Samaha’s remedy to the endemic erasure of the Filipino diaspora — the fourth-largest in the United States, he reminds us — involves recounting fascinating stories, like that of his great-aunt Caridad, a student who became a spy for the Allies in Manila during World War II. In one especially poignant episode reflecting the deep roots of the anti-imperialist struggle in the Philippines, a Japanese soldier threatens to swipe at Caridad’s head with his sword because he suspects her of collecting information about the American P.O.W.s to whom she is delivering food (as well as, secretly, letters, medicine and updates on the state of the war). “Caridad kept cool,” Samaha tells us, because “she had imagined this moment, prepared for it as keenly as she studied for exams or brushed her loose curls before dances. For centuries her ancestors had dealt with colonizers, studied their desires and prejudices, and learned survival tactics they passed on through generations.”
“Concepcion” also raises the galling legacy of empire that has moved some of our relatives to gush over and vote for a strongman like Donald Trump, despite his poisonous racism. Samaha portrays the complicated nature of his mother Lucy’s Trumpismo in scenes between the two that open and conclude the book. Lucy raised Samaha alone while working at numerous jobs to pursue her version of the American dream: “the best education I can give to my son.” Samaha clearly loves his deeply religious mother, but frequently runs up against her “impenetrable fortress of circular logic” in some of the book’s most compelling episodes. “Concepcion” invites us into the family’s living room conversation in the industrial suburb of Vallejo. In the process, we become privy to the manner in which two separate but linked political phenomena — the colonial history of the Philippines and the resurgence of the radical right in the United States — act as a vise grip on the hearts and minds of our relatives who support extremists like Trump. A similar logic, we’re told, leads other family members to join Samaha’s uncle Pepo in supporting Rodrigo Duterte, the famously brutal Philippine dictator who once told soldiers to shoot female rebels “in the vagina.”
“Concepcion” is at its best when it shares the lessons Filipinos have to teach those of us grappling with life in a kingdom of the north whose growing divisions between rich and poor, and politics of extremism, increasingly resemble those it fostered and still supports in the global south.
In places, Samaha’s passion for history on an epic scale overwhelms his more intimate family story, slowing his narrative and diluting its emotional heft. His book left me wanting more of the dramatic yet homey scenes featuring him and his mother, and more of the very physical but politically subtle storytelling that characterizes other recent narratives of Filipino American experience, including Grace Talusan’s memoir “The Body Papers” and Elaine Castillo’s novel “America Is Not the Heart.” In “Concepcion,” summary sometimes occupies the spaces where scenes and dialogue might have been more elucidating. In the parts of the book where Samaha does deploy these tools, the important issues he explores — migration, racism, colonialism, identity — burrow into us, making vivid the contradictions that define us.
Samaha is to be admired for taking on the exceptionally difficult task of navigating the abyss of imperial history in order to make clear its invisible but destiny-altering pull on all of us. “Concepcion” does for readers what André did for me, teaching us to curse at empire but with the one-two punch of epic and intimate history.