To be a poet one needs the six P’s – the pencil, the paper, the perception, the passion, the persistence and the unshakable persuasion that the poem is in fact possible and attainable. - Grace Perry

Friday, January 25, 2013

Books I have read - White Turtle by Merlinda Bobis

White Turtle is a magical, humorous, sensuous and emotional collection of short stories by Merlinda Bobis. Many of the stories contain an element of magic realism and offer either narratives or snap shots of social commentary.

The first narrative in the collection, 'An Earnest Parable', has been marinated in mouthwatering descriptions of food and language and all the things that a tongue can sense. This fantastic story offers a unique take on multiculturalism as the residents of Bessel Street taste the food and language of their neighbours through their communal tongue.
The butcher was not one to waste time. Immediately, he laid his soft, pink flesh, moist with the previous owner's steak and peppercorns, inside his mouth (1).

The delicious description of food, combined with magic realism, can also be found in Bobis' story 'The Kissing'. I hope to one day write as well as Bobis does, to capture the taste of food, to entice the senses and to create clever twists, similar to what can be found in this short story.

'Fruit Stall', the second story, is a comment on the kinds of prejudice that Filipino women, living in Australia, post the mail-order-bride trend, experience. The main character of this story hides her cultural identity, ashamed of the connotations that follow. Bobis has a way of constructing social commentary that can be at times embarrassing, but is never the less delicious to read. 'Fruit Stall' is fast paced and soaked with a dry humour:
He reminded me of the pet monkey we had when I was young. My father gave it away, because it would wake up the whole house in the middle of the night with its crazed monkey-sounds. Jake did the same, chattering away about his great big white banana getting bigger and harder... (7).
Another story that explores migration is 'Border Lover'. The descriptions of flying and of family in this story reminds me of Sophie Cunningham's Geography.

The third short story, 'Fish-Hair Woman' is a harrowing magic realism tale about a young Filipino woman who dredges the river near her village everyday, to pull out the bodies of young men. This story and the fifth story of the collection, 'Storm', are emotional tales, that deal with very raw and traumatic themes. Both stories fit within the magic realism genre, entwining superstition, Filipino mythology and real life themes of war, death, love, fear and rape.

Another story that explores the theme of war and how it impacts on Filipino civilians, in small and isolated communities, is 'Before the Moon Rises'. Reading these stories by Bobis has opened my eyes to some of the history of the Philippines.  

'Colours', the fourth story in the collection, is written from a man's perspective. It tells of an unrequited love, of an obsession that the man has for his married neighbour. Again, this story is an example of Bobis' rich writing style. Bobis has a way of drawing me, as a reader, into her stories, dazzling me with her ability to stimulate my senses through her words. In this particular story the colours of the neighbours clothing are so vivid that I feel blinded, like the man:
My doctor said I needed dark glasses for protection. I ignored his advice. I didn't want the world to grow any darker. I wanted only to dream of yellow breasts. Perhaps, she was right about me being a sleazebag, but I couldn't help it. The shapes, which I could no longer see clearly, became more defined in an inkling of song the hue of mangoes, daffodils, jonquils, all yellow staring back at me (26-27).
Another magic realism story is 'Frock', which is full of rich imagery of a dress and a child' imagination:
Silvery fish on each breast. A trail of green turtles around the waist (145).
'Jar' is a brilliant story about sexual abuse and predatory behavior in the workplace. If only all women had the same defense as the woman in this story.

The story that the book has borrowed it's title from, 'White Turtle', describes the scene of a panel of writers speaking at a writers festival and how the other writers and the western audience respond to one of the panelists. Lola Bayson does not have a published book that people can purchase and have signed, her story is an oral tale:
The bespectacled writer was slightly impatient - but her act is a multicultural or indigenous arts event, definitely not for a writers' festival (42).
This realist sketch is thought provoking and a delight to read.

'Mac Do' and 'The Curse' explore illness and family relationships. Family is a recurring theme in Bobis' stories. The love, fear and pain felt by the characters of these two stories is moving and an illustration of Bobis' skill.

'Shoes' is a great story about family and poverty. The character development in this story is beautiful, as father and daughter walk along a hot road:
He takes off her shoes, bought especially for this outing. The soles of her feet are red, promising heat blisters. He examines the shoes, knocks at the soles (113).
Family and particularly the relationship between children and their parents is described in 'The Sadness Collector'. This story uses the power of a child's imagination to explore drunkenness and separation:
The lid clatters off the pot. Beneath her room, the kitchen is stirring again. Rica sits up in her bed - the big one has returned? (132).

Family and community are humorously explored in 'Pina and the Flying Cross', as well as the themes of World War II and the isolation of small communities. Similar themes are explored in 'Flores de Mayo'. Bobis' take on small, poor towns in the Philippine is unique and captivating.

Bobis experiments with the short story format in 'The Long Siesta as a Language Primer' and 'Triptych'. 'The Long Siesta...' is laid out like a series of dictionary definitions, each definition builds on the character, setting or action that has been introduced in the proceeding one. In this piece Bobis explores Filipino language and English, something that she does in a lot of her writing, giving a sense of authenticity to her themes of migration and culture.

Another experimentation with the standard short story format can be found in 'Dream Stories'. This story is constructed through three snap shots 'Corazon', 'Yellow' and 'The Death of Chopin Chopin'. This story is a touching exploration of love, constructed in a web of magic realism, where musical notes clutter a house.

'Triptych' tells of a love triangle. It is laid out in three columns, so that it can be read vertically or horizontally. This effect both visually and poetically represents the three points (characters) of the triangle. The unusual layout of the three tales, the triangle, is daring, but it works.

The raunchiest story of this collection is 'Splinter'. To orgasm as a stranger sucks a splinter out of the palm of your hand, while waiting at a train station, makes for a fun story.

The collection finishes on a humorous note, with 'The Wind Witch'. A story that contains magic, hope, dreams and fart jokes. It was great to finish with a fun story, but this by no means drowned or dulled the impact of the stories that contained more traumatic themes.

I hope that Bobis is more happy with what I have written here than the writer, Diaz, was in 'The Review'. The stories in this collection all live up to their "aspirations", they are amazing!

An excerpt from this book can be found here.

The book can be purchased from Spinifex Press here.

Another review of this collection can be found here.

For more information about Merlinda Bobis and her writing please check out her website here.


  1. Thank you for this wonderfully vivid introduction to this book Rhiannon. You make a marvellous argument for buying the work.

    1. You should buy the book Moira, it's great! It's for sale at the Writers Centre, if you are interested.

  2. Hi Rhiannon. I'm glad I found your blog.

    1. I am glad you like it Julia! Thanks for the comment. I like your blog's layout! Just checked out your poem 'Snow and Sun', congrats on the publication! I enjoyed reading it! My favorite lines are:
      whereas the sun can dazzle us,
      make us frown,
      masquerading the dull spots
      of an exhilarating landscape

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