I have a fondness for films about artists, and I'm rediscovering Ed Harris' take on the life of American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. His Pollock (2000) is gritty, and admire how it manages to capture not just the art but the work involved in the art-making. How haunting it can be, and also how liberating. And when you learn to trust the process enough to go by gut feel, th discoveries you make along the way can be exhilarating.
I can't remember the first time I saw a Pollock painting. I think it was in New York.
1:43 AM |
Everything Taken Together Has the Weight of Heaven
Grab the June 6 issue of Philippines Graphic Magazine! It has my story "Everything Taken Together Has the Weight of Heaven" in it. Here's an excerpt...
I have often imagined meeting Alicia again, the woman Angelico swore would love him for the rest of his life. As if that meant anything. It has been years—all that past coalescing in my head into a kind of gelatinous thought, something thick and forbidding—and I can’t exactly remember the circumstances of the last time I’d seen her or talked to her. When I force myself to have a bit of recollection, my mind plays tricks on me, shifting details around like sand. I allow it.
Sometimes I recall a scene at a restaurant, the one down the block from where the university’s main portals stand, after a particularly uneventful school day, the lights dim to approximate intimacy, the food forgotten. Sometimes I recall the interiors of a car, littered with student papers and misplaced ballpens, something speeding along a highway at nighttime, the destination a blur. Often I recall Angelico’s apartment—spare in its decoration but stacked with ubiquitous shelves heavy with books—and Alicia sitting still in my favorite spot of Angelico’s small sofa, looking at me with so much desperation and so much want, I remember how impossible it was to say no to her.
Alicia and her dark, abundant hair.
Alicia and her dark, luminous eyes.
Alicia and her lips, and the way she makes such a subtle ceremony in biting them.
It is easy to believe that there is a grammar known only to her, with which she deploys the power of body language to get what she wants. She makes small gestures fraught with meaning, and you find yourself drawn to her.
Alicia and her brilliant eyes that see through you.
I cringe at the sudden fix of memory. For a moment, I forget where I am exactly, were it not for the book my hands are gripping, its title burning against my skin; and were it not for the sight of so many other books around me. When I take a deep breath, I find myself drowning in the smell of breaking down lignin, old glue and old pulp and a dash of vanilla in the mix. One can only wish for a better death, I think. I am in a secondhand bookstore, and outside, along Access Road, a hint of a cold spell delaying what passes for the ravages of summer in Baguio.
“That book is good.” Someone is talking to me, in a voice that is meant to sound helpful.
I look up—and the girl in the pixie cut, behind the cashier, smiles. She looks at me with some bemusement, perhaps sensing that I was a perfect stranger in the city, my face registering the bewilderment of visitors. She is standing up, carrying a hefty number of books, and on her black sweatshirt, peeking at the top of the volumes in her arms, is a glimpse of a screaming Kurt Cobain printed in a silvery sheen.
“Excuse me?” I say.
“That book you have in your hand. I read that in college,” she says.
“This one?” I hastily return the book to the cluttered pile in the Sale—50% Off bin near the cashier.
“Yes, that one,” the girl with the pixie cut says. “Everything Taken Together Has the Weight of Heaven and Other Stories. A mouthful, no? But a good one, and a sentimental read, too—but I liked it. Too bad the author didn’t write more after that collection got published.”
I hear myself laugh. “Maybe the author found he had nothing more to say,” I tell her.
“Well, that’s too bad if that’s true,” she says. “Are you planning to buy it? It’s on sale. That copy has been with us for four years now.”
“Is that so,” I smile. “But I have a copy back home.”
She looks at me, and gives me a small nod.
“The thing is, I wrote it,” I finally tell her.
“You are Adrian Gomez?” The girl stands back. She gently puts down the books she is carrying on the counter, then leans forward, and looks at me with an intense sort of amusement. I feel like a specimen, and she the microscope. I wither in her gaze, and I can do nothing more except playfully shrug away the confession I’ve made.
“I am Adrian Gomez.”
I smile as sheepishly as I can, more for her benefit.
“I have a mind to get hold of that copy myself right now and have you sign it,” she smiles back.
“I’ll buy it for you.”
“It’s not everyday somebody tells me they liked my writing.”
She laughs, and tells me her name is Padma.
“But what have you done lately?” Padma asks, while I scribble some dedication on the bare page that says, ‘To A., with love and affection.’ I cross that and write the girl’s name instead. I scribble some empty phrase about the magic of reading. And I find that there is a flourish to the way I am signing my name—ghosts of what I once was, perhaps. So I give a short and muted laugh to keep the phantom at bay.
“I don’t really write fiction anymore. I write textbooks. It pays better. Science stuff. Physics, for the most part, for high school kids. Gravity, stars, black holes.”
“You’re kidding me,” she says.
“I have a whole book series on scientists, chapbooks really. Galileo, Edison, Rizal, Einstein, Curie…”
It is the truth. But I look at her—and I see that she is someone, like so many others, who needs comfortable lies. I look around the bookstore, and I can see that she believes in all these, this temple of literature, this worship of writers, this malignancy of beautiful words.
“What have I done lately…” I start slowly. Then I go for the enigmatic, brandishing my answer with a little smile: “I have done nothing, except live.”
She considers that. “I don’t know what that means,” she shakes her head, smiling. “But thank you.” She looks sincere.
I hand her the book with the exact amount it required, and she receives it in a gesture equal to supplication—and my heart breaks all over again.
“I don’t know what I mean, either,” I tell her.
But I do know what I meant.
In my scattered, unreliable memories, that kind of gesture—and the look of want, combined with desperation, that accompanies it—has been a constant in my occasional conjuring up of my memories of Alicia. That is the only abiding truth about her I have gained from those years I have chosen to forget. For the most part, anyway. In my truest moments, I have surrendered to the realization that nobody really forgets anything. There is only the sheen of denial, smooth as the lies we tell ourselves in order to survive.
2:48 AM |
An Operatic Introduction to 1870s New York Society in Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993)
My favourite Martin Scorsese film -- perhaps one of his underrated best -- is The Age of Innocence (1993). I love it largely because it delivers three of the director's recurring themes -- [a] New York, [b] societal violence, and [c] redemption and sacrifice -- but delivers them in unusual ways: [a] New York here is upper crust 1870s society, [b] the violence is subtle but no less bloody, and is sharply delivered with a dagger encrusted with etiquette and decorum, and [c] the redemption for the protagonist is finally offered but is brushed away in the name of further sacrifice. I also love the film for its novelistic arc, which is to be expected as it is faithful to the Edith Wharton novel it adapts. I had to rip for YouTube my favourite part of the film: the second opening sequence, which Joanne Woodward begins to narrate. As it glides between opera and subsequent opera ball, the sequence gives us a glimpse into the ensuing drama and also the dynamics with which high society of that gilded age operated. It is, for the sum of all its effects, an exquisite balancing act of dramatization and exposition that in the hands of a cinema master proves to be delicious filmmaking.
Just saw Cesar Hernando's Botika Bituka (1985), an iconic Filipino short film that the late film critic Alexis Tioseco wished would get a video transfer from its original print. (It finally did!) Sadly, I've lost a bunch of Filipino short films -- including Laho by Fruto Corre (1988), Ang Babae Kapag Nag-iisa sa Maynila by Avic Ilagan (1995), Trip by Juan Pula (1993) -- which did not make the transfer from VHS to digital. I used to screen these films a lot as an introduction to Philippine cinema. And I wish I had copies of these crazy+beautiful films again.
11:59 AM |
The Happiest Kind of Distances, The Dearest Sort of Endings
A version of this essay can be read at the Life section of CNN Philippines, here.
There are things you come across often in the stories of Luis Joaquin Katigbak:
1. Afternoon rains.
2. Parallel worlds hidden in shadows, or even postcards.
3. The assorted boarding houses of State University students with rodent-infested rooms that have definitely seen better days.
5. The quiet desperation of lives in the advertising world.
6. Glimpses of strange but alluring girls in the middle of traffic, in the middle of a bus, in the middle of a grocery store.
7. Girls whose names start with the letter K—Kara, Kaye, Karen, Kami. (There are also a host of other girl names: a Jay, an Anya, a Nema, an Anna, a Cristy, an Astrid, an Ada, a Tam, several Doreens, a Rachel, a Tanya, two Christinas, a Jenn5—but the girls whose names start with the letter K are somehow instantly remembered.)
8. Aliens who are decidedly human in their very understanding of what makes us tick.
9. Literature. Lots and lots of literature. From J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase to Paulo Dizon’s Twilight of a Poet to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Words, Wide Night.”
