Spotlight Excerpt from ‘Girl Interpreter’
This novel excerpt was written by Cherry Lou Sy in Lynn Steger Strong’s 12-Month Novel Generator
How do you become a whole person when your family breaks apart?
The protagonist considers this question when she, her elderly father, and younger brother finally reunite with her mother, one of the many Overseas Filipino Workers, in the United States. As she tries to assimilate and figure out what it means to be a woman and an American as she erases her own background, she studies the ways her mother has assimilated and watches helplessly as her father becomes more and more alienated from the new culture and coldness that her mother exhibits. Girl Interpreter is a story of choices in a world where society dictates who you are and who you’re expected to be.
The second the plane descends from the altitude of 30,000 feet, my body contracts, stomach plummeting with each turbulent movement. I am going to die. I think about the stories others will tell of me — gone too soon, what a shame that she didn’t get to live her potential, a virgin inexperienced in life. Not how anyone imagines arriving to America. With my insides falling apart, Papa tells me to pray instead of telling me a story to calm me down. That maybe if my soul says a bunch of Hail Marys a miracle would happen and this terrible airsickness would stop. My mouth forms words, but the monster in my stomach shoves its way to my throat and the queasiness possesses me like those women filled with the holy spirit, thrashing on the ground back home. “I should have given you the Dramamine,” Papa says for the tenth time since we left Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila.
Papa already pocketed the hard granola bars, foil-wrapped biscuits, and even the stale dinner rolls that Junior and I didn’t eat during breakfast at six a.m. local time. The silverware too.
He complains to the flight attendant and asks for more throw up bags since I had used mine, his, and even Junior’s vomit bags. Junior sleeps soundly on the other side of Papa, his legs akimbo. A white woman next to me turns to her young companion, shakes her head, her disgust piercing through my nausea as she says, “Never have children.”
My ears pop and her companion’s words blur. My eyes roll to the back of my head. The plane rocks from the turbulence of November winds, my entire being in synch with every movement.
“Can’t you do something about your grandchild?” the woman asks Papa.
Papa apologizes to her, ashamed to say that this is not his grandchild, but his teen-aged daughter. How could he explain his silver hair to her and how he fathered his first child at the age of fifty and that she has done nothing but stir trouble? He tries to explain that I’ve been throwing up non-stop because he didn’t give me Dramamine. How this is our first plane ride. How he should have known that it was like taking a long bus ride, only worse. How he would give me Dramamine even as a two-year-old to control the motion sickness because it made me a terrible travel companion when what he needed was a good girl who never made a fuss.
The white woman breaks a little, and tells him about how she learned from a Chinese herbalist that ginger is good for motion sickness, and that he should be giving me ginger instead. “Aren’t you Chinese?” she asks him. Papa’s tongue loosens and says yes, but not exactly Chinese. The woman furrows her brow.
He tells her about how his parents moved from China to the Philippines. How he was born and left in the hospital for two years because his parents couldn’t afford to have another mouth to feed.
“What a shame,” the woman says then asks him if we are coming for a visit. Papa pauses. It feels like the same question the man from the embassy asked us a few months before. He tells her the story we’ve all rehearsed before the interview to get our visas. That we’re tourists visiting Ma, who’s been in New York working as a nurse for the last five years. That we’re going to see snow for the first time. That five years is long enough for a mother to see her family.
“What do you do?” the woman asks.
“Business,” Papa says.
The little lies and the big lies all meld. He doesn’t tell her about all the money he lost, buying wholesale rice during the year when three Category III typhoons hit and flooded the rice fields and the stock rooms and his partner ran off with the money to pay off the creditors. He doesn’t tell her about the time when he tried to export wood carvings with an Australian man who left the country after the big earthquake, leaving him with giant carved wood rotting in storage. He doesn’t tell her that he wants to start fresh in America. He doesn’t tell her about the plan that his son and daughter will go to an American school and have American lives, or that although we bought round-trip tickets, this was a one-way journey. This is inside talk that she doesn’t need to hear. Just like the man in the gray suit at the embassy who interviewed us didn’t need to hear this kind of talk. They’re not the right words.
“How long are you going to stay?” she asks.
“Until the end of winter,” he says repeating the same words we say to the man in the gray suit who shuffled his papers and looked at us each one by one trying to gauge what was truth and what was not.
Junior asked him then if it’s alright to lie, and Papa said yes—when you have to.