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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

entry arrow9:36 PM | Leaving Omelas

I've been quiet of late about everything happening in the news. Because I've realised there really is no discourse anymore, no debate -- only vitriol and guys named Warren. My high school best friend who died recently was already on her death bed, and she had always been critical of the things that were happening, but even then a former classmate had been berating her so hard about being "unsupportive," that classmate had to be blocked ultimately in FB. "Mao pa ning gasakit na 'ta, awayon pa jud ko," was my best friend's lament amidst tears. The incivility has risen to that level: even the sick are not spared the vitriol. I realised some time ago that we are debating with people -- many of them our friends -- who have more or less crossed the moral line Ursula K. Le Guin illustrated with such sadness in "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." I hear it in the refrain, "It's a necessary evil" and its various permutations. I do see where they're coming from, and I see their point, and it's really all about middle class frustrations over systems na forever bulok -- but in the long run, I cannot participate in the crossing of that line, because once I do, I think that's it for me. I'll just be one of those na lang who will walk away.

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Monday, August 22, 2016

entry arrow6:25 PM | The Aftermath of Shopping

I think it's very much like shopping and a denial of buyer's remorse.

"I swear this shirt is cool. I didn't actually really notice these prints were animal prints -- but you know, be an environmentalist and stuff, right?"

"It's not that tight. [Catches breath.]"

"Let's just say na lang this pair of pants will motivate me to go to gym. It's, ummm, cool."

"The children who made this sweater in that Cambodian sweatshop are at least earning for their family. You know."

I've come to realise this: let people wear what they want to wear. But do Instagram it, and make that your Throwback Thursday years from now.

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Friday, August 19, 2016

entry arrow11:22 PM | Beautiful Words for a Birthday

It's endlessly fascinating when the audience/demographic you're specifically writing for in a story you've written actually gets to read your story -- and sends you feedback about it. But a friend of mine from college, Tintin, asked me a few months ago if I had any YA story she could share to her high school class, and I said I did. It's titled "Unsent Letters," and it's a story I finished in commission for Cyan Abad-Jugo's YA anthology, Friends Zone, forthcoming from Ateneo de Manila University Press.

"But it has a lesbian subject matter," I told my friend.

["Unsent Letters" is the story of a high school girl named Kia who has a crush on another girl named Roz. They are assigned to do a project together for English class, and Kia suggests they do something about words and their meanings, especially foreign words -- see illustration above -- that have no direct translation in English. Through this project, Kia nurtures an understanding for why she can't truly express her love for her beautiful classmate. There's something about Facebook in the story as well -- but I don't want to give away everything away before the anthology gets published.]

"Please me read it!" Tintin told me, excitedly.

I did send the story to her -- and then promptly forgot about it.

Apparently, she has really been teaching the story to her high school class, and today she sent me an email telling me everyone had enjoyed the story, which made my heart stout and humbled. (Actually kids reading my YA story!) Tintin wrote: "[I'm sending you] my class' notes on the story. They were so nervous about sharing their thoughts when I told them that I'd be sharing their ideas with you, the author! Big deal for them. Needless to say, they loved the story, save for one eleventh grade boy who thought it was 'too sentimental' for him. [Hahaha, I love this boy. And yes, it is meant to be sentimental. - Ian] Here, I hope you wouldn't find them rambling. Not lit crit, of course, just initial thoughts that nonetheless express how much the story resonated [with] them... They didn't want to stop discussing it! Thank you for sharing it with us! We'll wait for the anthology..."

This is what they wrote:

I liked the story. On the surface it was fun, light, and relatable, although when examined closely it had more layers and was actually something to think about.

I also really liked the treatment of LGBT. It wasn’t an issue/problem for the characters. I felt that the whole point of the story wasn’t even someone’s sexuality. It was treated just like it should be -- equal to the way boy-girl couples are treated. Without fuss. And that was something different.

The theme of language, of words -- beautifully executed. Loved the incorporation of untranslatable words into the story. They helped illustrate Kia’s character, and at the same time gave the story more depth.

The story explored how words are unique to the culture and identity of every region/place, and that these words, though sometimes untranslatable, can still be beautiful in the way they just exist for themselves. As Kia says, “We’re trying to say it doesn’t matter whether these words ... cannot find their exact translation in English. That’s their value.”

Looking at this broad concept on a smaller scale, it led me to think that who we are -- our emotions, our passions, our truest selves -- is in itself a language. And yes, that language may be untranslatable. We can’t always put that into English. Maybe, maybe we ourselves are made up of unsent letters, of all our unexpressed feelings, of all the things we don’t know how to put into words. Because the human being is complex, and to accurately express every part of who we are is close to impossible.

Now there is beauty in just letting that “language” of who we are exist in itself. To just feel. To just be our truest selves.

But but but just as people of different countries attempt to communicate, translate, and get past language barriers, there are also times when we want to reach out to others and translate our innermost sentiments in the best way we know. It is still necessary to be connected. That connection can even mean the world for some of us as it did for Kia to let Roz know how she feels. And so we talk, we tell stories, we have words, we have literature, we have art.

There's more, and I love the part where they ask very philosophical questions raised by the story -- but I can't include that here because they dealt invariably with spoilers. But the questions were smart and surprising.

Thank you, Tin! This is a birthday gift that means so much more than a thousand birthday cakes. Please tell your class my heart overflows with gratitude.

Art by Cyan Abad-Jugo, who did this right after finishing her edit on the story.

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entry arrow1:00 PM | Still Memories, in Ten Shots

“Photography is the only ‘language’ understood in all parts of the world, and bridging all nations and cultures, it links the family of man. Independent of political influence—where people are free—it reflects truthfully life and events, allows us to share in the hopes and despair of others, and illuminates political and social conditions. We become the eye-witnesses of the humanity and inhumanity of mankind…” 

~ HELMUT GERNSHEIM, Creative Photography (1962)

“The camera is my tool. Through it I give reason to everything around me.”



Sometimes I still catch myself looking at life through an imaginary lens, to see how a particular world—or an experience—looks like as a snapshot. In a life that thrives on the ubiquity of images, perhaps doing that is not so strange anymore. We have come to accept pictures—photographs—as something that is almost an extension of human existence. They mark us as having lived, as having been through verifiable experience. And life, as it is, has been profoundly changed by photography as well. The very expression “Kodak moments” defines this influence of photography on our existence. In the frail biology of our memories thus, photographs have become the lasting reminders of everything.

My first encounter with photography was an accident of almost primal surprise, of discovery. The camera for a very long time held no interest for me: I saw it only as a boxy contraption with complex buttons and pins and revolving dials. It was the very paradigm of technological difficulty, especially for someone like me who was not particularly drawn to gizmos or to anything remotely technical. An Instamatic model, with its auto-focus function and point-and-click ease, was enough to sustain a need for documenting moments from my life on the go. Other than that, there was no need really—or so I thought—to take photography very seriously.

But one weekend, a friend—a burly bohemian named Krevo—had brought along his Lyca camera while we traversed the hilly town of Valencia, right near the edges of Cuernos de Negros, on foot.

It was a beautiful day, some time in the summer of 1995. I was younger then, still in college, and thought earnestly of myself as an “artist” seeking a medium to break into, and waiting for some spark of creative drive. I had already spurned painting, and was starting to dabble in writing. Yet for a very long time, inspiration proved elusive.

That day in the hills, there were only the mountains, clouds, trees, flowers, and the occasional passersby to consider in our little trek. Krevo was happily snapping at everything with the gusto of a little boy with a prized toy.

In the midst of his snapping frenzy, he stopped and—putting down carefully his Lyca against his chest, its strap carefully laced loosely around his neck—he told me: “I’ve always loved seeing the world through the lens of my camera.” He went on to say that it offered me something else that one could not readily see with the naked eye. That simple declaration struck a chord in me.

Krevo motioned for me to come nearer, and when I did, he handed over his camera which was already ready for the clicking. “This is what you turn to focus, and this is what you turn to zoom in or out,” he said, carefully pointing out the dials I’d need.