10. Science. Lots and lots of science. From the destructive nature of chloroflourocarbons to Turing’s universal machine to robotics to chemical engineering.
11. Music. Lots and lots of music. From Tchaikovsky to The Dawn to R.E.M. to Right Said Fred to the Eraserheads to The Cure to A-ha.
12. And most of all, the evocations of distance—be it geographical or emotional—and endings.
It’s an understandable thing to have stories threaded with similar motifs and tropes. James Baldwin, after all, once famously said, “Every writer has only one story to tell, and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer, until the story becomes at once more narrow and larger, more and more precise, more and more reverberating.” He didn’t exactly have only one story to tell—in the short story “Tell the Sky,” the protagonist gets blessed with exactly eight stories to tell—but Luis Katigbak may be a perfect demonstration of the refinement of themes Baldwin spoke of.
In Luis’s first collection, Happy Endings, we were introduced, story by story, to what would prove to be the enduring themes in his fiction, what makes up his literary DNA so to speak, although we didn’t know that quite yet. Happy Endings was an introductory volume that gave us a chance to sample a very distinct voice, distilled from ten stories that were in essence juvenilia of the highest order. When it was first published by the University of the Philippines Press in 2000, it announced the arrival of a major talent—and with that came expectations of other stories to come, more books.
The follow-up, Dear Distance (Anvil Publishing), came sixteen years later, and was—by Luis’ own admission—something he had been working on for eight long years. (In the interim, he came out with a book of essays titled The King of Nothing to Do: Essays About Everything and Nothing, published by Milflores in 2006.) By then, those themes first explored in Happy Endings have deepened, have taken on a deeply philosophical reach, have combed the farthest possibilities of their narratives to give us wry and wistful judgment of what it is like to be young in the chaos and promises of the twenty-first century—and the subsequent alienation that can happen in a world that deepens the distances us from others and from ourselves.
Luis was, truth to tell, not just the voice of my generation. He was a prophet.
* * *
If I must make a confession, the hardest thing in the world right now is choosing to write about a friend in the inevitable past tense.
A certain irresistible kind of denial sets in when someone you respect for his talent and for his limitless capacity for kindness—a comrade in many ways beyond just the literary—passes away at the prime of his life, and you are left to ponder the inevitable questions about the vagaries of life. How could one so young be taken away so soon? What becomes of his promise? And shouldn’t we be able to read more books written by him?
When we last actively corresponded before his diabetes took a turn for the worse, we were discussing the possibilities of me writing another piece for the Notes and Essays section of Esquire Philippines, and I was adamant about writing about the Pinoy Generation X, and what has become of it. In truth, it was an invitation to examine what had indeed become of us, now that our generation has ceased to be “young,” and are now approaching the rough and perhaps painful tumble of middle age. This was between September and October in 2014, and Ben Stiller had just released his film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty—and it felt like a cold examination of the dashed hopes of people who identify as members of Generation X, but also the possibility of resuscitation. The film had more gravity than it should in that regard: it was coming from the director of Reality Bites, which in 1993 spelled out to the soundtrack of MTV hits the angst and uncertainties of those coming of age in that decade—meaning Luis, meaning me, meaning everyone who were our contemporaries. The angst then was filtered through a romantic lens only those in their twentysomethings could conjure. Twenty years later, the reality has more than bit; it has devoured, and our forties are now all about taking stock of what exactly has happened.
Luis knew this all too well. In his short story, “Sabado, 1995,” he let his characters—remnants of a barkada who were together in college during the mid-1990s—take stock of the changes in their lives after years of trying to become responsible adults, all done of course to the nostalgic prodding of the music from their youth. (In this case, the music of the Eraserheads.) There have been career misfires. There have been babies and marriage. There has been a death. But the music is still there, pure and unadulterated in their evocations of a certain time, a perfect concoction “… to remind themselves of the days before they weren’t bogged down by bills and health issues and regrets.”
But nostalgia is a double-edged sword: it is sweet, but it is also a mirage. It is not real. What is real is the now in all its beautiful regrets and ugly becomings. Luis, in one of his essays for the Philippine Star, wrote about this once, and concluded with an exhortation for those who are still young and have no inkling of the hard choices that come with adulting: “Whatever you do,” he wrote, “enjoy being young, free, and relatively unburdened in the early 21st century, and draw both solace and regret from the fact that these days will never, ever, come around again.
Luis said he was eager to read that essay from me—but which I never got around to writing, simply because the assignment ultimately terrified me. It was a mirror, and I lost heart about confronting something that perhaps I actually didn’t want to see. So Luis said to write a story instead, slated for Esquire’s annual fiction issue.
“I was reading Stephen King’s story from the Cameron Diaz issue of Esquire two months ago,” I told him over Facebook chat. “I was blown away by it. And then I read your story, ‘Sabado, 1995,’ and I was blown away by it as well. So medyo I feel challenged and revved up.”
“Fantastic!” he replied, complete with a grin emoticon. ”Can’t wait to read it,” he finished, this time with a wink emoticon.
I sent in a story—and waited for a response.
It took a long time for him to reply. And when he did, it was already May, in 2015: “Hi Ian!,” Luis wrote. “Yes I got it, thanks! ☺ Apologies for the delayed reply. Been very unwell lately and hard to reply properly. Will get back to you about it soon. ☺ Thanks again!”
When he finally did reply properly, it would be several months later—and in retrospect, it was already him saying goodbye.
* * *
Our friendship had started in that vein back in 2002—in a solicitation for stories, in a chance to connect with a writer of one’s age.
The thing was, Luis Joaquin Katigbak was probably the first in my generation of writers to come out of the door swinging, his promise fulfilled in the form of a first book—and whose voice was unmistakably ours and which was something completely different from what came before. Happy Endings gave us permission to pen down our stories flavored by the beautiful dread and dastardly delights of having come of age in the 1990s—and it was empowering.
In 2002, I had cobbled together a website dedicated to Philippine Literature, which for a time became the motherlode of everything Filipino and literary, until I abandoned the project in 2006 because I had fallen in love. Happy Endings was a big thing even then, its influence only now being understood as my contemporaries piece together the heritage Luis left with his body of work. It came out at a time when there was much ado about collecting the fiction of this shiny new generation of writers. Ricardo de Ungria had earlier edited a collection of short stories for Anvil titled Catfish Arriving in Little Schools (1996), which introduced Gina Apostol and Clinton Palanca. (Gina would soon come out with her novel, Bibliolepsy, and Clinton with his novella Landscapes.)
And then in 1999, Miriam Grace Go edited Dream Noises: A Generation Writes, a collection that included Jimmy I. Alcantara, Emil Flores, Ma. Romina Gonzalez, Caroline S. Hau, Luis Joaquin Katigbak, Timothy R. Montes, Clinton Palanca, Andrea Pasion, Lakambini A. Sitoy, Katrina P. Tuvera, Margaret Uy, and Jessica Zafra. By 2000, the University of the Philippines’ old Likhaan Online came out with a special issue featuring “twentysomething writers writing in the new century,” which “acknowledge[d] the role by which technology and information has come to shape the imaginations of our young literary writers.” Introduced in that issue were Arvin Mangohig, Libay Linsangan Cantor, Miguel Syjuco, Randolf Bustamante, Allan Popa, Robert JA Basilio Jr., Indira Endaya, Shakira Sison, Baryon Tensor Posadas, Isolde Amante, Roderick Cabotaje, Clifford Rivera, Victor Tagos, Kathleen Meneses, Elmo Gonzaga, Bernice Roldan, River Yao, Orlando Sayman, Joel Toledo, and Conchitina Cruz.
By then, Timothy Montes, in an essay titled “Young Writers and the Tradition in Philippine Short Fiction in English: Does the Does the Force Exist or is the Jedi Council Pulling Our Legs?,” began trying to contextualize the place of this generation of writers in the whole of Philippine literature—and one of his respondents was Luis himself, who wrote: “My own list of essential Filipino short story writers would include Francisco Arcellana, Gregorio Brillantes, Jose Y. Dalisay, and Kerima Polotan. These are the writers I continue to reread, and recommend to others. I do not know if they have had a discernable influence on my writing—I do not consciously try to emulate their work—but they have certainly been inspirations… In a broader sense, of course, our writing is influenced by the very age we live in, by everything we take in—by our knowledge of current events, by the TV shows we watch, the conversations we have. ‘Input equals influences.’ We are influenced by CNN, MTV, NU 107, the Internet. And, of course, by the works of foreign authors. Another personal ‘Best-Of’ list follows: Jorge Luis Borges, Truman Capote, Haruki Murakami, Renata Adler, and James Thurber. I do not know if you can compare levels of influence—certainly I read more works by foreign authors simply because of the sheer amount of worthwhile books that are out there—but while foreign authors show me what can be done with the English language, local writers show me what can be done with that selfsame language here, in this country, fused with our histories and sensibilities.”
