Five books about overseas Filipinos

To celebrate the legacy of Carlos Bulosan, born on this day in 1913, we recap the best novels and collections by Filipinos outside of the Philippines

by Mio Borromeo, photo by Mags Ocampo

To celebrate the legacy of Carlos Bulosan, born on this day in 1913, we recap the best novels and collections by Filipinos outside the Philippines

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Carlos Bulosan wrote in his semi-autobiographical magnum opus, America is in the Heart: “The human heart is bigger than the world.”

It’s a fitting idea that only stresses how timeless and deeply moving his work remains today in the age of the OFW. Though Bulosan died in 1956, ten years after the publication of his best remembered novel, a large part of our contemporary tradition has been formed by overseas writers sharing their experiences, allowing readers to faithfully follow the Filipino venturing out of the country into the world. We look back at five of the best novels and short story collections to follow Bulosan, certainly a small representative of the last seventy years of literature on Filipinos abroad:

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The Day the Dancers Came by Bienvenido N. Santos

Nearly all of Bienvenido N. Santos’s writing can fall under this category, but between his novels and collections, Santos’s short stories tend to pack a bigger punch. Consider especially the title story of this book, which captures the complex nostalgia old-timer immigrants have for the homeland and the tragic alienation that results from their attempts to connect with visiting countrymen.



The Gangster of Love by Jessica Hagedorn

Though Hagedorn is best known for her first novel Dogeaters, it’s her second novel that focuses on the immigrant experience. Telling the stories of young Rocky Rivera, her brother Voltaire, and their mother Milagros, The Gangster of Love documents their arrival in America, simultaneous with the passing of Voltaire’s idol Jimi Hendrix, and follows their diverging storylines, which bring them back to the Philippines in the end to confront another harrowing death.



Soledad’s Sister by Jose Dalisay

Also shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, Dalisay’s second novel considers the plight that hangs over all Filipinos working overseas and accompanies them when they decide to return home. Aurora Cabahug is one of the yearly six hundred OFWs who return to Manila in a casket. Her sister, Soledad, tries to claim her body from the airport, but misfortune befalls her and the local police officer attempting to help.



In the Country by Mia Alvar

Alvar’s book, which was released earlier this year, has already earned a strong following here and abroad. As a short story collection, Alvar’s book allows for a wider range of experiences to zero in on — rather than simply focus on the OFW in America, her stories also find overseas Filipinos in the Middle East, Filipinos who return home, foreigners who in the Philippines, and then some.



Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

Winner of several high honors, including the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008, Ilustrado tells the story of two Filipino writers based in New York. The younger writer (also named Miguel Syjuco) is compelled to return to the Philippines after learning that the older writer, his mentor, has died under mysterious circumstances. Drawn to his mentor’s legacy and the possibility that he may have left behind a child and a secret manuscript that condemns the systems that run the country that scorned him, Syjuco unravels the Philippines in a way that is dark, wild, funny, and fresh.