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Mayor of the Roses

Marianne Villanueva

Other people walked the ground without even paying attention to what they stepped on. It continued to hold them up. No problem. She walked gingerly, as though the earth had a skin that one had to be careful not to break through. As though there might be something underneath."

Reviewed by Steven Wingate

The voices of the worldwide colonialist diaspora have become the defining characteristic of our new millennium’s literature; Marianne Villanueva’s Mayor of the Roses, split between tales of the Philippines and the lives of Filipinos in America, makes a solid contribution to that ongoing literary stream. 

In these eighteen stories, Villanueva explores tropes of diasporic literature that will be familiar to readers of contemporary fiction: dislocation from tradition, assimilation into Western culture, fidelity to families left behind, etc. Though she does so ably and with verve, Villanueva is at her best when she digs beneath such tropes and serves us something more raw and elemental. 

Many of the stories in the collection are set in Northern California among the high-tech middle class that rides the booms and busts of Silicon Valley. The weakness of Mayor of the Roses lay in the similarities between some of its stories. Certain family configurations and character traits recur almost verbatim, and some more attention to either differentiating or unifying these similar characters would have served the collection well. But fortunately there are other elements to this book that balances out the similarities of setting: unfiltered tales of Philippine life and searing portraits of unfolding grief and self-estrangement. 

The title story (and first of the bunch) pulls us immediately into a world of indecipherable violence: a provincial Philippine mayor has arranged for the abduction of a young beauty queen, later found raped and murdered. This story radiates tension in every line, introducing us to the kind of character Villanueva most excels at drawing: women in distress, whether self-induced or brought upon by circumstance. Its narrator attends the mayor’s murder trial because

...if I could feel hate, if I could feel that pure emotion burning up my body, then I would know where I belonged.

Characters of this stripe—men and children, too—appear throughout Mayor of the Roses, and many of them achieve a momentary happiness what we (and, often, they themselves) know will be replaced by an all-too-human confusion at the next turn. Villanueva brings specificity to each of these characters, which helps the book transcend the similarities of its settings. 

Particularly haunting are the youngest son in Infected, who obsessively watches for the ghost of his dead mother, and the mother in Bad Thing, whose sense of self unravels after her car hits a bicyclist. 

The gem of this book is Lenox Hill, December 1991. Though it also works with recurrent character types, the directness of its voice—reminiscent in its economy of the title story—plunges us into the grim death of the narrator’s sister. It achieves an intimacy with the reader that most of the American-based diasporic stories do not. 

Villanueva has been admirably active in the Filipino/a writing community, having edited one anthology and been part of several others during the past two decades. As she gives voice to the diaspora of the Philippines, she also reveals herself as a capable of direct, surprising viscerality that resonates after the pages of her book are closed.

Intrigued? Read one of the stories from this collection on Marianne's blog, anthropologist.wordpress.com.

Steven Wingate's  short story collection Wifeshopping won the 2007 Bakeless Prize for fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was published by Houghton Mifflin in July 2008. He teaches at the University of Colorado.


PublisherMiami University Press

Publication Date: 2005

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

Awards: Semi-finalist for the Sarabande Prize

First collection?: No, second

Author bio: Marianne Villanueva , a former Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford, has been writing and publishing stories about the Philippines and Filipino Americans since the mid 1980s. Her critically acclaimed first collection of short fiction, Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (Calyx Books 1991) was short–listed for the Philippines’ National Book Award. Her work has been widely anthologized. Her story, Silence, first published in the Three Penny Review, was short–listed for the 2000 O. Henry Literature Prize, and The Hand was awarded first prize in Juked’s 2007 fiction contest. She has edited an anthology of Filipina women’s writings, Going Home to a Landscape, which was selected as a Notable Book by the prestigious Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. She currently teaches writing and literature at Foothill College and Notre Dame de Namur University. Born and raised in Manila, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Read an interview with Marianne Villanueva

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What other reviewers thought:

San Francisco Chronicle

Phillippine Inquirer