“Now,” he said, “take a shot of that frog on the rock.”

With some hesitation, I cradled the camera with my hands, and squinting, looked through the viewfinder.

There it was: a frog within a world all its own—framed, isolated, angled—the sole focus of my photographic intentions. It surprised me that this image cropped from a larger, unbounded reality was more interesting to consider and ponder over just because I had blocked away the rest of the world by my focusing on this image that mattered to me at the moment.

Photographs, I realized, was an instrument of focus, blocking away the visual noise of everything else.

All pictures have a self-contained story, captured by the four sides of the camera’s viewfinder. Photography is a different grammar of seeing the world.

Snapshots, in other words, are witnesses to living. They galvanize moments to a kind of immediacy that even when each photo has faded to an overwash of time and sepia, they still seem to be always in the present tense.


HERE’S THIS one snapshot, for example, of deep, excruciating pain: my friend Donnie’s photograph of me one quick afternoon, in a government office—after the discovery of the sadness of wooden floors and gravity.

That day, I had carelessly slipped on the strap of my Canon T70 camera over my right shoulder, as if it was an ordinary slingbag. I was on the way to the city mayor’s office. One wrong turn, and I found my camera clattering down to the floor with a few fatal bumps, each thudding sound a tightening vise-grip around my heart.

I remember holding my breath. Like an instance of death, my life with my camera flashed before my eyes in cinematic sensurround, quick but brutal, and comprehensive: I remembered, all too quickly and briefly, many honeymoons with my camera, clicking at this and that. How many moons and mountains and people had I captured with those lenses? Too many images to count and catalogue, and so much scrapbook fodder: smiling faces, contemplative looks, silly poses, erotic montages, and off-guard indiscretions, all caught by my camera’s sheer truth, each click a slice of life, a captured detail the way we could not capture real moments and put them in a jar.

That tragic afternoon, I stayed frozen for a moment or so, and then soon the panic began. What happened? Will my camera still work? Have I damaged it beyond repair? Can I afford another camera?

Donnie’s picture of me that afternoon is a caricature of shock.

After clicking, he shook his head in mute but shared commiseration: “Remember to always place your strap around your neck,” he told me.

I learned this: one could never know the value of something until it disappeared from sight—like a fragile print of a lover’s face on untreated photographic paper, dissolving into chemical blackness if bright light accidentally stole into the red-tinted cocoon of the dark room.

This was several years ago. No photography for me since then. But I missed my camera. I missed most the stories it told.



A picture of Mother after the accident. (Months earlier, she had slipped across the kitchen’s tiled floor which was wet with soapsuds from an overflowing washing machine. She had not noticed the danger; her mind was preoccupied with the romances and indiscretions of her latest Sidney Sheldon heroine. Slipping, she broke and fractured her shoulder bone, and went through three months of intensive physical therapy.) I took it one afternoon sometime after that unfortunate fall. She had fallen asleep for siesta, but the quiet of our old neighborhood in Villarosa was too seductive for me to resist making a pictorial document. I had four more shots left of my black-and-white film—the rest of the roll being a pictorial essay I had taken of an early morning tabô in Dumaguete.

One called these extra exposures “waste shots”—which are unplanned shots taken just to finish the roll and to set the camera’s rewind mechanism running. I decided that the sooner I could finish the roll, the sooner I could get my photos back from the print shop, and the sooner I could breathe easy and see how the pictures turned out.

So I woke Mother up from her nap. “What is it?” she asked, still sleepy.

“I need you to pose for me, for a while, outside the house,” I said.

“Okay,” she said. (Mother was always game to my shenanigans. I was, after all, her youngest son.)

I set her small, brown frame to contrast against our house’s whitewashed outside walls, with only a French light post and our front door’s arch to provide accents to the plain architectural texture. I snapped the picture, and I clicked the lock.

That was it. A waste shot, nothing else.

The rewind button whirred.

But that “waste shot” turned out to be the most beautiful and dramatic shot in the roll.

The photo I took was of a woman in sepia—done with a tinge of brown, endearing and classic in its vocabulary of hue and meaning. Mother in that picture looks up the sky as if in search for meaning in the middle of an afternoon. There is a play of light on her cheeks, which makes her look more vulnerable, too human.

I realized then that photography was a kind of instinct. It was an epiphany captured on magic paper. It was fleeting beauty seized by chance, the way one saw God suddenly in the pictorial details of a flower blooming.


THIS ONE IS A SERIES OF PICTURES, taken by my brother Edwin, of a New Year’s Eve celebration. We are having dinner with Uncle James. There’s also a salsa-dancing bartender gyrating to a wild Latin beat. The pictures, too, show me on my second glass of white wine, my own digital camera in my hands. All of us are toeing the invisible line between past and future years, wondering what it will be like, this New Year that is suddenly facing us, with gyrating bartender and all.

The photos also show me in a contemplative mood: I am thinking that it is difficult to have deep thoughts about time in the middle of a cacophony of gunpowder exploding, shrill horns tooting, cars blaring, and what suspiciously sound like empty kitchen skillets being pounded against the wall—so much noise gathering up towards the stroke of midnight. We are in CocoAmigos Restaurant. Uncle James sits beside me and looks at me with a hint of concern. “The noise…it’s an ancient Chinese custom,” I remember him telling me, smiling, “and the noise is supposed to drive off all the evil spirits of the previous year.”

“Yes,” I remember replying, “but we did the same thing last year, and it never quite worked. It’s been, on the whole, a bad year for everybody.”

Uncle James laughs a while later. “Sometimes we do certain things because of the comfort the routine gives us, like an old blanket,” he says. I, too, have snapped hundreds of photos with my camera as a curious habit of seeking comfort. Perhaps I feel the world is a much better place when seen through the camera’s lens, with everything captured in a wide-angle perspective, everything boxed and rational, everything clickable and storable like a cache for memory kept in a box. Or a tattered album.

But what the pictures did not show was how things in the restaurant were becoming much too noisy for comfort, compounded by the shrill sounds of plastic horns some of the customers are tooting. From some distance, unseen, the fireworks pulled at my cynical heart with their bright streams of red, blue, and yellow flowering briefly against the dark of the sky. I looked pensive in the photo.

I realized then that fireworks, like photography, might make men smile, but their pleasures were often too brief, too expensive.

What happens between the moments of explosion, of picture-taking, between the collective ohhs and ahhs or “Say cheese!”, and then the quick disintegration of light into the surrounding blackness? There is a rising of spirits, briefly, and then the rush to nothingness: the feeling of emptiness after the orgasm.

I remember us taking more photographs of people dancing. Also photographs of the white wine and the food. Of my brother Edwin and Uncle James in the table with me. Of the bartender gyrating some more.

Each photograph becomes an accounting of things past—and a resolution for things in the future. Each click is an invitation to a quick parade of questions about life and nothingness.

The next day, I plug the camera into my computer to download the jpeg files, but everything is blurry, like life itself.


THIS GRAINY SHOT WAS TAKEN in Manila with a Nokia cellphone camera sometime in 2003. Nobody believed me when I texted from the MRT halfway near Quezon Ave., on the way to Shangri-La Plaza, that the celebrity/model Marc Nelson was sitting across from me. There was an ocean between our distance of about a meterstick, and for a moment there was sudden clarity to clichés.

So near, so far.

My thumb fumbled quickly with my cellphone keys. (Everybody becomes a champion texter when the need arises.)

“Marc Nelson? In an MRT?” Tessa texted back from her condominium in Makati, her incredulity as ashen-white as the backlight of her Nokia phone. From Dumaguete, Gerard texted back as well, his message equally doubtful—accusations hanging in the air like knives for liars: “Naks, I don’t believe you. You’re like Joey.” (Our friend Joey has a famous story about being very close friends with the singer Regine Velasquez. We all smile when he tells the tale: “How wonderful for you,” we all say in patronizing tones, conspirational smiles etched on each one of our faces.)

