By definition, a dissociative disorder is a condition where a person experiences a breakdown of memory, awareness, identity, and perception. It is not a single issue, and can range from depersonalization, where a subject experiences of detachments from self or reality despite retaining awareness that it is merely a feeling and not in itself real, to the more well-known dissociative identity disorder—probably more known to the layman as Multiple Personality Disorder.
While doctors might disagree about extending the definition of Dissociation to other instances, such as culture, history, or even between generations, one does get the feeling that this is exactly what’s going on in Nick Joaquin’s The Woman With Two Navels, where we examine two days in the lives of a group of friends living in Hong Kong, and how their daily routines are disrupted by the arrival of one Connie Escobar, an angry and rather confused daughter of a known politician back in the Philippines who insists that, instead of one navel, she had two.
While Connie’s insistence that she had two navels seem for her to be a literal issue—the reason why she visits Pepe Monson is that she wished for the extra ‘navel’ to be excised, though it becomes increasingly apparent to the reader through her confused thoughts that it would take more than an operation to cure her ills—it becomes somewhat symbolic as well for the strange cultural territory that the rest of the story’s characters dwell in, children of a failed revolution living in a country not of their own, with barely any ties to their motherland outside of musty memories from their parents. This generation, represented by the Monson boys and their friends, represent a Filipino fully Westernized, totally absorbed into a culture not theirs to begin with, fully self-aware of the fact but not really caring about it, while the generation that came before them, represented in part by the elder Dr. Monson as well as the memories of Connie’s mother Conching Vidal, could not quite let go of the past that birthed them, a time of failed possibilities and shattered dreams, unwilling to face a world that had quite simply left them behind.
For the Monson brothers and their friends this seems to be a virtual non-issue, but this sort of cultural dissociation is something I’m sure many expatriate Filipino households have to grapple with, as their children and grandchildren grow up far from the Philippines itself, to the point where their Filipino ‘identity’ becomes merely a construct, inaccurate and filtered through the perceptions of relations who are themselves no longer sure what it means to be ‘Filipino’. Much like Connie Escobar, whose identity seems to have fragmented upon her discovery of the sins of her mother, these children of the Diaspora might end up confused and lost…Or they simply might not care. In the end, much like Connie, they are left with the choice to confront the issue of their cultural identities as Filipinos and descendants of Filipinos, or simply avoid facing it entirely.
Joaquin, Nick. The Woman Who Had Two Navels, Filipino Literary Classics. Bookmark, 1991.