Thursday, April 28, 2022
1:14 AM |
The way the mangoes fall down on the galvanised iron roof of the shed next door, you'd think there are unholy skirmishes at play. A fight perhaps, or a neighbour throwing stones, or hail falling in hail-free country. I conjecture only violence from the sounds I hear. When it rains, as it does now, the thud each impact makes is thunder; when the wind blows, a thunderstorm — it disturbs what repose I fashion of the comforts of my bedroom. (How many fruits does that tree hold?) I tell myself, it’s just fruit. It’s just mango flesh slamming against metal sheets. There is no comfort in this fact, however: in my mind, I see that flesh torn and bruised, helpless against wind or rain, the sound of their fall their last call that catches my attention before they surrender to the cruel ground below.
 This is Where You Bite the Sandwich
Wednesday, April 27, 2022
The haircut was long in coming. We tried to catch our regular barber over at the Food District along E.J. Blanco but we didn’t expect the past few weeks to be so busy we found making time impossible. [We went to our book launch with hair that needed trimming, to our personal consternation.] And then the barbershop closed down without notice, our barber virtually disappeared.
I panicked a little: hair is a personal business that requires familiarity and easily induces anxiety when that familiarity is disturbed. My mother, a former beautician, exclusively cut my hair until I was a junior in high school. Every time she did, she would tell me that my hair was particularly difficult to manage. “Daghan ka’g alimpolos! You have too many strange whorls! It will take someone patient enough to do your hair right,” she said, again and again. That someone was always her — and so, come senior year in high school, when I had to graduate from her haircare to a barber who would give me the required crewcut for CAT class, I did so with much trepidation.
I found Manong Max at the old Tavern Barberia. He was this quiet, gentle soul who looked like a librarian, a strange duck in the company of other barbers who were macho in their ways and loquacious in their talks about local politics. [I swear they all had solutions to the world’s problems. When Erap was about to be ousted from the Presidency, I remember one of them asking earnestly: “Asa sya mo-hatag og resignation letter? Sa Presidente sa United States?” Ah, the good old days.] Luckily, Manong Max was someone patient enough to do my hair right — and I stuck with him through the years until he unexpectedly died from cancer.
I was back in my limbo, and I hopped from one barber to the next, never satisfied with what they gave me. There was a brief time in my late 20s and early 30s, when I was at my prime, and I frequented beauty parlors for a more stylish cut. But then soon it was back to barbers, and more disappointments.
And then, upon the recommendation of a friend, there was Manong Denmar, who knew my hair well and gave the best after-cut back and head massages. I followed him from his old post somewhere along Silliman Avenue to his new one along E.J. Blanco, which promptly closed for a few months because of the pandemic.
When barbershops were allowed to open again, I was back in his chair, my hair quite long and my mental health in shambles, and I came with one request: I wanted to have all my hair cut off. Totally shaved.
[What is it about trying times that make you do crazy things to your hair? It was also an effort to stem the copious hairfall I was suffering from because of the stress and the depression.]
But I dithered — and he gave me an extreme crewcut instead. He was really good, and I was loyal — but now he was also gone.
There was a note in the premises that informed us of a relocation and a phone number to call. But we went over and the venue does not seem to exist. And from what we've been told in the few text messages we’ve received from the advertised number, Manong Denmar was keeping strange hours in the new place because he has another [new] job at a local hospital and now only does haircutting on the side. [Times are hard.] And now the number does not even bother replying anymore to queries about reservations or appointments or more specific directions.
It was time to find another barber. [Sad.]
For now it's Manong Rodney over at this new place also along E.J. Blanco, Black and Copper Co., a barbershop that doubles as a cafe and gives free Americano or espresso for every cut you get. It certainly is an enticement. Will Rodney be the embodiment of my hairdresser mother’s wish for hair patience? Let’s see how this goes.
 This is Where You Bite the Sandwich
Tuesday, April 26, 2022
5:50 PM |
Asking for Help
Really considered stopping the whole business of creative writing at the tail end of last year. Not because I stopped believing in myself, but more so because I felt my mental condition would just spoil whatever increment of success I might make in my efforts. [Plus, I could not write after I went off meds. It was difficult just even considering a paragraph. Or a Facebook post. You must have noticed I wasn’t on Facebook for months!] I was my own worst enemy and saboteur — still am, actually. But right now I’m trying to fight again, and right now I’ve at least learned to ask for help. Part of what made The Great Little Hunter the success that it is was me surrendering the nitty-gritty of its publication process to my S.O. because I knew I could not handle whatever it took to make it a reality. I owe him so much.
