Saturday, January 6

On autonomy

A comforting thought I always carry is that Baguio City is four hours away. The usual calm that often accompanied the stretch between Christmas and new year didn't materialize this year--odd all told, for how shamefully good the year was--and the restlessness had to be placated by, well, movement.

How did that awful, awful line from The Hand of the Enemy go? The tremor comes from coming so close to happiness? I think my favorite moment of 2017 was late one Tuesday when I read the manuscript of The Quiet Ones just before it went to press, and I realized, with absolute relief, that I still like it. It was still decent, I thought, a book I can still stand behind. Years of obsessing about it didn't completely dampen my enthusiasm for the thing.

Talks of autonomy and artistic production closed the year hereabouts, and that early October morning came to mind when I tried to think about my own notions of (artistic) independence. I felt completely, happily alone at that moment, happily sovereign, my sense of self momentarily shored up by the familiar god-like satisfaction of having created something I (self-reflexively) appreciate. Then I remembered that the first words from RCL when I told her about Palanca were, "Wow, and you did it on your own, without a patron." That this had to be said, of course, already reveals the political dimension of the win, in particular the existence of a system under/against which Filipino writers produce, which we all navigate, acts of resistance notwithstanding.

Which is why when I saw the book and all its heft (and beautiful design) for the first time, it really didn't occasion the sort of chest-beating euphoria that it might have elicited from a younger version of myself. Of course I was happy. Of course. But for the better part of my adult life I had derived the entirety of my livelihood from writing, from annual reports to press releases and AVP scripts. Writing had always been labor to me, this book a product, suffused, to be sure, with all the amorphous investments of experience and politics and ideas but a product nonetheless. To unnecessarily fetishize it is to succumb to the logic of capital. In addition, my participation in the literary ecosystem here and, marginally, abroad--enthusiastically in my youth and with reservations today--have all but demystified literary production, mine included and specially. 

For how to assert sovereignty when portions of the work underwent (brutal) workshoping from RCL, or edits from an Australian editor, when it bears the imprimatur of the Palanca awards (the head judge a former teacher; another, a colleague whom I first met at a workshop), when my connections made possible blurbs from GA and JT, advance reviews in newspapers? How to insist on autonomy when I wrote a big chunk of the book in the five years that I was a freelance writer, something I could do because of contacts and networks (JD among them) and a marketable skill I acquired from my state-funded education, which also, come to mention it, made possible whatever virtues the writing itself demonstrates--the comfort in the language, the formal skill, the political insights? How to claim isolation when the very act of writing in English, in a country like the Philippines, is already a politically exclusionary decision?

Do these diminish artistic agency? Do they disempower? Perhaps they should. To valorize the autonomy of the writer is to affirm the bankrupt notion of the individual as free, a most dangerously comforting proposition. And like people, the ideas converse, too, and that GA wrote the blurb for the book was heartening because it gestures toward this conversation (contrary, I hope, to the arbitrary, if not incestuous blurbing business that I've observed dominates local books). The web thus is endlessly intricate, and any critical stance against it necessitates a thorough accounting of one's embeddedness in it, even as one flails and flails to break free. Maybe that's a provisional act of agency one could realistically aspire for in the meantime.