Unlike Pinocchio, however, my nose did not grow long. “Jesus Christ, nobody believes me,” I whispered to Eric, who was sitting beside me to my left, his eyes equally giddy with concealed star-struck glee. We both tried to avert our eyes, with difficulty. I peeked from my pretend nonchalance, but still careful not to gawk. I took in the man, the celebrity in cognito: he wore a blue baseball cap which carefully obscured his eyes in shades; also a dark blue muscle shirt immaculately and stylishly untucked from his faded blue jeans—all sartorial ensemble dotted by metallic-blue sneakers. He had a gray knapsack mixed with shades of blue—and there were those trademark biceps, all too familiar now from their having graced too many magazine pages and TV shows.

It is the man, I told myself, unbelieving friends be damned.

Marc Nelson was Dressed All in Blue. Like all creations of the small screen, he appeared surprisingly smaller, and leaner than in our imaginations.

Save for Eric and I, nobody else in the MRT noticed the celebrity in our midst—people in Manila, I quickly thought, have perfected the typical metropolitan blindness to other people, a syndrome one develops as a protective bubble from brushing against too much humanity in one’s traffic-laden ordinary day. No one really looks at anyone, and all places around are empty and vacant in one’s eyes, in a metropolis otherwise teeming with three million people.

But Eric and I were not regular city folks; we were both promdis newly landed in the great metropolis, and our eyes were still forever searching and observing, hungry for the sight of new things. My skin breathed in the unfamiliar, the strangeness, the bigness of it all. In Manila, I whispered a prayer of contentment, of suddenly finding myself without the constant view of my little Visayan city’s boulevard, its small streets, Scooby’s, Silliman Avenue Café. All things Dumaguete and blah. Manila was a stranger’s home, a welcome foulness in place of small city pristineness.

“I read once in MEGA magazine,” Eric whispered, “that Marc often takes the MRT on the way to ABS-CBN.”

“And now we’re in the same train car with him!” I whispered back.

We quickly dismissed plans of asking for autographs. We are not jologs, we told ourselves.

Marc Nelson held a Tagalog paperback romance. I raised my eyebrows. Tacky, I thought, but the book managed to hide his head effectively. His anonymity became a shield.

I couldn’t stand any more of the suspense.

Then I remembered that my phone had a built-in camera. I clicked furtively at Marc Nelson while pretending to text. Hastily, I sent the picture to unbelieving friends to confirm my Truth.

Pictures, I realized, had that magnificent power to reinforce the sense of what was truthful and real, perhaps even more than words could. On the middle of the MRT ride to Shangri-La, I decided it was a perfect day.


HERE’S ANOTHER PHOTO, of an old friend’s obscured face, in sepia, showing only three-quarters of his whole visage: one can only sees his eyes, ears, curly hair, Gaelic nose in blurry details.

But to blur is often not a mistake in photos. To blur lends meaning to one’s subject—the way one intends to convey a certain fastness, or a certain unreality.

This is how I remember my friend Quddus: as a dream in my head. Quddus has gone far and away—I do not know where he is at the moment. Is he in Miami looking at the stars? In Palawan finding the perfect beach?

He was the one who taught me how to cradle a camera like one would a woman, or a comfortable lover: to place between the loving spaces of palms and fingers something sacred, the camera’s bottom placed squarely on top of one’s left upturned palm, with left fingers turning the lens like one would touch a lover’s skin, while one’s right hand secures the right side of the camera, with right pointer finger gently pressing the click button.

To photograph is to make love with the contraption, and with the image in the viewfinder.

In college, I took pictures of frogs, of cats, of flowers, of people rushing about in an existence of motorcycles, restaurants, and parties. Quddus was the technical one in our duo: he devoured photography books and knew the technical nuances of backlight, shutter speed, apertures (f/16, f/32, f/27…), exposure compensation, filters, peak sensitivity. He knew well the photography dark room and its procedures like the back of his hand: the steps in the intricate wounding of unexposed negative round the roller, the careful exposure of light and negative onto sensitive photographic paper, the right amounts of fixing and washing solutions.

I, on the other hand, had the creative “eye”: the language of images.

Once, Quddus kept vigil outside Silliman Church one night. He had his camera on a tripod, and on a timer. For the whole night, he kept his camera and one shot open to the night sky. By morning, he had his shot printed.

And there it was on print: a bright geography of stars moving across the photographic paper—streaks of mesmerizing light the way you can never see stars with your naked eye.

I knew at once why I took pictures: it was for revealing moments like this, to be able to see stars as fireflies dancing in the dark.


HERE’S ONE PICTURE my photographer friend Donnie took some years ago, and gave to me—framed—as a birthday gift.

Donnie likes taking pictures of people. Portraits. When I see him around town, he is always sporting hair like Jesus Christ’s, and wears his constant backpack. Inside it, there is always a camera. He likes taking “fashion pictures,” he says—and he doesn’t know why: his portfolio is littered with beautiful women (and men) in exotic locations, on the beach, in some café, in private verandas, in gardens, in the private darkness of bedrooms.

This time, however, he gives me a picture of two country men passing through rural landscape, each astride mobile means which are perfect opposites of each other: one man is on a cow, another man is on a bike. I like the paradox of the subject matter: it is poetry at work, drenched in irony.

See how young the cow rider is? A boy in puberty. And the bicycle rider? An older man with an abundance of wrinkles. A portrait of generations passing and continuing, and contrasting, and evolving. Old and new as they are, and old being new, and new being old—elements of post-modernism contained in a panorama such as this.

See how the color complements the subject? The blue of the sky bleeds into the deep yellow of the cornfield in the background, and of the brownish skin of the men and the cow. A swath of pastoral colors—the photo borders on the magic of oil paintings.

And here’s my other photographer friend Razceljan’s photo of Siquijor in the twilight. Skies red, and the beach blue and empty in the low tide—only the stumps of occasional mangrove indicate any presence of life. He took this photo while we—all three of us—were on vacation during Holy Week, the day Rico Yan died.

I remember there was only a pervasive silence that day—a quiet beach, a quiet day. Each of us—Donnie, Razcel, and I—were armed with our vacation books and probing cameras. We all whiled away the Siquijodnon afternoons chasing after surf, and chasing after images. Siquijor was magical that week. Razcel perhaps best captured that magic in his photo: a place tinged with blood red, presupposing a psychology of place and witchcraft.


SOMETIMES, THOUGH, too much of our lives happen quickly, and passions are often set aside, often for years. Accidents claim your stake. Or sometimes you just lose focus.

I have said I haven’t done photography for a number of years now. Such a long separation from the photographic bent can make rusty one’s sense of photographic proportion, frame, and vision. Always, and everyday, I ask myself, Do I still have the ‘eye’?

Because once smitten with the artistic possibilities of the camera—both still and moving—one cannot help but continually appreciate the photographic possibilities of the world all around us. My bible in better days was Susan Sontag’s seminal book On Photography, which was in many ways a condemnation of photography as moral influence, but which also made the singular claim of photography as an art form that mattered.

Sontag wrote in that book: “In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have the right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—as an anthology of images…. To collect photographs is to collect the world.”

When you’re young, the thing to do is just that: to collect a world of sensation and experiences. Photography thus was, for me, the perfect escape into that occupation. I also made a short film in those days titled “Trahedya sa Kabila ng Liwanag,” which was done in collaboration with a bunch of friends for several courses in filmmaking in Silliman University’s School of Communication. It was an experience which distilled all that I knew from all those years studying the shots and mise en scene of Hitchcock and Ozu and Welles. But I never did another film again after that.

Still photography, however, was a bug that bit me harder than moving pictures. The love for it grew when I was editor-in-chief of Silliman’s student paper, when I was often driven to madness with what I considered the lazy ineptness of my staff photographers. “Photography is more than just capturing a moment in time,” I used to tell them in-between the pressing deadlines, “it must also be a story, a narrative.” Give me an angle that frames the story better, I’d tell them. And when they couldn’t deliver, I’d take the camera and do the snapping myself.

