In the mix

In The Company of Strangers

In The Company of Strangers / Michelle Cruz SkinnerBamboo Ridge, 2009, 181 pages, $18

The most famous Filipina in the United States is Michelle Malkin. That’s just terrible. Tia Carrere got the Grammy and Rob Schneider got the big role in 50 First Dates, but Malkin’s immigrant-bashing, internment-defending, McCarthyism-worshipping brand of authoritarianism has made her a mainstay on “news” networks and Sunday morning talk shows. For worse, Malkin is the leading exemplar of Filipino-American identity in the mediaverse today.

We nominate Michelle Cruz Skinner instead. The Manila-born author of the story collections Balikbayan and Mango Seasons has a wonderful ear for the rhythms of common speech, and her characters have long made her stories accessible even to those who lack a deep familiarity with their cultural touchstones.

Cruz Skinner, who now lives in Honolulu, has won acclaim inside the Fil-Am literary community for her sharply observed tales of everyday life, but with the exception of a choice award nomination or two, she has remained under the radar even for most of the highbrow literary crowd.

Here’s hoping Cruz Skinner’s most recent collection, In the Company of Strangers, will change that. With stories ranging from the heart of Manila to the far reaches of the Filipino diaspora, this new collection is a true tour de force.

In “Beautiful,we meet Virgie, a young woman living date-to-date on the resort island of Boracay. That her affections for older Western men come with a price does not lead Virgie to think of herself as anything like a prostitute–and we want to believe with her.

“Parenting” is a slice-of-life story about Ed, a middle-aged dad living in the Minneapolis suburbs with his wife and young daughters–and now also with his mother, fresh off the jet from Hawaii (and before that, from Luzon) and ready to make herself anything but scarce in her son’s home.

All of Cruz Skinner’s gifts are on display here, particularly her ability to capture the essential tensions of a life by building a window through which quotidian events and banal chatter reveal the way we make and don’t make the decisions that matter.

Cruz Skinner’s stories also provide a window into Filipino-American literature, and the monthly live storytelling showcase Aloha Shorts will feature “Beautiful,” as read by Donalyn Dela Cruz, this month as it celebrates Filipino writers. Among the show’s other offerings will be a reading of “Waipahu One Morning,” by Normie Salvador.

Hawaii Public Radio and Bamboo Ridge Press present Aloha Shorts January 2010 live taping, Atherton Performing Arts Studio, 738 Kaheka St., Sun 1/10, 6:45 pm free with reservations required, 955-8821