Monday, December 18

Bakla in the City

Toward a Reluctant (Queer) Poetics

Many years ago in Bulacan, I and a team had wrapped up a routine annual report shoot when our subject, a farmer, uttered what has been to this day the only homophobic slur hurled directly toward me in my presence. The interview done, I had stood up to shake his hand and the burly father of seven, with a warm chuckle, loudly remarked on how soft my hand was. Then with the requisite sing-song, he transferred the adjective—"malambot"—to the rest of my person.
I felt a distinct shiver, part shame, part rage. But good-natured laughter punctuated the quip; even my photographer, a Malacañang veteran for a broadsheet and with whom I had been doing corporate gigs for years, conceded a smile. In the lull, sandwiches and lukewarm Coke were brought into the fenced yard, and in the proceeding small talk about the price of corn and the latest corruption scandal—the hum of feudalism and state neglect around us—I found myself belatedly tossing my own tentative grin into the fray, embarrassed by my offense.
I recounted this long-ago encounter to a friend years later, in Hanoi’s old quarters over beer and spring rolls. It was the summer after my first year of teaching, which I did next after five years of freelance writing. How sad, he said, not looking sad. Not to be outdone (because gays are innately competitive because othered), he shared that a stranger once called him a "faggot" following a misunderstanding in an ATM queue. He nearly burst out crying, he said, and his sister, seeing him, had to accost the culprit all the way to a nearby grocery.
That gave me pause. This friend, a brilliant writer and my former editor at the college paper, is easily one of the most assertive, caustic persons I know. He told harsh jokes about AIDS and genocide, upbraided careless waiters, and, once, flatly refused to pass on the fare of a fellow passenger onboard a near-empty jeep. His sense of self was adamantine, at times to a fault, nut there he was, demolished by that word. A word that we used on each other with ironic fondness so we knew its power resided outside its six letters and two tiny syllables.
I peg my inauguration to homosexual identity on something similarly hostile. It was 2004 and I had just turned 18. It was ten years after the first course in gay literature was taught in UP Diliman, where I was a sophomore. It must have been around midnight, the vicinity of Orosa and Nakpil in Malate starting to become packed, when a group of friends and I tried to gingerly go inside a club called Mr. Piggy’s (a name which I realize now combined faux innocence with Tagalog double-talk—"babuyan").
It was my first time inside one such club, which coddled the same porcine bacchanalia only distinguished by the extent and democracy of the gratification that took place inside, from wholesome flirtation to impromptu orgies. The place, I remember, pulsated with the deep bass of house music (Square Heads' "Happy," I recall in particular, a touch of prophecy). Figures swayed and neon lights fluctuated, vaguely apace with the beat. Smells pummeled each other: whiffs of cloying cologne with blasts of nicotine, pungent beer. The dance floor, innocent site of "preliminary" activities, was on the first floor, while the so-called dark room, where things "culminated," was on the second.
For an hour or so I stood alone on the crowded dance floor, more shifting than dancing, a bottle of San Mig Light growing warm in hand; once or twice I felt a body behind me, an invitation, but I was young and heinously insecure and my innate self-loathing had newly coalesced with a fledgling understanding of the gay community’s vicious vanity, so I didn’t turn around. I didn’t dare. The dark upstairs, I knew even then, would be more hospitable to my desire.
In his study of the homosexualization of rundown movie houses in downtown Manila, Chuckberry Pascual examined why phenomena like darkness and filth seem to figure in the negotiation of homosexual spaces. Such spaces, he said, have always occupied a middle ground between public and private, beyond the heteronormative policing "outside." But while a seeming casualty to ostracism, these places are also gestures of subversion; their very existence, after all, is contingent on their performance. Dark rooms in Malate, like the muggy balcony sections of movie houses in Avenida and Quiapo, thus represent the simultaneous emancipation and marginalization that homosexual spaces often enact.
I didn’t know this then. I also didn’t know that you were supposed to guard your pockets the moment you join the slithering silhouettes inside dark rooms. It was too late when I realized that my wallet and phone were gone. Right away I disengaged from a nicotine-laced mouth, pushed someone’s head away from my crotch, and made my way outside. It was around four in the morning; the crowd on the streets had dissipated (an hour hence and the bars would start playing Sarah Geronimo to drive away overstaying patrons). The people I was with, whom I would never see again after that night, gave me enough money for taho ("para kumalma ka") and a jeepney ride home.
