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

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Thursday, March 16, 2023

entry arrow7:00 AM | The Darkness We Don’t Talk About

In 2008, a sort of funny thing happened. It was the second year of the Man Asian Literary Prize, the now defunct literature award given to the best novel in the English language [or in translation] by an author in Asia—and four Filipino authors were longlisted for the award: yours truly, Lakambini Sitoy, Alfred Yuson, and Miguel Syjuco, with the latter ending up winning the prize [and the Palanca Award for the novel at that time].

It was an amazing harvest of Philippine literature, and being thrust personally in the middle of that was surreal. [It tickled me to see my name in print on the New York Times book section, for example.] Part of it was the allure of the prize being given by the same body that was sponsoring the Booker Prize, and thus the Man Asian Literary Prize was being seen in many quarters as the “Asian Booker.” Another part of the allure was also the fact that we were the sophomore follow-up to a stellar first crop: in 2007, the Chinese writer Jiang Rong won the inaugural prize with his novel Wolf Totel, with the short list consisting of Soledad's Sister by Jose Dalisay Jr. [another Filipino writer], Families at Home by India’s Reeti Gadekar, Smile As They Bow by Myanmar’s Nu Nu Yi, and Habit of a Foreign Sky by Hong Kong’s Xu Xi. [The longlist was even more formidable, and included Mo Yan, the future Nobel Prize winner for literature.]

But what struck me the most about the 2008 longlist was the fact that two Dumaguete writers made it in: there’s of course me, with the other one being Lakambini Sitoy. And ours were two novels whose premises are anchored on the dark soul of Dumaguete [and Negros Oriental as a whole].

My [still unpublished] novel is titled Sugar Land, and its drama springs from the infamous serial killings of young women by a landed Spanish mestizo that had rattled Dumaguete in the 1970s to the 1980s, ending in a tragic shoot-out near St. Paul’s in the early 1990s. Bing’s novel is Sweet Haven, where she renames Dumaguete as “Donostia” [and Silliman as “Sweet Haven University”], and follows the fall-out of a sex scandal, tailored after the infamous “Dumaguete sex scandal” in the mid-2000s, where several coeds were secretly filmed while engaging in sex, with the footage eventually leaked to pirates and jumpstarted the trend of amateur porn videos being titled after specific places [“Bacolod Sex Scandal,” etc.].

I joked then to Bing: “It’s funny how we are putting Dumaguete in a very negative light in our novels, with real life sex scandals and serial killers.”

But I know it was not easy for both of us to proceed with these projects, and we took pains fictionalizing the general information, although our details were culled from what reportage we could research from. She renamed the city to something else, and when we launched the novel at Silliman sometime in 2013, she understandably took pains to obfuscate the similarities. But anyone who knows Dumaguete/Silliman can read between the lines in her descriptions of Sweet Haven University, and her rightful condemnation of the misplaced moral lynching that can sometimes erupt in its hallowed halls. [In her novel, a young coed’s reputation has been tarnished because of the video, with her name gleefully dragged through the mud by the moralistic people of the town—but she has a secret she’s keeping: the man who raped and filmed her is the privileged son of a high-ranking university administrator.] In my novel, I did not hesitate from using the name “Dumaguete,” but I had to create another name for the alleged serial killer—simply because I knew his family [and I liked them!], and I did not feel it was right of me to have their name besmirched once more, even after so many years after their predecessor’s horrifying demise.

In a way, Bing and I were trading our tales using the subterfuges of secrets that Dumaguete traffics in. The truth is, you will never find concrete accounts of the serial killing or the video sex scandal on the Internet anymore, and the newspaper accounts are sketchy [if you can actually gain access to them]. But trust me, these accounts are alive in the private recollections and conversations among Dumaguetnons, gossiping as we do while in a party, while doing household chores, while drinking among friends. Nobody writes of these dark stuff in community newspapers. Nobody posts about these things on social media. But among ourselves, we talk.

People gossip. People have theories. People have emotional investments in the oral unraveling of these local misfortunes. But these discourses will never see print—except perhaps in the private chatgroups of Dumaguete Facebook. And if you notice, I have never referred to a specific name at all in this article so far. This is the Dumaguete way.

Which explains why nobody in Dumaguete [and Negros Oriental] really puts out comments about the recent Pamplona massacre out there, especially on social media. Someone, obviously a langyaw [a stranger or newbie], had wondered about the silence. No one talks and no one names names! Which is strange because everyone certainly knows the name of the alleged perpetrators. It’s just probably very anti-Dumaguete to name names, and perhaps we are right to do so, mostly for fear of our lives. I wish I could list down past instances of this happening—but all of Dumaguete knows why I can’t.