Labels: life, mental health, writing
 This is Where You Bite the Sandwich
Friday, April 22, 2022
Currently doing research and preparing for my next video essay. Yes, I'm about to go back and do this again. Something happened a while back that made me stop: a small [but totally valid] backlash that hurt me for the way it was handled. I was also going through bad withdrawal from my ADHD meds at that time, and I didn't need another source of anxiety on top of that. So I stopped. For mental health's sake. But I realize now I had to expect feedback like that if I want to do this consistently. I'm passionate about this, and passionate about sharing. There should be no killing passion. In my recent book, I write about a kid who makes friends with his monsters [his fears embodied]. I should learn how to do that, too. So let's begin. Again.
 This is Where You Bite the Sandwich
4:58 PM |
Confessions of a Political Rally Virgin
I have never been to a political rally in my entire life. Going to one—braving the stifling crowd, bearing the heat and the exhaustion, enduring the often bloated and meandering speeches of politicians—just feels like the most extreme form of rendering political support, even if you do believe in voting for that politician in the coming elections. It has never been a line I was willing to cross, although I am very much a political animal and I believe in the importance of political expression.
But go to a rally? Not a chance.
It is already enough that at the height of election season we have to navigate city streets where the faces of politicians running for public office leer at you from every street corner and from every tree that has been made to suffer the indignity of having to be papered over by an assortment of posters and tarpaulins. It’s already quite disconcerting to see them smiling at you with their blown-up Photoshopped faces, their “friendliness” almost mercenary. But to go to a rally where these “friendly posters” become fully bodied? Not a chance.
And yet there was something different in the air in the days going towards April 20th in Dumaguete. You could say that it was part conviction, part trepidation, part desperation, part anger, and part hope that were stirring the atmosphere. For months, all these feelings could only truly show expression via social media posts, often resulting to rabid sparring with others who are, in the words of comedian Ogie Diaz, “from the other parlor.” And while we acknowledge that social media has indeed impacted how politics are managed in this day and age, for better or for worse, I think people have been craving for a “physicality” of that political expression, even if they have never done it before.
The rallies in other places—Cebu, Pampanga, Davao, Bataan, Bohol, to mention only a few—were already providing us a template with which to sate this need for a physical demonstration of a political stirring. But beyond that need, and beyond being awed by the thousands who flocked to these rallies before Dumaguete happened, I think there was also a conviction that this election was “different.” It almost felt as if the Election of 2022 was a referendum on the very core and spirit of the nation. So much was at stake. Given the chance to publicly voice out one’s political convictions, you had to be present, for all that it was worth.
I think of my friend Marita Ong, proprietor of O.K. Mart, who also confessed to me that she had also never been to a political rally before. “But this time feels different,” she said. She had to come.
So she came to RUSI Ballfield on the 20th, and also 40,000+ others—not counting the 15,000 crowd that gathered at the Rizal Boulevard in a separate rally that was also a miting de avance of the city administration slate early that evening.
We went, not because of artistas. As a political rally virgin I didn’t even know there were performers involved. But a friend from theatre, Hope Tinambacan, who sang during the rally and was part of the Sidlak group of performers, commented: “Para syang cultural show, not a political rally!”
We went not because we were bayaran. Most of us spent our own money to get this thing going, to participate in the spirit of this being a “people’s movement.”
We went because we felt the need to be counted—and we needed to meet this reckoning with history full-on. In the years to come, when I will be asked: “What did you do in 2022 when the country called on you to do the right thing?,” I want to be able to say that I contributed my voice to the movement that signaled best our love for country.
I came with friends and family, knowing that this was a red [or pink!]-letter day for all of us. We prepared by printing our own shirts, with design from a pair of Cebu graphic artists [Phawip and Dawie of The Con Artists] who willingly donated it to anyone who wanted it. We prepared by plotting out, days beforehand, what food and drinks we needed to have, and what chairs we needed to bring. [We ended up deciding on an easy-to-carry platform—which served us perfectly as a common chair, as holding area for our bags, and as riser to bring us to workable heights with which to see over the heads of the gathered throng. It even accommodated the occasional stranger who needed rest from the grueling day.] We prepared because we had no idea what to expect. All of us were political rally virgins.