But something has struck me anew in the light of current trends: photographic film as we know it is dead. Everybody has gone digital, and even for those who can’t afford the new digital cameras, they have their camera phones now handy to take a shot at anything, and everything. This is a testament to the prescience of Robert Frank, who once, perhaps wearily, claimed, “You can photography anything now.”

Those who can’t afford cellphones with cameras instead go to Internet cafes where they pose, often without shame, in front of webcameras all too ready for posing, then posting and emailing the photographic evidence of themselves for the rest of the cyber world to see.

When the idea of such photographic democracy was still in its infancy, the possibilities promised all the bright things. Imagine! we told ourselves, we could be on top of a mountain, or in front of a waterfall, and we would be able to take photos of ourselves—with our phones! It took a year or two for all of us to also find out cellphone camera culture was not all roses. It also brought out the inner porno star in all of us. Who would not be amazed by the sheer amount of personal porn coming out of the woodwork these days as new gizmos increasingly become more affordable and readily available in the market? All sorts of sex scandals—known mostly by their places of misdeeds, from Dumaguete to Bacolod, and from Mindoro to Cebu—have been passed on from cellphone to cellphone through MMS and regurgitated by the VCD pirates in our midst. Who hasn’t seen the TV midgets Mahal or Mura doing their striptease? Or the comedian Terry Aunor urinating? Or the TV personality Ethel Booba playing with herself with her boyfriend behind the camera? Or the news reporter JV Villar baring everything for his Bluetooth phone camera to record? Or the model Cedric Carreon letting his body be gazed from head to foot? Or the actor Troy Montero “playing around” with some of his buddies? And now, an alleged buggering of the actor Piolo Pascual? Forget Reality TV. The real thing -- sleazier, but more exciting because more real -- is going on beneath our noses. It’s like everybody has become their own porn star—the ultimate penance for the ubiquity of image-making, in a culture drowning in it.

I doubt anyone can say camera phones are evil. But camera phones have indeed awakened “something” in many of us, and we can piece the puzzle as thus: there is now the ease of recordability in the modern age, revealing to us the illusory promise of privacy, the universal and perverted wish to “perform,” the subtle pornographic influence of pop culture, with all moves learned from Deep Throat onwards to Playboy Videos, and to the gyrations of the Viva Hot Babes (and Men) all for a buck or two on DVD.

Images can be deadly.


BUT IMAGES CAN also be inspiring. I remember it was the renowned photographer Eduardo Masferré who finally cemented my love affair with photography. In particular, it was his famous photograph of a beautiful, young Kalinga woman which first made me pause, and which made me first consider the politics and aesthetics of image-making.

In Masferré’s picture, the Kalinga girl is bare-chested, a necklace adorning her throat. Her arms are covered with tattoos, and a cigarette hangs down a smiling mouth. Her eyes are alive.

Seeing that for the first time, I was instantly smitten with the possibilities of photography as something that familiarized what was for me alien, but also something beautiful. It was the first time I knew for sure that photography had something to say.

My first encounter with Masferré began with rumination, edging on studious devotion, over his picture book, People of the Philippine Cordillera. I had accidentally stumbled upon it in the library while researching for a theme in my political science class. As I slowly fingered through every page, every Masferré photograph seemed to drip with quiet importance, each declaring itself to be a masterpiece of the late Father of Philippine Photography, as he was often called. I felt myself wishing I had taken those photographs. I wished I had his “eye.” It was not only that the photographs he took—no matter the subject—were beautiful, but that they also aimed to teach us about the ways of a forgotten people—an advocacy not always to be found in art. As Jill Gale de la Villa once wrote, “Eduardo Masferré’s legacy is irreplaceable. To read about the mountain people’s culture is one thing. To really feel that culture one needs to see Masferré’s photographs. He has left a body of work that will show the ancestral life and ways of the people of the Central Cordillera, so that we may visualize how the Cordillera forebears lived and worked, painstakingly carving vast areas of rice terraces into steep mountainsides, using rudimentary tools to fit billions of rocks neatly together to make thousands of kilometers of walls; know that they discovered and used highly advanced principles of hydraulics to accomplish the job; realize that they had intricate cultures that provided appropriate activities for all stages of life, from prebirth to beyond the transition to the next world.”

I knew the biography of the master well. Masferré had exhibits of his photographs virtually everywhere—Manila in 1982, Copenhagen in 1984, and Tokyo in 1986. In 1989, he became the only Filipino to be given the honor of having his work exhibited at the prestigious Les Rencontres Internationale de la Photographie in Arles, France. Later, in 1990, some 120 of his prints were purchased by the Smithsonian Institution for a six-month exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

In my thoughts, I had sworn that someday, I would meet the man who created a statement of beauty from a simple snapshot.

A journey to the mountain would be that chance.

I remember Friday, the 24th of March, 1995, quite well. It was the beginning of summer. School had ended for the term, and there was that sudden sweet acknowledgment of freedom from all that academic wrangling. It took some planning and a little strategy to decide what to do and how to spend my upcoming days under the sweltering summer sun. A trip to Luzon, I finally decided. To Sagada. And so it was. My boat ticket for Manila was dated March 25, a Saturday. I was to leave at 10 o’clock the next morning.

With Satuday came sudden spring as I started on my journey to the mountains. The boat was late. Above the chaos and the sweat, people hustled to get on the vessel that would take us far north to a place I’d never been to. Finally, amidst the noise of the throng of loud porters, Dumaguete seemed suddenly so far away. Through my camera’s lens, Dumaguete’s shores was a panorama of goodbye to what was, for me, familiar. But the unfamiliar north beckoned, and I had my camera in hand.

Several days later, and on that mountain in Sagada, I finally saw Masferré’s pink house. It was quiet. And then I knocked on the door.

“Would you like to meet my husband?” the Manang who opened the door asked me as I stood in the living room of the pink house. The place was small, but there was certain coziness to the house: it felt warm and uncannily familiar. Here and there, black and white prints hung on every wall, like testaments to an artist’s greatness. I stood mute before the mounted pictures of people of the mountains, the Kalingas. The pictures were expressive, and often playful in their depiction of simple lives. There was a man clad in a bahag looks forlornly over his village from atop a hill as the sun sets behind the mountains beyond. There were toothless women smiling, clad in intricately woven clothing, stripped in the festal colors of their tribes. There was an old pensive man sitting in his dap-ay. There were frenzied dancing, and complex rituals before the backdrop of sweeping rice terraces.

The Manang repeated her question. I quickly nodded in answer. She smiled, and then left the room. The realization that I was to meet the man—the legend I have heard about for so long, and read about so much—finally hit me. I prepared to document the moment with a ready camera.

I waited for him. I wandered through the house. In one room, I saw how the great photographer had fashioned his own natural light source in one huge space of a “dark room.” The light was from the ceiling, where the sunlight could pass through a well-fashioned box. The rays went straight to the developing table, and I could see what his intentions were: to be able to make large prints of his photographs. It was ingenious.

Then I heard some noise, and Manang was back, pushing a man in a wheelchair. It was Masferré. He did not talk. He could not walk. He was, to my silent and surprising dismay, somehow wasting away in old age. But I could see there was still life and genius in those old eyes.

“You can shake his hand,” Manang told me. “But he has to rest soon.”

I went to him, and shook his hand. “It is a great honor, sir, to have finally met you,” I said, with a catch in my throat. Did he nod? I was not sure, but I was happy to meet the man.

“Do you want me to take a photo of you together?” Manang asked me. “I see you have a camera with you.”

I thought about it quickly. And then I shook my head, No.

After coffee, I bade them farewell, and went home.


It is best to take photographs in the “magic hours” of the day: very early in the morning, or at sunset—at that precise time when the sun is horizontal in the east, or in the west.

The light then becomes parallel to the ground, and there are no downcast shadows to overwhelm the subject in front of your camera. Natural lighting becomes perfect, and the sun’s light becomes more diffused in the atmosphere, perfect for pictures that come out more ethereal, more… “magical.”

