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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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Saturday, July 23, 2022

entry arrow12:13 AM | On Launching Buglas Writers Journal

I recently went live with a project I’ve been meaning to do for the longest time—launching an online literary journal devoted to writers and writings from Negros Oriental, Negros Occidental, and Siquijor. It’s called Buglas Literary Journal, and you can catch its maiden issue at this link.

The idea for this journal was conceived in 2017, right around the time K-12 was at the height of being implemented by the Department of Education, and there was a sudden clamor by educators for literary materials that came from their specific regions, especially those written in the Mother Tongue. It was a good time to introduce an online literary magazine that focused on the literary works of local authors—but it took five more years before the idea would finally come to fruition. The pandemic and its uncertainties certainly helped in the eventual realization of this effort, but it was the desire to showcase the works of writers from Negros and Siquijor that was the biggest force. It was a much-needed corrective to the lack of local literary publications.

I’ve always been fascinated with literature that comes from my region of ethe Philippines, specifically both provinces of Negros Island [and also Siquijor, which used to be part of Negros Oriental]. In 2003, when Vicente Garcia Groyon came out with his first novel The Sky Over Dimas [which won the 2002 Palanca Grand Prize], and Rosario Cruz Lucero followed suit by publishing her astounding sophomore collection of award-winning short stories under the title 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 good alternative 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 [1982], a cinematic masterpiece about Negrense hacenderos during the Japanese occupation in World War II. That film is still arguably unequalled in terms of scale and ambition—except perhaps by Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Ngayon [1976], directed by National Artist for Film Eddie Romero, which as a film makes a conceit of trying to define what it means to be a “Filipino.” Although Ganito Kami Noon is not set in Negros, Romero [of Dumaguete] has also given us other homebound masterpieces, such as The Passionate Strangers [1966], a film noir set in Dumaguete, and Kamakalawa [1981], 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 Buglas, Kamakalawa was filmed in Negros Oriental anyway, employing locals as supporting players and extras, and employing Oriental Negrense backdrops to flesh out pre-colonial Philippines—from the rolling plains of Bundo in Siaton to the green niches and rivers of Amlan.

These are films. Literary titles about Negros, on the other hand, constitute a small sub-genre of Philippine literature. There are so many novels, short stories, poems, essays, and plays set in Dumaguete, Bacolod, and the towns and cities of both provinces, as well as Siquijor—and not just those written by local writers. It also includes literary pieces written by other writers not native to the region who have somehow been smitten by our specific Visayan airs, entranced or curious enough about our lives here to put their impressions down on paper. [Not always in the positive light, of course, but that’s part of the fascination.] Which is why tackling this very fascination makes for a great theme to constitute the very first issue of Buglas Writers Journal.

So what is it about Negros that tickles our fancy? Perhaps it is the Tropical Gothic [Nick Joaquin’s term] nature of the place—all these haciendas, old acacia trees, old 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, and all the hungry hangers-on and downtrodden masa that surround them. Perhaps it is the sheer beauty of the place—think Silay City, for example, with its gilded mansions, or think the Rizal Boulevard of Dumaguete with its “sugar houses.” 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.

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

As previously mentioned, in literature, the list of stories, poems, and plays about Negros runs long, and for this maiden issue of Buglas Writers Journal, I have chosen a sampling of literary pieces which, for me, provide a rich enough tapestry of life in [and history of] the Island. Consider the selection a sampler—a meager one at that, since there are many other pieces not included which could also very well do the job of providing a map of the imagination of Negros.

The fiction, poetry, drama, and essay in this issue of Buglas Writers Journal are beguiling for the stories they tell, but I’ve also chosen them because they also provide the reader a great sense of place—virtually providing us a survey to the Negrense world in all its varied colors and textures, its smells and airs, its idea of joy and dread.

One of the short stories that do this best is Bobby Flores Villasis‘ “Menandro’s Boulevard,” which, beyond its story of a fragile friendship between two unlikely people, gives us a literal and emotional map with which to understand the stretch along the Dumaguete shores known as the Rizal Boulevard, and the denizens who live there in their so-called “sugar houses.” Villasis, who has written extensively about Negros Oriental in his many award-winning stories and plays, is probably Dumaguete’s James Joyce: his Suite Bergamasque, where our story is collected, is the city’s version of Dubliners, but concentrated on a single city street.