Our friends Anna Espino and Carlo Regalado prepared by also doing their own shirts, and crafting out their own placards and banners. I loved Carlo’s take: “Mga Mang-aagaw ng Kanta sa Videoke for Leni!” I knew many others were preparing the same thing. [Two of my favorites: “Swifties for Leni!” and “Mga Palahubog for Leni!”]
Many volunteers, led by leaders such as lawyer Golda Benjamin, prepared by fine-tuning and executing many of the essentials of very difficult logistics. Others volunteered to give performance. [One of my favorites was seeing Dumaguete medical frontliners perform "Handog ng Pilipino sa Mundo." That made me tear up.] Others prepared by readying food [cupcakes! candies! biscuits and cookies!] and bottled water and fans and pink roses made from art paper—all given out for free in the duration of ten long hours as people milled about the rally venue. One of my best friends, the dentist Xandro Dael who previously voted for Duterte in 2016, loved the fiesta atmosphere of it all: “I love the keychains, pins, pencils, and food! Daghan kaayo!” he said. “Doughnuts, siopao, cookies, silvanas, ice cream—all in pink!”
We did not expect that kind of festivity at all. [Is this common in political rallies?] I overheard someone say, “Mura’g Hibalag, Buglasan, og Pride Parade combined.” True enough, there were many members of the LGBTQ community around—some in fabulous pink drag. [One appropriated the horns of Maleficent, all done in pink, and sashayed all over RUSI Ballfield, to gleeful applause.] There were also, delightfully, cheerleaders doing their routine—even in the blasting heat of the afternoon sun.
We were there since 1 PM, sheltered for a bit in neighboring restaurants to wait out the sun, came back to the grounds at 4 PM, and stood in our designated spot until 11 PM. That’s seven hours of standing up along with the rest of those thousands inside RUSI Ballfield; no one in their right mind would do that without the clearest conviction that they were doing the right thing.
And when the rally finally started around sunset with a couple of well-known comedians, the crowd only got bigger, the collective energy growing brighter by the minute. When I looked around, I was astonished that I could see people all the way to the margins of the ballfield. I was even astonished by the demographics on full display: this was a very, very young crowd—all of them incredibly impassioned. One young guy behind us, someone clad in white-washed jeans, a white shirt, and an opened polo shirt in various baby pastel hues, and who was there with his barkada, was a bundle of energy that was infectious. He was fun and demonstrative in his participative shouts, which only egged on the rest of us who were near him.
It wasn’t all flawless, needless to say. A former action star and athlete running for senator had to do an embarrassing kissing bit with a female rallyer. [In 2022? In the wake of the #MeToo movement worldwide?] And one incumbent senator with an embarrassing campaign tagline dragged on forever with what was supposed to be a short stump speech, meandering about railroads and the various possible acronyms for W.O.W., and peppered his “I love you’s” with strange insults hurled at the audience—at one time telling all of us, “Ang laki-laki ng mga ulo nyo.” He went on forever and did not make sense, and he said his goodbye a thousand times—and soon the energy that built up all throughout the evening noticeably went down. [Even the energetic young man behind us was now sitting down on the grass, noticeably grown quiet.] It was such a downer, not even the great Kuh Ledesma who immediately followed him could reignite the energy that was previously there. It took Gab Valenciano’s performance prowess to bring up the energy again—and thank God, because that was the crucial moment going into the very heart of the rally. Kiko came on with a heartfelt call for action, and then there was, finally, Leni.
The crowd went wild.
From Cong. Josy Limkaichong’s introduction to the presidential candidate, I remember the awe in her voice when she beheld the crowd from the stage: “In my whole 20-year political career, I have never seen this many people in a political rally in Negros Oriental.” [True! Oriental Negrenses are famously reticent in political demonstrations.] Later on, in a private chat, she would admit that she was overwhelmed with the huge crowd and with the unexpected turnout—and for once she was not sure how the diverse crowd [composed mostly of young people] would react to her message: “To be candid with you, it was my first time to address a crowd of that magnitude, and I wasn’t sure if my message would come across the Millennials and Generation Z.”
