Even when I don’t admit it, I miss things here, but always in the light airy acceptance of circumstance cousin to denial. I miss an abundance of tropical light and warmth, for example. There are days when my mouth gets a phantom taste of kinilaw or lechon paksiw, and out comes a surging of so much want, that I would venture out into the cold, hoping for the chill to still whatever it is that constituted longing. I miss Jared. I miss sunrises unobscured by tall buildings.
It is easy to miss a September sunset in Chicago. The overcast of skyscrapers downtown and the artificial light that make the city glow like birthday candles embrace the late afternoon. They dominate it. In my spot at this Starbucks at a small corner of Macy’s in this intersection of State and Randolph Streets, the shadow of the elevated railway keeps away what strays of sunlight come. The constant stream of people—mostly shoppers bearing with busy hands the department store’s oversized bags—lends what surrounds me the energy of daylight. The roar of the L train above adds to the sharp take of air. Everything is tricky. And so, when the fullness of evening comes, I am not able to tell with certainty the demarcating turn of light of the hours, the boundaries between daytime and nighttime having become blurry in my preoccupation with both reading and waiting. One minute, I am reading page 67 of the book I carry around as antidote for small emergencies like queues and waiting and I see the sidewalk still gleaming in the sun’s late afternoon glow; the next thing I know, in the middle of a difficult passage on page 77, I look up and there is suddenly the palpable feel of evening and the sluggishness of street traffic that it brings. Chicago at night becomes a different city.
And I’m a stranger here.
It is a thought that slips uneasily as I sip my second cup of my latte, with a double shot of espresso, knowing there will probably be one or two more. Palpitation is easy to take, I think, easier than damnable waiting.
I look at my watch, and see that it is only six o’clock.
Ramon has promised he is going to come by fifteen minutes after seven. This is two hours ago. “On the dot,” he swore in that tinkling voice I remember most about him—and I believe him. The suburb he is driving from is roughly an hour and thirty minutes away in light traffic. I have not seen Ramon in seven years, and so I have willed myself to wait. I surprise myself that I am still capable of such manifestations of patience. Back home in the Philippines, where the sun stretches the hours and tardiness is the rule, I am quite the aberration.
“Okay. But you must remember I have no way of reaching you,” I had told him earlier that afternoon after lunch in Cumin, a Nepalese restaurant, after we parted in Viagra Triangle and I made my way, on sheer instinct, to this spot just a block away from The Oriental where the play we will see is going to be performed. “I have no cellphone, nothing,” I had told him this with a note of trepidation. “And I don’t know anybody else in Chicago.”
But Ramon had to go and meet someone in Palatine. Someone he had been dating, someone newly arrived from Paris. Someone named Walid. There was some urgency in Ramon’s voice. He promised to make it quick.
“I’ll be there to pick you up,” he said.
I smiled nervously at him. “You better.”
“On the dot.”
“I don’t want to miss the show, Mon.”
“I’ll be there.”
By my fourth cup, Felicia, the chatty black girl behind the cash register, has become familiar with me. She now knows I have only been in Chicago two days, O’Hare’s smell still on my skin. She knows that I am staying with a friend in Skokie, in the suburbs of Chicago, for the meantime. She knows I am watching a play tonight in the theater district. She knows I am from the Philippines. She has already given the comment I have come to treat in America with a shrug: “Your English is quite good.” I say thank you, and I murmur something about having studied in an American university—which for me was a quick and easy answer than a protracted lecture on American colonial adventures back where I come from.
I have ordered bagels by then. Five minutes after seven o’clock, I look up from the book I am reading as the train comes to a roaring full stop at the station above me—and the worst kind of knowing suddenly washes over me. Ramon will not come on time.
But I am still hopeful, even when I find myself slowly succumbing to a restlessness that was fiercer than usual. I am a stranger here, the thought comes to me again. It irritates me, and I want it to stop, but it sticks to my head like a ghost.
“Are you all right?” Felicia asks. I nod, and say that I am. Soon I am the only customer left. In one corner of the café, a boy who looks Mexican is wiping tables clean with a purple washcloth.
