BY LUCIA ENRIQUEZ
In the course of a summer that I spent in a lot of airports, the short story collection “In the Company of Strangers” by Michelle Cruz Skinner proved to be the ideal companion. The 16 stories read quickly but make their impact slowly and with uncanny perplexity that befit the hurry-up-and-wait rhythm of travel.
Skinner was raised in Olongapo City in the Philippines, a political and culturally volatile place and formerly the site of U.S. military bases. Now living in Hawaii, she writes stories that reflect a lifetime of travel and observation, of characters flung afield struggling to cope with fate, cultural displacement and the passage of time.
The characters are mostly Filipinos, natives as well immigrants, expatriates and overseas workers. They are old people trying to fit in new worlds, young ones looking to sort their heritage, and others in between.
In the story titled “Beautiful,” we meet a hooker inexplicably named Virgie as she goes about her day negotiating with her American and European clients in the beach haven of Boracay. Should she ask her boyfriend for a new bathing suit? Should she follow her mentor’s lead and hold him at bay to keep the gifts and money coming?
Virgie wants what is easily taken for granted – the clean interiors portrayed in magazines, the air-conditioned atmosphere of a mall to replace the drudgery of her life in the provinces. We find out that she’d been forced by her father to sell herself to help the family. Is Virgie negotiating for money, or is she looking for lost love? What would we have done, Skinner seems to ask in painstakingly painting her world, were we in her place?
In settings that span the globe, individuals in Skinner’s stories attempt to reclaim their souls in the face of forces too relentless for them to stop. In “Parenting,” Ed, a father with two kids and a Caucasian wife in Minnesota, feels hapless against his Hawaiian-American mother’s impositions on his kids. He dissuades her from feeding them sausage and fried rice for breakfast when they’d rather have cereal. For dinner she insists on cooking pork instead of pasta and salad. She relents, but then insists again. When his mother lands in the hospital, Ed faces hers, as well as his own prospect of mortality while still looking to bridge the divide that alienates her from him.
In the three-part title story, Filipino maids and servants working in the Philippine Ambassador’s residence in Italy attempt but fail to find companionship in the capsule of culture they try to recreate in Rome. The gardener grows native vegetables, the cook dishes up native food, but a betrayal within their ranks forces Celia, the maid, out of the residence. Left on her own, she finds that getting respect and love is a harder lesson to learn than overcoming cultural barriers.
The stories are bookended by autobiographical essays illuminating the material that gave rise to Skinner’s sources. She describes the complicated and explosive turmoil of her childhood home in Olongapo during the presidency of the late Ferdinand Marcos: all media censored, midnight curfews, disappearances.
It was also a childhood filled with stories of supernatural terror, ghost stories that are as much a part of the landscape as any oral tradition. Skinner writes of the aswang, ghost women who fly off with just the top halves of their bodies as they roam the world. In a way it is an apt metaphor for the immigrant experience, people who roam the world because of material necessity or the desire to escape fate. They end up in mysterious places without legs and spend a lifetime with the itch of lost limbs looking for rootedness.