Luis was very much in the thick of ferment that this generation of writers was stirring, and so, when I decided to edit an anthology of works by these writers—I titled the book Future Shock: An Anthology of Young Writers and New Literatures—it was Luis I first emailed, asking him for advice although he didn’t know me from Adam, and also to ask him if he could provide me with a list of young writers I could invite to write for the anthology. He sent in his story “Passengers,” and that was how I got to meet Sarge Lacuesta, Adam David, Tara FT Sering, Daryll Delgado, Indira Endaya, Andrea Pasion, Katrina Tuvera, Baryon Tensor Posadas, Yvette Tan, Peter Mayshle, Romina Gonzales, Caroline S. Hau, and others.
There was a time, indeed, when we were very young, and tempests had yet to stir and drive us all apart. The future was here, and it promised to be an electric shock, and it was bright—and its mayor was Luis Joaquin Katigbak.
* * *
At the very end of “Document,” nestled deep in the middle of Happy Endings, the unnamed narrator ponders on the missives of a girl, a casual acquaintance who lives in the same complex where he makes his residence. She has taken to using his ancient word processor—apparently with his consent—to churn out essays and term papers for school and the occasional surprising pieces of fiction, saving all of them in one of the directories in his XT, complete with 8-character file names that used to be a source of our endless confoundments in those early digital days in the 1990s. Reading through them, he has begun, he thinks anyway, to get under her skin, to wonder whether all these words he is reading are enough to understand everything about her.
But are the stories we write really a testament to our lives? The story our narrator stumbles upon in his computer is about a woman who finds herself slowly disappearing, fading away to nothingness—and it ends abruptly, and he thinks of the girl who authored it: “While reading it, I find myself wondering something that I suppose all friends of writers wonder: is this piece somehow autobiographical?” Then this: “If she were to disappear tomorrow, how long would it be before I forget about her? We have no official ties, not even memories of physical contact. No sweat, no saliva, no remembered tingle of skin. All we have are words, words that once flickered across a computer monitor, words spoken during midnight phone conversations, words shared while walking through streets and parks and shopping malls, words that formed comments, quotations, anecdotes, confessions and endless stories.”
It ends right there, the story hanging like that, floating in the air before it came rushing back to me in a hiss of remembrance and perhaps recrimination.
There has been a death, which is just a type of disappearance. How long would it be before forgetfulness sets in?
I closed the book quickly. I had been reading Luis’ first book again in anticipation of reading Dear Distance—and the familiarity of the stories was washing over me, but this time around there was an extra bite to it. I began to feel the dilemma of over-reading. Every elegant turn of phrase that had some emotional import suddenly taking on a kind of testament of the man we had just lost.
The questions the narrator of “Document” asks—especially the inescapable element of autobiography of the things that we write—are a kind of invitation to this kind of reading. How much of Happy Endings is Luis? And Dear Distance? Because traces of him do come out: the science geekdom, the love of indie music, the love of indie films, a penchant for Haruki Murakami…
Dear Distance begins with “Subterrania,” one of my favorite stories by Luis, which won the Palanca for the (now defunct) Future Fiction category in 2001. In that story, we follow an unnamed narrator as he devotes time to visit a friend named Kaye who has become increasingly reclusive—reminiscent of the Japanese “hikikomori,” people who have come to a reality of sheer detachment from the outside world, comfortable only in the cocoon of their rooms, entertained by the Internet, music streaming, DVDs, and computer games. Kaye calls this cocoon “subterrania,” and the narrator gives us a picture of its many incarnations: “We found many small Subterranias. There was the underpass at Lawton, with its graffiti, its snack and cigarette vendors, its distinctive smell. The unfinished top floor of our old high school’s Humanities building—we went up there once, during a reunion—it was a network of bare, unpainted classrooms, with metal rods and concrete blocks on the floor; that was Subterrania too, even though it was five stories up. And Kaye discovered one day, while waiting for a bus, that a crack in the wall, if you stay still and stare at it long enough, if you can somehow imagine yourself, feel yourself inside it, squeeze your mind into that space—that jagged gap can be Subterrania too.”
Subterrania was escape—and always a fatal one.
The story asks difficult questions such as: what is it about the world that deadens us, that we are made comfortable with an early burial in our cocoons? It offers only the most vicarious pleasures, in television, in CD players, and their ilk. Kaye explains: “I love these things, these stories, these songs — because even the worst of them, in their own way, are perfect. Better than a life of uncertainty. They have beginnings and endings. I get the world distilled, you know, in its purer form. Even news stories on CNN have lifespans. They don’t cover certain events forever. Everything begins and everything ends, and that’s wonderful.”
In “Silences,” also from Dear Distance, “subterrania” is quietude. We read: “The silence of our grade school library is perhaps the silence that I miss the most. I recall afternoons spent mostly alone among the stacks of one-minute mysteries and illustrated books of rhyme. Dust-mote days, breathers between the noise of school and home, like blank spaces cradled between parentheses. I hold those silences lonely and precious and distant.”
It is a melancholy theme that embraces much of Dear Distance, but we find beginnings of it even in Happy Endings. For the Luis of the early 2000s, sometimes “subterrania” is not a place but an in-between moment where we realize a whole universe of chance, of what-could-be, becomes immediately apparent, but is just immediately taken away from us. In “Renegade Eyeballs,” the story that opens Happy Endings, the protagonist—a young college student living in a boarding house together with other strange characters, finds himself stuck in jeepney traffic in the rain, and in the doldrums of waiting everything out, realizes a minor but a most incriminating choice: “It occurred to me that I would probably get home faster if I got off the jeep and walked. After all, U.P. wasn’t so far away, and I did have an umbrella. I thought about this for thirty minutes and then decided, well, hell, I’ve been here half an hour … might as well wait it out. It’s never too hard to choose between action and inaction.”
Inaction is often the choice to make for the characters in Luis’ fictional world, but action itself is defined very much by a wish for escape. In Happy Endings, that escape is made manifest in the titular object in “Postcards,” where a girl named Anna finds a way to travel to parallel worlds through a magical process of folding these postal items, leaving a humdrum reality behind to “taste of wild fruit on an unknown shore, listening to strange music in a floating concert all in the sky; riding a long-necked, multi-colored beast across a field of pleasant green.”
Sometimes escape means losing the memory of who one is. In “Birthdays,” a guy suffers from amnesia and finds himself, sans wallet and identification, in a mall, where he tries to reconstruct who he could possibly be by analyzing the things he encounters—music, movies, etc.—that he responds to, imagining all sorts of possible lives he could be leading. His wallet is soon found, and inside it the final recourse to know who he really is—and then he makes a fateful decision.
The escapes Happy Endings offers are almost always escapes from the dullness of young lives being wasted on dispassion. In the title story, “Happy Endings”—the first in Luis’ cycle of First Graphics stories—this means the eventual kowtowing that is done towards a demanding world of bills and ugly responsibilities. Its narrator muses: “I wonder about [everyone and our] little dreams and failures and snatches of happiness. I think about all of us, speeding or lurching or trudging towards our individual endings, catching glimpses of them now and then, planning for the future, wishing, hoping, never really knowing for sure whether our endings will be happy or tragic.”
These tragedies are often small but comes with a wallop of existential consequences—and sometimes they come in the shape of timid inaction, of missed chances, of unfortunate miscommunication or misreading. For Luis, these are gaping distances between you and me—and nobody really connects.
In “Away,” another one of Luis’s First Graphics stories, a girl in an advertising firm, has a crush on a colleague, someone who seems to like her—but she brushes off these signs, convinced they would lead to nowhere, until she decides it wouldn’t hurt to find out if there was some reciprocation. And then something happens.
“The Rain, Rachel, and a Wednesday Afternoon” is about a boy thinking about the girl who got away, and the random encounters and the drudgery of living that happen after.
In “Kara’s Place,” a girl commiserates about living in a ratty boarding house—but she is comforted from that reality by a former high school classmate who constantly visits her. The kindness she returns for this attention is mistaken for a permission to be carnal—and she rebuffs his kiss, wanting only to be alone, even if being alone meant just having the company of the boarding house’s plentiful rats. The story ends with her on the verge of a sad insight: “And outside, there’s the constant roar of the rain, as if the sky itself is laughing at some great joke that I just don’t get.”