But “magic hours” are too short. Soon, noon and slanting sunlight threaten, or night’s darkness looms—and you have to fold your tripods and put away your cameras in your bags, and you have to wait for the next magic session to begin, or for the next photogenic image to unfold in your sight, ready for the clicking.

I miss Masferré’s genius. And I miss my Canon T70 camera. It still lies crippled in my camera bag, perhaps ruing the day it met the reality of wooden floors and gravity.

I have realized that even photography has its sense of mortality—like life, like an old picture curling to gray as time moves on, and even memory becomes a memory of itself, like a snapshot suddenly turned dark, turned to a nothingness.

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entry arrow1:38 AM | The Beginning of Happiness

I often go back to this scene in Stephen Daldry's adaptation of Michael Cunningham's The Hours (2002), my favourite scene in the whole film. Here, Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) and her daughter Julia (Claire Danes) discuss intimately the instance of happiness -- and Julia has the insight that perhaps what we remember most as the happiest times of our lives are really just our memories of being young. There are no beginnings of happiness, Clarissa realizes. Every instance is its own start and end, and the trick is to embrace its singular arc, and never to think of it as a portal to more happiness. There is no such thing. Life bewilders, saddens; happiness is the occasional respite.

Related post: The Moments in The Hours.

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Thursday, August 18, 2016

entry arrow11:00 PM | Life and Good Art

Surrounded myself with good art today -- good music [The Bolipata Trio, Philip Glass], good books [Tony Kushner's Angels in America, parts of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, parts of Michael Cunningham's The Hours], good films [Joe Wright's 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Mike Nichol's 2003 adaptation of Kushner's play], even watched both the documentary The Rape of Europa (2006) and George Clooney's The Monuments Men [an underwhelming, if well-meaning, 2014 film based on a fantastic 2007 book by Robert M. Edsel, which I read last year] to see a bunch of good people racing against time to save thousands of priceless Western art from the machinations of Hitler and the destruction of war. It made the world infinitely better, bearable, at least for the day. This line from the fictional Frank Stokes in Clooney's film underlined for me why art mattered, and why it needed saving, especially in a time of great crises: "You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they'll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it's as if they never existed. That's what Hitler wants and that's exactly what we are fighting for."

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

entry arrow5:44 AM | You Will Never Know How Much I Love You

“Ang tanong ... ay kung may lubos tayong kakayahan na ipaalam sa iba kung gaano natin sila kamahal. Ang daling sabihin na, siyempre naman, sabihin mo lang. Pero kung iisipin mo, wala namang pag-ibig na may tamang sukat at nakukulong ng panahon. Paano nga ba? Sapat na ba iyong, o, ngayong alas kuwatro y medya ng hapon, mahal kita hanggang dulo ng kalawakan? Kahit baliktarin mo. Maaari mo bang malaman kung gaano ka kamahal ng isang tao? Alam siguro natin na tayo ay minamahal, and we can have assumptions. Ngunit kung paano at hanggang saan parang ang hirap isipin. Meron pa bang mas bibigat sa katagang, kung alam lang nila? Kung alam mo lang... For how can we measure something that is greater than us?”

~ Wilfredo Pascual

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Monday, August 15, 2016

entry arrow7:41 PM | Blood on the Silver Screen

I wish some Pinoy filmmaker would take a cue from that bloody wish fulfilment in that final movie theatre scene in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, and do to the Marcoses what Tarantino did to Hitler. It would feel sooooo good. I'd be watching that, and I'd be grinning like shit. (Pero hanggang movies lang, ha.)

When you study popular culture, you learn that movies, books, etc. can be, as Soledad Reyes once said of komiks, "a release of deeply suppressed emotions—such as anger, hostility, and hatred—without inflicting damage to society." She goes on to say that the komiks [and I think most of popular culture] can be "a site where the battle between good and evil are played out systematically with the forces of light eventually gaining victory over the forces of darkness." I'm pondering on these because I'm trying to understand the spike in real-life bloodlust by many Filipinos. And it dawns on me that in Filipino cinema, the action movie is virtually extinct, and we are in fact inundated by mostly bad romantic comedies not just in film, but also in television and Wattpad. Is this why we're acting out, because the violent fantasies of our id have not been sated by the Pinoy popular culture we currently devour?

Bring back Ronnie Ricketts, quick!

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entry arrow7:00 PM | Before I Turn 41

I turn 41 in two days, and there are times when I look back at my twenties and think about the things I used to do (in half the time) -- that old speed and sharpness now seemingly nearing impossibility. My body is no longer the same, and I have admitted to myself that I cannot be "superman" anymore. But lately I've also been thinking about Oksana Chusovitina. And now every time I give myself a task that seems to take all of me, I cannot help but ask myself: "What would Oksana Chusovitina do?"

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

entry arrow5:19 PM | A Cultural Mapping of Dumaguete

A number of us cultural workers in Dumaguete were invited by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the City Tourism Office, spearheaded by YATTA, to do an initial cultural mapping summit of the city this afternoon. I wasn't prepared to be overwhelmed by so many things I didn't even know about the culture of the city -- I had no idea, for example, that there is a ritual called "san jose" in traditional homes all over the city. But I was mostly overwhelmed by the prospect that there is still so much to do with regards identifying, researching, documenting, and preserving many of our natural, movable, built, and intangible heritage as well as strengthening many of our creative industries. We graded what we have identified so far and while a good number is still alive and existing, most are deteriorating or dead. For a city that thrives on a literary reputation, for example, we don't really have publishing houses or bookstores that sell books by local authors -- and our public library has been largely neglected. This is only our first session, and there's more work to do, and we hope other cultural workers can join us in the future.

I don't really know why this has never been done before.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2016

entry arrow5:06 PM | Reflection on Digital Evolutions

I was watching this trailer for a documentary on the evolution of graphic design, and it made me think. Sometimes I'm struck with what for me is the relief of being born at the right time, especially when it comes to the digital divide of generations. In journalism/publishing, for example, I was editor-in-chief of The Junior Sillimanian (the high school paper) in 1991, right around the time things were starting to go digital. Our first issue for the year was something assembled through the help of the old linotype machine, a huge contraption with a keyboard upfront and a boiler at the back that essentially "cooked" on the spot the metallic letters you typed in which you then assembled by hand to make metallic impressions for each page of the paper. By the second issue, we were using a desktop, the print resembling dot matrix letters that smelled of the future. In terms of desktop publishing, I started doing page design using Aldus Pagemaker which became Adobe Pagemaker which became InDesign, each change in platform requiring enormous will power for reeducation. (I hated InDesign when it first came out. Now I can't live without it.) When I was in college, we were assigned a journalism teacher who made us do headline writing by counting type -- there was a mathematical formula, and all -- which was the way they did it before the digital shattered best practices in journalism and design. I found that class incredibly sad, to be "taught" by someone who clearly didn't know what was current. She didn't last the semester. I can't remember who she was, and I don't know where she is, but she has since become the voice at the back of my head always warning me, "Keep up, keep up. Don't get stuck in the old ways of doing things. The moment you start complaining about new platforms -- I hate blogging, I hate Facebook, I hate Twitter, I hate Instagram, I hate Snapchat, etc. -- that's the moment you become old and irrelevant." It's a harsh reminder that's not entirely true, but it helps keeping me on my toes.

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Saturday, August 06, 2016

entry arrow2:03 AM | Van Gogh and the Art and Science of Turbulence

This is an amazing video for several reasons. It perfectly combines science and the humanities -- and demonstrates once for all that both enrich each other and should be equally supported. It made me understand, even just a bit, the difficult science of turbulence. And it gave me another reason to be awed by the genius of Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh painted "Starry Night" during a stay in a sanitarium, where he admitted himself after having mutilated his own ear. I like the video's parting words: "While it’s too easy to say Van Gogh’s turbulent genius enabled him to depict turbulence, it’s also far too difficult to accurately express the rousing beauty of the fact that in a period of intense suffering Van Gogh was somehow able to perceive and represent one of the most supremely difficult concepts nature has ever brought before mankind, and to unite his unique mind’s eye with the deepest mysteries of movement, fluid, and light."

