Listen for Instructions: a novel

An in-progress map of some of the important places in LISTEN FOR INSTRUCTIONS



Maybe I’ll never know whether those bone spurs in my back would have grown into wings. God knows I’ve spent enough years being angry with Tito Johnny for removing them. Now that I have Gabi, I understand what it means to want to protect your kid, even if it’s too fiercely. It’s hard to let them be their soft, vulnerable selves in this cruel world with all of its jagged edges.

To be a kid without a mother and a father was hard enough, Tito Johnny must have thought, but to be a kid who had growths coming out of their back – your first instinct would be to fix them. Get rid of them. I always wondered about that. We never really talked about the surgery after it happened. We’d get the annual phone call to see how I was doing. They still track me down wherever I go. It’s part of the agreement. I can’t just go missing, although I have tried a few times.

“God, Mila, I didn’t do it because I thought you were freakish or ugly,” I have imagined him saying to me with so much love and regret. “I did it to make your life easier. To make your life more normal. You had enough to deal with. And I knew the road that it took your mother down.” And here’s where I really put a flourish on things in my mind. Here’s where he breaks down in an ugly cry and he takes both of my hands in his, and he bows his head, shaking it from side to side. Tears and snot fall down in a puddle at our feet, and I am standing up tall and straight, my invisible wings unfurled and powerful. “I’m sorry, Mila. I’m so sorry.”

For many years, I would have preferred to imagine myself responding somewhere on the unforgiving spectrum, from a simple “I don’t forgive you” and walking away to an extremely angry, destructive tirade in which I enumerated everything in my life that has been distorted and dismembered because no one could just let me be who I was born to be. Fire and destruction might be involved. Inflicting pain, both emotional and sometimes physical might be involved.

But now I am working on a spectrum of acceptance, which sometimes involves an emotional gushing forth of forgiveness and sometimes just involves a simple acknowledgment and acceptance without fanfare. These scenarios involve more work on myself, to stop looking backward with regret, to stop imagining that my life would be different (better) if only, if only.

I am who I am today because I was born with bone spurs in my back that may or may not have grown into wings like my mother, like the women in our mythology who may or may not have been witches or monsters or healers or priestesses. And here’s the part that I’m working on the hardest these days: I am who I am, for better and for worse, because my bone spurs were surgically removed when I was twelve, and I may or may not be experiencing or imagining chronic pain in my back that only gets worse with time. Sometimes I feel like my back is literally on fire and that some extended, invisible part of my body is being crushed – bones ground to dust, skin and flesh singed to ashes.

Lately, my brain is noisy, noisier than usual. It sings with pain. Sometimes it is low, in the background, but so irritating, ever-present, never quiet. Over many years, I have taken headache medicines of various strengths, and learned to ignore it, but lately, I can’t hear anything else. The pain and the sound of it are intensifying and it’s starting to drown out everything else. What does it want from me? It wants my attention, but why?

Yesterday, Gabi showed me a TikTok that brought me to tears. It was of a mother and her young adult daughter, and the mother was teaching the daughter how to throat sing, as their Inuit ancestors had done for generations until the colonizers deemed it evil and tried to erase it, along with the rest of their culture. Nothing new there, sadly. Same story with our people and so many others all over the world. But what moved me was seeing the mother and daughter, facing each other, clasping each other’s arms, swaying back and forth, the mother leading and the daughter repeating, the intimacy of the moment they shared, sometimes they busted up in laughter as the daughter tried over and over to get the sound just right, the importance of the legacy that was being passed on, the resistance of doing this in the face of erasure, the resilience of evolving this for future generations by posting it on social media to be consumed on little lit-up screens all over the world, the powerful resistance of standing up and doing it anyway, in the face of history’s erasure while using the channels available in the here and now to broadcast their ancient practices to reach more future ancestors. I saw a mother clasping a daughter’s arms, teaching her their recovered legacies, giving her a place in her lineage: This is who we are, this is where we’ve come from, this is what we do and how we do it, and this is what you must pass on.

I wondered what my lineage song was supposed to be. I wondered what it would feel like to have my mother clasp my arms and tell me who we are. But I don’t have that. And I’m working on accepting that. What I have is Tito Johnny, to whom I am a chosen daughter, and isn’t that a noble type of lineage too? What I have is a song of searing pain, and I am working everyday to understand what the song is transmitting to me. What I have are phantom wings that were removed out of fierce love and protection, ensuring my survival. What I have is my own daughter Gabi and I’ve got to figure some of this shit out so that I can pass something on to her too. I want to clasp her arms and transmit our legacies to her too. I want her to clasp mine back and receive our songs, understand who she is in the great web of our legacies, and pass on our songs.

But I don’t want to pass on my broken, injured songs. I don’t know how to make them whole, make them healed so that they’ll be a balm and not a burden like the one I’ve carried from my mother. My work now is to understand them, to translate them, to transform them. I’ve got to sing them, sing them, sing them. But how?


LISTEN FOR INSTRUCTIONS, a work of literary fiction with illustrations, is a novel about Milagro Morales, a struggling filmmaker returning to Chicago with her fourteen-year-old daughter Gabi, after more than two decades away. Mila has spent her adult life in California avoiding her hometown and the ghosts of her past, but when she and Gabi receive a wedding invitation from Tito Johnny, Mila’s beloved uncle who raised her, Gabi convinces Mila to accept the invitation. However, the wedding and Gabi’s incessant pleading are not the only reasons that Mila has reluctantly decided to return to Chicago. Suffering from intensifying and debilitating back pain, Mila also believes that a cure may be found by seeking out an old figure from her past, Manang Ocampo, the eccentric healer who lived above the old Filipino grocery store of her childhood, PhilMart, which is on the brink of bankruptcy. For the first time, Gabi meets the people and the city who shaped her mother, and ultimately shaped her. She learns not only about her mother’s experiences growing up motherless and rebellious in Chicago of the 1980s and 90s, but also about the stories that Mila never shared about their family and ancestors.

Informing Mila’s and Gabi’s journey are the stories of their family members, chosen and biological, living and dead. These stories span generations and geographies, with a cast of characters that includes: retired geologist Berta and revered painter/kali teacher Aurelia, Mila’s strong and smart mothers-in-law; Pilar, a nurse during WWII who faces grave consequence for aiding the Philippine Guerilla Army; sixteen-year-old Reynaldo, an outcast among outcasts, who has been put on display at the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair as part of the colonialist Philippine Exhibit; Delfin the tattooed middle school social worker and late bloomer, Mila’s childhood best friend; Mila’s half-sister Vivienne, chef-activist and owner of a mobile apothecary and Filipinx food truck; Tito Johnny, the fiercely-protective, loving uncle who raised Mila and who carries the guilt and shame of a secret about Mila’s deceased mother.

At the heart of these stories and this novel is the notion that we carry within us legacies, known and unknown to us. We are both receivers and creators of those legacies. There is no such thing as one true source to be known or discovered. Culture is constantly being made and remade, shaped and influenced, not necessarily for better or for worse. That’s just the way time moves, the way legacy is passed down, especially in the context of diaspora.

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