Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 4, September 2000
Merlinda Bobis

White Turtle

Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 1999,
paperback, 199 mm x 130 mm, pp. 189,
ISBN 1 875559 89 2.

reviewed by Carolyn Brewer

In her book, White Turtle, Merlinda Bobis presents an insightful collection of twenty-three short stories, set in the Philippines and in Australia, that are crafted to catch the imagination and wrench the emotions of the reader to the very last word. Bobis is a consumate story-teller with a delicious sense of humour, who brings emotion, sensuality and magical qualities to her tales.

Her preference for writing bilingually in both English and Filipino[1] is again evident in this volume. However, rather than separating the two 'tongues' as in her Cantada of the Woman Warrior Daragang Magayon,[2], in White Turtle she reflects the hybrid spoken language pattern of the Philippine Islands by presenting her prose in English, peppered with the occasional Filipino phrase, and the poems and songs in Filipino with an English translation. Flavouring both and coming through the Filipino is the colonial Spanish tongue.

It seems particularly appropriate to be reviewing Bobis' book in an issue of Intersections that is devoted to 'displacements', 'transitions' and 'diasporas'. These themes resurface in different guises throughout her text - from the hybridity of language and food that emerge from the melding of different cultures that occurs during the process of migration, to the 'The Sadness Collector' in which the problems of a young girl raised by her father while her mother honours overseas contracts abroad are poignantly and, at times, brutally heightened.

If the green mango pickle in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children[3] imprisoned your senses in delight, then you will not be disappointed with the 'joys of the palate' that emerge throughout this text and which Bobis uses to emphasise the links between taste and dialect/tongue and language. In 'An Earnest Parable', she writes about migrants from around the world who made their homes in a neighbourhood and 'shared various languages and delicacies'. In fictionalising Hélène Cixous' 'song before the word',[4] Bobis includes an additional dimension. She attributes the production of language to the 'tongue' which also serves as the repository of the memory of taste and smell. She observes, 'You see, the tongue had an excellent memory. Even when it had moved in a new mouth, it still evoked the breath of spices, sweets and syllables of the former host' (p. 3).

In the magic realism within which Bobis cloaks some of her female characters a partial escape from colonialism can be read. Her fish-hair woman, with 'twelve metres of of very thick black hair' is reminiscent of the powerful female shaman baylan or catalonan of the pre-hispanic Tagalog and Visayan speaking areas of the Philippines. For the baylan long hair was an essential component of her propitiating rituals. In Bobis' tale, however, 'history hurts' the hair of the woman who cleansed a river by trawling corpses from its depths with her powerful tresses. Even in this story, though, the influence of hispanic colonialism can be found in whispers of 'martyrdom and resurrection' that trace across the pages. And then there is the old woman of the 'White Turtle', brought to a writers' conference in Australia from her village in the provinces of the Philippines. The old woman transfixed her audience with the lyricism and mysticism of her oral story chant and in the process confounded some other performers more tied to the printed page than memory and the musical quality of language.

In the three stories mentioned above, and in all the others in this exciting collection, Merlinda Bobis' strong female characters confront the difficulties and joys of life. The voice of hispanic patriarchal catholicism, long since hybridised with feminised indigenous religious practice, overarches the tales where it is gently questioned and resisted. White Turtle will be of special interest to those readers looking for short stories that put a human face to postcolonial theory, and to issues surrounding migration, displacement and transition.


[1] Filipino is the national langauge of the Philippines - and is based largely on Tagalog.

[2] Merlinda Bobis, Cantada ng Babaing Mandirigma Daragang Magayon/Cantada of the Warrior Woman Daragang Magayon, Manila: Institute of Women's Studies, St Scholastica's College, Babaylan Women's Publishing Collective, 1993.

[3] Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children, London: Cape, 1981.

[4] Hélène Cixous, 'La Jeune Née,' in Sexual/Textual Politics, Toril Moi, London and New York: Methuen, 1985, 1987 edition, p. 114.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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