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Saturday, July 30, 2016

entry arrow11:44 PM | This is Me.

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entry arrow4:56 PM | Food Roundup Dumaguete 2016: Adamo

I am an accidental foodie: I used to write a food column for a local paper and have written extensively about the Dumaguete food scene for national magazines and newspapers -- until I decided to discontinue the enterprise about four years ago. Still, people I know who visit Dumaguete keep asking me about the best places to go to eat, and I've found I no longer quite know the scene. A lot can change in half a decade. So I've decided to try a new approach this year and go about sampling the local food culture once more and document everything online in the course of twelve months. The city has grown and expanded enough in the years since 2011, and a significant part of what's happening food-wise has become unfamiliar to me. Consider this a personal adventure.

There is finally a restaurant in Dumaguete that has become KRI’s equal, at least in its clearly-wrought striving for fantastic ambience and culinary invention, and it is Adamo. (The thing about Dumaguete food is that for the most part almost every restaurant offers mere variants of the same tired dishes, which may be due to the fact that the cycle of kitchen-staff piracy in the city has become a kind of tradition. Enter some of our name restaurants and you could taste, with every bite you take, the inevitable conclusion that a dish you’re eating has not been made by a culinary artist, but by some highly-effective craftsperson. Truly, if I have to see another lackluster chicken cordon bleu on the menu again, I’d…) It is then with such a relief that we welcome Chef Edison Monte de Ramos Manuel to the local food scene. He has transformed what used to be a carwash at the once sleepy corner of Tindalo and Molave Streets in Daro [such an unlikely venue!] into a restaurant whose aesthetic seems to suggest makeshift industrial space with hip minimalism — the grey concrete box of its interiors softened by carefully placed wooden finish here and there. The result is a shabby lived-in feel that works: it is an austerity that invites concentration on the food. And the food truly is a magnificent surprise. The efficient wait staff wasted no time in giving us the restaurant’s idea of breadsticks, a waferish thing that came complete with a tuna/sesame seed dip. And as we marvelled over the one-sheet menu, she informed us — with such a pleasant authority that’s usually absent in many local wait crew — that the chef plans to change the menu every two weeks or so, and that what we have was actually the dinner menu, and there was in fact a separate lunch menu. The prices, much to our pleased surprise, were not eye-gouging, and we were told that the market they’re targeting are students and young professionals, hence a relative affordability to their selections. There were enough of us in the table to enable us to go for a good sampling of the entire menu, and we were asked if we wanted to have our dishes brought to us by courses. (Another delight! Because when was the last time you were ever asked that question in a Dumaguete restaurant? Most have a tendency to give you your appetiser after the main course has been served, and most serve a large party in a piece-meal manner, so that no one ever truly eats together: one eats his dessert while another one is still waiting for his main course to arrive.) For our starters, we ordered the fish and pork (P125), which was basically smoked fish aioli with shredded adobo, cherry tomatoes, pickled onions, and arugula set on sliced French bread; the goat cheese and grilled apple salad (P150), with candied walnuts, salad greens, and caper raisin dressing; and the coconut and prawn pasta (P150) in crème de tête and with gremulata, which was superb. For the main course, we had the pork belly (P180), the tuna belly (P190), and the braised beef (P260) — the last one absolutely perfection, the fullness of the marrow an enticing buttery goodness that instantly reminded everyone that mealtimes with good friends are always a kind of celebration. Good food does that. The desserts — we had blueberries and cream, and a slice of fudge brownie — left a little to be desired, but it was overall a surprisingly elegant meal, and its preparation almost a performance. The kitchen is open, and it is separated from the main dining room only by a sheet of glass that also served as a board for instruction to the kitchen crew over the intricacies of the meals for the day: you could see the chef and his cooks slave over painstakingly over every dish they were concocting for all the diners. It was a fantastic meal, the best we’ve had in Dumaguete for the longest time. We asked what Adamo meant, and apparently it’s Italian for “to fall in love with, to conceive desire for, to desire eagerly.” An appropriate name. I can’t wait to go back. They serve lunch from 11:30 AM to 2:30 PM and close for the rest of the afternoon. They open for dinner at 5:30 PM and close at 9:30 PM. We ordered at 7:30 PM. Order received at 7:45 PM.


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entry arrow3:26 PM | Food Roundup Dumaguete 2016: Healthy Bar by Chef Twine

I am an accidental foodie: I used to write a food column for a local paper and have written extensively about the Dumaguete food scene for national magazines and newspapers -- until I decided to discontinue the enterprise about four years ago. Still, people I know who visit Dumaguete keep asking me about the best places to go to eat, and I've found I no longer quite know the scene. A lot can change in half a decade. So I've decided to try a new approach this year and go about sampling the local food culture once more and document everything online in the course of twelve months. The city has grown and expanded enough in the years since 2011, and a significant part of what's happening food-wise has become unfamiliar to me. Consider this a personal adventure.

A friend of mine has one rule when it comes to choosing a restaurant, especially in another city: “Never ever go inside an establishment that’s practically empty, especially during the peak hours. There must be a reason why nobody’s there.” There you go: a distrust of empty places as functional food criticism. Sometimes, arriving in a foreign city, I do find myself following my friend’s advise — although one can easily make an argument about why a place could be empty: it could be new, and no one has heard of it yet; it could be too experimental, or too exotic, which is not reason enough to stay away. Most of the time though, that distrust is pure instinct that’s right on the mark. When we entered Healthy Bar by Chef Twine right at the height of lunchtime, the cafe right along Aldecoa Drive seemed spectacularly empty, and the resounding chirp of greeting by its lone waitress — “Good morning!” — almost overplayed its cheer: it smelled of relief, and it made me think, “Are we their first customers of the day?” But we’ve been looking for a good alternative for Lokal Organic Cafe, which had closed so abruptly and has yet to make true its promise to resurrect itself in a better venue. We wanted a healthy option for mealtimes; we wanted vegetables! Our first impression was that Healthy Bar has none of the lovely kitsch of Lokal Organic: it reminds you in fact of a dental clinic — all done in immaculate white and dashes of brown and vegetable green — and all with an agricultural theme. It has posters and cut-outs featuring earnest quotes, some of them Biblical, about the virtues of organic farming. The tables are elegant if a bit uncomfortable, and on every tabletop is a plastic jar with greens sprouting from it, a goldfish swimming about in the clear containers. The menu, when it comes, is a sad-looking plastic binder, the kind you use for bureaucratic purposes — but it is filled with all things this “healthy bar” wants to be known for: they have oat meal flavoured with everything from carrot to chocolate to Oreo (ranging from P65 to P70), they have “on-the-go” salad (P75-79), they have organic coffee (native robusta), they have a wheat grass blend (P110), they have mango wine (P69 per glass/P200 per bottle). We asked for their lunch menu — this was, after all, a cafe that bills itself as having a chef — and we are shown a page in the menu that enumerates all manner of “logs,” from tocilog to tapsilog, but with a healthy twist: each dish is served with deep purple rice. And that’s it. I said, “I had no idea you needed a chef to think up a ‘log’ dish.” We chose the chicsilog (supposedly ginger organic chicken) and vegelog (which turned out to be three slices each of tomato and cucumber), and at P75, the dishes were fair for their price, if ultimately unfulfilling. (The eggs however were done just right.) For drinks, we had lember “infused water” (P60), which was basically flavoured water without the guilt of sugar. The slice of green tea cake (P55) we had for dessert was tiny — but thank God for that, because it was hard and tasted like cardboard. It wasn’t altogether a happy meal — but we gave its signature offering a chance to give us back our good mood. The twinebocker halo-halo (P65), a concoction without sugar or ice and just plain fruit, milk, and herbs, was our salvation, truly a delight — and this saved us from pronouncing this meal a small disaster. So, go for the halo-halo, but don’t expect much from everything else. Ordered at 11:30 AM. Order received at 11:55 AM.


