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Balancing heart and spleen

One of the first things that struck Merlinda Bobis when she arrived from the Philippines to do her PhD at the University of Wollongong was how much Australians eat.

‘You go to a restaurant and you have a whole fish,’ says the poet and author, ‘but in the Philippines, even if we’re in the middle class, we would share that fish. It would not be for one person.’

It’s not surprising that food is the central metaphor in Bobis’s novel Banana Heart Summer.

When Nenita, the 12-year-old central character, accidentally burns the ‘weary looking, passed-over carp’ that was meant to feed her family of eight, including her five siblings, mother and recently unemployed father, her mother beats her and then throws the wok with the burnt fish and oil at her, scalding her foot.

So desperate is Nenita for her mother’s love that she does not complain but, rather, offers a little prayer later: ‘I only want to cook good, I only want to eat good, I only want to be good.’

Poverty, hunger and the violent rage of a mother whose dignity has been destroyed by her inability to feed her family are the bitter spleen of this novel whose pages are imbued with the smells, tastes and flavours of the Philippines. But as its title implies, it also has a heart, a huge heart at the centre of which lie love and compassion.

‘A lot of the issues in the book are the same as those of the Philippines,’ says Bobis, who is currently on sabbatical from the University of Wollongong to work on a new novel as a visiting fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra. ‘They include child labour, poverty, hunger and domestic helpers going abroad.

‘Each time I go home my mother says the poverty is worse and we’re very lucky we’re now middle class. But you cannot close your eyes. You can be thankful, but you see the poverty. We have people knocking at the doors asking for food, money for food, and even in the village you will have a pot of rice being stolen. It tells you a lot about hunger. And apparently now in the Philippines there is a business where people get leftovers from restaurants. And then they heat it and it’s sold. I was shocked. That is really the pits.’

Banana Heart Summer is an extraordinarily moving book. At a forum on child labour, hunger, food and mother love hosted in Melbourne in August by the Victorian Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Coalition, Sharan Burrow, president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, said that she could not remember ‘reading anything that’s touched me so much in a long time’.

Banana Heart Summer recalls a summer in the childhood of Nenita on Remedios Street, in a small Philippines village with a Catholic church at one end and an active volcano at the other. These two powerful  presences compete for Nenita’s, and the villagers’, attention as they struggle constantly for love, for acceptance and for nourishment—of body and soul.

Nenita, forced by necessity to take a job as a live-in maid with the street’s wealthiest family, wants nothing more than to be a good daughter. Her hunger, and that of her family, is both real and metaphorical, and it  is when these two interconnect—as when Nenita, on one of her many ‘neighbouring’ excursions, takes leftovers from  her wealthy employers to her impoverished family—that the reader feels Nenita’s pain. That, says Bobis, was her intent.

‘If it evokes for you your old hunger, maybe you can feel a kinship for the hunger of others,’ she says. ‘Even if it doesn’t mean working for the Third World it means that you are more feeling for your neighbour. You actually have compassion. That’s the reason why I write.

‘I wanted to write the divide between those who love to love and eat and those who long to love and eat. And I wanted the book to evoke, for anyone from any culture or any place, tender things: the love of the mother, the hunger for that love, the hunger for food. If it does evoke that for you, maybe it will enable you to leap that great divide and think of your lesser brothers and sisters.’

At one level Banana Heart Summer can be read as a joyful celebration of food. Readers are introduced to dozens of mouth-watering dishes such as aromatic chicken in bay leaf soy sauce, smoky coconut chicken in green papayas, jackfruit paper rolls, and pan graciosa, the bread of graciousness.

Most of the short chapters introduce a new dish, and describe its preparation and significance in the lives of the residents of Remedios Street, Nenita’s ‘street of wishful sweets and spices’.

We are introduced on the first page to Nana Dora, ‘the chef of all the sweet snacks that flavoured our street every afternoon, except Sundays’. Nana Dora ‘parked her wok at two in the afternoon. By three, the hungry queue began’.

Nenita’s story starts with Nana Dora, who taught the 12-year-old the lesson about the banana heart: ‘Close to midnight, when the heart bows from its stem, wait for its first dew. It will drop like a gem. Catch it with your tongue. When you eat the heart of the matter, you’ll never grow hungry again.’

All of the characters who inhabit Remedios Street are suffering from their own hungers. Some of them are drawn together by their mutual hunger, others are torn apart; some survive their hardships, others don’t.
In the opening paragraph of the novel, the adult Nenita is looking back at that summer when she was 12:
When we laid my baby sister in a shoebox, when all the banana hearts in our street were stolen, when Tiyo Anding stepped out of a window perhaps to fly, when I saw guavas peeking from Manolito’s shorts and felt I’d die of shame, when Roy Orbison went as crazy as Patsy Cline and lovers eloped, sparking a scandal so fiery that even the volcano erupted and, as a consequence, my siblings tasted their first American corned beef, then Mother looked at me again, that was the summer I ate the heart of the matter.

There is so much in that paragraph, from pathos and tragedy to humour and redemption, that is laid out on a platter to whet the appetite of the reader for the details, the recipes, the mix of language and food and human nature that make up this dish.

Remedios Street is a microcosm of a world in which hunger and want coexist with wealth, in which the promise of the church is never far removed from the threat of the volcano. Though it is about a small street in the Philippines, it is also, as Sharan Burrow said, about larger ‘communities of hunger’.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans has shown us that the balance between wealth and want, between haves and have-nots, can tip precariously, and sometimes catastrophically, in unexpected places.

After Katrina, which brought a Third World flood to the First, it was the compassion of ordinary humans that ultimately surfaced, highlighting the muddy reality of officialdom’s inability to cope with basic human needs in a time of crisis.
‘We are living in an era in which compassion is no longer a part of the discourse,’ Bobis says. ‘It’s all hard-line foreign policy in how we treat each other, impregnable demarcation lines, the border of the other and us.

‘I thought you could talk about very basic things: food, hunger, mother love. The enemy feels the same hunger, and maybe if we can find a connection, then we can put ourselves in the shoes of the other.’
At heart, says Bobis, Banana Heart Summer is ‘a book about forgiveness, a book about compassion for the mother, compassion for even someone who has hurt you.

‘In a way it is an act of neighbouring with the enemy, it’s crossing the border. And in that way you’re doing yourself a favour because you’re balancing your heart and spleen.’ 

Banana Heart Summer, Merlinda Bobis. Murdoch Books Australia/Pier 9, 2005. ISBN 1 740 45590 8, RRP 29.95.

Robert Hefner is the acting editor of Eureka Street.


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