Katrina Tuvera’s “Testament and Other Stories,” a collection of seven stories that thrive in its being laconic and sometimes curios unfeelingness, is perhaps Tuvera’s rewriting of the human experience of confronting life and the seemingly inherent tensions therein and the relationships therein. Tuvera peopled her stories with different kinds of women who had various mechanisms to tackle contradictions and strains within themselves, between them and other people and between them and their surroundings.
In “The Flight,” a niece’s innocence was put into fire as she saw how his homosexual uncle was condemned and eventually eschewed from their home and their town. In “Marion,” two strangers found companions, even temporary ones, with each other, as they went through their own difficulties; the Filipina scholar abroad adjusting to a foreign place and the old foreigner woman battling the sorrow of being alone. In the title story, an insomniac was made to realize different causes of suffering by her condition: first, the haunting memories of her dead parents, the pressure and failure of bearing a child as perhaps a duty to the family’s genealogy, and her husband’s distance, as superficially evinced by their contrasting sleeping habits. This recurring theme of problematic marital relations can also be seen in “Harbor” and “Mediator.” In the former, adultery spoke again and made more curious by the fact that both husband and wife has a hint of the other’s deeds but won’t say a word about it. Tuvera seems to be telling a sad point: in the marriage of Emil and Lena, the only remaining agreement is to condone the other and pretend to be normal. In the latter, Rachel saw how Eric, her husband, is too preoccupied with work his familial, and marital relations are sacrificed. She even had to spend an afternoon with her sister-in-law, whom Eric detests, and her lesbian lover, where she felt the sense of nearness and warmth she rarely finds when with her husband, before she realized the kind of bond she’s having with him. An impaired woman swam in gloomy nostalgia, recollecting how the past took her old daughter Anna, the brightness in her aura, her husband who died in the same accident where she injured her leg and how, at present, seeing the coldness in Anna and discovering her gradual leaving by taking out her things from their house, she is beleaguered by these phantom pains. Then, in “A Passing Life,” a woman recalled the development of her special bond with her grandmother, since she was a child and until her grandmother dies.
In her introduction of the anthology, Caroline Hau described how we would find “Tuvera circling around her fictional paths, returning again and again to the same themes of exile, memory and loss (xi).” As we could all agree, these are old themes in literature and how Tuvera defamiliarized for us the concreteness and weight of these experiences, this is where the merit of her anthology lays. She is not dabbling on terseness, she seems to be a master of it. I eventually found myself agreeing with Hau in her observation that the strength of Tuvera’s stories is found on what they don’t say.
With a refusal to frolic too much on details, i.e. of the character’s surroundings, Tuvera concentrated more on showing how the character feels and what they think. At first, I indulged in this style, given my preference over character-centered fictions. However, this eventually gets a bit dragging, as I noticed the starkly opposite way of treating the settings of the stories. She would speak only of “the walls of her room,” “the sewing machine, buried under torn clothing; the unvarnished dressing table, above it, a crooked, cloud mirror.” (69) or of a small room that “had a window that opened away( 32). The settings here are only rooms, personal spaces, private nooks. Tuvera rarely showed to us the greater physical extensions where her characters breathe, where their painful experiences could be coming from. Centering on the experiences of the individual, and lacking in pinpointing her at the heart of her wider social setting, I judged this collection as far short of a realist grounding. What Tuvera showed is how the women in her stories tread along their mostly harrowing experiences, partly triumphantly, if carrying on is triumphant, but always still beleaguered by what has passed, what is past, what has left. Still, there is Tuvera being non-committal in delving deeper into the larger circumstances that could be pinned for bringing about the painful experiences. If you want fictions where what you got is mostly what the characters think about what they are going through and their own bitter, sometimes helplessly recollections of these events, this anthology shall be counted.
On Tuvera’s terseness
Tuvera’s fictions, in terms of length, are really at the opposite of what her predecessors have been wont to offer. The way she describes the demons, gnomes and temptresses residing in every individual psyche, the creases and joints found in every human relationship is almost poetic for its preference of words that do not explicate details but whose richness is located in their implications. In “Marion,” she spoke of “strangers thrown together by necessity.” In “Testament,” she limned the narrator’s consideration of what are expected from her, even by the dead: “But I am here, their only child, and my duty is to remember” (23). In “A Passing Life,” the narrating granddaughter spoke of ironies that perhaps bewitchingly make our lives more curious to live: “Only two weeks ago, I was halfway around the world. Now, death… triumphant outside the gate” (95). Tuvera’s poetic inclinations are very evident in her prose, and convincingly, she makes a pleasing work in this combination. And in sum, disregarding the fictions’ apparent, arguably intentional eschewal of the elaboration of the larger setting where the experiences of the characters emanate, this anthology wins in me for its charming poetry, the unpretentious depiction of lives and struggles of women using terse language that captures their intuitions and insights in the face of losses and temporary debilities.