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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

entry arrow12:35 AM | The Architect of Happiness

Come over to the Philippines! It's where thrilling fiction comes alive! Here you can be Tessie Hutchinson from Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," and you have just received the black mark. You can be the chosen child from Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," and you're about to enter the room without windows. Or you can be the baby in this passage from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov: "Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature -- that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance -- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?" Welcome to our happy, happy land. Happy reading.

[Image swiped from Shakira Sison, who has this rejoinder: "Can we make it a rule that if you feel this way, you should be willing to offer your child as sacrifice?"]

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Sunday, July 24, 2016

entry arrow3:46 PM | The Kill List Chronicles

I’ve decided to create a new literary blog/e-zine over at Medium that aims to collect and archive new literary pieces by Filipino writers — poems, short stories, essays, short comics, maybe even short plays — that are being written to protest the “new normal” of impunity under the new administration. I’m calling it The Kill List Chronicles, and I’ve written a short essay [The New Protest Literature, below] about it to kind of put it in the light of the long tradition of protest literature here in the Philippines. So far, we have Krip Yuson’s “Civil Service” [poem], Floy Quintos’ “Untitled” [poem], Niccolo Vitug’s “Lines Tracing Em-J” [poem], Joel Pablo Salud’s “When Darkness Knocks at Your Door” [essay], Carljoe Javier’s “Cardboard Villanelle” [poem], Gabriela Lee's Shaping a Death [poem], and Teddy Espela’s “Isang Biyernes sa EDSA” [poem], but I’m sure more will be coming as writers become angrier by the day. You can PM me if you want to submit something, or you can email me at kill.list.chronicles[at]gmail.com.

The New Protest Literature in the Time of Duterte

On 23 July 2016 at 12:08 AM, the preeminent fictionist Jose Y. Dalisay Jr., author of such novels as Killing Time in a Warm Place and Soledad’s Sister, tweeted a link to a photo, and captioned it: “Here’s what they did to our dear Lauren, another innocent casualty. Pinoy lives matter! Stop the killings!” Lauren, the girlfriend of Dalisay’s nephew, was an ordinary young woman, certainly not a criminal, and on the day she died, she was just another commuter aboard a Makati jeepney — only to meet the grisliest end: shot by some random individual for some random reason, another casualty, people say, from the “culture of impunity” that is currently gripping the Philippines under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte’s “war on drugs,” a month after his inauguration, seems to have spilled into darker territories, where innocent people have become “collateral damage” in a battle that wades in the murky shallows of the illicit.

At that time, I wrote in Facebook: “Butch Dalisay just tweeted the dead body of Lauren, his nephew’s girlfriend, another innocent victim in this growing culture of murders. Can’t share it. It’s horrible. Her blood is on our hands. Did she think this could happen to her? I don’t think so. It could happen to us. It could happen to someone you love. Perhaps only then will you realise: ‘This wasn’t an abstract thing after all. This isn’t just some stupid argument in Facebook. This shit is real.’” I was moved to despair by the starkness of Dalisay’s missive: here were the briefest of lines from someone who has written a lot, someone who had in fact chronicled extensively what life was like enduring the darkness of Marcos’s Martial Rule. But it was clearly a tweet full of rage, and full of unbelieving incredulity over the increasing impunity we have suddenly come face to face with in a Philippines under the Duterte presidency. Fact: his is an administration that had recently won a massive mandate to rid the country of the corrupt and the corrupted — drug abusers and addicts included — and it had promised to do so using extra legal means. Many people have taken to criticizing the culture of permissivenness open to violence, smelling that campaigns like this have never yielded the best kinds of results. For these people, a country, ostensibly a democratic one, without due process is a monster in the making.

Many Filipino writers, aside from Butch Dalisay, have slowly come out of the shadows of overwhelming public approval of the ongoing purge, to register dissent, to call for a process of justice that also respects human life and dignity, to strive for a country that recognizes that indeed crime must pay but this must be done in the only way that makes our democracy a functioning one. Anything else is a form of fascism.

This sentiment has become, of late, a very unpopular one, considered by Duterte supporters (numbering in the millions) as being personally critical of the President. But activist-artists have never been one to settle for popular opinion, especially if what’s at stake is something greater and bigger than what the popular can see. The popular is often blind, and its reckoning is deeper and mostly unseen and uncomprehended, and will bite only at the tail end in the long run of things.

Literary artists, when they choose to engage their dissenting views, produce what is sometimes called “protest literature.” And the Philippines has a long tradition of this.

In the later decades of Spanish colonial rule, local writers — Katipuneros, most of them — first wrote poems and essays and ditties (and novels!) to register hopes for reform for colonial Philippines (Jose Rizal, Pedro Paterno, and Marcelo H. del Pilar among them). And when reform by the Spaniards (particularly the friars) didn’t quite happen, local writers took up the pen to fan, with exquisite rage, the flames of revolution (Andres Bonifacio, Apolinario Mabini, and Emilio Jacinto among them).

When the Americans arrived and began to colonise us, much to our surprise, our dramatists were among the first to register dissent in plays that were subversive and poisonous in their depictions of Americans as greedy colonisers. Juan Abad wrote Tanikalang Guinto in 1902, Juan Matapang Cruz wrote Hindi Aco Patay in 1903, among others — and their plays dramatised such vehement protests that American authorities took quick notice and jailed many of them for the provocation. The game of protest literature is always that of provocation in the name of dissent, and the poets at that time were also no slouches in writing verses that condemned the colonisation of the Philippines by the Americans. One such poet, Cecilio Apostol, wrote a Spanish poem titled “Al Yankee” that minced no words about what Filipinos exactly thought of Americans right at the very beginning of the Filipino-American War:

Never, when might,
joined with treason and injustice
to crush the laws and rights
the sacred rights of a race,

When the sons of the infamous Judas
sell the faith that has been sworn,
when the whimper of weak peoples
they answer with animal laughter;

When holy right is battered
in the banquet of human ambition,
as when the Yankees
toast a nation to the sound of cannon.

Silence is impossible: the oppressed nation
shall protest indignantly
and bury the dagger of vengeance
in the enemy’s breast.

This unredeemed people
may perhaps succumb in the struggle,
but only its corpse
can be yoked by alien tyranny.

Yankee! If you defeat us
with the powerful weight of weapons,
you will not live happily, because
you are hated
even by the air of my native land.

Yankee! If my verses
survive me, their words
will echo in the centuries to come
the eternal hate of the eternal outcast

(Translated by Nicanor G. Tiongson)

Protest literature again reared its head when Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, his reason basically that for consolidating power disallowed by the Constitution. Much of the protest literature of the time, especially at the height of the regime’s power, was clandestine journalism which was wittily called the “mosquito press” — because these were news bulletins written and produced in secret, and their impact were very much like the sting of mosquitoes.

The censorship of literature was so profoundly felt that poets like Jose F. Lacaba had to resort to trickery to have his protest poem, “Prometheus Unbound,” published in a mainstream publication, its anti-Marcos message coming across only when you realise that the poem — ostensibly about a Greek mythological figure — is actually an acrostic poem that spelled out a hidden message: “Marcos Hitler Diktador Tuta.” That he was soon found out, and then jailed, is testament to the regime’s power, to its cunning intelligence, and to the veracity of its iron grip on literary artists. Many of the best writers of that time — some of them even victims of Martial Law themselves — soon found themselves ironically doing propaganda work for Marcos under the direction of Adrian Cristobal. Others, like Kerima Polotan and Jose Tuvera, were closely identified with the regime. But others still took to the pen to register their disgust for the violent excesses of Martial Law, Nick Joaquin among them, as well as directors like Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal who carefully composed their film dramas (Bernal’s Manila By Night and Brocka’s Jaguar) to be critical of the Marcoses and their agenda, done in the Filipino version of subtlety.