At 7:10, I finish off what remains of my coffee. The doses of caffeine have made me a little jumpy, and when I make an effort to steady my hands, I find that they jitter in small quakes. That amuses me a bit, but it is tamed by a nervousness that encroaches in the margins of my night. I put the book that I am reading in my duffel bag, and I tell Felicia thank you. “It was nice to meet you,” she says in a loud voice, in that overwhelming Midwestern friendliness. Outside, I linger by the sidewalk as another train stops and roars away. I don’t see it from where I am. It is hidden away by the platform that covers this length of Wabash Street; the platform itself is a mass of steel and wood painted in rusty red, and from my angle on the ground, it looks both forbidding and fascinating. Minutes later, the roar of another train signals its arrival and then its departure. It seems strange to me that some things in life we comprehend only by the faith on the sounds that they make, and nothing else.
The sounds of my own palpitating heart become relentless as my watch tells me seven minutes have already passed after my appointment with Ramon. Still, there is no sign of him anywhere.
To kill time and to massage away the pricking concerns of my solicitude, I decide to circle the entire block—all of Macy’s in what used to be the commercial fortress known as Marshall Fields—down part of Randolph Street, then turning the corner for Wabash Avenue, then on to Washington, then State. The excursion proves nothing except the commonness of the sight of the homeless huddled in their quiet corners here and there, and the occasional lost tourist that comes up to me asking for directions. “Do you know the way to Washington Station?” a burly blonde man asks. Do I look like a native? I think with certain weariness. I shake my head. Near Borders, a group of students also stop me, “Is this the way to Dearborn Street?” I shake my head again, and walk on. Their questions have only managed to unnerve me—which magnifies the fact that I may know this particular block, but way past my precarious rendezvous with Ramon, Chicago looms above me as a strange sprawling city where I have no map, no direction.
I am a stranger here.
Fifteen minutes later, I find myself back in my old, familiar Starbucks. I decide to stand by the State Street side of the corner, angled just so so that Felicia will not see me. She has gone outside to the fenced-in part of the sidewalk, gathering around her the café’s outdoor chairs and tables, which she then set together in an elaborate heap, which she then chains for the night.
A police car passes by. Another train arrives and departs. A black couple strolls by, and I pay no heed to the woman’s unusually long blonde extensions. Two or three trains arrive and depart. I soon learn not to count them out. A boisterous group of gay men shatters the gathering city quiet. An Indian girl in a sari wanders near, stops to take a call in her cellphone, and in an urgent voice tells the someone at the other end of the line where she is. Eight minutes later, a blue car pulls up, and she gets in. I wait. The night descends into the beginning of chilliness.
I am a stranger here, I think.
I suddenly think of Jared. In Cebu, in the tropical sun. It starts to rain, just a little, and I back up and press myself harder against Macy’s walls. I have already given up on the play, which has started forty minutes ago. I only want to go home to something familiar. As the minutes creep by, my mind races for alternatives, for explanations. What if Ramon got stuck in some emergency? What if… The speculations flood like a rash, and the considerations for what to do fill me with both dread and adrenaline. There must be a way to call. There must be other friends I may know in Chicago. There must be a way to get home to Ramon’s apartment in Skokie. I feel my stomach turning.
He turns the corner when I least expect it, Ramon with a harried look on his face, a jacket in his hand, which he quickly wraps around me.
“I am so sorry,” he says, a note of utmost worry dripping in his voice.
But I don’t say anything.
I just close my eyes, and bowing my head, I start to cry.
I don't know what it is, but always when I am at my happiest, I think of you. That moment, for example, when I touched what passed for sky in that glass ledge in the tallest building in America. Or that satisfying musical finish I felt when I heard the last note ringing out from this Broadway show at the Oriental. Between those notes of utter glee, when everything seems good in the world, how I wished you were there with me sharing those moments. Your face flashes quickly in my memory, and I remember that tender change that comes over your face when you are feeling most happy: that secret smile, for example, that you unknowingly let glow when you're eating a pint of ice cream or when you're talking about the wilds of Africa. In those brief moments when I remember you, my happiness bows to this seed of beautiful, tender melancholy. I don't mind it. It is quick, after all, and does not hurt, although it does come from some deep well of pain. No ocean that separates, it seems, can contain my memory of you. I don't mind. It is a habit, I think, that's worth keeping.