The denial of love, for Luis, is our greatest tragedy, and the stories in Happy Endings that explore this are the ironic and opposite showcases of the book’s titular promise. When love is not denied, however, the endings become truly happy, as in the high school romance unfolding over a science fair project in “What the World is Waiting For,” or the sweet anarchy of “The End,” another First Graphics story, where the narrator discovers he has been appointed herald of the apocalypse. The world, he is told by alien voices, is ending in seven days—and he goes about the rest of the week struggling through the regular routine of his days, and allows himself to fall in love. When he asks the alien voices what this all meant, he is told: “Far be it for me to fathom the mysterious ways of the higher power, but, in my opinion—well, I guess it was a test, of sorts. And if it was, you did well. You did a lot more than most people could have. You tried to warn as many people as you could. You didn’t despair. You laughed quite a bit. You got drunk. Fell in love.”
I’ve seen Luis fall head over heels in love, twice.
* * *
We called ourselves the Kumags—after novelist Alain Derain’s literary creatures—because the idea of it to define us seemed utterly insidious, and on the whole, wishfully deflective.
Kumag, after all, is Tagalog that means a “fool,” a “loser” even. But beyond the word’s street usage, it also means the fine powder that clings to the grains of polished rice, or perhaps, and even more insidiously, the tiny insects in our lives—you might call them mites—that are barely visible but can nevertheless make their presence be felt with the havoc of the rashes they provoke.
We needed to be “kumags,” because we had just been told that we were the most behaved batch of workshoppers in the University of the Philippines National Writers Workshop. This was in 2008, and we were in Baguio. “We,” of course, is a bunch of writers that included Luis, Rica Bolipata Santos, Frank Cimatu, Mookie Katigbak Lacuesta, Vincenz Serrano, Tara FT Sering, Jun Lana, Nicholas Pichay, Abdon Balde, Roberto Anonuevo, Alain of course, and I—and we then proceeded to get drunk not just on words. We raided a convenience store near Camp John Hay for its alcohol, and tried our best to be wild.
“We are lightning!” Luis roared.
“We are kumags!” Tara exclaimed.
We were very, very proper in our version of wildness.
There are still pictures of us in Facebook—Luis, Vincenz, Jun, and I—dancing to the music of our tipsiness. We were dressed to the nines.
* * *
In the stories of Luis Joaquin Katigbak, people yearn for connection in the disconnection—although sometimes they don’t know it, or perhaps deny it. And sometimes, when the chance for connection does come, rejection is the answer that greets it. We’ve seen this theme in inchoate incarnations in Happy Endings; in Dear Distance, we find its ultimate deepening.
The character of Kaye in “Subterrania,” of course, is the very illustration of this disconnect, a cipher of a girl that is typical of the many girls that populate Luis’s stories. “More Than I Ever Wanted Anything” follows up on that theme, and ropes in the element of remembrance in this story of disconnection, about a very talented girl who burns out fast, and sinks deeper into a kind of invisibility—shades of “Document”—by not showing at all for anything. The story muses: “Somebody once said that ninety percent of life is just showing up. That makes me wonder what happens when you decide to stop showing up.” But what for? Even the crutch of nostalgia doesn’t help: “Nostalgia and a vague sense that things could have or should have turned out differently are not the best things to steer one’s life or thoughts by.”
In “Passengers,” we find a great articulation of the world, which has disappointed the many personas in Luis’ stories. Kaye in “Subterrania” knew this, and the narrator of “Passengers” echo it—that perhaps the only good thing about this world is its canned stories—in movies, in music, in books, in computer games: the manufactured truer than the real. Again, like in “Postcards,” the characters in this story thinks of the multiverse as a dream of getting away from here. And yet, the final realization: “But what does it matter? Maybe that’s all we’re meant to do, enjoy the trip while it lasts. Maybe luck or faith are the only things that keep us from delays, transfers, fatal crashes.”
In “Little Fears,” also reminiscent of “Postcards,” “Subterrania,” and “Documents,” our narrator longs for escape from the ugly city he lives in. He intones: “I live in a city crammed with too many bodies,” and the wish is refuge from all these shifty bodies—but a refuge that never ultimately comes: “I find myself looking everywhere in this ugly city for little fragments of temporary sanctuary: sunlight streaming through a bit of glass; a tree, not blackened or stunted, spread against the sky. They never last. I never stop looking.”
In “Day Devoid,” Ada accompanies her erstwhile boyfriend Miko in buying a gift for his ex—a cellphone. The unexplained purchase underlines the disconnection between them: they just is. Later, the ex-girlfriend, frazzled and angry, seeks them out to return the gift, shattered to pieces in its cheap little box.
Sometimes, connection is promised with the fulfillment of a fantasy to be with another person—but the fantasy often remains just that: a fantasy. Or worse: a disappointing embodiment of that fantasy. In “It’s Not Me,” a girl named Nema believes firmly that she has a long, lost twin. It is more or less just terrible wishful thinking.
In “Visitors,” a beautifully vague flash fiction piece about aliens manifesting as ethereal images of the best of ourselves (and often the best of our remembrances), the narrator is gifted by them with the embodiment of a girl he secretly misses. But their reunion is all too brief, and in the end it is unconsummated even by mere conversation: “I stared at her and she stared back and I could not speak. I lost all sense of who I was. There was only an indefinable world-sized emotion balanced on the line of our gaze. And then the moment faded and I returned to the familiar weight and limitation of myself.”
In “Tell Me Do, Something True,” we do get a clue to what could fill this deadening distance, and it comes bundled in this question: “… [I]n a world of sullied wonder, what would be worth losing your heart to[?]” What indeed?
In “Robot Boy and Hepa,” the answer lies in the recovery of abandoned passions. Here a suicidal boy gets visited by imaginary friends from his childhood, and he is forced to take stock of his life. Remember your old passions before real life took over, he is told. They are his salvation.
In the final story, “Dear Distance,” however, the fulfillment of that distance may just as simple as an acceptance that distance exist—and must exist, because in the final analysis, it is still very much a part of living. We read this admonition in the end: “Whether you are too young and I am inexcusably older or vice versa, there will always be things we have in common, and things we will never understand about each other. In the end, distances and surfaces are all we can ever be sure of, and this is no sad thing. In a world that has accelerated almost beyond recognition, it may be the only comforting thought of which I am capable.”
The title piece, set in a near future where humans give themselves genetic enhancements to stand out from the crowd, is very much a good summing up of all Luis’s themes. It makes us realize that Luis’s stories come off as ruminations, of the deep philosophical sort—these stories in search of big answers, using the guise of fiction to get at the glimpse of what life is all about.
* * *
Things I will miss about Luis now that he is gone.
1. His obsession over fonts.
2. His love for hamsters.
3. His kindness.
4. The stories he had yet to tell.
Perhaps one of the most chilling stories Luis has ever written—especially if you are, like a him, a writer—is “Tell the Sky” from Dear Distance. In this magnificent fantasy piece, our protagonist gets a surprising advice from a fortune-teller who mysteriously tells him: “You have eight stories … Use them well.”
He then spends the rest of his life doling out, piece by piece, this finite number of narratives—sometimes wasting them away, sometimes forgetting the import of their telling, and finally realizes the truth about writers and writing: “There are stories inside everyone, of course, some are like caged birds of varying hues, some like ripe slimy pods ready to burst at a touch. Most people have no idea how many they contain. Some people think they have limitless tales, when really, they recount the same one over and over with insipid variations… No one ever notices. Some people actually do have a large and wonderful variety of stories within them, and whenever one is released, it sparkles and dazzles and hangs in the air for a slow moment, like a December-sky firework.”
And I couldn’t help but ask myself: Did Luis know? Did he know he would die young, and as such, was he racing to complete the stories he felt he needed to tell before passing on?
Perhaps. Yet I cannot help but think of the possibilities of the stories he is now unable to tell.
I can no longer look forward to the First Graphics novel he kept promising he’d finish.
I can no longer look forward to him editing and coming out with this quirky anthology of essays about things—music, movies, books—that do not actually exist.
I can no longer look forward to future collaborations on stories.
In the last few months before he succumbed to that final stroke, our missives to each other floated around editorial reminders of deadlines to be beaten—and the occasional musings about typefaces and hamsters. I check out our last messages to each other in Facebook, and I come across this chat from 4 October 2015.
“Hello Ian! I hope all is well with you,” Luis began, a smile emoticon immediately following, the rest of the message telling me that he was professional to the very end. “I must apologize for taking forever to get back to you regarding your story. I liked it right away, of course, and was determined to feature it in Esquire’s annual fiction issue. Unfortunately said issue was delayed and delayed, while my health worsened and worsened. Long story short, due to my deteriorated capacities, I can no longer continue working on the magazine, and the next issue will be my last. Sarge is still on board though, and we still want to run the stories we’ve gathered, though whether individually or in a Fiction issue (which I wound have preferred) remains to be seen. Again, my apologies for these unfortunate circumstances… It is an excellent story.”