Most of the poetry, the novels, the essays, the dramas, and the short stories critical of Marcos would come in only much later, especially when the dictator began relaxing his hold in the early 1980s, finally “officially” ending Martial Law in 1982. But once Marcos was booted out in 1986, two anthologies were immediately rushed for publication to compile the protest literature of the last two decades — Versus: Philippine Protest Poetry, 1983–1986 edited by Alfrredo Navarro Salanga, and Kamao: Panitikan ng Protesta 1970–1986, edited by Salangga, Lilia Quindoza-Santigao, Reuel Molina Aguilar, and Herminio S. Beltran Jr.

Protest literature from the Marcos period ranged from themes of inner journeys as rebels in the mountains (Emmanuel Lacaba’s “Letter to Filipino Artists”) to the musings of ordinary people being harshly reminded of a contemporary evil (Merlie Alunan’s “The Bells Count in Our Blood” and Lualhati Bautista’s Dekada ‘70); from understanding the chaos of the Pinoy culture and politics of the time (Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War, Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, and Arlene J. Chai’s Eating Fire and Drinking Water) to a matter-of-fact historical accounting of Martial Law’s unfolding (Dalisay’s Killing Time in a Warm Place and Azucena Grajo Uranza’s Bamboo in the Wind); from the whimsical (Cesar Ruiz Aquino’s “A Tale of Two Diaries”) to the horrific (Mila Aguilar’s Why Cage Pigeons?).

Filipino writers are still in fact trying to come to terms with the horrors of Martial Law — it is an enduring subject matter — and there are still literary works being produced at the moment that are trying to understand its uncommon evil, from Katrina Tuvera’s novel The Jupiter Effect to Augie Rivera’s children’s book Si Jhun-Jhun, Noong Bago Ideklara ang Batas Militar, from Menchu Aquino Sarmiento’s short story “Good Intentions 101: SY ‘72-‘73” to Mike Alcarazen’s satirical essay “The Millennial’s Guide to Martial Law,” from Russell Molina and Kajo Baldisimo’s comic book 12:01 to Kanakan Balintagos’ one-act play Loyalist.

And it’s not all about Marcos in contemporary protest literature. The fall from grace of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, especially regarding the charge of plunder levelled against her, elicited considerable literary ferment, one of which is Gemino Abad’s poem “My Country’s Imp (After EDSA 3)”:

And we are nowhere still, hostile to process
And living mostly on the surface of things,
Captive to our Imp’s “metaphysics” of happiness —
A spate of all the world’s amber mornings.

For we blink the sad, dark faces of things,
The razz and dazzle of our Imp’s humor — 
Flux of all the world’s electric mornings — 
Blank time’s malice to rouse our spirit’s ichor.

O razz and sparkle of our Imp’s humor,
Such gristle as shatters the tyrant’s laws,
Voids history’s ills, and fires our spirit’s liquor
Where coups vaporize in politics without clews!

What Imp’s grit to scatter the despot’s laws!
And because our fathers loved us, their sins fade
Where ventures choke in scams without clews.
Brief triumph! hubbub and rabble of barricade.

And because our kin are loved, their follies fade
Where shanties barnacle our suffocated creeks.
Fleet glory! and baffle and babble retrograde,
Our Imp still rules, and our laughter leaks.

Where our shacks totter over poisoned creeks,
The thief’s our saint who had faith and was saved.
The Imp enthralls yet where our carnival leaks;
But here is no country still, our honchos depraved.

The thief goes scot-free, by a helicopter saved,
The Imp outwits our writ of habeas loot.
No logic avails, no country where lawyers rave,
Everything is soon forgot, all heroics for naught.

Yet our wit is wound with wounds that wail,
Captive to our Imp’s “metaphysics” of happiness.
We bear our father’s sins ever without bail,
And we are nowhere still, hostile to process.

The rise of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency, and his unorthodox methods of dealing with some of the country’s problems has currently inspired — if that is the right word at all — a few of our writers to take to the literary to express their grief and their horror, all in all registering a dissent that is still forming, that has yet to be studied. Some of the works take their cue from the bloody reports from television news and broadsheets. Some from the unexpected deaths — the new “collateral damage” — of friends and people they know. Some have began their project long before Duterte’s election to the presidency, most notably Davao-based fictionist John Bengan’s series of stories that tried to limn the evils of the extrajudicial killings that consumed Davao under the rule of Duterte and his relatives.

This blog is an attempt to archive the new literature of protest that is now beginning to be written. Only the future can tell how this literature, as a prospective tool for change, can impact what is going on at present. Protest literature are almost always considered only in the aftermath; perhaps this project can change that, and can demonstrate, once and for all, the power of literature as a social tool.

Art by Jb Casacop

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Saturday, July 23, 2016

entry arrow5:39 PM | The Second Dumaguete Pride Parade

We did this before, once, in 2012 -- and although that was a fun and very historical event, we never really thought we'd be "allowed" to do it again here in Dumaguete. Thing was, the first one was organized by the City Health Office, and they invited us to make their Health Month Parade an LGBT Parade in support of HIV Awareness. But to actually mount one on our own? We never thought that could happen. (Ten years ago, this was a concrete impossibility in Dumaguete.)

But iSpec happened.

The LGBT/straight alliance in Silliman University was only founded very recently -- and this year, it decided to flex some more of its ambitions as an organization, especially in the aftermath of the Orlando massacres: first, they did a poetry reading early this month, which was a huge success. And second, they wanted to do a Pride parade.

If you must ask, a parade is important.

A parade means visibility. A parade means an actual commitment by people to give support to a cause by actually walking down the streets under the heat of the sun, to be witnessed by the rest of the city, their very presence saying: "I am with this cause. See me walk. And hear me shout." A parade means solidarity. A parade means a celebration, this one of difference. A Pride parade for gay people means a "coming out" that's close to spectacle. A Pride parade for straight allies means a recognition of the need for equality, a gesture of support where traditionally there has been none.

This year, for our first official Pride parade after its "introduction" in 2012, we start small. (We didn't even have a band! All we had was a loud speaker playing dance music!) But I love the turn-out. It was certainly more than we could hope for in an event that's still quite new for many, and something that's fraught with a taste for discrimination. I loved how there were more straight people -- even church people -- joining it than gay ones, which is indeed something.

Hopefully, in the years to come -- next year! -- we become bigger, so much bigger that our voice will not only be heard, it will be reckoned with. Congratulations to all the organizations and individuals who joined in! Congratulations to iSpec! Next time, let's have drag queens, and let's invite the beauty parlor gays!

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

entry arrow2:18 AM | The Not-so-New Male Rage

“There are always men enraged by women’s autonomy, whether women are starring in a comedy reboot or Thelma & Louise; playing rock or video games; demanding their reproductive rights; running for president; or, you know, doing anything that some men don’t want them to do. The depths of this rage betray a deep fear about a loss of male power that’s been central to the cultural, social and political landscape for decades.” 

~ The New York Times' Manohla Dargis on the male rage for the Ghostbusters remake

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entry arrow12:04 AM | Garry Marshall (1934-2016)

Two film directors I not-so-secretly loved -- Emile Ardolino and Garry Marshall -- gave us films that were the very epitome of guilty pleasure. They embraced the unabashedly commercial but infused their stories with a measure of intelligence that made their saccharine nature perfectly fine, perfectly bearable. Ardolino, who gave us Dirty Dancing and Sister Act, died many, many years ago from complications from AIDS. And Marshall, who gave us Pretty Woman and Beaches and The Princess Diaries, died today. Their best films captured a rare mood, a fantastic lightheartedness you don't see often in Hollywood films. Their colleagues in spirit, Nora Ephron and John Hughes, both of whom I adore, are also gone. (Only Ron Howard remains of their ilk. And let's not talk about Chris Columbus, shall we?) We will probably never see those kinds of films again. Commercial filmmaking today has become a different behemoth -- it has become the world of superheroes and fast cars and James Wan, and almost nothing else. So thank you, Mr. Marshall, for the laughter and the tears, while it lasted. (And thank you for casting Hector Elizondo in everything.)

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