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

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Thursday, December 09, 2004

entry arrow9:47 AM | Negros Tales

When Vicente Garcia Groyon III came out with his first novel The Sky Over Dimas (a 2002 Palanca Grand Prize Winner) about a year ago, and Rosario Cruz-Lucero published her astounding sophomore collection of award-winning short stories Feasts and Famine: Stories of Negros, I found myself wondering what exactly it was about Negros Island that attracted and stirred so much imaginative storytelling.

Barring the (almost) hegemonic boundary-setting to the geography of the Filipino imagination as something concentrated only around the slums, business districts, and posh subdivisions of Manila, Negros -- I think -- comes in as a fast second as the place by which we have come to situate the creative Filipino.

In films alone, Peque Gallaga (of Bacolod) have given us the quintessential Filipino epic Oro Plata Mata -- a cinematic masterpiece about Negrense hacenderos during the Japanese occupation in World War II that is still unequalled in terms of scale and ambition, except perhaps by National Artist for Film Eddie Romero's Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Ngayon. Even then, Romero (of Dumaguete) has also given us Kamakalawa, an epic tale of prehistoric Philippines which people say is set in old Negros (or the pre-Hispanic Buglas) -- but even if it was not, it was filmed in Oriental anyway, from the rolling plains of Bundo in Siaton, to the green niches and rivers of Amlan.

So what is it about Negros that tickles our fancy? Perhaps it is the Gothic nature of the place -- all those haciendas, acacia trees, aged churches, and old Spanish and American colonial houses quickly serving as beacons to ghosts of a very write-able past.

Perhaps it is the intricate codes and manners of the Negrense social hierarchy -- all those sugar aristocrats with their beautiful sons and daughters, and their mad, eccentric lives.

Perhaps it is the sheer beauty of the place -- think Silay, for example, or think the Boulevard. Perhaps it is Dumaguete's intellectual air, and Bacolod's snobbish appeal. Or perhaps it is the exquisite blend of the urban and the rural which Negros shares only with a handful of other places in the Philippines (Palawan and Sagada easily come to mind).

Whatever it is, the Negros in our minds has always proven to be intoxicating... and readable.

In literature, the list of stories and poems about Negros runs long, but for this post, I am chosing only a sampling of stories which, for me, provide a rich enough tapestry of life in the Island.

Edith Tiempo, for example, regularly sets her stories and novels in familiar places from her very rich life -- sometimes some small generic town in Mindanao, and sometimes the Nueva Ecija of her childhood. But in many of her stories, the spirit of Dumaguete is endlessly evoked, even if they are camouflaged by some other name. In her latest novel The Builder, however, she drops all those matters of cover-up, and states clearly that her murder mystery is set in Dumaguete, with ample mentions of nearby towns of Sibulan and Valencia. By the story’s end, we find the protagonist in the middle of Tanon Strait, battling both revelation and spiritual horror. My favorite Edith Tiempo story, though, is the wartime tale, "The Black Monkey," which won third prize in the first Palanca Awards. In this story, a housewife is forced to fend for herself in the jungles of Negros Oriental as the Japanese advances deeper into the province. Injured, she is forced to stay behind. Her husband makes her a little hut among the treetops; she had to stay, or else become a pest to the already hard life among the evacuees. Only a gun gives her some promise of safety. And then the black monkeys, symbolic of all dark, unknown menaces, come to disturb her...

Her daughter Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas's harrowing domestic chronicle in "Fruit of the Vine" is also a fine example of a Negros tale. There is also "Stories" (a Palanca first prize winner), where Silliman poet Cesar Ruiz Aquino does Jorge Luis Borges one better by weaving three separate stories into one -- and comes up with a witchcraft of a tale, chronicling madness and lost love and baby-eating dogs.

In "Mountain Air" (an NVM Gonzalez Literary Prize finalist), lawyer and fictionist Ernesto Superal Yee explores same-sex passion in small town Negros Oriental (part of his now finished Tanjay novel, The Book of Adrian). In "Menandro's Boulevard" (a Free Press Literary Awards winner), Bobby Flores Villasis pays tribute to Dumaguete's major conjurer of dreams: the Rizal Boulevard, passionate muse to so many stories, poems, and essays written by Filipino writers. In Lakambini Sitoy's "Armani," we get a feminist tale about a young woman come home to Negros after a long stay as a "career girl" in Manila -- and finds herself changed, and her family with it.

In "The Death of Fray Salvador Montano, Conquistador of Negros" (a Palanca first prize winner), Rosario Cruz Lucero takes us instead to Spanish Colonial Negros, where we witness the (often hilarious) battle between old and new (European) mores and traditions. With Groyon's "What I Love or Will Remember Most About High School" (a Palanca second prize winner), we get stirrings of subdued mother-son drama set in Bacolod. I also like Groyon's "Justo and My Father's Car" -- a delicious, Whartonian exploration of the foibles of Bacolod high society, which is also the missing chapter from Groyon's novel, but Vince decided to pull it out because he was not yet content with its present form. Finally, in Evee V. Huervana's "Ang Gingkamunoan sang Bunga sang Datilis," we explore the Ilonggo literary nuance in the only way we know how: through a story written in Hiligaynon.

I hope that this selection, meager as it may be, will somehow give the reader a glimpse of what makes Negros perpetually fascinating. Read these tales. Buy the books. Look them up in the Internet. You will quickly find that the place you live now is a very rich repository of literary imagination.

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