“Are you okay?” I asked him.
“Not really, not for a long time now. Every day is difficult for me to get through. I can’t leave my apartment. I can barely walk, and on particularly bad days, I can barely see. I’m working with a doctor though to get better. Luckily she makes house calls.”
“Oh no. I’m sorry, I had no idea!”
“No worries, Ian.”
“Magpagaling ka. And thanks for telling me.”
“I’m just glad I finished my book,” Luis wrote. “It took forever.”
“Yes! Finally!” I replied.
“Happy Endings was seminal for me. It was the first story collection by somebody from my generation that I read—and it was one of those things that made me want to become a writer.”
“I’m so happy to know that! Glad I played some little part in your becoming [a] writer. Thank you.”
“And that cover was a killer.”
“I had the gall to put my face on the cover of my own book, haha! Well, half my face anyway.”
* * *
On January 26th, I wrote him again, hoping for one last chat: “How are you?” I typed.
Mother made a living making homemade peanut butter, which she sold door to door, while father became a bus conductor, and took to his daily feed of newspapers to become a fiercely opinioned pundit of the politics brewing by then. He had blamed the collapse of sugar prices on the negligence of a dictatorial government made worse by so many political cronies, and so, even then, we were fervently anti-Marcos. When Ninoy Aquino, the charismatic opposition leader, was gunned down on that tarmac in August of 1983, only a few days after I turned eight, Mother broke down when she heard the news, willowing from despair, believing there was no more any measure of hope. Father was stunned. He devoured the newspapers in the coming days, but found hardly any morsel of news about the assassination, save for the lamest of reportage by newspapers that tiptoed around possible dictatorial culpability.
Upstairs, the Mongcopas—fervently Marcos loyalists—waved their blue flags and played their recording of “Bagong Lipunan” in earnestness. Mr. Mongcopa, who had served as Tubod’s barangay captain for many years, had a glorious baritone, and most mornings, in the earliest hours, we would wake up to his voice piercing through the fog like a clear call to arms.
May bagong silang, May bago nang buhay, Bagong bansa, bagong galaw, Sa Bagong Lipunan. Magbabago ang lahat, Tungo sa pag-unlad, At ating itanghal, Bagong lipunan!
No rooster cackling at dawn, just an old man and his song for the New Republic.
“Should I tell him off, Ma?” Manong Rocky would seethe. The interruption of sleep grew on him like eye bags.
“Don’t,” Mother quickly admonished him.
And perhaps she was thinking beyond the vagaries of politics, beyond the uncertain destinies of sugar dreams and nightmares. She was thinking, where else could you rent an apartment these days for P300 a month?
* * *
The Mongcopas had a daughter named Stephanie, a feisty girl who was Manong Rocky’s age, and who had a son born out of wedlock, a rabid bunch of energy named Pol. The boy was three, and was a regular hurricane—and each day, to escape the dull demands of motherhood, which she left to the care of old Mrs. Mongcopa, Stephanie developed a habit of coming down to our apartment and staying for longer than a spell, first for hazy gossip, then for merienda, and then to commiserate with Mother over the withering issues of the day. She was, she declared to everyone who would listen, a huge believer in Cory Aquino—and trumpeted her yellow affiliation hard, throwing it against her father’s face, much to his chagrin. But the old man took it in stride. “People are getting crazy these days,” he told Mother one day when they passed each other outside the house. “It’s the snap election. It’s making everyone crazy.”
“I’m sure it is,“ Mother replied diplomatically, while carefully putting up a Laban poster on her front door.
“You really think an ordinary housewife could win?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Mongcopa, but I could hope.”
Mr. Mongcopa had the stern face of a much-too-principled gentleman. He had gunmetal grey hair, and was a man of slight built. He wore plain-buttoned white shirts and high-waisted khaki slacks every single day, a 1950s relic. He looked at Mother’s Vote for Cory Aquino poster—her in a yellow dress flashing an L-sign, with a dashing Doy Laurel smiling beside her—and that very afternoon, Mr. Mongcopa brought out the outsized red and blue posters with Ferdinand Marcos’s and Arturo Tolentino’s faces on them, tacking a whole bunch of them on his porch, which were intricately designed bamboo slats in diamond patterns. The house became a fierce battleground of assorted posters—yellow, red, and blue—by the heated stretch of January of 1986.
Around this time, Stephanie developed a sudden, unexplained penchant for Madonna, belting out “Crazy For You” or “Material Girl,” or “Into the Groove” with the abandon of a fanatic, sans microphone, sans shame. Karaoke had yet to become a thing in those years, but she preceded it like a force of amateur musical brashness, armed only with cassette tapes. I remembered loving her for these musical outbursts, belting out with her when the chance arose, and we would end our impromptu performances with much high-fiving and giggling. And when the old man was within earshot, she’d sing a few bars of “Papa Don’t Preach,” and then blurt out the chorus with the force of someone aiming to break a few hearts.
Papa don’t preach, I’m in trouble deep
Papa don’t preach, I’ve been losing sleep
But I made up my mind, I’m keeping my baby, oh…
I’m gonna keep my baby, mmm...
It was not always Madonna. Sometimes, there was Barbra Streisand, and sometimes there was Whitney Houston, and in the comfortable bowels of our lower apartment, Stephanie and I would brandish Mother’s hairbrushes, and we would croon like madness itself found a microphone—
A few stolen moments is all that we share
You’ve got your family, and they need you there.
Though I’ve tried to resist, being last on your list,
But no other man’s gonna do…
So I’m saving all my love for yoooooooou...
In my mind’s eye, while I crooned my heart out, “you” was almost always a floating idea of Ian Veneracion—him with those dusky eyes, him with that aquiline nose, him with those perturbing lips. My eleven-year-old body shivered. How is it that with songs we say more than we could in plain speech?
One afternoon, in the early days of February, I decided to skip classes at West City Elementary School, and walked all the way to seaside Rizal Boulevard, to an old wooden building—painted a bright yellow—in what is now the Sol y Mar Building. The building used to be known by other names, Rainbow Lodge and The Office, among then—and was rumored to be a hang-out for the city’s colorful underbelly. The boulevard in the old days was not the gentrified version we have now: it was an unpleasant strip of asphalt and concrete that everybody nicknamed “the boulevard of broken dreams,” after the silly song, and perhaps for very good reasons. It was a strip dotted by fluorescent lampposts, their eerie whiteness scabs of light that sucked at the soul—and lined far apart each other, they made for a curious dimness in the swallowing darkness of sea and night sky. At nighttime, the strip was littered with tocino stands and beer peddlers, making the whole stretch of the boulevard a haven for drunks and prostitutes.
Cory Aquino’s Laban Party headquarters was holed up here, in a small dark office that jutted out from one side of the old Rainbow Lodge. I was eleven, and I wanted very much for Cory the Housewife to win the country’s embattled presidency: Mother’s excited face and my brothers’ brash delight were contagious, devoted to the knowledge that they were living through a special moment in history. I had no clear idea what they were excited about—but it was a matter of faith, and faith was easy for a boy my age to take. It was easy to believe in the ferocity of what people around me believed. I knew Marcos only as a distant monstrous figure that did not affect my daily adventures in playmaking—he was not a shadow in my tayokok—and the specter of Martial Law, lifted after ten years of brutal control, was completely lost on me. Still, there was concrete conviction in the family’s passion. Mother said she was passionate for change, and I saw how she was, her once delicate hands busy toiling over peanut shells. It was an embracing conviction, and I succumbed to it.
That afternoon when I skipped school to go to the Boulevard, I asked the volunteers at the Laban headquarters if I could have some campaign materials—perhaps a poster I could tack somewhere, but most of all, I asked if I could have copies of the komiks they were giving out for free. My classmate Ricky had brought one to school, and I wanted one to give Mother. The volunteer I spoke to gave me a quiet look, and handed over a crisp new poster, and two komiks, Cory by herself flashing an L-sign on one cover, and Cory with Doy on the other. In crisp illustrations and talk balloons spread over many pages, they spelled out how to vote in the coming elections, and how to be certain that their efforts to battle Marcos would not be in vain. “Wear yellow on election day,” one panel read. “Practice spelling C-O-R-Y A-Q-U-I-N-O,” read another. Mother was grateful for the comics, swore to get more copies, and quickly shared them with Stephanie, who squealed in delight and promptly left them, “accidentally,” on the Mongcopa’s dining table for her old man to discover.
