Book Review: Dancing Between Bamboo Poles: Poetry and Essay by Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor
Growing up in Canada, my imagination was always full of my family’s memories and stories from the Philippines. I was always trying to bridge the gap as they described the life they traded for the one here. Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor has masterfully put this collective, familial consciousness into words in Dancing Between Bamboo Poles: Poetry and Essay. Mabanglo-Mayor moves fluidly between history and personal experience. The ways she navigated conflicting cultural expectations and shifted from role to role are vulnerable, down-to-earth and stays with you long after reading the book.
Hot Oil, Monsoon Rains is one of my favourite essays from this book. The author documents her journey trying to make gluten-free lumpia for her celiac husband, while remembering how her grandma made the lumpia wrappers from scratch. As the story details the culinary journey her and her partner go through, the reveal is that the wrappers are only made of two very simple ingredients.
“A low table. A two-burner stove. A stool. A white smock. Brown hands wrinkled. A paintbrush and batter. The rise and fall of a dialect I never learned, was never taught.”
The author recounts how, prior to her husband Kel becoming celiac, her mother and grandmother hadn’t been sure if he would eat Filipino food. Her grandmother was impressed when he heartily ate their adobo and she accepted him as family. However, Kel lost this tie with her family when he became a severe celiac.
They search for alternatives in a Northwest town. Asian cuisine manages to be forgiving, with some modifications like tamari sauce instead of soy and eating rice in place of wheat. Along the way, Mabanglo-Mayor remembers her Lola making lumpia in her youth. She tries to remember the recipe and asks others if they make it from scratch. Everyone’s answer is that they buy them frozen and ready-made. As she tries to find the recipe, she beautifully weaves her memories of a Filipino kitchen.
Though her Lola is no longer alive, the timelessness of her Lola’s cooking survives through Mabanglo-Mayor’s memories and her desire to create something delicious her partner can eat. This act of love will feel familiar to many readers. I have been learning to cook my dad recipes during the pandemic. When we make lumpia, my husband rolls and I peel apart the wrappers. The sheets stick and tear if I peel too fast. When I was little, my family had a lumpia production line. My dad and sister would roll, I would peel the wrappers and my mom would fry. Whenever I peel now, I remember my sister teasing my torn wrappers. Mabanglo-Mayor reminds us that cooking occupies more than one dimension; it is an undying connection that nourishes both the soul and body though food.
Other notable essays from Mabanglo-Mayor include Falling from the Sky, which is an essay that weaves a Filipino folk tale and personal narrative; Becoming a Woman of Colour’s is a heartbreaking passage about her daughter trying to grasp her identity. Each piece is a meditation and exploration of what it means to be Filipino-American.
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Nathalie De Los Santos
Chopsticks Alley Pinoy Contributor
Nathalie De Los Santos is digital designer and videographer based in Vancouver BC. She is the founder of PilipinxPages, a bookstagram of Filipino book recommendations. Her work appears in Marias at Sampaguitas, Ricepaper Magazine, Gastrofork, and The Vancouver Observer. She has read as an author at the LiterAsian Festival, BIPOC Writing Community Reading Party, Freedom (W)rites: 8 Filipino Authors, and Sampaguita Perspectives: A Celebration of Filipino-Canadian Writers. She writes SFF and has completed three novels.