Han Ong’s The Disinherited

Ong, Han. The Disinherited. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004.

Each time he went back [to the movie], there was a new sighting of the boy (or the boy’s twin) at the side of a previously innocent shot…The same boy, over and over, skinny, fey even, though unsmiling, eyes dull in the manner of things vacated by hope, as one with the infernal heat and always, always demanding correction for the huge injustice of his plight: he did not belong at the side, and would not be shunted there, forgotten. His haunting was hate-filled, as much has as there was heat emanating from the screen (369)

On the last page of Han Ong’s The Disinherited, these lines express the  demands of a ghost no longer to stand in the periphery of a historical narrative of masculinity and guns told by the movie, a retelling of MacArthur’s involvement in the Philippines where the “exotic soil” of the Philippines becomes a “staging ground for American cowboy antics” (366). The boy, Pitik Sindit, appears in every viewing of the film as a different background character, if only for a few moments in each viewing, moving “ahead of the throngs of suffering American soldiers,” past the “carefully photographed faces” of John Travolta, Harvey Keitel and Samuel L. Jackson. He haunts the mind of Roger Caracera, a forty-four year old Pilipino immigrant who, like the book’s author, Han Ong, migrated to the United States as a teenager, to become a successful playwright. Though Caracera sees his migration from the Phillipines as an act of liberation, of freeing himself from a dispised given culture to a more accommodating and radical life in New York City, the Philippines cannot so easily be left behind. It returns to him in the form of a “nagging” (367), in stowed away moments of trauma connected to the homeland, in his own guilt and responsibility at having abandoned it.

A high-school dropout and queer immigrant, Han Ong is the author of works that, like the ghost of Pitik, are themselves rage-filled, and attempt to cast anxiety, trauma and alienation as the center of the experience of being an Asian immigrant. His works, like many other contemporary transpacific novels, refuse to focus on race, and rather on the intersections of queerness that mark the diasporic subject. Like Ong, Roger Caracera is multiply queered: he is asexual, of “Frankenstein” racial origins—“Filipino and Spanish and a little German and English and blah blah;” he is a poor, outcast of his family, and an immigrant in the United States and a stranger in the homeland (18). On top of this, he refuses to belong, and in his youth moves to the United States to “pitch his tent away from the possibility of being like the rest of the world” (20). His refusal to belong can be seen as a instance of sour grapes, where the inability to belong produces a refusal to desire belonging. Caracera, like most protagonists in Ong’s novels, remains alienated not only from a community, a family or friends, but from himself, referring to himself only in the distanced last name “Caracera,” and is even unable to recognize himself in the mirror, where in a club he notices

a stoned stranger in one of the several walls made up of mirror strips, and the man looked back at Caracera with a piggish stupefaction that was so familiar, so distinctly kin, that Caracera knew at once that he must be American. And yet, a fraction of a second later, with the lights putting a veil over one part of the man’s face, the man was Filipino. American/Filipino. Foreigner/native. Foe/foe

This mirrored version of Caracera, which he only realizes is “a slivered version of himself all along” because his friend Gochengo points it out, represents a reverse mirror stage, in which the subject does not recognize his own ego within his reflection, but only the void-filled mystery of a self multiply queered; rather than subject, an unknowable object of desire (314). No narrative exists in which this mirror-Other can be known; instead this knowability exists only the haunting of the subject by the multiple possibilities of identity recognized by his own doubleness with others.

For Caracera, trauma in the United States comes in the form of cinema, as in his first “trip” on Apocalypse now, which “at its most unbearable [it] had produced an identity panic: who was he? Was he the white American shooting the gooks in the boat or was he the gooks?” (33). In the fictional movie Fiesta of the Damned, Harvey Keitel, who happens to be on the same flight to the Pillippines as Caracera, plays General McArthur, who proclaims in the penultimate scene of the movie “I shall return.” Keitel, who acts as the white savior of the Philippines, quickly becomes Caracera’s double through the Metro Manila Register, which makes them fraternal twins by tracing the facial similarities of Keitel and a picture of Caracera taken at his father’s funeral, with the caption, “separated at birth?” and “I shall return” (62). The idea of being Keitel’s double, of reproducing “cowboy antics,” influences Caracera to devote his entire $500,000 inheritance to charity, to make-up for the family history of the “overworked, underpaid laborers” on the sugar plantations of Negros. It is through denying the liberatory narrative of MacArthur that he follows a new liberatory narrative, one equally wrought in unforeseen pitfalls and inept attempts at freeing himself of the ghosts of the past, haunting his own family history. In his immense guilt, he goes so far as to consider providing “needed help” to a band of pirates threatening to kill him, since “they looked like they could use some cash. Look, he thought, they don’t even have weapons” (117). Yet, “tan or no tan” (142), his likeness to Keitel and MacArthur always stands out to the locals, who always see him as “American through and through” (108).

Caracera’s charity succeeds in riling up the ghost of his dead father, whose ghost appears to everyone else in his family except for him. The “Disinherited” of the novel’s title are strewn throughout the narrative, from Caracera’s himself to his uncle Eustacio, whose death years before the novel resulted in sixty thousand dollars of inheritance that mistakenly went to Caracera instead of Eustacio’s lover, Pitik Sindhit, whose ghost follows Caracera in New York City. Pitik, as the rightful heir to the estate of Caracera himself, is at first only named as “Eustacio’s beloved,” the lover of the family’s most aberrant outcast, whose mysterious death is clouded by forced electro-shock therapy and immense psychological torture by his family. For Caracera, the name is simply “a mantra, a Buddhist iterative for some wish he was at once fearful and hopeful to see materialize” (141). His nights are spent tossing the “falsely folkloric” name back and forth, at first in his head, and then out loud, even screaming it. Already, in his screams, the name brings about an intense anxiety, a pain and pleasure associated with “Eustacio’s beloved.” Caracera follows the name to not a woman or a man, but a fifteen year old boy, who could only have been eight at the age when Eustacio “loved him.”

