Kawika Guillermo is the pseudonym for the mundane academic, Christopher B. Patterson,Assistant Professor in the Social Justice Institute of UBC. ( Photo: UBC)
All Flowers Bloom by Kawika Guillermo
Westphalia Press, March 2020
345 Pages / Amazon
Reviewed by Vincent Ternida
Ever since their first incarnation, Soul 871 has been drawn towards their soul mate who they only know by “S”. With every life, death, and reincarnation – the sole desire of 871 is to find S and spend eternity with them. Every once in a while, 871 arrives on The Ilium – an afterlife that closely resembles Paradise. However, further scrutiny reveals it more of a Purgatory Luxury Cruise. As 871 swims through the ocean of time and space, they bear witness to humanity’s darkest tragedies and highest hopes. Sadly, such sights take a backseat for their single-minded priority: to secure said soulmate and live in the glory of love.
Kawika Guillermo follows up Stamped: An Anti Travel Novel with a deep dive into speculative territory with All Flowers Bloom. It continues to tackle the themes present in Guillermo’s portfolio: a character study of discovering how power and privilege plays a role in character decisions and obtaining desires. Each chapter takes place in myriad episodes of 871’s lives throughout history – recorded or otherwise still yet to come.
At first glance, the novel seems to take several dark turns. They do tackle little known or overlooked aspects in recorded history such as the Filipinx-American war, lives of Roman slaves, and the point of view of Saladin’s army. Each episode almost always ends in that life’s demise or alluding to a bleak finality. The episodes are then broken by a waypoint in the afterlife – “The Ilium” – mostly known as a recap in 871’s progress but also gives the reader insight to the novel’s principal characters such Cryss. Cryss is the deity who oversees the realm and serves as both mentor and foil to 871. Travelling back to this realm every four to six chapters gives the readers an anchor and with Cryss, a guide.
I mentioned that Guillermo really cranks up the speculative territory in this piece, because for fans of historical fiction, the narrative takes us on a wild acid trip to fantastical worlds set in historical reality rather than the realistic narrative expected from historical fiction. Regardless, there are still many facets of historical fiction that its readers can appreciate. The second half of the novel ventures into pure speculative territory as it is set beyond contemporary recorded history. It views the future in a wondrous journey that takes on more Asian lore based on Chinese, South Asian, and Middle Eastern myths. Readers familiar with 1,001 Nights and the Legend of Chung-He would find much to enjoy here.
Chronologically, I appreciate the trajectory or Guillermo’s piece – it is linear despite my personal bias that the soul’s perception of time may differ that of corporeal beings. Another aspect I appreciate is the fluidity of gender 871 experiences in different lives. For the most part, 871 has more female incarnations, though I read their journey from a male perspective. It could be through my cisgender bias that I perceive 871’s obsessive quest as predatory – a byproduct of the social conditioning accepting men as natural aggressors.
As a reader who enjoys literary fiction, I enjoyed Guillermo’s quirky speculative approach. The high fantasy motifs are not jarring and have been eased in organically. The introductions are effective as it starts with a soul in the state of journeying. For me that feels enough of a prompt to allow more fantastical elements, such as an afterlife Mardi Gras on the The Ilium, deities of death and destruction appearing before 871 during his corporeal life, and of course, a dragon. While we as readers are eased in slowly but gradually, by the end of the narrative we enter more and more alien realities only limited by Guillermo’s colorful imagination.
I feel that the socio-political messages in the story are subtle compared to Stamped but its segues are nuanced and supplemental to the main narrative. At the base of it is an epic love story, albeit one-sided and at times toxic. 871 becomes a window and mirror for the readers to view the different facets of history – in all of humanity’s deplorable atrocities, but also in displays of altruism and compassion. It teaches us that we are complicit in the gears of strife and avarice but also capable of much forgiveness and potential for growth.
Guillermo dazzles, delights, and damns the reader to a plethora of corporeal festivities, metaphysical epiphanies, and cautionary tales at the rate of our feverish consumption towards our insatiable desires. All Flowers Bloom is an unapologetic discussion in analyzing the human condition, giving it room to grow and also outlining our many mistakes. It allows us to forgive ourselves and, if we learn from the consequences of such actions, we can transcend our base desires and aspire for something divine.
Vincent Ternida’s pieces have appeared on Ricepaper Magazine, The Ormsby Review, and Rabble. His short story Elevator Lady was long listed for the CBC Short Fiction Prize. The Seven Muses of Harry Salcedo is Ternida’s first novella. He has a collection of short stories in development. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Kawika Guillermo is the author of Stamped: an anti-travel novel, All Flowers Bloom, and many short stories. He has lived in Portland, Las Vegas, Seattle, Gimhae South Korea, Nanjing China, Hong Kong, and currently resides in Vancouver, Canada.
Kawika Guillermo is the pseudonym for the mundane academic, Christopher B. Patterson, who spends his days patronizing big chain coffee-shops. He’s authored the academic books Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature of the Transpacific, and Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games.
Follow him on twitter @kawikaguillermo or email him: kawikaguillermo(at)gmail.com.