My education in literature would reduce (or elevate) this experience to the archetypal loss of innocence, but I would remember that ordeal most for two things: the sense of exclusion that I felt so strongly inside that club and the silence of the morning after (the enervated hum of What Now?). In many ways my experience of gayness strikes me now as a montage of such: rejection and empty aftermaths. There would be a guy—a nurse, an Ecstasy dealer, a theater actor, a call center agent, someone named Gerry—and a departure, often unceremonious, now and then unbearable. Sometimes so unbearable that I needed to recast the experience into a version that I could live with. Thus: fiction.
Early last year, a Filipino poet asked if I could help edit a "queer Southeast Asia journal" that he was setting up. There was alarm in the invitation that was uncommon for literary projects. It was a response, he said, to the recent flare up of violence against homosexuals in Indonesia. I thought about it then demurred, with the usual empty praise for the project and suggestions of other, better names. I also cited—what sounds now as high-minded bluffing—the timid gender politics in my work.
Since I started writing, I had resisted any categorization of myself and my writing as "queer." My attitude about identity politics had unduly suffered from the kind of hardline Marxist-Leninist-Maoist education I soaked up in college, aided in no small part by my stint with Kulě (where, ironically, the oppression of heterosexuals was a running joke). The "gay struggle," as it privileges the self as a locus of understanding the world, was not materialist enough, not collective enough. It fractures and distracts. It is a lens that is at best incomplete and at worst deleterious.
This is strange, looking back. My first attempt at fiction consisted of quasi-plagiarizing a heterosexual love story called "Pulitika at Skateboarding" that we took up in a Philippine literature class. Structured as a series of letters between a young New People’s Army cadre and her boyfriend in Manila, the Tagalog short story was among the first materials that would begin my (aesthetic) education in Philippine society. At that time, a brief dalliance with a student leader had fizzled out just as I was becoming acquainted with the student movement on campus. In writing the story, I retained the central conflict between desire and ideology but did away with the epistolary form. Like a true amateur, I also turned both characters gay.
This makes it sound more premeditated than it was. I had not taken a class in fiction then. I remember beginning, as I still do today, with ideas, guided more by an essayistic "groping intention" than fiction’s conventional preoccupation with narrative. The decision about gender seemed automatic, politically neutral, I thought. I simply had neither the imagination nor stamina (or desire) to craft central characters whose desire was ultimately alien to me. While I could convincingly conjure heterosexual desire on the page, the details that bedevil it, after all, were inaccessible to me.
In hindsight, there was a disconnect here, between the theoretical sidestepping of gender, on one hand, and what the formal decision on characterization entailed, on the other. After all, I must have intuited that the story had something to gain, beyond personal catharsis, from the reconfiguration of the protagonist’s sexuality. That there was power in that uneasy juxtaposition of two planes of "rebellion," from desire to ideology. This ambivalence about gender would solidify in my later work, which, save for a few outliers, would all revolve around one gay protagonist, whose fictive function (my shady thesis adviser would never fail to remind me) was to serve as my convenient, unimaginative mouthpiece.
How then to account for this insistence of queerness as a politically potent but default, unmediated position? Can a piece of writing foreground a gay experience, emanate from a lived gay identity, but somehow, by sheer authorial demurral and claim of political misgivings, elide the uneasy burden of classification of "queer" literature?
Years later, a reality show called RuPaul’s Drag Race would encroach on my life, although "encroach" might be a euphemism. After watching one episode, I proceeded to hungrily binge-watch season after season, not leaving my room in days-long marathons, stopping only to sleep and eat, missing meetings and asking deadlines be moved. After finishing all extant episodes, I turned to adjacent franchises like Untucked or Drag U. With that depleted, too, I sought out my favorite contestants online, saw fan videos, rewatched old episodes, finding a fresh nuance each time or laughing anew at an old joke.
The show, I found out, tended to colonize one’s life, like a welcome rash. Soon, a stranger’s plump torso would elicit "Back rolls?" Any mention of "sugar daddy" would get my hopes up for a lashing out. When someone would raise their voice I’d tell them their tone seems pointed right now. I’d constantly admonish friends to conquer their inner saboteur. Bongbong Marcos nearly won the vice-presidency and I thought, "Not today, Satan." Whenever Drag Race-watching friends and I meet, our answer to "Kumusta?" was an accounting of the latest shenanigan on the show, the latest scandal or meme from Reddit.
