on Nervous: Essays on Heritage and Healing by Jen Soriano

From an initial diagnosis of depression at nineteen, to the eventual diagnoses of multiple mental and physical illnesses in the two decades that followed, Jen Soriano has lived a lifetime of chronic pain. Her debut essay collection, Nervous: Essays on Heritage and Healing, contains dense and carefully cultivated narratives of surviving silence, understanding pain, and advocating for collective recovery. Part personal archive, part ancestral document, and part rally call for social justice, the interwoven essays in Nervous build in layers, and in their totality become medicine for the violent erasure that has festered into multigenerational trauma. 

The collection holds fourteen essays divided into five sections: “Neurogenesis,” “Neural Pruning,” “Neuroregulation,” “Neuroplasticity,” and “Neuromimicry. Soriano, who identifies as nonbinary and uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, introduces herself as the youngest child of a trauma neurosurgeon who worked across five hospitals on the Southwest Side of Chicago. At the height of his career, their father was the primary neurosurgeon at what was the only Level 1 Trauma Center on the South Side of Chicago at the time. Both of Soriano’s parents immigrated from the Philippines to the United States, and in the titular essay, “Nervous,” we meet Soriano and her brothers at the red brick house where they’re growing up in the Chicagoland suburb of Oak Lawn. Returning to this youth lets Soriano begin to excavate the origins of her pain. From late adolescence to age forty-three, she amasses “a hard-fought collection of diagnoses: peripheral neuralgia, mild scoliosis, dystonic neuromuscular spasms, central sensitivity syndrome, general anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and complex PTSD.”

As Soriano’s symptoms manifest and morph across time, so does her resentment of the negligence and abandonment that she faces while seeking relief. Doctors send her home with ibuprofen, muscle relaxers, and unanswered questions. Her father tells her to “tough it out . . . it’s not a gunshot wound to the head.” She does try to push through, finding care where she can. Stimulated and empowered by her proximity to her father’s work, Soriano employs a deep knowledge of the central nervous system and its fascinating possibilities to create her own answers. “Like waterways within ecosystems, our nervous systems work in close relationship to other systems in our bodies, to other people’s bodies, and to the environments that envelope us all,” she writes. Soriano relies on this concept of human ecosystems of care as a foundation for the social, cultural, and environmental activism that eventually becomes a crucial part of their life and ongoing recovery. From the essay “Rupture”:

Much like our oceans are connected to rivers and streams, our bodies are connected within larger networks of health and disease . . . we are also each other’s nervous systems. When we talk about healing trauma, what we really mean is the potential of our interdependent nervous systems to change and grow, and to bring dormant parts of ourselves back to life.

In her thirties, Soriano meets and marries her partner, Juan, and they soon move to Puerto Rico, her husband’s home island. One night, while lying in a warm and breezy bedroom in Viejo San Juan, she has a sudden physical reaction that causes her to kick and scream, seized with pain as her body fights off an invisible attack. In an instant, hers becomes a conquered body, a body loud with hurt. She later identifies this episode as an “embodied flashback,” a somatic memory of her traumatic birth, a truth unrevealed to her until a later confrontation with her mother. Soriano struggles to understand this episode, determining that “I was fulfilling the logic of pain, whose purpose is to draw attention to itself so that corrective measures can be taken.” 

In “Omission” and “War-Fire,” Soriano begins to adopt the framework of historical trauma, as they acknowledge how trauma has seeded itself in their family. When reflecting upon the death of their grandfather—killed during World War II, his home then occupied by Japanese soldiers while his wife and children continued to live there—Soriano says, “Unresolved grief is a legacy of colonization and war. Over time, it can wear at the soul like uncontained floodwaters can erode earth, long after the end of the storm.” Yet it is a grief that is not only hers. Years later, she again experiences an embodied flashback that she believes originated from her widowed grandmother, a bodily recollection of the immensity of the loss her lola suffered. How our bodies retain the traumas of our ancestors. How we break in response, and yield to being rebuilt.

The collection’s third section, “Neuroregulation,” introduces a thematic shift that mirrors Soriano’s journey toward healing and recovery. In the essay “Bayanihan,” they share a harrowing account of considering suicide while living in San Francisco in their mid-twenties. The attempt is thwarted by their uncertainty about whether leaping from the cliff where they stood onto the sand below would be fatal, and this moment triggers what they recognize as a “healing crisis, in which you start to get much worse before you get better.” What follows is a life-altering trip to the Philippines, documented in “Unbroken Water.” She travels as part of a twelve-person delegation in solidarity with the indigenous Cordillera people of the Northern Philippines, whose livelihoods are threatened by a government-funded attempt to dam the Chico River. Moored in the depth of her desire to go is a hunger to return to her ancestral home, as well as an urgency to collaborate with her community against state-sanctioned environmental degradation. In this space of wander, activism becomes healing. “Working with a phenomenal network of Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latine and queer and trans activists, I learned principles of accountable leadership, direct and nonviolent communication, and queer and disability justice world views,” Soriano explains. 

