The newer edition of this book comes with a long introduction by the scholar E. San Juan Jr and then an additional shorter introduction by the novelist Elaine Castillo, known for her novel America is Not in the Heart. Both add some important and significant contributions to the novel. The scholarly introduction helps to place the novel critically and historically, while the writerly introduction helps to place the novel culturally within the continuum of Philippine-American literature.
The novel itself is heavily autobiographicaly in its approach, but being a novel instead of a memoir gives it some important latitude, as well as adds a layer of crypticness to it. I think about the layers of real and fabricated autobiography that color novels by William Styron and Ben Marcus as examples.
We begin in the Philippines as the young Carlos is born, grows up on a farm, and sees a few different forms of economic exploitation function within his life as his family’s four hectares are slowly winnowed down to three, then two, and finally only the small sliver of land the house itself is on, when predatory legal disputes take the last of it.
Carlos moves to America soon after. At this time, the Phillippines is still a colony of the US, having been ceded in the Spanish-American War. In America, Carlos finds that a lot of the experiences are more or less the same, but the flavor is different. The financial violence of the exploitative Phillippine system is layered with racist violence in the US (well, at least it adds an overt version of the inherent, but indirect forms of violence). The result is moving from one underclass to another through his various experiences. The autobiographical element plays strongly not only in the personal pain and experiential elements of this book, but also in the structure, where there’s less need to make the episodic elements form a strictly cohesive narrative.