Joe Henley’s third novel, Migrante, is both exceedingly ambitious and strikingly modest. Its ambition is to advocate for Taiwan’s exploited migrant workers, to “contribute to change for the better in their world.” Its modesty is in telling a straightforward tale of one Filipino migrant worker, Rizal, as he encounters the sheer horror of working on Taiwan’s fishing ships.

Rizal is raised on the plot of a cemetery in the slums of Manila, Philippines. It is a fitting, if somewhat heavy-handed metaphor, for the stagnation around Rizal in his early 20s, when the story begins. No opportunities even for menial, hard labor are on offer. He maintains the tombs at the cemetery for just enough cash to get by and get high on gasoline with a friend more resigned to his station in life.

But Rizal, worn down by his overbearing mother and cut off from his infant daughter, has the vision to try to improve his circumstances when he comes across a headhunter recruiting fishermen for a ship in Nanfang’ao, Taiwan.

The ship Rizal is dispatched to is nightmarish. A sadistic captain, Mr. Li, deprives his crew of basic necessities, holding them captive on the boat where they sleep. Li shoves the fishermen overboard in outbursts of anger, nearly drowning them. Months pass of wages garnished at 90 percent to service debt and various fees the fishermen had been told were provided by the company. Rizal’s turn on the receiving end of Captain Li’s blows is the final straw. He runs away that day to be with a girl in Zhongli, but this is only the end of the beginning of his sojourn in Taiwan.

Henley has an anthropologist’s eye for interpersonal power dynamics, documenting how the Filipino headhunter, Benjie, patronizes the fishermen, and how the Taiwanese brokers in turn treat Benjie with contempt. The migrant fishermen are portrayed with humanity and sympathy, and not awkwardly cast into the roles of heroes. Despite Henley’s intentions, the book steers clear of a simplistic good people versus evil people narrative. The ambiguous conclusion allows readers to make up their own minds about Rizal.

Rizal’s slum was once a bustling fishing port, but he has to go to Taiwan to do the same job his ancestors did. Henley does excellent work pointing out the bitter irony of this Rizal’s situation, which is the situation many Filipino migrant workers find themselves in. One of Rizal’s companions in Taiwan speaks movingly on their fate:

We get on airplanes, fly all over the world to do something we should be able to do at home. Leave our families behind; our kids. We’re promised big money … Then we find out that big money isn’t so big after all. But it keeps going, anak … We’ll come back. Because what else is there for us?

Stylistically, Henley deploys an impressive command of descriptive language and dialogue of people of a social class far from his own background. Anticipating criticism that a “white, middle-class Canadian” has no business telling the story of Filipino migrant fishermen, Henley acknowledges in the foreword that he wishes a fisherman could write a novel like this, but felt the urgency to enlighten readers to the scandal that is Taiwan's migrant labor brokerage system. Keeping with his political motivations for writing, Henley has admirably pledged his share of the royalties to migrant workers organizations.

Rizal’s name is shared with the most important nationalist writer of the Philippines, José Rizal. It’s unobtrusive, even a welcome introduction to a giant of world literature for many non-Filipino readers, but I wonder how Filipinos would respond to it. It may be as jarring as a character named Mark Twain for Americans or Lu Xun for Chinese or Taiwanese readers.

Though Henley adopts the position of third person omniscient narrator, his descriptions of what Rizal sees veers between true to life and the fantastical. One example: on Rizal’s arrival to Taoyuan International Airport, he spies “characters formed with uncountable strokes” and Chinese and Taiwanese faces. Would the concept of strokes making up characters occur to someone who had never studied Chinese? How would anyone, let alone someone just arriving in Taiwan, be able to reliably distinguish Chinese and Taiwanese faces? It’s small, but the moments when we hear Henley’s voice, rather than Rizal’s, strike false notes.

Despite these minor quibbles, the book succeeds on what it sets out to do. It evokes sympathy, and it tells an engaging story while doing so. Is this enough to accomplish its political aims? People in power don’t typically read novels about how their authority is illegitimate.

Even when people are moved by art, sympathy can be demobilizing, satisfying urges to be good without accomplishing anything. But good stories told with moral passion are a necessary complement to journalism. We often read about abuses of power and move on to the next news report. It’s more memorable when exploitation and resistance are given narrative form.


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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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