Jessica Zafra's First Novel Is For Misfits and Outcasts
In Jessica Zafra’s The Age of Umbrage, we meet Guada. Precocious, no-nonsense and a voracious consumer of books, music and film, she anchors a book that is part-bildungsroman and part-social critique, set during a time when pop culture was inescapable, but just before the dawn of the internet.
We meet Guada’s parents first, a mismatched pair whose eventual estrangement leads mother and daughter to take up residence in the mansion of the Almagros, one of the wealthiest families in the Philippines. Here, Guada will get a taste of what Fitzgerald was talking about when he said “the rich, they’re not like you and me.” (We’re paraphrasing, of course).
This is Zafra’s first novel, which is something of a surprise, considering she’s one of the more familiar names in contemporary Filipino literature. The former newspaper columnist and TV host (and erstwhile band manager of the Eraserheads) has built a cult following for her wry observations on life, with a particular focus on current issues, arcane bits of entertainment trivia, and her signature theory on world domination (via the country’s diaspora).
In The Age of Umbrage, she eschews all that to tell a simple coming-of-age story. Well, perhaps not all of it, and no, it’s not entirely simple. Zafra weaves Guada’s story with important events in Philippine history (If you lived through the waning days of the Marcos dictatorship and the early years of his successor Corazon Aquino, you’ll know what we’re talking about). She references books like Dickens’ Great Expectations, movies like Fellini’s La Strada, and books that were also movies like Dune. And she details what life is like for a pre-pubescent girl who’s way too smart for her own good, especially in that most universal of settings—school. It's lighthearted and funny, and immensely readable.
If you’re one of those who’s been following Zafra’s writings over the years (she’s released a few volumes of her essays as well as a collection of short fiction), reading The Age of Umbrage will feel familiar. She does not lose her trademark acerbic tone, her absolute disdain for imbeciles and sycophants is even more pronounced, and her keen eye for detail, especially in describing this lovable hellhole we call Metro Manila, is on full display.
And if you’re a new reader, be prepared for Zafra’s dry, cynical wit and deadpan humor. Like Guada herself, Zafra lives and breathes books and movies, and she has never been shy to tell you exactly what she thinks of something.
In this case, the obvious inspiration is The Catcher in the Rye, a classic of the genre if there ever was one. Zafra has not kept her fondness for it secret, and there are certainly wisps of Salinger in her own work, particularly in Guada’s Holden Caulfield-esque characterization—the internal struggles, the interactions with schoolmates, and the questioning of authority.
If there is one critique it’s that the book feels somewhat incomplete. At 126 pages and a total weight of 0.2 kilograms, it’s certainly no doorstop. (It might technically be a novella. Who knows?). So many of the characters come alive when introduced and are never heard from again. Even Guada’s story feels cut short. But perhaps that’s the intention: a brief dalliance with fictional characters so you’ll miss them and think about them when they’re gone. And you do.
Zafra may project sarcasm and roll-her-eyes derision at many things, but the book is, at its core, hopeful and inspirational. Ultimately, The Age of Umbrage is a love letter to society’s misfits and outcasts, a story of finding your place in the world for those who feel like they’re always picked last in the team, and a promise that, despite the shitty curveballs life throws at us, things can and do get better.
The Age of Umbrage, published by Ateneo Press, is available at Mt Cloud Bookshop, Shopee, and Lazada.