Everyone here knows never to utter names, and if we really had to, we borrow a device from the Harry Potter books, and call the specter as He/They Who Must Not Be Named. Which is why it astonishes me no end to hear non-Oriental Negrenses uttering the name so clearly and blatantly in their social media posts and in their interviews. You really have to be from somewhere else to truly be able to do that. A few days ago, I was asked to facilitate the sourcing of potential interviewees for a podcast about the recent violence in Negros Oriental by a major media outlet. The producers seemed to be aware of the communal bind we were in regarding talking openly about these matters, and they hastily assured me: “We won’t be specific, we will speak only generally about the violence in the community.” And then also this: “If we can’t find locals to interview, perhaps you know of people who are willing to talk who are in the U.S.?” That buffer of generality and geographic distance is perfectly indicative of the paralyzing conundrum locals have about the occasional violence that erupt in our midst.

What does this say about the Dumaguetnon? Is this cowardice, or is this just a mechanism for survival? My friend, the theater artist Lu Decenteceo, tries to give an explanation: “We are as human as you get them. Our persons run the whole range even if we have been raised to admire the good and gentle. So we try to live the life we would like ourselves to be. The dark side, we recognize, but we would rather keep them in the shadows as they are not how we would like ourselves to be. [We in Dumaguete] are a genteel breed. Politeness and courtesy reigns — on the surface [at least]. And it is impolite and uncivil(ized) to be otherwise. As a society that is [was?] not so mobile, [we have] generations [who had to learn] to live with each other [because] we are [were] a small [closed] community. Or at least, even if we have our langyaw, we still have a core members of the community who see and have to deal with each other. We have to have a modus vivendi.”

It begs another question: are we really a city of gentle people, given this recent descent into hell?

I found a photo on Twitter many days ago. It shows an ordinary shot of Hibbard Avenue traversing Silliman campus, but what struck me was a painted sign attached to the base of a streetlamp that says: “None of you are gentle.” I don’t know who took it, or who made this sign, but it made me pause. I’ve written about this before: the title we have given Dumaguete, that it is a “city of gentle people,” is something we inherited from the creative ploys of a popular local radio personality in the 1960s/1970s [Philidore Quingco of DYSR/DYRM] who brandished it so frequently we just adopted it through osmosis, until it finally became a kind of a brand. Some people then actually thought it was corny, but it stuck. I think of it more as bullshit marketing tag, the way most cities in the Philippines have something going on: Cebu as the “Queen City of the South,” Bacolod as the “City of Smiles,” Cagayan de Oro as the “City of Golden Friendship,” etc. They mean nothing, to be honest, just a tag to pat ourselves by.

So, are we no longer the city of “gentle” people, given recent circumstances?

But then again … were we ever “gentle”? 

Nostalgia is nice [“Ahhh, mas tsada katong sa unang panahon...”] but it is unreliable and warps memories, and if you can only go back in time to the very past you think is great, you’ll encounter people who will bemoan the same kind of problems we hate today. What comes to mind easily is the 1951 murder of Magallon town politician Moises Padilla, who dared run for town mayor against the wishes of then Negros Occidental Governor Rafael Lacson—and for that disobedience, the governor had cohorts of his private army kidnap and torture Padilla, and then had his body dragged around through several towns as an explicit warning to the locals about the dangers of earning the ire of an all-powerful politician. President Ramon Magsaysay, angered by the murder, personally saw to it that justice would be served—and Lacson ended up incarcerated. [But because he was rich and influential, Lacson was quietly released under the presidency of Diosdado Macapagal some years later, and returned to live out the rest of his days in his hometown in peace.] The lesson to be gained is this: the past has never been innocent. [And the powerful will try to bend justice their way, whenever they can.]

This is not a Negros problem. The same kind of injustice and crime and killings that have been happening here in our island also occur everywhere else. [Think of Calauan, Laguna Mayor Antonio Sanchez and his rape/killings of two UP Los Baños students in 1993. Think of the Ampatuan massacre in Maguindanao in 2009. But what is it with murderous politicians, no?] We just feel ours more strongly now because they are within intimate reach.

I’d still like to believe Dumaguetnons and Oriental Negrenses are good people on the whole, gentle even. I know many of these folks. But evil does exist. Even among us.

And until we allow ourselves to articulate that evil, we will forever be victims of it, because it is a cancer that will not stop spreading until we name it. Any takers?

Maybe I’ll write a novel about it. [But most likely not, hahaha.]


Since I just wrote about it, if you’re wondering where you can get a copy of Lakambini Sitoy’s Sweet Haven in Dumaguete, Tara De Leon just sent me this photo. It’s available at Caballes Bookstore! [And apparently also, Ichi Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles.] Get them!

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