Sometimes the right things we do in the name of love is so relentlessly heartbreaking we tread the borders of sainthood. I'm not a saint, but I know I did the right thing, and even though it had to mean parting, it makes me happy seeing you happy and living the dream. This is better. I will always love you.
Maybe this is simply a failure of the individual imagination. But do we need to live in a particular place in order to get the nuances of the fiction written about it? I never did get Jonathan Franzen before, even thought "The Corrections" a little too alienating, a book that I could not finish because it was rife with too many cultural references to American living that I, a Filipino living in a tropical island, could only fathom to a certain degree. Its objects, its angst, its diction simply went over my head. But now that I'm breathing the air of the American Midwest and seeing American culture up close, I think I'm getting him now. I read a bit of "Freedom," and suddenly it felt familiar. Last week, I also finished reading David Leavitt's tale of family secrets and lies in an American university town in "The Body of Jonah Boyd," and I got the subtleties, too. Which brings me to an uneasy question: how does one exactly transmit a sense of place in fiction to a reader whose vocabulary of imagination simply limits the degree of comprehension for what is presented on the page just because it is too foreign, too unfamiliar?
I will begin with two stories, both of them myths from the Philippines, plucked from an ancient tradition of oral tales largely unknown, and untold, to the rest of the world. One is a creation story and the other is a kind of adventure story. The reason why I am sharing them to you is that I believe they will help explain, the way mythology often elucidates, why “a sense of place” is often necessary in our writings. They will also illumine why I happen to write in the first place.
But let me put forth my thesis first: the idea of “a sense of place” for me goes beyond the expected catalogue of sensory details, rendered in literary magic-making, that evokes home. While a travelogue through geography-specific nostalgia is a big part of the process, a writer’s “sense of place” ultimately contributes to a bigger project—that of laying the geography of imagination for one’s country. In my stories, I concoct an embracing image of the city where I come from—Dumaguete, in the heart of sugar land that is Negros Island—knowing full well that it is part of a project to flesh out an idea of the country. I shall try to explain this later on.
According to the Bagobo, the world came into being with the cosmos in chaos. All the heavenly bodies—the sun, the moon, the stars—were in such close contact with the earth that the world proved inhabitable: it was scorching, and the mythic beings that came before men had no choice but to scatter into the shadows of the earth’s caves and crevices to cool themselves from the steady broiling. One day, Tuglibong, the female leader of this band of mythic beings, went out of her abode to pound rice with her mortar and pestle. And while she went deep into the rhythm of her pounding, Tuglibong looked up and began to scold in a sing-song the nearby sky and the heavenly bodies. She chided them in song, and called them names—and in response, perhaps to get away from Tuglibong’s tirade, the sky (the sun, the moon, and the stars with it) began to rise higher and higher, up into the appropriate distance where they could still give light without making French fries out of everybody else.
If one thinks about it, Tuglibong’s angry song—which can stand for my native tradition of literature—put order to the universe, and gave her people a sense of habitable home, a kind of a sense of place.
Here is another story. According to the Manobo, there was once a prince who went by the name of Baybayan. The prince, who abhorred war and loved to only sing and dance, was soon sent on a peculiar exile by his grandfather the king. He was given the specific instructions to circle the world seven times, and en route was told to sing and tell the stories of his kingdom’s greatness. Prince Baybayan did as he was told, and circled the world seven times, where he prospered in his long journey by singing the old stories about his ancient land—and I am overstretching this now—to the peoples of Bhârat, Uyashima, Ur, Egypt, Nubia, the Middle Kingdom of Ch’in, Hellas, Vinland, and Mesoamerica.