Manong Rocky kept disappearing for hours at a time to God-knows-where, and Father would tell a worried Mother to leave him be. “He’s a man now,” he’d say. “He’s 25. Let him have his own life.”
“I just wanted to know if he’d like to volunteer for NAMFREL,” she’d reply.
“Just leave him be.”
Manong Alvin and Manong Dennis eventually volunteered themselves for NAMFREL, to my mother’s delight, and they spent many nights at the special election-monitoring group’s headquarters being oriented regarding the troubles that could be brewing ahead, while the rest of us monitored our radio set to find out what was going on elsewhere. Upstairs, old Mr. Mongcopa monitored his own radio, cheering on a feeble-sounding Marcos, convinced in the rightness of his own campaign, never mind the crazy tenants downstairs.
Days later, in the heat of things changing faster than anyone thought could, when people began massing around EDSA in throngs of thousands, Stephanie came over for her regular merienda with Mother, and over puto maya and tsokolate, gave her a quivering admission: “I’m pregnant.”
“Have you told your father?” Mother asked.
“I can’t tell my father. He’d kill me. Either that, or he’d drop dead.”
“Surely your mother?”
“I can’t tell my mother, either. I can’t tell her it’s happening again.”
“Do you know who the father is?”
Stephanie broke down into rocking sobs.
“You Got It All” is collected in Bamboo Girls: Stories and Poems From a Forgotten Life, forthcoming from Ateneo de Naga University Press
Currently watching Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (2016). I suddenly remember that back in 2009, a bunch of us -- Raz Salvarita, Kristoffer Ardeña, Q----- P------, and I -- planned to do a very risqué art exhibit. Didn't happen, because sad things happened. Oh, well. I'm not sure Dumaguete was ready for that exhibit anyway.
As of this writing, 24,039 people so far have voted for Roy Señeres, a dead man, for President. (“That’s enough to almost fill Araneta Coliseum’s maximum seating capacity of 25,000,” observed writer Ed Geronia on Facebook.) And 1,590,792 have voted for Jovito Palparan, a high-profile murderer, for Senator—not enough to put him in the Top 12, but enough to make us pause at the consequence of that number.
Numbers are the most truthful things.
That said, apparently, to millions and millions of Filipinos, plagiarist Tito Sotto and pugilist Manny Pacquiao are way better legislators than Walden Bello or Neri Colmenares. (“Mawawala na si Miriam sa Senado. Kapalit niya si Pacquiao. Kaya mo yun?” reminded writer Ino Habana on Facebook.)
There is a disconnect somewhere in the make-up of the Philippine electorate that makes you wonder: what exactly explains our inability to pick conceivably qualified people to serve in public office—and by qualified, at least someone who has the sterling qualifications, or is at least alive?
To put it bluntly, what kind of voter are you that makes you think a dead man is suited to become President, or a incompetent congressman/boxer to become senator?
Elections are an exercise in existentialism. If not that, they have become an exercise in sheer bipolarism. I have never vacillated between sheer elation and angry incredulity in mere seconds in the past few months.
But you know what’s actually worse?
In particular, millennials who are supposedly smart but cannot think beyond the comforts of their burgis existence and are steadfastly blind to the context and consequence of history. Millennials like a certain Zappybands who tweeted “Mababait ang mga Marcos, some people don’t just see it because they focus on the Martial Law thingy.”
That flippancy is galling.
Hundreds dead. Thousands broken. A thingy.
It’s ironic: the political whining millennials enjoy posting about now in social media would have been suppressed if they were in fact living in the very darkness of the Martial Law they are nostalgic for.
This disconnection has many forms. It’s like seeing young gay men, living up their partying days, being horrendously ageist about the generations of LGBT that came before them—not knowing that these were the very same people who endured everything—incarceration, lobotomy, ostracism from family—just so their public gay landi-an could no longer be cause for them to be drowned inside a barrel of water by their macho fathers.
It’s like seeing young girls declaring they don’t understand or have sworn off feminism—yet are so accepting of the privilege that they can work, that they can vote, that they can determine their own future, that they can drive cars, etc.—vital things feminists of the older generations have fought, and even died, for.
It’s like young workers being needlessly scared of the word “socialism” or are disdainful of the word “activism”—yet they enjoy their weekend, their minimum wage, their non-child labor privilege, etc.—things that had to be fought for by activists and wrested away from old capitalists who thought of Saturday and Sunday as perfectly suitable days to continue working, who thought paying you next to nothing was justifiable, or who thought children as young as six were ready to work in factories. People fought for weekends, for just wages, for better working conditions—and many have died for these privileges to happen. And now they think activism is just being a pest to the system.
So when I get young people talking about how wonderful things were under Marcos, or how Bongbong should not be held accountable—the famous refrain being: “The sins of the father are not the sins of the son”—I get a headache. Because the following truism is indeed correct, although I’ve grown weary in pronouncing it again and again: we are a forgetful people.
It makes you want to shout: “Read books of consequence, Marcos-loving millennials! Read up about the Martial Law, and don’t get your ‘facts’ from dubious memes and even more dubious websites and YouTube videos! Don’t just suck on your cafe latte from Starbucks or just watch the anime you wanna cosplay, and think you’re all that and you know everything!”
I had two conversations with millennials over Facebook recently—one very frustrating and the other very enlightening. Let’s call the first one “Richard.” Richard, a college student, dropped in on one post I made, where I had written a diatribe against BBM in my pained excitement for Leni Robredo to win the Vice Presidency. At that time, BBM was in the lead, and I wrote: “We have betrayed our history.”
He commented: “Have we? The fault of the father is not the fault of his son...” That started the ball rolling, which was later on joined in by three other people.
“Chard,” I wrote back, thinking of easier ways to explain the moral complexity of what he is claiming. “Let’s say a man murdered your entire family and stole your bike, and gave it to his son. And the man was caught and was found guilty. His son keeps saying, ‘My pappy didn’t do it!’ and keeps riding your bike. How would you feel?” Then I added: “I would forgive Bongbong Marcos if there was atonement. There has been no atonement.”
He replied: “I would still have his father get imprisoned and take care of the child and hope for the child to grow up unlike his father...”
“He still has your bike though!”
He didn’t reply to that, so I continued: “But no, I don’t want to argue with you. It’s a moral dilemma, and I guess we just have different sense of what is right and what is wrong. I just hope that one day you could look at somebody who had suffered through Martial Law in the eye, and say to them, ‘Your suffering was shit.’”
He writes back: “Let’s just pray for a better future. Keep moving forward.”
Which is an echo of what BBM used to say: “Let’s move on.” Which is an invitation to forgetfulness. Which is an attempt to pull down the curtains on the atrocities the Marcoses have committed.
I had to fire some volleys. “Well, guess who wanted to convince Marcos Sr. to fire at the people at EDSA? General Ver and your blameless BBM—who was wearing military fatigue the day they left Malacañang like the Rambo he thought he was.”
He replies: “I concede in this conversation or argument...hahahaha. But hopefully the future of Philippines will be better in their administration.”
By then, the writer Sandra Nicole Roldan piped in: “Richard, go on, tell me that my family’s suffering during Martial Law means nothing. Tell me it’s okay that my dad was tortured and imprisoned. Tell me you’re okay that our country is in this hellhole because Apo Makoy stole 10 billion US dollars from us. Tell me it’s okay that your cute baby’s children will still be paying the foreign loans stolen by Marcos and inherited by Bongbong, Imee, Irene, and their children. Tell me you’re okay that we’re voting for a family of thieves who want to rewrite history. Come on, I dare you to tell me we should all just move forward.”
Richard replied: “Yes, your family suffered during Marcos’ Martial Law—and so did my family.” I don’t believe this at all. He continues: “But I did not blame it on Bongbong Marcos... Why should I? He was just a nobody that time and so was I... His father’s mistake was not his... But if you insist on such an argument, then argue to whoever [sic] wants to argue with you.”
Sandra replied: “He was no innocent. Hindi siya batang musmos. He was in his twenties. He was Vice Governor of Ilocos. He was made the head of Philcomsat. He drew a salary in the hundred thousands without reporting for work even once. We are not talking about history. Right now he represents the Marcos estate in court cases in the US, Switzerland, and Singapore where they refuse to turn over the money they stole from us. He inherited the stolen billions. They’re using our money to rewrite history. Stop being so ignorant please. Go read a real history book, don’t just get your ideas from Facebook and blogs. Read the many investigations about Bongbong’s role in legit news sources like The Guardian UK and the New York Times.”