At the center of this collection is the essay “381 Years.” The most structurally dynamic piece in the collection, “381 Years” utilizes the unrestrained possibilities of the lyric essay to narrate the brutality of Spanish and American colonialism in the Philippines. The subject of the essay is perhaps what necessitates a break from standard narrative form. Split into two columns—on the left side colonial historiography, on the right side community narrative—the voices present seem to argue with one another, mimicking the strain the Filipino people endured in their resistance to occupation. The essay flows like water, weaving a dialogue of how a people came to survive the conquests that arrived at their shores. For Soriano, the history of colonialism is also the history of 381 years of resistance against empire. From the voices of the people:

We did not remain silent. Though 

the water washed over our heads, 

we opened our throats to cry 

for freedom . . . 


We are kin to those who cried out at

the Grito de Dolores in Mexico, the 

Grito de Yara in Cuba, the Grito de 

Lares in Puerto Rico. We are part of 

a history of throats opened to revolt 

against King and Crown. 

Soriano’s participation in grassroots organizing in the Bay Area put them in proximity to other Filipino American organizers. She writes that “Filipinos experience a similar colonial trauma response from our collective history of colonization and migration.” She even comes on as co-lead singer in a band, Diskarte Namin, composed of fellow diasporic community organizers. Here, she finds the capacity to heal through the vehicle of the tongue. “The relational therapy of activism . . . buffered my pain for the long term; it became a collective ritual, a form of bayanihan that helped me move to safer ground.” The noise of rebellion is a counter to the silence of oppression. To open the throat is “an act of decolonization, of rebellion in words, the generative ritual of “storying back” against colonial erasure.” Soriano claims that “the role of a culture worker . . . is to take center stage and declare with full embodiment and soul a vision for the humanity of those who unjust society would bury in its dust. . . .Words whetted with truth can expose injustice and also glint like a beacon toward what could be.” 

Across these essays, as Soriano seeks solutions for what ails her, she experiences relief through serendipitous encounters with healers and bodyworkers. These healers include the Bone Whisperer, the first person to give her a holistic understanding of the physical and psychological turmoil she’s experienced. There is also Freddy in Viejo San Juan, an air conditioning repairman and massage therapist who, during their session, discovers “a knot of roped muscles in my neck,” assessing that “what was in your throat isn’t from allergies or just knots or anything; it’s trauma. From a long time ago, when you were a child. I could feel it in your shoulder, and then by the time I got to your throat . . . it was terrifying.” Although she has done work to heal from the neglect she experienced as a child, she is soon faced with the ultimate test of her healing’s progress. In the essay “Broken Water,” Soriano confesses a growing fear of becoming pregnant, as they undergo IVF treatment alongside their partner. Although excited by the process, they worry that their chronic pain and mental illness will keep them from being present and nurturing. They worry that the healing potential of birthing and nurturing a child will be threatened by their own adverse attachment challenges. Soriano describes having deeply felt pangs of disgust while visualizing pregnancy, and finally must confront their mother wound. 

They link this repulsed reaction with a gruesome monster in Philippine folklore, the manananggal. Known as a beautiful woman by day and a hideous winged creature by night, the manananggal flies around with dangling intestines, feeding off unborn children in their mothers’ wombs. Soriano, contending with her fearfulness, says, “I became convinced that I was the manananggal. I was not meant to have a child because I would prey on this child and bring suffering onto others as well as myself. . . .What could these violent visions be but the preoccupations of a beast?” Yet as their pregnancy progresses, Soriano is surprised to find that they experience complete relief from the chronic pain that ails them. What is it about their pain that triggers transformation? As their child ages, Soriano’s developing relationship with him becomes healing. When it’s discovered that Little T., as he’s referred to, is also neurodivergent, Soriano is able to see her C-PTSD as a benefit to her parenting, since she is “able to treat [his] reactions with compassion because I experienced them myself.”

Through bonding with her son, and in ongoing connections to the circle of healers and activists who hold her up, Soriano implores readers to see healing as praxis, achieved through multiple, compounding acts of “transgenerational bravery and love.” Surely, if trauma is multigenerational, then healing must be as well. Without intervention, the horrors of the past—war, displacement, colonial violence—threaten to live on in the body’s memory ceaselessly. Soriano claims, “In the process of my own healing, I have come to treasure the self-reliance I learned from neglect while rejecting imposed silence. I have become a butterfly catcher, a seeker of elusive recollections. I cast my net around belly and breath, and when I catch a rare specimen, I pin it to the page with my words.”


Nervous: Essays on Heritage and Healing. By Jen Soriano. New York: Amistad, 2023. 306 pp. $30.00.


Chekwube Danladi is the author of Semiotics (University of Georgia Press, 2020), winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She has received support from Kimbilio Fiction, the Lambda Literary Foundation, Hedgebrook, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. She is the 2022–25 writer-in-residence at Occidental College and lives in Los Angeles.