In his travels, Baybayan sang perhaps of the hero Lam-ang, who was swallowed by the giant fish berkahan, which perhaps became the Hebrew story of Jonah and the whale. He sang of the kidnapping of the sea maiden Humitao by Lord Aponi-to-lau, a depraved act which unleashed the wrath of the sea god Tau-mari-u who proceeded to let loose a great deluge on all the land, which perhaps became the story of Noah and the Great Flood. He sang of the virgin birthing of gigantic heroes, which perhaps became the Babylonian story of Semiramis and her son Nimrod. (Or Mary and Jesus.)
If one thinks about it, the Manobo could very well be the origin of world literature—and explains why, all over the world, we share similar motifs and tropes in our stories.
I like how I see these two ancient stories as metaphors for how I understand the workings—at least some of it anyway—of literature, and more specifically, of creative writing. In this particular context, these are the best stories I can begin with to understand, in my terms, what “a sense of place” means for me, especially in my writing.
In Tuglibong’s story of singing away the chaos of the universe to put order to things, I see writing as that magical song that carves out a definition of home—we make sense of where we live, of where we come from, by rendering the chaos of the details that surround us—the texture of geography, its smell, its sounds, its tastes—into the realm of the familiar that can be accessed only by the exquisite rendition in literature.
In Baybayan’s story of seven journeys in song, I see this literature of evoking home as having two meanings: that writers become architects of how where we come from can be imagined by the rest of the world, and that the exercise of telling about home can best be done as an exilic endeavor.
This exilic mode is interesting because we know of so many writers who seem to subscribe to it, believing that we often need to go away, to seek a little distance, in order to obtain some sort of objectivity. The Philippine novelist and national hero Jose Rizal had to leave the Philippines to write his masterpiece about it, Noli Me Tangere. James Joyce, too, with Ireland, and so it was with V.S. Naipaul and Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie and Jessica Hagedorn. It surprised me little that before arriving in Iowa City, I had come up with the fervent resolution to begin here the draft of my second novel—which I meant to be a paean to the loveliness and sinfulness of where I come from. I honestly thought that the distance provided by Iowa City would enable me to see beyond the ghosts I wanted to escape, these phantom obstacles that proximity often brings. I thought it completely impossible to write about Dumaguete if I were still in the middle of all that familiarity. Like Baybayan, I had to go far to be able to sing about the place I call home.
This urge to do a fictional rendering of the story of one’s own place has always been the silent project for many writers, whether they admit it or not. There are easy examples to highlight. Alice Munro’s Ontario, Canada. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo. John Updike’s Olinger, Pennsylvania. William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Edith Wharton’s New York. When we think of these writers and many more like them, what immediately comes to us is a sense of a specific world that they conjure in their works. With story after story, they essentially give us the bricks and the seeds and the atmosphere to make up this specific sense of place, which becomes an embracing stage upon which their diverse characters play out their conflict and their drama. The Filipino fictionist Timothy Montes once wrote that a “sense of place” is linked to, but is not necessarily the same as, “setting,” which itself is an often “overlooked as an active element” in the creation of stories, always secondary to plot and character, and often scaled down to a “cosmetic role.” But he noticed that many writers return again and again to a particular setting that in the end what they have created is a believable world whose “air” blends so well with the characters and their stories that we begin to feel they could only have existed in the very place they occupy. He goes on:
I think most writers, especially those writing short stories, operate from this single-minded creation of a sense of place. They take great pains to make each story complete or self-enclosed, but the sense of place can only be formed by an accretion of stories, the building of worlds that will be more subtle than the alien worlds of science fiction, and sooner or later they will see that the sense of place will loom larger than the individual stories that make them. The impulse may be conscious or unconscious, and one has to drink deep from the well of memory to be able to tap into it.
Needless to say, Dumaguete is my mythical place of roots. In Dumaguete lay the secrets of my blood, my history. Also here is the setting of my mother’s bedside stories, of those moments when I was a young child and she’d tuck me to bed and gamely recall a life when she was a young woman and World War II was brewing, or much later when she had returned to Bayawan town as a married woman in the sugar boom of the late 1960s and became, for a while, one of its fairer society hostesses. Those were the heady days, when sugar cane oiled the pockets of young hacenderos on the make, and everybody was rich… Dumaguete means memory—and this word alone means so much in the ways it must mean: as a threshold of recollections both happy and tragic.