There are also pieces that sometimes go beyond the literal in their rendering of place, and make that place a stand-in for the symbolic. Such is Marianne Villanueva‘s “Dumaguete.” Here, the famed Bacolod writer trains her eyes on the capital city on the other side of the Island, and makes it emblematic of a family’s unraveling: for a mother and son pair “on the run” from Bacolod, their self-imposed exile to Dumaguete becomes it a dark, claustrophobic place that threatens with [perhaps imagined] dangers. The thrill of the story is delicious, and I love seeing Dumaguete rendered this way.

The National Artist for Literature Edith Lopez Tiempo also 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 last novel The Builder, however, she drops all pretense 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 Tañon Strait, battling both revelation and spiritual horror. But my favorite Edith Tiempo story is the wartime tale, “The Black Monkey,” which won third prize in the first ever Palanca Awards held in 1950. In this story, a housewife—on the run from war-ravaged Dumaguete—is forced to fend for herself in the jungles of Negros Oriental because of an injury that makes her a liability in their small community of evacuees in the foothills of Valencia. Even while the Japanese occupation forces advance deeper into the jungles in search of their like, her husband builds her a little hut by a cliff where she could stay and be away from the rest of the camp—with only a gun her husband has given her promising her a semblance of protection. And then the black monkeys come to disturb her.

Edith Tiempo’s husband, the equally legendary Edilberto K. Tiempo, also set many of his stories in Negros Oriental, but for this issue, I’ve chosen the title story from his 1992 book Snake Twin and Other Stories, simply because it weaves a magical blend of scholarly pursuit and folk superstition common in the region, while making quick stops not just in Dumaguete, but in the nearby town of Sibulan, as well as Siquijor. Is the folk belief of people born with snake twins true? The story explores the anthropological meanings of that belief, and finds itself delving even deeper—including a malevolent political reality.

Their daughter Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas’s harrowing domestic chronicle in “The Fruit of the Vine” is also a fine example of a Negros tale, which involves the domestic [and financial] travails of local sugar planters — a commonality the story shares with Vicente Garcia Groyon‘s “Justo and My Father’s Car” [a delicious, Whartonian exploration of the foibles of Bacolod high society] and Rosario Cruz Lucero‘s “Good Husbands and Obedient Wives” [a delicious, Jamesian exploration of the misdemeanors of the Bacolod middle class].

In “Valencia Drive,” the late Tanjay writer Ernesto Superal Yee renders the story of a young writer driving from Dumaguete to the hills of Valencia—and the whole ride becomes a tribute to the Tiempos who are the author’s mentors. It lends this truth: sometimes Negros is not just place; it’s also the people—especially if those people are as accomplished as the Tiempos. There’s more to that Negrense world-building in the poems, essay, and play featured in this issue. In Augurio M. Abeto‘s Hiligaynon poem “Panay kang Negros,” we get an exercise of the historical and sociological kind as the poet examines the pre-Spanish migration of Panay people into the island then known as Buglas, and the culture and community building that soon followed. In Elsa Martinez Coscolluela‘s “Cuernos de Negros,” we get an ode to the mountain range that separates Negros Island into its two component provinces—this time rendered as a memory piece of harvest days and remembrances of family. In Myrna Peña-Reyes‘s “At Camp Lookout,” we get a mournful confessional of a Dumaguete denizen away from the hubbub of city life while enjoying a break in the famed spot high up in the hills of Valencia, which overlooks the entire city. In Anthony Tan‘s “To a Tree Near a Boulevard,” we get an ode to the nature that defines the Dumaguete shoreline. In National Artist for Literature Gemino H. Abad‘s “Casaroro Falls,” we get the story of a family hike to the famous waterfalls in Valencia, which becomes an examination of youth, ageing, the rejuvenation made possible by nature, and the waning search for adventure as we grow older. In my own essay, “A Field Guide to Burning the Town Red,” I examine the night life in Dumaguete, and how it has evolved over the decades. And in Mike Gomez‘s “Tirador ng Tinago,” we get an excerpt from his Palanca-winning play which satirises Filipino action films in its take of small-time hoodlums in the Tinago slum of Dumaguete.

I hope that by the time you finish reading every piece in this issue, you will come to understand how each of them somehow give light to what it means to live in Negros Island [and Siquijor]—and why this place, home to most of the writers featured here, is the wellspring of much of our literary imagination. Log on to buglaswritersjournal.com and enjoy your visit to Negros and Siquijor in this issue, and welcome to the Buglas Writers Journal!

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