From what I witnessed, it clearly went over very well—and so did Leni’s call for better governance in a time when it is most needed. As my friend, the writer Tara De Leon, later on commented (borrowing from the title of a famous movie): “The kids are all right.”
Two days later, I was back in my old haunt where I work best: a hotel café along the Rizal Boulevard. One of the waiters there [name withheld to protect his privacy] told me: “Sir Ian, I was there, too—right after I got out of my shift at the hotel. And I’ve been trying to convince my friends and family here and in Siquijor to vote for Leni, even though some of them are voting for [he who must not be named].” And this waiter proceeded to tell me about the research that he did, all the articles he read, to arrive at the conclusion he has: he has to vote pink. Clearly an informed choice—and I was happy for that!
Politics is essential and should not be reduced to a flippant vote come election time. Politics is the distillation of everything one believes and holds dear—a cumulative core of everything, from sociology to history, from science to culture, from morality to legality. It is not nothing. Who you vote for is the sum of who you are as an individual and as a person of the world.
In the light of those 40,000 and counting, I am gratified to know there is still some light and decency left in this world. I am throwing off my old cudgels of despair: I love finally knowing that I am not alone in the fight against the darkness that threatens to further engulf us.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, and its color is pink.
[PHOTOS BY MELISA MAGHANOY AND ROBBIN DAGLE OF RAPPLER]
Labels: dumaguete, elections, philippine history, politics
 This is Where You Bite the Sandwich
Thursday, April 21, 2022
A sigh of relief and gratefulness. The art talks went over really well! Lovely interaction with a great audience — although admittedly I was at pains preparing a talk after the gruelling day we had yesterday. This was also the first time I’ve done a face-to-face lecture since the pandemic started, so that took getting used to. And that concludes our final event for The Great Little Hunter exhibit, which concludes on April 24, Sunday. Thanks to all who supported us in this journey!
Labels: children's books, dumaguete, lecture, philippine literature
 This is Where You Bite the Sandwich
Saturday, April 16, 2022
1:32 PM |
From Peg to Illustration
I began writing The Great Little Hunter in the summer of 2018 with the hopes of entering it into an international picture book competition. I knew I wanted to write about a boy confronting his fears, and I also knew I needed the story to be steeped in local culture. And then the idea of a child “mangangayam” [or hunter] came about. After a few days trying to bring the story down to less than 500 words, I thought of only one person who could bring my vision of this story to life: Hersley-Ven Casero. But before even meeting him, I needed to prepare the visuals for each spread of the potential book, so that my story and his potential illustrations would perfectly sync into the structure of a book. These are the pegs I prepared, culled from various art I collected online. [I didn't have the energy or the time to properly draw.] Hersley was quickly on board. Two months later, Hersley showed me his work — and I was astonished at how much he was able to flesh out the world of Ngayam, making the story also his own: it was his idea to make each canvas/spread bleed into each other like in a continuous scroll, making all sixteen spreads part of one very long work, with the last spread bleeding into the first one. And every canvas hides all sorts of flora and fauna Hersley studied while making the work. Part of the fun is identifying these!
The first spread...
The second spread...
The third spread...
The fourth spread...
The fifth spread...
The sixth spread...
The seventh spread...
The eighth spread...
The ninth spread...
The tenth spread...
The eleventh spread...
The twelfth spread...
The thirteenth spread...
The fourteenth spread...
The fifteenth spread...
The last spread, which bleeds into the first page, which is not part of a spread...
Labels: art, children's books, dumaguete, life, myths, philippine culture, philippine literature, writing
 This is Where You Bite the Sandwich
Tuesday, April 12, 2022
11:21 AM |
Sold Out Within 27 hours!
I did not expect this at all. Should we do another printing run?
— is the question.
Read the feature on the book on Philippine Daily Inquirer here
Labels: books, children's books, dumaguete, life, philippine literature
 This is Where You Bite the Sandwich
Saturday, April 09, 2022
12:05 AM |
Inventing the Fighter of Monsters
By the time you are reading this in the weekend paper—probably on a Palm Sunday afternoon at the tail end of the second year of the pandemic—I would most likely be at Dakong Balay Gallery along Rizal Avenue tending to social anxiety brought about by a book.
