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All Heathens by Marianne Chan (Sarabande)
Marianne Chan proves herself a deft storyteller in her debut collection, All Heathens, a poetic counternarrative to Antonio Pigafetta’s Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation. “[N]ations, like, homes // are a fluid thing,” she tells us.
Early in the collection, in “Lansing Sinulog Rehearsal, 2010,” Chan transports us to a Sinulog Festival in mid-winter Michigan, where a community is about to rehearse a “factually dubious play.” She sets the tone by describing the buffet of “aluminum trays / heavy with pancit, dinuguan, pinakbet, caldereta, lumpia, // leche flan, bibingka, and five Hot-N-Ready pizzas for / the husbands and children.” The teenage director keeps repeating the newly learned Bisaya word for masturbation in order to make everyone laugh, and the comedy and chaos of community theater is magnified by the cast itself: an accountant plays the King and an out-of-work GM worker plays Magellan. In this Waiting for Guffman, however, the players are multiracial families who have, Chan notes, mostly met on the internet. The amateur festival actors not only act out Magellan’s delivery of Jesus to the Philippines, but also another ongoing narrative:
All the Filipina wives are playing native dancers, and their
husbands are playing conquistadors, because what were
conquistadors if not small-town men with beer breath
wearing plastic armor, holding a figurine of a brown baby
Jesus while a native woman throws them the keys to their
Buick sedan asking them to grab the paper plates . . . .
Through the absurd details of the scene, Chan cracks open a complex colonial history that continues to play out in the Philippines’s most recent colonizing country, the birthplace of the Buick sedan.