Reuniting With Strangers is a novel about motion. After years of waiting – either in Canada or the Philippines – every character in Jennilee Austria-Bonifacio’s debut work of fiction finds themselves reuniting with a family member. Told in linked chapters that take the form of stories, emails, and even a caregiver’s manual, Austria-Bonifacio invites the reader into the fractured and chaotic worlds of Filipino-Canadian families attempting to reassemble after years apart. It is a poignant exploration of cultural loss.
The opening chapter introduces Monolith, a mute five-year-old who arrives in Canada to join his mother, Vera. Unable to communicate, Monolith storms around her small Toronto apartment, destroying furniture and attacking Vera. After weeks of his explosive temper, Vera is still optimistic and overjoyed to be with him: “I plugged my ears, loudly whispering, ‘Love is patient, love is kind, love is patient, love is kind’ to block out the sounds of Monolith’s ear-splitting shrieks.” But by the end of the chapter, unable to get a handle on the situation, Vera, with the help of her landlords, forces Monolith into a straitjacket. The major themes of the novel all appear in these opening pages: the bonds broken between parents and children, the violence inherent to immigration, the profound loss of native language, culture, and values, and the transcendent power of familial love.
Monolith is one of a few characters who recurs throughout the novel: appearing in the arms of an older man in the Philippines who takes care of him while his aunt is at work; resisting the care of Jermayne, a nonbinary teenager who has also just arrived in Canada; and appearing in an advertisement for a children’s centre that Rey, a desperate husband looking for work, stumbles across on social media. Rey senses Monolith’s discomfort through the screen: “‘There’s nothing wrong with that boy,’ I say, pacing around the living room. ‘He’s just angry that he’s not back home anymore. Angry that his family is broken. Angry that he’s in Canada with no purpose!’” Monolith is not a complex character but, as his name suggests, he is a looming symbol. His exasperation mirrors that of so many other characters: the caregiver who has been fired for sharing Filipino culture with her employer’s children, the teenager trying to reconnect with her judgmental mother, the resentful wife unable to sympathize with her newly arrived husband. Raging at the heart of the novel, Monolith represents a raw, unmitigated version of the trauma that all the characters are grappling with.
Reuniting With Strangers is an insightful glimpse into the Filipino-Canadian experience, rich with authentic details. It is shaped by Austria-Bonifacio’s passion for her work as the founder of Filipino Talks, a program that helps educators better understand Filipino-Canadian experiences and aims to bridge the gap between Canadian institutions and Filipino families. In both the dedication and the acknowledgements, she thanks Filipino Talks students for sharing their stories and for serving as the inspiration for the book.
However, drawing too directly from life can be hazardous in fiction. While the characters and their histories are compelling, the shifting form of the narrative remains shapeless and the writing is underdeveloped.
Though at times the novel lacks direction, it succeeds in intimately portraying the varied experiences of immigrant parents and children. Reuniting With Strangers is an absorbing portrait of not only multiple generations of the Filipino-Canadian community, but of the simultaneity of grief and joy when building a life in a new country.