In the final analysis, however, the sense of place that I try to cultivate in my fiction eventually comes sidled with a higher agenda—to help create a sense of nation, a sense of the Philippines, with my stories. I apparently am not alone in this “endeavor,” as the poet and anthologist Gemino Abad once deftly observed in his exhausting survey of Filipino short stories in English that were published between 1956 to 1972.
But Timothy Montes says it better:
For me, the Ilocanos are fixed in a small town called Nagrebcan in La Union because of the stories of Manuel Arguilla, [the island of] Mindoro in the works of N.V.M. Gonzalez, [the province of] Tarlac in the Camiling stories of Gregorio Brillantes, and the old Manila in the works of Nick Joaquin. I never believed in a monolithic National Literature because my impression of Philippine literature was that of the variety of particular worlds created by writers I admired, worlds that felt as concrete as the jutting stones in the unpaved streets of my town as well as the smoothness of the streets of the poblacion [downtown] under my chinelas [flipflops]. So the Philippines would be an act of the imagination as different writers so rooted in their regional origins would reveal to me…
I believe that we are forming our literature in the story-telling projects that our writers have made of their particular towns, their particular cities. We are not creating a Nation from an abstract perspective; we are building it town by town, city by city, house by house, character by character. The imagined community is not only formed by a daily newspaper with a national headline informing us what happened in the national center; it is also brought forth by ordinary sights, smells and sounds that a ten-year-old boy in a small, obscure town in Samar would try to convey through stories.
* From the Iowa Public Library Panel Series, 10 September 2010, Iowa City, Iowa. Photo by Edgar Samar.
This is the now-famous short film by Jerrold Tarog, part of the omnibus anthology of short films, labeled AmBisyon 2010, geared towards specific Philippine issues for the recent presidential elections. This is a powerful film about the role of education in our lives. What kind of education must we give our children? Should we care?
The films from AmBisyon 2010 will be screened in the Active Vista Film Festival in Silliman University, Dumaguete City, from September 7-9.
11:09 AM |
Three Days of Cinema That Will Make You Cringe, Laugh, Think.
The Silliman University Cultural Affairs Committee, in cooperation with the College of Mass Communication, brings you three days of contemporary Filipino cinema's most dazzling voices in the Active Vista Film Festival, set to begin on September 7. The film festival showcases the controversial Cannes Film Festival award-winner, Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay as the opening film, to be followed by Lino Brocka's classic "immorality tale" Insiang (also a Cannes Film Festival favorite) on September 8, and Veronica Velasco's Last Supper No. 3, the Best Picture winner of the 2009 Cinemalaya Film Festival.
All films, except for Insiang, will have screenings at the Luce Auditorium at 7 PM. The Brocka film will screen at the Audio-Visual Theater 1 of the Multimedia Center at 2 PM of September 8. A program of short films -- ANC and Storyline's omnibus AmBisyon 2010 by such directors as Ditsi Carolino, Emmanuel Dela Cruz, Kiri Dalena, Henry Frejas, Jeffrey Jeturian, Jade Castro, Jim Libiran, Erik Matti, Brillante Mendoza, Ellen Ramos, John Red, Raymond Red, Jerrold Tarog, John Torres, and Paolo Villaluna -- will also be screened.
The Active Vista Film Festival is organized by DAKILA: Philippine Collective for Modern Heroism. It is an avenue to promote a vision of society that respects, upholds and values the dignity, rights and freedom of its people.
The Active Vista Film Festival challenges to define a spectrum in the use of cinema as a powerful tool in shaping the consciousness of a new generation into the importance of knowing and understanding human rights as an integral foundation of responsible citizenship and nation building.
Active Vista encourages critical thinking and dynamism in views as fundamental requirements in addressing methods and directions of social transformation. It allows an opportunity to debate, discuss and shape society as we arrive at a collective understanding of human rights as the backbone of the development of our nation.
