with her genuine Filipino self. She calls on other Filipinos to do the same: “Enough of our furtive glances at each other, our self-doubts, our self-flagellation, our false imitation of idols, and fake bravura. I am taking off my mask…I can embrace my wholeness now and see my colonized self recede elsewhere.”
Strobel’s book is full of exquisite poetry and moving ruminations that reflect her intrepid endeavor to recover her postcolonial self. If one is to go by what and how she writes in A Book of Her Own, then it is safe to say that she has succeeded for the most part in finding her self, despite the “temptation to succumb to one’s inner postcolonial angst and fear.” Strobel now wants other Filipinos to follow her example and conduct their own meaningful search for the hidden subjective voice emanating from their authentic identity. That unique voice strips away colonial misconceptions and guides Filipinos into an enriching unity with their individual and collective selves.
Strobel organizes much of her prose and poetry in resonant, philosophical vignettes as well as in the form of essays which are either intellectual, personal, historical, or spiritual, if not a blend of all four. This is one of the beauties of her book: Strobel’s ability to balance art, politics, history, erudition, and something of a Buddhist/Gnostic life perspective. Analogous to the FilAm identity she belongs to, there is no easy formula by which to pigeonhole the body of Strobel’s work.
Strobel appears to perceive herself as a modern version of a babaylan, the exceptional women figures who thrived during the Philippines’ pre-colonial era. The babaylan held the authoritative roles of barangay leader, soldier, shaman, seer of the future, and educator. It is the babaylan ideal that Strobel tries hardest to emulate. It is the ideal of feminist power and respect, the ideal of parity with men, and the more contemporary ideal of reuniting colonial mentalities with their cultural and historical heritage. Strobel asserts that the babaylan ideal flows through the FilAm community today, not only giving “us a language for talking back to the empire that we now paradoxically belong to,” but also to “symbolize an imagined return to one’s roots within the context of the diaspora.”
A Book of Her Own brings together an eclectic mix of compositions, verses, representations, references, and stories that form a bond between the FilAm reader and the totality of their inner being. Such a being has gone through a disillusioning process of “decolonization” to use Strobel’s words. It is a being that can now stand on its own, free of its colonial demons and blinders, and knowledgeably raise issues that are critical to the future of the FilAm diaspora.
Allen Gaborro is an art and book reviewer for the San Francisco-based Philippine News weekly. He is also a freelance writer who has written on politics, history, literature, and cultural issues. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.