My friend, Maru Rodriguez, butted in: “Sandra, [I’m] so sorry for what your family went through. And I’m so sorry that my generation has failed at educating this generation of voters. I was among those who went from classroom to classroom in UP Diliman to shout ‘Sumama na kayo!’ as we went out to the streets to oppose the dictatorship. And now… Now we are the new opposition.”
Richard finally ended the thread with this disclaimer: “I do apologize if I offended anybody...”
It was frustrating. But it was also illustrative of the blinders of people who do not know anything but are so convinced about the rightness of their chilling convictions. If only I heeded Proverbs 26:4: “Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are.”
Later, I chatted with another millennial, this one also college student we will call “Daniel,” who wrote me out of the blue: “Sir, I’ve been following your posts closely since campaign period, [and] I just have to say I wish I took one of your classes.”
I typed a smiley. “Because I rant a lot?”
“You make sense,” Daniel replied. “Kids are naïve, we disregard what we had never experienced. Personalities tend to attract us more, [and] the more blood there is, the better.”
“Thanks. But it’s a battle.”
Then Daniel asked: “Have you ever asked yourself though why there is a disconnect?”
It was a smart question. It made me pause. It made me dig deep into what I know for sure, and then I tentatively replied, starting with my own experience as a teacher: “We never really taught about Martial Law, and it’s largely absent from our popular culture.”
Which is true. If the young are best captured by the popular narratives they are surrounded by, where are the movies, the television shows, the stories about Martial Law? In truth, there is a wealth of literature on Martial Law out there—novels like Killing Time in a Warm Place by Butch Dalisay, and The Jupiter Effect by Katrina Tuvera, Dekada ‘70 by Lualhati Bautista, and Eating Fire and Drinking Water by Arlene J. Chai, or even children’s books like Si Jhun-Jhun, Noong Bago Ideklara ang Batas Militar by Augie Rivera—but I doubt these books are being read widely. Or even taught in most Philippine literature classes. And on television? There was one powerful documentary titled Batas Militar, which has since become an obscure title, a rarity, largely unseen.
And the movies? Almost nothing—but say what you will about the many inanities Star Cinema has produced, but at least it has made two movies about the Martial Law, all directed by Chito Roño, who adapted Lualhati Bautista’s novel as a vehicle for Vilma Santos and Piolo Pascual, and turned the escape from Martial Law prison by Serge Osmeña and Eugenio Lopez into a political thriller in Eskapo. True, the film probably served corporate interests—but one cannot take away the fact that it was a commercial film that dared venture into a storyline no local film producer would ever dare to produce.
But I sought other answers to give Daniel.
“Perhaps it is also a backlash against the Aquinos,” I said.
Which is true. One of the mistakes the Aquinos have made—and has turned the tides against them of late—is to remake the EDSA story as a revolution circling around one family. That denied what was in fact true: it was the story of millions of Filipino families, thousands of them descending on EDSA on those fateful days in February 1986, and gave us the term “people power.” But in the further deepening of the color yellow over the years, the narrative of the collective has been gradually erased, to be replaced by an Aquino-centric narrative. And Kris, with all her insipid noise and unbelievable self-absorption, does not help exactly with preserving the dignity of the Aquino name.
I continued: “And the Marcoses are smart: if you deny something a lot of times, the denial somehow always becomes the truth. Plus there’s our forgiving culture: the Marcoses were convicted in foreign courts for corruption and for plundering the nation, but the slowness and the compromises of our flawed justice system guaranteed they would never be convicted here. I think the young see that, and they tell themselves: ‘See? They got away with it. Hence they must be innocent.’”
And then I ended it with this: “Plus there are the recent unfortunate affirmations made by Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Rodrigo Duterte regarding the Marcos name. These two carry an influence bigger than anything now, especially on the impressionable young. And if they say the Marcoses are innocent—it must be true.”
Daniel replied: “To tell you honestly, Marcos to me seemed so inviting.”
“I know,” I replied. “But that’s also psychologically understandable. The psychologist Erich Fromm has written about that allure, that invitation. Fromm once theorized that the removal of a dictatorship actually is soon followed by a nostalgia for it. The saddest truth, according to him, is that people like dictatorship. People don’t actually like freedom—because freedom is scary.”
“Like when Soviet Russia wanted a Putin again after the economic failure of Gorbachev’s Peteroiska?” Daniel asked. “I see a lot of mirrors happening now, but I excuse it as, well, they were socialists.”
“Unfortunately, yes. It’s happening elsewhere—many young Germans now pining for their country’s Nazi past. Or conservative Americans currently idolizing Donald Trump.”
Daniel replied: “I’ll have you know I supported Duterte, sir. I’ve been exhausted with this capitalist democracy, so I’m looking for someone who’s out to reform. Well, like Gorbachev’s fall of Soviet Russia. But then history repeats itself. Always will…”
“It’s fine. I didn’t support Duterte but I understand the fascination for him. Still, I’m going to give him the benefit of a doubt because at least he’s honest about his iron-clad ‘rule.’ Marcos, on the other hand, insist on his denials.”
“Well, after six years, will you still forgive this generation?”
“It’s not my place to forgive. But it’s your future,” I said. “You’re the ones who are going to live the consequences of your decisions. I hope it will be a good future. If it isn’t, well, all I can say is, I tried to fight it. My conscience may be troubled, but at least it’s clear. And if I’m proven wrong, congrats to everyone!”
Daniel replied: “How I wish you are wrong. That my doubts will be reversed. That I chose selflessly.”
“Me, too,” I said—and then I pushed the envelope: “But if I am right, will you promise to fight?”
“Until then,” Daniel finally said, “I promise I won’t be a defender. Call out the hypocrisy but that’s my only truth. Thank you for the talk sir, didn’t know you were approachable. See you in school.”
Later, I was quickly reminded by two former students—Jonathan Andro Tan and Jean Utzurrum—that according to analysts on CNN, the majority of BBM’s votes were surprisingly not from Millennials. “A lot of old[er] people here in Metro Manila are in favor of BBM. I see it as a protest vote against the ‘yellow’ administration,” Jonathan said.
I replied: “I know but—pardon the metaphor—these are old dogs, and you can’t do anything with old dogs. The Marcos-loving Millennials, meanwhile, are the most vocal ones—and it is their soul we are actually fighting for.”
Another friend, Stefan Garcia, quickly reminded me that much of this clamor among an older generation could actually be traced to a cultural phenomenon called “declinism.”
Journalist Jemima Lewis once wrote about this phenomenon: “If you’ve been feeling anxious about the times we live in, I bring glad tidings,” she wrote in the UK’s The Telegraph. “Turns out … civilization isn’t doomed after all. It’s just a trick of the mind. According to a survey conducted for The Human Zoo, Radio 4’s psychology program, 70%of the British population suffers from the belief that ‘things are worse than they used to be.’ This despite that fact that we are, overall, richer, healthier and longer-living than ever before. This irrational conviction is … caused, according to the experts, by the fact that our strongest memories are laid down between the ages of 15 and 25. The vibrancy of youth, and the thrill of experiencing things for the first time, creates a ‘memory bump’ compared with which later life does seem a bit drab.”
It perfectly fits the profile for the contemporary Filipino: the present—yellow-tinged as it is—is drab; the Marcos years—the ostentation of which were designed to cover up its evils—were better. BBM is nostalgia. And like how Jonathan perfectly summed it up, a vote for BBM is a protest vote against the ‘yellow’ status quo.
I cannot make myself care for the delusions of older people, however. For me, given the fact that they actually had a taste of the Marcos years, they are complicit of the evil. They are traitors to history and common decency.
At least, the nostalgia for Martial Law by millennials, even if misplaced, is mitigated by the fact that it is an impression of the past made almost entirely of ignorance. I am reminded of that viral video that came out days before May 9, where a bunch of millennials were interviewed about what they thought of Martial Law. All of them were unsurprisingly in favor of it, and had only the nicest words to say about the Marcoses. Their interviewers soon revealed themselves to be actual victims of Martial Law—all wrinkled now, and wizened—and as they retold, in graphic detail, their personal stories of the torture and abuse they endured, you could see the faces of the millennials before them slowly breaking down, all of them on the verge of tears. In the end, they apologized for their naivete and their ignorance. It made me ask: do you have to actually face a Martial Law victim pa to be convinced of their story?
I guess it does.
It did for another former student of mine, Kathleen Wiseman, who wrote to tell me: “When I was a naïve high school girl, I made the same assumption [about the Marcoses]. I said out loud to my parents that it was a better time during the Marcos era, and I enumerated all the accomplishments of Marcos. My mother promptly said that I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what I was talking about. And then she kinda schooled me then. I was singing a different tune after that conversation. She was in college when the Martial Law happened.”