Caracera’s desire to know the name inevitably leads him to the Bambang slums, which can only be described as “swampish,” and a night show called Madame Sonia’s House of Beauty and Pain, where the boy Pitik is known as “Blueboy” and wears a tight blue swimsuit that pronounces his curves and bulge as he dances ineptly for a small crowd of white expatriots, whose moans and jirations lead to other unspeakable acts upon the boy, which leave Caracera in a disgust so intense that it only be expressed “as laughter, of all things” (155). The boy, disinherited from Eustacio and fatherless himself, becomes himself a double for Caracera, who represents the most penurious, abjected form of his mirror-reflection, whose youth is similarly spent as the “scapegoat of his peers’ adolescent talent for persecution…it was his destiny to be alone, cast out” (197).   To set right the past, Caracera decides to informally adopt the boy, enrolling him in a Catholic school, moving him and his mother from the slums, and buying him away from his boss and pimp, Madame Sonia, for one million pesos.

The doubleness of Caracera with Pitik is implicit not only in Caracera’s similar history and mixed race, which makes Pitik’s resemblance appear at every mirror-image, but in the narrative’s point of view shifts between Caracera and Pitik, which are at first divided by chapters, and then, upon their proximity to each other, become meshed together in a fluid back and forth of name-changes and mixed pronouns. The first meshing of these points of views occurs in a café, where Caracera attempts to read Pitik’s actions as sincere and deserving of Eustacio’s fortune, but only detects “flirtacious little filigrees,” marking the boy as “a whore, an opportunist through and through,” while, from the shift to the boy’s point of view, Caracera is renamed Cary Grant, his mother’s favorite movie star, who he imagines as a “new ‘father,’ taking him to his new life in America” (204). But Pitik would only accept America as “part of a package that would include, first and foremost, a beloved, a lover who, understanding what he deserved gave it to him, gave him America” (215).           Yet like Caracera, Pitik’s desire for Caracera as one of love and affection is met with disdain that he is

not even remotely an object of desire for this man whom he had foolishly built up into a dashing figure of romance, but it was clear that he was no more than a case for whom the suitable emotion was disdainful charity. His life needed to be remade because it offended the man’s sense of what was proper in the world. (216)

Pitik’s voice interrupts Caracera’s narrative in small eruptions of brief but acrimonious rage, renaming Caracera Cary Grant, “the man,” “the strange man,” the American, and finally God, refusing to know him as his given name “Roger” which he sees as “completely blah,” or Caracera, which “wasn’t an American name” (222). Both Caracera and Pitik become objects of pleasure/pain to each other, doubles who become entangled with one another through desires both fearful and immense. While Pitik’s desire is for love, affection and transcendence from the homeland, Caracera, as a diasporic subject forever separated from the homeland through his skin, accent, history and cultural attitude, desires in Pitik the release of the homeland upon his psyche: the immense haunting of his father and uncle, the “gooks” of American movies set in Vietnam, the guilt for abandoning the third world, as if leaving it to its own ruin. For Caracera, Pitik needs to be the boy from Bambang slums, a “secret to cherish,” an “adventure,” a “secret accomplishment,” and a way to expose the human suffering his family had forced onto the sugarcane coolies in Negros (206).

Caracera’s largest obstacle to obtaining Pitik as his adopted son, is the German-American Feingold, one of Pitik’s clients, a self-proclaimed “lover of boys.” Yet in a crowded café where Caracera attempts to persuade Pitik to leave Feingold, the doubleness of Feingold with Caracera produces a fear of becoming Feingold, his distinct mirror image. Feingold too is an outcast, mainly by suppressing his values of pedesastry which he finds more acceptable in the Philippines, and, like Caracera, has lived a life of self-alienation from a rich family, Caracera’s of sugar, Feingold’s of dairy. Their likeness is so striking, that Caracera can only see them from an “outside eye,” who might consider Caracera himself as “Feingold’s twin” (278) and that “by not putting a stop to the actions, Roger Caracera was imparting cool approval to anyone bothered to look” (279). By seeing himself only from an “outside eye,” Caracera becomes unable to justify his interest in the boy, and instead begins to agree with the crowd: “He was gay. He wasn’t. He could be gay. He couldn’t, not truly” (285). Finally, when Feingold takes the boy to his car, Caracera chases the pair down, screaming “I own you!” seeing himself from the crowd, pointing out the American John chasing his puto, and then, finally, imagines himself “replacing Feingold, spoon-feeding the boy melted ice-cream…being undressed, pawned over” (289).

Caracera’s mirror images in Pitik, MacArthur and Feingold, seem to represent a type of impossibility of knowing through an infinite possibility of meanings. He cannot be Pitik because he is also Feingold, MacArthur, his father, and his other adopted child, Donny Osmond, a bedraggled tennis player who Caracera sponsors for an American education. Caracera’s narrative then, as one of alienation, is also one of resistance to simply simulating the mirror image, to accepting any version of the self offered to him. Instead, these multiple possibilities of the self haunt him, causing his life in the United States to be a constant reliving, not necessarily of the past, but of the Philippines itself. After Pitik is killed in a car accident, most likely an intentional hit and run by Caracera’s own fiendish Aunt attempting to stomp out the family’s aberrance, Caracera’s life in New York City becomes a constant reliving of Pitik, yet unlike historically driven trauma, Caracera does not relive a certain scene, but rather, relives Pitik as an unknowable object of desire, the cast-away child, a specter of the territory left behind.

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