SINCE the Americans came to the Philippines in the early 1900s, the country became lost in the culture of its two colonizers as it struggled to find its own identity—falling into what some would call, a country with a “damaged culture.”

No other writer has explored this theme better than National Artist for Literature and Ramon Magsaysay Award recipient Nicomedes “Nick” Joaquin. The theme is explored in his first novel, The Woman Who Had Two Navels (Regal Publishing Co., 1961), which won the Stonehill Award for the Filipino novel in English.

Woman is the story of Connie Escobar, a young married woman who runs away to Hong Kong, wanting to be freed from the abnormality of having two navels. There, she turns to Pepe Monson, a horse doctor, and his priest brother, Tony, who are baffled by the girl’s mysterious problem, but nevertheless feel the urgent need to help her.

Her claim of having two navels however, is marred by the testament of her mother, Concha Vidal, an intriguing woman known for having affairs with younger men, who doubtfully proclaims that Connie has been lying since she was a child.

Connie’s odyssey in Hong Kong is followed by a series of strange events that subtly changes her and the lives of the Monson brothers. Aside from Pepe’s slight estrangement from his fiancée, Rita, and Tony’s neglect of his church duties, they also note how their father, whom Concha Vidal claimed to have known in their youth, is wasting away after returning from a trip to Manila.

The Monson brothers’ displacement and Connie’s desire to eliminate her other navel and flee from the evils of reality reflect the Filipino caught between the differences of two foreign cultures as he struggles to find his own. Connected by an umbilical cord to Spain for 300 years, he is suddenly forced to embrace a new culture, until he loses his sense of history, tradition, and identity. However, the acceptance of the new and real would mean living in the memory of the past, as how the Monson brothers try to explain to Connie that the lie of having two navels wasn’t an excuse for renouncing reality and the past.

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Writing in what critics call the “baroque, Spanish-flavored English,” Joaquin gives The Woman With Two Navels an entirely different experience, that of history and mysticism unfolding as the real and the imagined intertwine in the intoxicating language of his narrative. The shift from the reality of the linear events to the flashbacks on the lives of the characters reflects Joaquin’s deep historical sense, mirrored in his detailed descriptions of life in the span of those years.

The same feeling of Joaquin’s historical sense is also present in his other works.

In his second novel, Cave and Shadows, Joaquin combines the elements of a detective story, political issues, and magic realism as it unfolds the murder of a pagan girl in a cave.

Meanwhile, Tropical Gothic, first published in 1972 and reprinted in 2003 by Anvil Publishing, collates Joaquin’s classic novellas, Candido’s Apocalypse, Guardia de Honor, The Order of Melkizedek, and Doña Jeronima, among others. This collection also includes the first chapter of The Woman Who Had Two Navels.

Most of the stories in Tropical Gothic can also be found in Prose and Poems, but the latter provides access to Joaquin’s poems, such as The Innocence of Solomon.

Unknown to many, Joaquin also wrote children’s stories, all published by the Mr. & Ms. magazine in the 1970s. These were later collected in his book, Pop Stories for Groovy Kids. Sharline J. Bareng

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