Book Review of Jennilee Austria- Bonifacio’s “Reuniting with Strangers”5 min read

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Jennilee Austria-Bonifacio’s debut novel, Reuniting with Strangers, is chock full of Philippine tropes: the lovesick seaman, the fat-shaming mother who consults priests instead of doctors, the abusive husband who demands overseas remittances, the aunts and lolas who become de facto guardians, the money leeching relatives, even the queer Miss Universe-obsessed teen. Yeah, it’s all here.

If these seem like stock figures from Philippine soap operas, it’s not wrong. Most tropes exist because they have a kernel of truth in them. Austria-Bonifacio’s are fully fleshed-out characters, suffering from loneliness and isolation, torn between grief and hope, often second-guessing the choices that led them to leave the motherland for Montreal, Waterloo and Sarnia in Ontario, Osoyoos in British Columbia, and Iqaluit in Nunavut.

These are the stories of our mothers and fathers, siblings and cousins, and even the neighbours who used to live down the street. I’m hard-pressed to think of any Filipino family I know who doesn’t have a migrant worker story to tell.

The novel is a collection of loosely interconnected vignettes about different migrants, some of who come from the same fictional town of San Marco del Mudo. Their stories are harrowing, poignant, heartbreaking, yet always with a tiny sliver of hopefulness. The narrative starts and ends with Vera, a woman who escapes her abusive husband by working abroad. She is forced to leave her baby Monolith behind with her sister Sora, and to spend years scrimping and saving so they can be together again. When the oddly-named child finally reunites with his mother after years apart, he promptly becomes a nightmare of behavioural problems. In the intervening chapters, Monolith cameos in the background as a troubled, nonverbal disruption, until the end when he finally speaks, has his say, and gets what he’s been longing for.

Reuniting with Strangers interrogates motherhood thoroughly. How can someone like Vera be a good mother if she was physically absent from her son’s life for the first few years? Is being a good provider the only gauge for migrant worker motherhood? Other characters, like the never-named auntie of twins Chriselle and Gracielle, are deprived of their sympathetic mother figure when their biological mother forces them to move to Iqaluit. The same loss hounds another character, Ginette, who her grandmother mostly raised.  

Aside from the mother figures in the novel, the motley collection of characters includes Benita, a second-generation immigrant who prefers to be called Benoîte, a woman desperate to purge herself of her Filipino-ness. She is a modern version of Jose Rizal’s Doña Victorina, down to the plastic surgery and the whitening creams. There is also Lolo Bayani, a nationalistic old man who is bothered by his grandkids’ lack of connection to their culture and heritage, and Jermayne, a queer teen who is both happy and scared to discover their true self as they adjust to a new life in Canada.  

Many things have been said about the Philippine diaspora, of course, and there are so many viewpoints to consider: those who’ve returned, those who’ve been left behind, and those who’ve never gone back. Uniting with Strangers does its best to straddle these viewpoints, resulting in a rich tapestry of voices and perspectives.

One compelling chapter, “The Outsiders,” centers on Avril, a bitter and acidic woman who has lost her parents and everything familiar in Chemical City, the town she grew up in. Avril resents her mooching relatives, her Uncle Edmond and his brood, who siphoned off most of her parents’ salaries to renovate the family home in Taguig. Her bitterness finds a target when some of her relatives finally get their paperwork to stay in Canada for good. A counterpoint to Avril is Monela, her good-natured but slightly spoiled cousin who experiences culture shock upon arriving in Sarnia. Monela slowly understands Avril’s issues and finds a unique and heartwarming solution to their living situation.

If some of the characters seem like they have lost their capacity for joy, it’s because they’ve been stuck in survival mode for so long they don’t know how else to live. The novel captures how overworked Filipino caregivers are. The characters are constantly working double shifts to sustain two households—one in Canada and one in the Philippines—leading to depression and irritability.

Perhaps the only aspect that the novel fails to interrogate is the political and economic reasons why its characters are in such abject poverty in the first place. Why have these people been placed in such untenable situations? I looked up current statistics and learned that the Philippine diaspora worldwide has hit around 12 million, with roughly 950,000 Filipinos in Canada alone. Cash remittances from the contract workers of this group top $45 billion Canadian dollars annually. The economy of the Philippines is essentially buoyed by foreign cash. Any nation whose greatest export is its own labor force, in my mind, has probably failed as a country. Maybe these observations are material for another novel, but it’s worth mentioning: these characters wouldn’t be so miserable if things at home didn’t suck so much. 

Overall, Reuniting with Strangers is a compelling, thought-provoking novel that should be read by more Filipinos and anyone who’s contemplating moving away from their families and home countries in pursuit of a better life. Is alienation and culture shock worth it? Will the financial rewards outweigh the years of separation? Lastly, will the fabric of one’s family life tear apart or be mended once reunification occurs? As the novel shows, every family is different, and both happy and sad endings are abundant.   


Rachel Calabia Epp is an occasional writer, editor, and craftsman. She is a Filipino American who now resides in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She studied Asian and Third World Literature at the University of the Philippines and copy editing at UC Berkeley Extension in California. Under her maiden name Rachel Anne Calabia, her freelance non-fiction and short fiction has appeared in several Philippine publications. She was also a regular contributor to the San Francisco Book Review. This is her first piece for a Canadian magazine.

Jennilee Austria-Bonifacio was featured at LiterASIAN Festival 2024.  

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