Essayist and fictionist Erma Cuizon's first novel, 'Women in the House'

Inside a Cebuana's hearth

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THE MODERN city woman–independent, family and career-oriented–is out to break the age-old stereotype of the meek, damsel-in-distress ideal of the patriarchal society. She drives her own car, works her way up the corporate ladder, and can even raise children without any support from a husband.
Women in the House (UST Publishing House, 2006), the debut novel of award-winning essayist and fictionist Erma Cuizon, tells the story of the modern woman who crosses the boundaries of the city to reach the dispersed islands of the Visayas.
Fresh from her two collection of essays, Time of the Year and Vital Flow, and the short story collection, Homecoming and Other Stories, Cuizon ventures into the genre of the novel. With her Visayan roots entrenched in almost every chapter of the book, Cuizon details the lives of three Visayan women–their quiet strength to endure sudden upheavals, and their efforts to fulfill the needs of their children.
After being abandoned by her husband Ben, Ester struggles to adjust to her new independent life. Anita, her housemaid, whom she suspects of having an affair with her husband, leaves for the province, leaving her to tend the house on her own. With an unstable insurance job, a rickety car, and a six-year-old son, Ester bears up her blurry future in the middle of busy Junquera at the heart of Cebu City.
Ester eventually sees her experiences reflected on her new housemaid, Flor, from Bohol. Like Ester, Flor was also abandoned by her apathetic husband, leaving her alone in raising their child. Like a three-fold mirror, Pepita, Flor's cousin and also a Boholana, dives into the flow of the narrative, invited by Flor to work as a nanny for Ester's son. Hoping to recover from the torture of being raped in Manila during her futile job-hunt, Pepita jumps at the chance to work for Ester.
The revelations of Flor and Pepita's life in the province eventually attract Ester so that the two helpers become her "family."
Cuizon uses flashbacks to introduce her character's reveries. Her injection of Cebuano words like ma-ot (arrogant in-laws), maayon gab-ii (good evening), palangga (love/loved one), underlines her pride in the Cebuano language. Like a tourist guide, Cuizon highlighted the Visayan culture by calling common items like the habal-habal (motorbike) and sinugba nga isda (grilled fish) in their Cebuano names.
Tourist spots in Cebu City are also illustrated with excitement as Ester and her friends drive through a well-known restaurant named sutukil (short for sugba, tuwa, kilaw) on the beach.
Cuizon also adds touches of Boholanon culture to complement the characters of Flor and Pepita. The loyalty of Boholanos to their way of life is depicted in the song, "Kon ikaw Ondo, nangitag pangasaw-on, siguro-a gajud ang Bol-anon" (A Boholano boy should look for a Boholana to marry, and make sure of it), mentioned in the last part of the novel. Each time the characters try to remember critical events in their lives and everytime Flor and Pepita miss their child, the simplicity of days in Bohol tend to soften their sorrows.
Cuizon's first attempt in novel-writing reflects her fondness for common and mundane things in the domestic life of women. Through the characters of Cuizon, simple family problems like sickness and financial constraints, if surmounted, seem like a huge feat. Cuizon's sensitivity quite convincingly discovers new dimensions in familial experiences and events.

By Marie Jeanette P. Cordero

Montage Vol. 10 • December 2006