I guess we have to be like Kathleen’s mother now. There is a prevailing call now by many Martial Law Babies like me to begin a reeducation. Perhaps we made a mistake by not talking about it earnestly for three decades now. It’s time to change the conversation. This is where a reckoning of dark past will begin.
There's nothing slight to Elbert Or's comic diptych The Amazing True-ish Story of Andres Celestial / The Life & Death of Amorsolo Esperanza, Faith Healer of Talinghaga -- a slim double volume that bills itself as a compendium of two short tall tales, out from Anino Comics. I have always loved the work of Mr. Or, who pens an online comic titled Homeycomb. There is a certain lightness to his work that belies the whimsy and the wisdom that makes up the look and the themes of his work. This book is no exception. In his blurb to the book, fellow comics writer Robert Magnuson claims that "Elbert Or strikes a chord" and that "within these few deceptively simple pages, he lays down the complex roadwork that leads a boy into making that necessary and fulfilling turn into manhood." In the Amorsolo Esperanza section, Or gives us the story of a faith healer from a town called Talinghaga (which is Tagalog for "metaphor"), and makes cunning use of folk tradition (the traditional hilot) and stark historical narrative (the ravages of World War II and their aftermath) to flesh out a story of being true to oneself, and following one's dream. It is a minor epic of that thematic arc, spanning the years to make us feel the triumphs and doubts of the title character who comes to great influence concerning his gift, and to great regret concerning his dreams. Dreams, and the fulfilment or misfulfilment of it, seems to be Mr. Or's central concern, as we see it fully fleshed out in the Andres Celestial section. Here, a young boy dreams of a better future where he becomes a science and mathematics genius who would be instrumental in the invention of giant robots ... But life and love happen. What becomes of your dream then? Mr. Or asks. This book has a tender answer to this dilemma. Get this book.
As I write this, it is the twilight of March 6, Friday, and the heat is on—and everyone’s scrambling for last minute surprises and mudslinging and appeals for rationality and what-not. Welcome to the tail-end of Halalan 2016. Facebook, in particular, has become a bloody battlefield. In many movie theaters elsewhere, the screens are showing Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War—but the cinematic skirmish the movie offers in the name of the titular battle is child’s play compared to the virtual bloodletting in the Philippines this electoral season.
The viciousness of the elections has moved even Teddyboy Locsin to remark in his column for ABS-CBN Online: “There’s never been a democratic contest like this one—for sheer viciousness; for brutality; for mano a mano fighting of one against one, all against one, and one against all. Everyday opened a new field of fire.” And this is a man who has seen almost everything. I don’t always agree with Mr. Locsin, especially when he takes on that mask of Troll of the First Order, but his assessment here is spot on.
So what else is there to write about?
Haven’t we exhausted every possible venue for debate, every possible chance to hurl a cherished ad hominem attack?
For me, the final recourse is to just wait out the hours until Monday comes, then do my bit for this right of suffrage entrusted to me, and later bring out the popcorn as the final battle begins in the post-election fever. There’s not much to do anymore. And I am hoarse from shouting, and tired from convincing people about the rightness or wrongness of their political convictions. As I’ve written before, the heart wants what it wants. You will vote for whomever you want to vote for.
Given the resounding lead he enjoys in surveys, and the almost messianic regard of him by many, many people I know, I am almost sure—barring massive electoral fraud—that Rodrigo Duterte, son of Davao and foul-mouthed political Dirty Harry, will almost certainly be the 16th President of the Republic of the Philippines.
I am not voting for him as I disagree vehemently with everything he stands for, but it won’t be a shock for me if he becomes Commander-in-Chief. I am actually quite prepared to accept that inevitability. To quote my friend the writer Gerry Los Banos: “I am less worried about the prospect of a Duterte presidency than I am about the possiblility that Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. might very well be a literal heartbeat away from reoccupying Malacanang.” I totally agree. And my vote for the Vice Presidency—needless to say—goes to Leni Robredo.
Duterte promises change. That change is coming. And this has become a mantra for many people who have been the most vocal in their support of him. So be it.
But I recall this anecdote posted by the writer Evan Tan in his Facebook: “I was in an Uber ride earlier. The driver was a Duterte supporter—a fact which he didn’t exactly hide, what with pro-Duterte stickers plastered brazenly on his windows and hood. I didn’t want to get into a political conversation at 8 in the morning, and more importantly I believed in freedom of speech, so I let it be. Midway during the ride, he eventually asked: ‘Sino’ng iboboto n’yo?’ I felt he wanted an opportunity to talk about the merits of his candidate, so I threw the question back at him. He said that he was tired of criminality and that Duterte was the answer to our woes. He cited that oft-repeated statement that Davao was one of the safest cities in the world (taken from a Numbeo survey, with around 400 respondents, if you must know), and insisted that the ranking was enough proof of Duterte’s record. He was adamant about his belief. I smiled, because I thought it wasn’t wise to get into a fight with a stranger on the wheel.
“Finally, the trip came to an end. Since my mode of payment was set to cash by default, I handed him a thousand.
“Sheepishly, he said that he didn’t have smaller bills.
“By then, it was already apparent that change isn’t coming.”
I like that punch line for the wit of its implications, literally and metaphorically speaking. And it reminds me that this should be our call in the aftermath of a Duterte presidency—to make sure that change, indeed, is coming. Because so many people can be such hypocrites about it.
And to remind Duterte supporters, most of all, that this is what they have been clamoring, so they better make sure the change has started with them.
Bantay baya na.
I’ll enumerate a brief list of things that are currently embodiments of approved ordinances in Dumaguete, or just things that are measures of civic order, and let’s see what can be done.
So by June 1, if you smoke anywhere near me in Dumaguete, and this is a non-smoking city, we will Duterte you.
If you are a tricycle driver and you do not give me the exact change, we will Duterte you. And if you refuse my fare, we will Duterte you.
If you throw your trash around without regard for public spaces, we will Duterte you.
If you jaywalk, we will Duterte you. If you do not fall in line, we will Duterte you.
If you use plastic bags, we will Duterte you.
If you burn your leaves and other wastes in your regular afternoon bonfire in your yard, we will Duterte you.
If you do fireworks during Christmas and New Year, we will Duterte you.
If you discriminate against women, children, and the LGBT, we will Duterte you.
If you drive more than 30 km/hour, we will Duterte you. If you do not park properly, we will Duterte you.
Because people almost always break the rules they expect other people to obey. Be the very change you’ve been saying you want in your Duterte delirium. Or somebody will Duterte you.
This video below [made by the Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses] is powerful stuff. Do you have to face a Martial Law victim pa to be convinced of their story? This is why for those I know who are voting for Bongbong Marcos (and thank God, there's not a lot of them), I have not unfriended you in my social media. But in real life, you're not my friend anymore. You are a traitor to history and common decency.*
* I have found belated joy in just pouring out my id -- unribald, ad hominem derision -- on Marcos-loving traitors. No more well-reasoned discourse, because that has never been their language anyway. To quote Game of Thrones: "Shaaaaaame. Shaaaaame. SHAAAAAAME!"
The landmarks of my youth are slowly disappearing, and it's a little jarring. In the early days of the Internet, blogs and ezines were the thing, and slowly I gravitated towards specific sites that catered to my interests. One was Rufus Griscom and Genevieve Field's Nerve, founded in 1997, which purported to be a purveyor of literary smut, and by God it delivered with its salacious array of high-brow sex stuff, including erotic fiction by established authors and nude art and photography by up-and-coming artists. The other was Jessa Crispin's Bookslut, founded in 2002, a blog that was a daily and ever-changing compendium of everything bookish and literary. The former has become a shell of its former self, and the latter is now being retired. "The only reason why Bookslut was interesting was because it didn’t make money, and when I realized the sacrifices I was going to have to make in order for it to make money, it wasn’t worth it," Crispin admits.
1:09 AM |
A Meditation on Small Towns, Technology, and Memory Among the Rye
I just read this amusing and thoughtful account of a man trying to find out whether technology has changed his isolated North Dakota hometown. (Also, Catcher in the Rye.) I love particularly how it begins by sizing up the very smallness of the town. Rex Sorgatz writes:
"... [H]ere, on the great plains of Dakota, where I lived until the day I turned 18, stands a halfling of a town called Napoleon, a name so imperial that it can only be interpreted as a sarcastic joke to anyone who visits its restful streets. Descriptions of Napoleon resemble a listless thesaurus recitation of the word remote, so I often resort to numbers to illustrate its lilliputian properties: zero stop lights, two bars, three gas stations, and four churches. The downtown of Napoleon stretches one block — one hardware store, one restaurant, one three-lane grocery store, one drugstore, and one bank."