It is not just any book.
I’ve authored this one, the fourteenth title in my so-so career as a literary artist, but it is my first children’s book that’s actually being published in a major way.
It’s titled The Great Little Hunter
, published in a deluxe edition by Pinspired Philippines—hardbound with gorgeous illustrations—purposefully on a limited printing run: a combination of a children’s book and an art book. And I’m proud of it. The way one becomes proud of something finally made tangible after dreaming about it for so long. It took almost four years for this book to come to being, and when I think of all that time passing, I marvel at the intricate ways with which things come into being. They don’t always coalesce, despite the best of efforts, so when they do, you marvel.
I’ve written other children’s stories before. In 2006, my children’s book Rosario’s Stories
was an honorable mention finalist at the PBBY-Salanga Writer’s Prize—the country’s top award for children’s literature—in a year when no one copped the actual prize. The great artist Jomike Tejido actually had illustrations ready-made for that book, but I didn’t submit it anywhere for publication. Not then. I told myself I was not ready.
In 2007, another children’s story, The Last Days of Magic
, won a prize at the Palanca Awards—and this story would have tremendous legs, quickly becoming a staple in grade school textbooks in Philippine schools, and would actually be translated to Vietnamese by the wonderful writer Nguyen Phan Que Mai in 2017. She would later include it in her 2018 anthology Bay Lên (Taking Flight)
, together with stories by Junot Diaz, Margaret Atwood, Bina Shah, and others. This story never came out as a standalone children’s book, however—although I included it in my collection Heartbreak and Magic
, which came out in 2012. It is probably my most popular children’s story.
In 2018, I tried shopping around a personal anthology of unpublished children’s stories to one or two of the major children’s book publishers in the country. I was told by one publisher they were not taking in such a format, especially for a manuscript written in English. Apparently the market leaned heavily towards those written in Tagalog—but then, a month or so later, that same publisher put out exactly the same kind of book, written in English, by another writer. What does one do? I shrugged and took that as pure publishing disinterest. You win some, you lose some. Such is a writer’s life.
So I privately published that personal anthology myself, which I titled The Boy, The Girl, The Rabbit, The Rat, and the Last Magic Days
, in a very limited run—which quickly sold out. I never got around to doing a second printing run. It exhausted me.
It’s not easy to write for children [not even teenagers], but there is something about the genre that appeals to me in a masochistic way. It has set parameters in terms of language and vocabulary, word count, and appeal—and demands a very different way of telling a story, mindful that the intended audience is composed of children, but also mindful that it is never a good idea to underestimate this audience’s comprehension and sophistication. I continue to write children’s stories as an intricate challenge of particular storytelling. I am not alone in this regard. Some of my favorite children’s authors—the great Maurice Sendak, for instance—have the same mindset.
It was around that time—the summer of 2018, to be exact—when I started writing a short children’s story meant to be a picture book. I was teaching a workshop in writing children’s stories, and I wanted a chance to get away from my students’ efforts and put out something of my own. I also wanted to join an international contest—but writing the story I wanted to tell felt paramount.
I wanted it to be about a boy confronting his fears, and becoming triumphant in the end. That is the hope, isn’t it? To prevail versus the darkness?
But I’ve never done a picture book story before, which has its own very specific demands—mostly word count, and almost haiku-like in narrative brevity. How does one tell a satisfying narrative arc in less than 500 words? I’m notoriously a wordy writer, but I’m also notoriously a masochist when it comes to literary challenges. I often like writing in a mode I am most uncomfortable with; it stretches my writing muscles.
I spent three consecutive days in a café, drinking my usual latte and crafting the tale of Ngayam. It became The Great Little Hunter
, a story of a boy whose fearful fantasies triggered by the moon conjure a dark jungle in his bedroom, and he soon encounters some of Philippine lower mythology’s dreadful monsters—a wak-wak, a sigbin, and a tikbalang. Shades of Sendak here, but transplanted in the texture of local culture, of personal struggles.
The story done, I knew I wanted an illustrator who best understood me and what went on in the recesses of my imagination. There was no other artist to tap except Hersley-Ven Casero.
