Told through the eyes of a food-loving kid, Merlinda Bobis’ A Banana Heart Summer uses traditional Filipino fare to whet the appetite and comfort the soul.
Set in the 1960s, the free-spirited Nenita, whose eyes widen at the sight of Nana Dora’s deep-fried caramelized bananas, seems like any other 12 year old. Yet, her kitchen skills, sociological observations and profound sense of responsibility portray a maturity unlike others her age. With six mouths to feed (and another on the way) in addition to her father’s state of unemployment, the family struggles to survive. Nenita, the eldest, knows the power of food: rich Adobo to soothe a battered soul, coconut chicken to gain employment and pan graciosa that eased the salty bitter taste of loss.
With scrawny arms, Nining cooks meal after meal; constantly concocting recipes in the hopes that one would finally win her the love of a mother kept alive by anger. Food was not only a metaphor for people in the town but also a bridge for friendship, a means to gather and an act of love when pride, regret, and sorrow rendered people mute.
When not thinking of the latest fare, Nining bides the time observing the secret and not-so-secret habits of the community: the latest wares of the Calcium Man, the latest duet between the local Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison (and his catastrophic affair with Miss V.V.), Manolito Ching’s perfect hair, her father’s stolen tongue and finally, her mother’s latest tirade.
As the summer days heat up, the simple pleasures of childhood peel away, revealing the complex hearts of adults. She begins work as a maid for the Valenzuela family, moving out of the tiny attic filled with seven other sleeping bodies and into their home. Though living only next door, her new role as the breadwinner changes the family dynamic. Distanced from them, she is better able to reflect on the source of her mother’s ire, though still like most children, she bears the false responsibility and guilt for the matriarch’s failures. However, immersed in work and as tragic events unfold in the neighborhood, Nenita grows up. As a child she funneled the pain through an obsession with food, but as the season winds down, she learns that there is no secret ingredient to obtaining acceptance, affection or answers—she can only try to forgive.
Published in 2005, A Banana Heart Summer is Merlinda Bobis first novel. Her lustrous story of life, love and Filipino cuisine earned high praise, winning the Golden Book Award (Gintoong Aklat Award) in 2006, was shortlisted for the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal and Best in Foreign Language in Fiction from the Manila Critics’ Circle that same year. She has also written several highly acclaimed works of poetry and short fiction, as well as a second novel entitled The Solemn Lantern Maker in 2008.
Questions to ponder over…
1. Why do you think Bobis chose the title A Banana Heart Summer? How does a banana heart relate to Nenita’s development?
2. How do the dishes relate to the events that unfold in the lives of Nenita and the people of Remedios Street? Give examples.
3. What does Nana Dora mean by “when you eat the heart of the matter, you’ll never grow hungry again”?
4. How does the volcanic eruption play a role in the story? What does it signify?
5. Even after Nenita earns money for the family, why does her mother ostracize her from the home? Does the mother find another object for her anger and dissatisfaction?
6. Why does Nenita say that the devil ate her father’s tongue? Why is he unable to stand up to his wife?
7. Her mother was once rich but left her family to become a poor man’s wife. What did her mother see in her father? Do you think she regretted this decision? How does her mother’s decision and its consequences depict the weight of economic status? Is the novel critical of this issue? How so?
8. How does the novel depict social classes? Aside from wealth, what makes some families more powerful than others?
9. Why is Ralph McKenna, an American Peace Corp officer, significant in depicting the social and historical issues in the country?
10. How does Bobis use food to represent the Filipino culture?