Lecture: The Sadness Collector
A Reading of Merlinda Bobis' The Sadness Collector
And she will not stop eating, another pot, another plate, another mouthful of sadness, and she will grow bigger and bigger, and she will burst.
Notice the transition of thought in the story. No familiar marks to separate the different thoughts within the story, not even quotation marks or italics.
What is the point of view of the story? What is its focus?
The sentences are clipped and the bedtime story (or whatever story it is that Rica’s father made up) weaves in and out, leaving the readers with only enough bits and pieces to make out that the main protagonist is a troubled little girl of six. The reader must stay attentive to grasp everything that is going on.
We even see some art sketches in this story.
snippets of bedtime stories, the central conciousness of Rica, the gossips of aunties intertwined with the philosophical descriptions of the omnicient narrator cleverly brings us to an understanding of this poignant story of a disturbed little girl and her displaced family.
As soon as Rica’s mother left for Paris to work as a domestic helper, her father has since repeatedly told her the story of the Big Lady (supposedly an imaginary creature who goes to collect any traces of sadness in everyone’s kitchen) to distract or divert her loneliness.
The Big Lady "goes from house to house and eats the sadness in many houses, it just keeps on growing each day, so she can’t stop eating, and can’t stop growing too."
"…checking the plates now, lifting the lid off the rice pot, peeking into cups for sadness, both overt and unspoken."
We see the psychological effect that the madeup story and the mother’s absence had on Rica:
Since Rica was three, when her father told her about Big Lady just after mother left for Paris, she has always listened intently to all the night-noises from the kitchen. No, that sound is not the scurrying of mice – she’s actually checking the plates now, lifting the lid off the rice pot, peeking into cups for sadness, both overt and unspoken.
What about the taste of salt in the following lines?
To Rica, it always tastes really salty, like tears, even her father’s funny look each time she asks him to read her again the letters from Paris.
Perhaps, she’s licking a spoon for any trace of saltiness, searching between the prongs of a fork. Unknown to Rica, Big Lady is wise, an old hand in this business. She senses that there’s more to a mouthful of sadness than meets the tongue. A whisper of salt, even the smallest nudge to the palate, can betray a century of hidden grief. Perhaps, she understands that, for all its practice, humanity can never conceal the daily act of futility at the dinner table.
(this despite her efforts to conceal her loneliness)
The Sadness Collector AKA Big Lady became Rica’s very defense mechanism, "an ambivalent relationship, confusing, but certainly a source of comfort."
Fascination, fear and a kinship drawn from trying to save each other. Big Lady saves Rica from sadness; Rica saves Big Lady from bursting by not being sad. An ambivalent relationship, confusing, but certainly a source of comfort. And always Big Lady as object of attention. Those days when Rica drew stick-drawings of her, she made sure the big one was always adorned with pretty baubles and make-up. She even drew her with a Paris ribbon to tighten her belly. Then she added a chic hat to complete the picture.
It is at this point where we are made to wonder who was the SHE being referred to in beginning of the story (if we are to get that as Rica gets older – hence – bigger, she will not be able to contain her sadness, that she will burst.
Things change with time, children grow up, old tales become boring, and sadness will not always be contained…
Bobis prepared us for this, hence
"Unknown to Rica, Big Lady is wise, an old hand in this business. She senses that there’s more to a mouthful of sadness than meets the tongue. A whisper of salt, even the smallest nudge to the palate, can betray a century of hidden grief. Perhaps, she understands that, for all its practice, humanity can never conceal the daily act of futility at the dinner table."
* * * * *
"Nowadays, her father makes sure he comes home late each night, so he won’t have to answer questions, especially about the baby photograph. So he need not improvise further on this three-year-old tall tale."
This part reveals the seriousness in the situation of the family. We come to realize that Rica’s father is now in denial, we are made to speculate on the affairs of the mother and then we are brought back to Rica’s tight-spot.
That’s the rice pot being overturned–
Her breaths make and unmake a hillock on the sheets -
A plate shatters on the floor –
Back to a foetal curl, knees almost brushing chin –
Another plate crashes –
She screams –
The pot is hurled against the wall –
She keeps screaming as she runs out of the bedroom, down to the kitchen –
And the cutlery, glasses, cups, more plates –
Big Lady’s angry, Big Lady’s hungry, Big Lady’s turning the house upside down –
Breaking it everywhere –
Her throat is weaving sound, as if it were all what is ever knew –
"SHUT UP !"
Big Lady wants to break all to get to the heart of the matter, where it’s saltiest. In the vein of a plate, within the aluminium bottom of a pot, in the copper fold of a spoon, deep in the curve of a cup’s handle –
Ropes and ropes of scream –
"I SAID, SHUT UP!"
Her cheek stings. She collapses on the floor before his feet.
"I didn’t mean to. Dios ko po, I never meant to –
"Her dazed eyes make out the broken plates, the dented pot, the shards of cups, glasses, the cutlery everywhere –
He’s hiccupping drunkenly all over her –
"I didn’t mean to, Rica, I love you, baby, I’ll never let you go."
His voice hoarse with anger and remorse.
"She came back, Papa "
"She can’t take you away from me –"
"She’s here again – "
"Just because she’s ‘legal’ now – "
"She might burst, Papa – "
"That whore - !"
His hands curl into fists on her back.
Big Lady knows, has always known. This feast will last her a lifetime, if she does not burst tonight.
What does Bobis mean by these last lines?
It seems particularly appropriate to be taking Merlinda Bobis’ short story Sadness Collector to students who sooner or later will relocate by migration (or immigration), hoping they will not be displaced in their own respective 'Diasporas'.
The theme of diaspora, dislocation and displacement resurface in different guises throughout Bobis text - from the hybridity of language and food that emerge from the melding of different cultures that occurs during the process of migration, especially in 'The Sadness Collector' in which the problems of a young girl raised by her father while her mother honours overseas contracts abroad are poignantly and, at times, brutally heightened.
Please Log in DISCUSSION BOARD in your respective ELEAP accounts to answer the quiz. You may comment on the discussion board until 12nn of December 9, Sunday.
If 'The Sadness Collector' presents poignantly the problems of a young girl raised by her father while her mother honours overseas contracts abroad, how does this story then of Merlinda Bobis represent the Filipino family in this section?