Hersley and I go a long way back. I first knew of him sometime in the mid-2000s when MetroPost presented me with a Christmas gift: a pencil portrait of myself drawn by him. [But I thought “Hersley” was a girl’s name.] I loved the portrait, sought out the artist—who turned out to be a wunderkind based in Foundation University. He was prolific, churning out art and photography with the energy of a creative virtuoso. It was not long before I took up the challenge of curating an exhibit of his photography, together with that of John Stevenson’s, at the Silliman Library Gallery—in a 2008 show [Dumaguete Light and Dark
] that compared and contrasted various views of the city both in vibrant color [Hersley’s] and in somber black-and-white [John’s]. That exhibit cemented a long-term relationship of artistic collaborations—and I’m proud to say that I am perhaps the one art critic constant in my championing of his work over the years.
In 2011, for the release of my second major fiction collection, Heartbreak and Magic
, published by Anvil—I tapped Hersley to do the illustrations that heralded every story in the book. The works he submitted were astonishing, and so when it came to launching the book in Dumaguete, I broached the idea of doing both a book launch and an art exhibit, showcasing not just the illustrations Hersley made for the book but also gathering together all the art pieces and paintings he had made by then, which I curated. The resulting show, Uncommon Ordinary Magic
, would also mark a turning point in Hersley’s artistic career: it was to be his first solo exhibition as an artist.
In the summer of 2018, after I extended to him my invitation to come on board as the illustrator for The Great Little Hunter
, Hersley—who was already busy doing many commissioned work and preparing for various exhibitions—became possessed by the story, at least according to what he later told me. Ngayam possessed his imagination, and so, in a stretch of several consecutive days and nights [almost going sleepless], he set about putting the world of Ngayam’s fantasies on canvas.
The resulting seventeen paintings were [and are] exquisite. Each canvas, embued in rich shades of color, told separate segments of Ngayam’s story. But taking the inspiration [and form] of an unfolding tale, each canvas he made also became pieces of an interconnected visual narrative, each picture spilling into the next with almost magical continuity. The paintings taken together become like a scroll from beginning to the end, and even the last canvas connects in an organic way to the first, making an infinite loop of a magical story. I was enamored by what Hersley had done.
But everything remained in a standstill for two years after. Only in March 2021, right smack in the middle of the pandemic, did things start to move again. The principle reason for things being set in motion once more was the entry of Evgeniya Spiridonova—Jane to friends—into our lives. Having made Dumaguete home all the way from Russia, she—together with husband Max Vasiliev—have created a small but thriving empire devoted to all things imaginative and creative in Dumaguete. They have an escape room and a VR gaming salon with Outpost031, and they have a postcard, stationery, and art shop with Pinspired Philippines. Their first venture into local publishing was putting out a book of Hersley’s street photography titled All in Good Time
, which was wildly successful, inviting several print runs. Jane saw our manuscript, and signed on as publisher right then and there.
It was good to have someone captain this ship, especially in fraught times. I had to deal with my mental health in the ensuing months, and having Jane on top of things made me feel safe, as I found myself unable to deal with the nitty-gritties involved. I am extremely thankful to my partner Renz Torres for acting as my agent [and my working brain and sanity] throughout the entire process of publishing this book. And I am sure that Hersley is equally thankful to his wife, the filmmaker Toulla Mavromati. In that regard then, The Great Little Hunter
has been a labor of love, in all sense of that word.
What lesson can we—especially me—take from Ngayam’s tale? That it is okay to venture out into the despairing dark and confront what you fear. Your triumph however is in befriending those very monsters, acknowledging them as being part of who you are. I take this as my pandemic story, as my mental health struggle story, as my coming-of-age story.
I do hope you get a copy of this book. It should be available at the Pinspired shop at Dakong Balay along Rizal Avenue, or online at pinspired.ph. This story has been a gift to me and to Hersley, and I hope it will mean the same to everyone who will read it and marvel at the pictures.
The book and art launch of
The Great Little Hunter is slated on 10 April 2022, Sunday at 3 PM at the Dakong Balay Gallery, Rizal Avenue. The exhibit will run until April 24. The book, which comes with an assortment of freebies, is available at Pinspired.ph
Labels: art, art and culture, children's books, dumaguete, fiction, life, myths, painting, philippine literature
 This is Where You Bite the Sandwich
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