While Active Vista recognizes that no film, no song, no painting, no novel or no poem has ever stopped a tank, prevented a bullet, fed a hungry child or overthrown a corrupt government, the power of every art form cannot be rivaled. While art may not change the world, it can change the way we view the world. True revolution begins in the imagination.
The Active Vista Film Festival is not your ordinary film festival. It presents a dynamic vision that empowers its public towards relevant social change.
Kinatay by Brillante Mendoza 7 PM Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium Mr. Mendoza and some of the cast will be in attendance to present the film.
A young cop descends into Manila's dark underworld as he accompanies rogue colleagues in a harrowing night that involves butchering a prostitute who has crossed her drug lords.
"I understand the hatred for the film (when it premiered in Cannes where notwithstanding Mendoza’s winning the Best Director prize, the film was met with harsh critical receptionc) but I don’t necessarily subscribe to it. In Mendoza’s quest to depict reality, he tramples upon established concepts of what it is to be human. He relentlessly maps the transition of man to monster, and given the straight-line matter-of-factly process that the film explores, the transition is as easy and automatic as night turning into day. Unlike in Mendoza’s other films where poverty is a blatant motivation and a nagging visual motif, in Kinatay, while we know that Peping is poor, poverty remains a subtle omnipresent force. What is explored in the film is not how poverty destroys us, but how humanity is too fragile, that by a mere twist of fate where we succumb to merely surviving notwithstanding the repercussions of our minor and major delinquencies, we are forced to relax it and inevitably decide to lose it." (From Francis Cruz's Lessons From the School of Inattention)
Insiang by Lino Brocka 2 PM Audio-Visual Theater 1, Multimedia Center
This classic from the late National Artist for Film is a tragedy involving an abusive mother, her predatory lover, and her innocent daughter -- who is slowly losing her innocence in the teaming poverty of Manila's slums.
"The first Filipino picture to show at Cannes, Insiang enjoyed a warm reception, and Positif’s Alain Garsault wrote a three-page review that attempted to preempt the dismissal of the film as exotica or art naïf by expounding on the film’s leitmotifs, noting the director’s skillful appropriation of melodrama and Greek tragedy. Brocka’s work continued to be well received by French cinéphiles in the years that followed but in the U.S. had no such luck. Only with Macho Dancer (1988) did he find a sizeable American audience. Even then the appraisal of his artistry continued to be marred by two persistent factors: a curious disdain among American critics for his melodramatic predilections; and the faulty (and contradictory) premise that his work aspires toward either neorealism or cinéma vérité. Insiang demonstrates that Brocka’s handling of melodrama is nothing short of virtuoso and that the trappings of documentary, neorealism, and Third World exotica only obscure more fundamental affinities to the Hollywood pictures that Brocka saw as a youth in the former American colony and regarded as a formative influence on his cinematic sensibility." (From José B. Capino's The Damned in the Film Society of the Lincoln Center website)
Last Supper No. 3 by Veronica Velasco 7 PM Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium Ms. Velasco and some of the cast will be in attendance to present the film.
A furious comedy based on a true story, it tells the unbelievable story of a gay man who works in advertising, who finds himself in an increasingly Kafka-esque legal battle involving the loss of a Last Supper and various other crimes.
"This is Velasco's outstanding feat. She decides to expose a rotten system through humor yet instead of completely fabricating the story, she allows the case to speak for itself, making the absurdity several notches more alarming. In an inspired decision, she made use (surprisingly with the permission of the Supreme Court) of Manila's Hall of Justice, a building ripe for condemnation that houses the fiscal's offices and trial courts that service an ever-expanding population. The architecture of the building, several floors (connected by stairs because the elevator is usually out of service) of spaces that encircle a useless and unkempt courtyard, further emphasize the system that has been rendered inutile by red tape and bureaucratic complications. Thus, Last Supper No. 3 is funny not only because it centers on a man who was showered with a downpour of misfortune but also because we know it is very real, and the only plausible thing we can do about it is laugh." (From Francis Cruz's Lessons From the School of Inattention)
Due to the sensitive nature of the films, only viewers aged 16 years old and above can be admitted.