Eric Gamalinda and I overlapped in New York City in the 1990s, when I knew (of) him more as a poet. I should know better (blame it on youth!) than to label him by genre, because clearly Gamalinda is a multi-faceted writer (as well as a playwright, filmmaker, photographer, and more): he was shortlisted for the big-deal 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize for his novel The Descartes Highlands (which doesn’t seem to be available Stateside), and won the Philippine Centennial Literary Prize (which, according to his bio, is “the highest award ever given to a Filipino writer”), as well as the Philippine National Book Award. Gamalinda’s new collection makes a complementary companion to Lysley Tenorio‘s remarkable debut, Monstress, which hit shelves in February; both offer eight contemporary stories that draw on the authors’ shared Filipino heritage and their hybrid identities as foreign-born writers living and creating on the other side of the world.
Out this month, People Are Strange includes six stories which have been previously published elsewhere. The oldest (publication history-wise) is the bittersweet “Fear of Heights,” which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1995, about a fortune-teller who shares “a few trade secrets,” crashing puns intended. The most recent is the entertainingly ironic “Famous Literary Frauds” which ran in the winter/spring 2011 issue of the Asian American Literary Review, in which a Filipino writer can only get published in the guise of his beautiful, young student who becomes a high-wattage literary celebrity with the writer’s works.
Of the two unpublished-before stories, “Yes, Jesus Loves Me” – which is the collection’s final and most personal piece – focuses on the history of a familial Jesus, Gamalinda’s grandfather, who died more than three decades before Gamalinda was born. [For some reason, I felt compelled to google my way through the story: I admit knowing the ‘real’-ness of Gamalinda’s relatives, his grandfather’s Philippines Supreme Court Justice-mentor, his grandfather’s law firm, etc. added a satisfying poignancy.] Through the “pleasure of storytelling,” Gamalinda reconstructs the personal story of a man he never knew – and the other-worldly pact he made with two close friends before he died.
Gamalinda’s ‘strange people’ – an adopted Marcos “son,” a dead man sending emails to his ex-wife, the Elvis of Manila, a fictional Eric Gamalinda who can change skin color at will, a murderous fly-killer – are all feats of imaginative invention, albeit with varying degrees of curious behaviors, characteristics, choices. Their strangeness ultimately makes them more uniquely human, each searching for connection in a disjointed, scattered world.