When the Hibiscus Falls by M. Evelina Galang; Coffee House Press; 239 pages; $17.95
M. Evelina Galang’s latest short story collection, When the Hibiscus Falls, opens with the story “Strength is the Woman,” a retelling of the Filipino origin story of Malakas and Maganda. Commencing with a first line that contends, “No one ever gets the story right,” Galang’s confident narrator rights the story through an exemplification of physical and psychological strength while enduring a bagyo, or typhoon, alongside Malakas. The tale prefaces the iterations of strength as exemplified by an unforgettable chorus of voices that showcase the intricacies of ancestry, legacy, and womanhood in a collection of seventeen stories.
In these stories, spirits are ever-present. In “Drowning,” Galang employs searing scenes narrated through the adolescent imagination of a girl mourning her dead sister, Lourdes. The story opens with an evocative line that not only offers interiority, but also immediately engages the story’s title and hints at the unease felt by Lourdes before her death: “I hear my sister, a siren with blue fins and skin the color of palm trees, skimming coral reefs, sighing to herself.” Galang’s poignant details linger with readers, such as the “burgundy scarf made of chiffon, light as air and the color of blood” that resurfaces in the narrator’s memory as she recalls how the scarf instigated an argument between sisters. Through the narrator’s perspective and Galang’s ability to construct memory that feels just as urgent as the story’s present-tense action, readers not only understand how the young narrator idolizes her sister; we also recognize Lourdes as an active character that feels more present than some of the living characters in the story. Readers sense that Lourdes was not only a young woman with “eyes as mean as monsoon skies,” but also a character entrapped in what the young narrator describes as a “house that could not contain her.” Despite Lourdes being an absent character, she permeates the story, her presence echoes the strength exemplified in “Strength is the Woman” while simultaneously acting as a catalyst for her sister’s self-discovery.
Memory transcends a single individual or experience in many of Galang’s stories. Through collective memory and communication with ancestors, Galang’s characters encounter strength that they did not know they had. In the title story, Mayari, the narrator’s cousin, becomes ill with COVID-19 and succumbs to a coma. Galang employs a surprising shift in point of view as readers are invited into Mayari’s dream-vision where she encounters her deceased father and countless ancestors. During her dream-journey along a river, a hibiscus blossoms in her heart as a gift from the Moon, healing her. The attention to detail in such scenes captures the intricately plaited links between past and present, heritage and descendent. It is moments such as these where intergenerational strength is not only evident, but essential to the legacies of characters and the immediacy of their stories.
Whether told from the perspective of a woman discovering the world or a woman who has lived a long life, each story in this collection is told with precise voices that demand to be heard. In “Fighting Filipina,” college student, Mahal, finds herself overwhelmed by the rise in racism and violence against Asian American communities while in “Labandera,” Galang illuminates the complexities of intergenerational trauma through the stages of doing laundry as Malaya’s story unfolds. While the characters lead entirely different lives in different settings, both women are plagued by sleeplessness and physical pain. Galang uses concrete details, a “little tremor in [Mahal’s] stomach” that later “moved to her leg,” and scenes where “[a] pain shoots through [Malaya]” to demonstrate how trauma and aggressions are housed in the body. Through precise, concrete details, Galang’s characters become realistic, relatable, and, most importantly, necessary.
When Mahal’s anger and anxiety builds during an RA meeting where racism and violence against Asian Americans are downplayed, she reminds her fellow resident advisors of “all the unspoken histories.” Through Mahal, Galang communicates how the weight of both history and contemporary political unrest resides within not just a community, but within an individual. Yet, it is also through the act of proclaiming the seemingly forgotten moments of history and a reminder of what countless ancestors endured that Mahal acquires a sense of agency needed to fight. Malaya’s source of strength is sketched through a scene that portrays her motivations to also be driven by the past: “Because Filomena shuts Lola out, the old woman waits for night to close the distance between them. She whispers stories into the child’s hands, into her ear, telling her, ‘I do this so you will never have to.” While Mahal and Malaya are two different women residing in different settings, they are connected through a shared devotion to resist legacies of trauma.
Each story in When the Hibiscus Falls proves that the characters are more closely linked than readers might initially perceive. While at first it may feel daunting to trace the stories of the various characters, the magnetism of each story allows for a literary space where readers can readily contemplate and confront each new voice. The stories speak to one another as a record of generations of women and their inherent strength.