Author J.W. Henley states pointedly in the forward to his novel, Migrante, that “this is not my story”. Henley is not a migrant worker from the Philippines. In fact, he describes himself as a white, middle-Class Canadian, of English, Dutch and Ukrainian heritage. He has not experienced exploitation and he has never been poor. That being said, he has produced a book that is utterly convincing.
He came to the stories of migrant workers through a woman named Jasmine, a caregiver from the Philippines with an interest in music and entertainment. Jasmine might have selected Henley, at the time a music columnist for the Taipei Times, because of his sympathetic connection to punk and metal – or in his own words, because of his “rebellious spirit”. But the connection between himself and Jasmine would evolve far beyond the musical realm. Jasmine introduced Henley to several other migrantes. One by one, they poured out their hearts to him, “recounting tales of abuse, exploitation, heart-break, and humiliation.” To bring their stories to a broader audience, Henley decided to create a composite of their experiences – a fictionalized account.
The story begins with a boy named Rizal who lives in a Manila slum with his mother. Their home is a cemetery, inside a mausoleum, “shared with the remains of an old Chinese family that had forgotten it’s departed”. Rizal’s is a twilight world – populated with scavengers and junkies and nightwalkers. It is unclear in this kind of underworld whether the inhabiting souls are closer to life or to death. They certainly exist on the margins of society, forgotten, dispossessed, hopeless.
“Rizal took a heavy breath. The silver edges of the clouds had begun to bleed into their centers. He tasted rain. Later the bones of the dead would wash through lanes turned to torrents of dog shit and trash.”
Rizal, having made the decision to escape the cemetery, seeks out an agent to secure work for him overseas. In an appalling twist, Rizal, charmed by promises of prosperity and a better future, takes on debt in exchange for work and safe passage thus ensuring his excruciating entrapment. From this point on, though its hard to imagine, Rizal’s experience devolves even further into dehumanizing exploitation, abuse, abandonment and cruelty. Henley carefully illustrates how the cozy, self-satisfying inter-relationships between labour brokers, employers and corrupt systems of justice leave Rizal with nothing but dead ends. Unable to rise above his debt or to outrun his contractual obligations, ultimately Rizal’s fate is unclear.
Some of the most affecting sequences in the novel take place on a fishing boat, the scene of Rizal’s first employment after arriving in Taipei.
“Out of equal parts desperation and practicality the four men stripped down to their underwear, laying their sweat-, seawater-, and fish-gut-soaked clothing to dry on top of the wheelhouse and over the railing. Many a time Datu swore, shifting the mat from the upper portion of his body to lower when he felt his skin begin to burn. Silently they cursed the sleep that wouldn’t come, the approach of night and the return to sea that was inevitable.”
There is something of the grotesque in this novel, Henley’s language blunt, unsparing, at times deliberately heavy-handed. With few exceptions the characters are drawn without the luxury of introspection. Characters don’t suffer inner conflicts and they are not burdened by choice. Human moments between the characters are few and far between. There is an inevitability in the narrative which at points, made me want to turn away, and yet, I remained pinned because I believed it all. The lives represented in Migrante feel agonizingly true.
If Henley’s aim in writing this book was to show the powerlessness of migrant workers – to shine a cold, clear light on how cruelly they are used, how they have nothing but despair – he can count his novel as a success. For my part, I am unlikely to forget the lives I have encountered here and that, I think, is the point.
- Paperback: 310 pages
- Publisher: Camphor Press Ltd (July 16 2020)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1788691938
- ISBN-13: 978-1788691932
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