Featured in The Mercury News, StoryCorps, ABS-CBN News, PBS, NPR, and NBC Asian Pacific America, self-taught gifted artist and San Jose-based Filipino-American author Kenneth Tan delivers his long-awaited debut memoir, Crescenciana (Black Carabao, 2022), which chronicles the inspiring life of his beloved grandmother, Crescenciana Carbonel Tan, otherwise affectionately known in Tagalog as “Lola.” Filled with over 80 full-color illustrations, the book displays their art collaboration during the last few years of her life, a collaboration that continues today even after her death because Tan has promised to finish every painting she started.
As Tan inarguably states in his Author’s Note, “In Filipino families, Lola is a title achieved by queens.” As a Pinay, in the midst of writing this review, I simply cannot call Tan’s grandmother “Crescenciana” but I must refer to her as “Lola Crescenciana” as that would’ve been the proper way to address her if I were in her presence.
As a book reviewer, it was difficult for me to maintain a degree of distance, as I couldn’t help but read Crescenciana under a particular lens that undeniably struck a deep and personal chord. My own grandmother, Lola Felicitas, was born two months ahead of Lola Crescenciana in the year 1920. My Lola was also Ilocana, born and raised in the barrio of Uyaoy, in Bacnotan, La Union, 70 miles north of Lola Crescenciana’s birthplace in Villasis, Pangasinan. Like Lola Crescenciana, she had lived through the atrocities of World War II under Japanese soldiers, became a single mother in her early 20s, and also was a young widow. The manner in which both women arrived at that status is very different, but it did feel at times like Tan was narrating my own Lola’s life. While Lola Crescenciana’s story is a story all her own whose path was very different from my Lola, the coincidences with my own Lola’s life bubble up when I read this book, so much so that I oftentimes imagined both our Lolas walking hand-in-hand as very dear friends.
While I’ve seen this book advertised as a coffee table book, to simply call it that is a misnomer because it is more of an epic family-illustrated memoir. While Tan’s book stands 12 inches tall by 9 inches wide to accommodate the detailed artwork that he and his Lola created together, this book is a poignant family saga with a clear narrative arc that spans four generations: from Tan’s great-grandparents, his grandparents, Lola Crescenciana’s siblings, his mother and her sister, his sister, his cousins, all the way down to Tan himself.
Tan’s humor shines throughout the memoir as his seamless comedic voice balances the gravitas of life, but is never tiresome or overwrought. Tan reveals the strength and perseverance of the Carbonel and Tan families who stand together and support each other through the roughest waters, wherever the Diaspora determines their home—whether in Canada, the United States, or the Philippines. One can say Tan’s story speaks so much to the Filipino-American experience, and at the same time, tells his own personal and unique love story through his Lola Crescenciana.
When reading about Lola Crescenciana’s life, it is hard not to notice the idealization and romanticization that the older generation might’ve had and continues to have about America, particularly regarding the US occupation of the Philippines. I don’t fault Tan’s Lola for her idealization of the United States as it doesn’t fall far from my own grandparents’ idealization, and to some extent my parents today. A complex ambivalent relationship among Filipino-Americans exists with our adopted homeland, particularly for those like me and Tan who grew up as second-generation Filipino-Americans and don’t necessarily buy into what our grandparents were led to believe, but we still respectfully listen to our elders.
As Tan recounts his grandmother’s feelings in her own words about the American occupation of the Philippines:
“We have all that United States history, like taking over the Philippines from the Spaniards. And they supplied books and gave us good education. We read books in English and they sent us pencils and papers. In the morning we had that raising up the American flag with the Filipino flag and we sang the national anthem of America and the Philippines. We learned the good stories of the American presidents” (25-26).
What is omitted is the Philippine-American War where the Philippines fought for three and a half years against the US to retain their independence after successfully defeating Spain, thereby freeing themselves effectively under the provisions of the Treaty of Paris before the US paid Spain twenty million dollars for our archipelago. However, for anyone’s grandparent who lived during the American occupation, in an archipelago that had endured 377 years of oppression under Spanish colonial rule, American occupation might be interpreted as benevolence when offered the opportunity of free public education for the first time in the country’s history.
When Lola Crescenciana recounts her experience with Japanese soldiers during World War II, Tan does not shy away from the war crime of mass rapes committed by Japanese soldiers. In addressing this sensitive subject matter, Tan provides his Lola’s testament with great fortitude:
“But then what we do, because they are so furious, they…they try to, oh what do you say…they find you, they will…they will bring you to the, what do you say that…they will force you to do sex. So, we did, use a old man shirt and then make, put some dirty things on our faces to say we are not available” (38).
Stories of comfort women reemerge—stories of young Pinays and their dehumanizing and traumatic encounters with Japanese soldiers, covering themselves in mud for a reason. As Tan contemplates his Lola’s account:
I don’t know how I could have asked her. I don’t know if it was my place to prod at the secrets she might have trapped, buried, and scattered bamboo leaves over out there in the grove. Maybe that’s where she intended them to stay, silent and hidden (38).
When our elders recount details about the War, grandchildren do not need to know every detail. While some may disagree, some omissions are clamoring and enough, where there are memories that our Lolas wouldn’t want us to ever know.
As Tan recounts his Lola’s determination as a single mother to see that her two daughters would have a far better life than hers, there is an examination of the economic hardships that continue to plague our Motherland while Filipino-American descendants grapple with why our elders had to leave our beautiful homeland behind. It is no secret how our Motherland, still recovering from over four hundred years of colonization and occupation—under Spain, the United States, and Japan combined—fails to provide gainful employment to its citizens, thus perpetuating the forced migration and fragmentation of families through its overseas workers who must send remittances Home in order to ensure their families’ survival. For the Carbonel and Tan families, being away from the Motherland for decades and decades with no guaranteed promise of ever returning, is a reality for many Filipinos in the Diaspora today.
What is remarkable about Lola Crescenciana and Tan’s illustrations is witnessing how a grandson continues to speak with his beloved grandmother, which has become a collaborative exercise between two cosmic planes—the living and spirit realm. As Tan states in his conclusion:
After Lola passed, when I could no longer ask her directly what I should draw, deciding how to finish her paintings became an activity akin to taking a Rorschach test. I’d pick up one of her paintings and turn it this way and that to see what I could make of it… I would pair her painting with whichever memory of hers felt like the right fit, and then I would start drawing (211).
Tan’s process of finishing his Lola’s original paintings could be called a spiritual exercise in conjuring the Other Side, as he sums up: “We will always have work to do. Our work does not have an end.”
Through the language of illustration, photography, prose, and poetry, Crescenciana illuminates how we can still be in the presence of our loved ones, even when they have crossed over to the Great Unknown. We not only find Tan’s beloved Lola in these pages, but are reminded how our beloved grandmothers, our Queens, can infinitely reign through us and our work.
Elsa Valmidiano is an Ilocana-American essayist and poet, and the author of We Are No Longer Babaylan, her award-winning debut essay collection from New Rivers Press. Her work is widely published in journals and recently appears in Cherry Tree, Canthius, Hairstreak Butterfly Review, MUTHA, and Mythos. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Mills College.