After a while I was getting mild stiff necks from too much side-eyeing. I had replaced periods with pathetic attempts at tongue pops. Sipping through a straw entertains me senseless. My Spotify is locked into a playlist of the songs used in the lip syncs. Our cab once passed by the city library in Baguio and I told my companion, without absolutely no forethought, that the library was open. To be broke is to be pulubi realness. For a time all my posts on social media included #shade.
It got worse. When Kennedy Davenport, lip synching to "Roar," jumped from the runway to the floor into a split, for days I brought around my old clunky Acer and ordered random friends to watch it. In India, after a haggard hours-delayed train ride to Benares, I plopped down on the hotel bed and, with much histrionics, told my companion I needed to watch an episode or two of the show "so I’ll feel like myself again." In Hanoi, a beautifully decrepit colonial house swept into view and what came out of my lips was "Yassss!" as if the house, swathed in vine, on the stoop the usual bevy of bored-looking women, was a queen sashaying down a colonial runway.
The Drag Race addiction is clinically logical to friends, many of whom are in academia, some with astute comparativist training that had turned them—us—into chronic overreaders. Drag is, of course, inherently political, contingent on the interrogation of traditional notions of gender. Drag Race, we concluded, is easily an artistic tradition in itself, its texts—the episodes, the queens, their buffooneries and tomfooleries—always in conversation with each other (echoes of its own mega-text, Paris is Burning, reverberate through the show). 
And what characterize this tradition are things all too familiar to queer Filipinos, I thought: the relentless punning ("Fu Manchu better work!"), the effervescent word play ("Impersonating Beyoncé was not your destiny, child."), the jokes ("What’s the hardest part of roller skating? Telling your mother you’re gay."), chronic slapstick and camp (Tempest DuJour, in her entrance, spreading her legs and “gave birth” to a baby). In everything a sense of humor that is so bakla, which is to say, often clever but sometimes wala lang, always irreverent and tongue firmly in cheek, with that surfeit of joy that is often a surplus of great suffering.
Suffering. Needless to say, the joy that Drag Race exhorts is great partly, precisely because it thrives in defiance of structural exclusion, from your everyday homophobic slur to more entrenched, institutional forms of discrimination. And so while it is my subject position that renders the joys of something like Drag Race uniquely legible, this accessibility is by no means constantly affirmative or triumphant. Neocolonial spaces like Manila figure prominently in the creation of this ambivalent condition, wrote J. Neil Garcia in "The City in Philippine Gay Literature." While urban centers permit, to cite, "sexual self-realization," they are ultimately ambivalent, "at once welcoming and alienating," "at once enabling and subjugating."
Fresh into my 30s, long disabused by literature of foolish notions of happiness, and blessed (or cursed) with Darwinian sangfroid, my affinity with the twin violence of the city and gayness runs so deeply that I rarely struggle against it anymore, a perverse capitulation that in my forgiving moments I characterize as love.
My experience of queerness, true enough, had in one way or another run alongside this infatuation for the city. Once, one Sunday dawn after a night of drinking in Malate, a group of friends and I walked the length of Taft Avenue from Orosa-Nakpil to Quiapo Church to accompany a heartbroken friend to mass, half of which he spent uncontrollably weeping, heedless of the judging looks from the other church-goers. A decade later, the turbulence of a relationship would be foreshadowed by a boyfriend’s profound anxiety at the sight of dusk slowly covering the city’s streets, a restlessness that I could not for the life of me share and which I felt was taken against me ("Mahal mo talaga itong lungsod, ano?").
Beyond its usual role as mise-en-scène then, the city, its simultaneous embrace of queer identity and claustrophobia regarding this self-same identity, had always been a space with a clear determinative, totalizing force. How did that oft-quoted line from Tony Perez’s Cubao 1980 go? "Sana'y ako na lamang ang posteng kahoy sa daan—laging nakatanghod sa buong lungsod ngunit di umiibig."
Literature as refuge, again and naturally. Even the ethos of Drag Race, I realize, while escapist in a consumerist sense, can offer ways of seriously engaging the practice of writing. I do not only refer to the sort of ventriloquism—the accommodation of provisional "voices" or "characters"—that both drag and writing simultaneously demand and celebrate, and which certainly has its value. In "The Essayification of Everything," Christy Wampole proposes that the essay form’s meditative and meandering spirit could present an antidote to "the renewed dogmatism of today’s political and social landscape," how the genre, harnessed well, was ultimately an "imaginative rehearsal of what isn’t what could be." It can be this broad comfort with ambivalence that may well be these two points’ most salient intersection.
My experience of loneliness in the city, debilitating as it is, was thus always tempered, made bearable if not by fictionalizing experience then by a keen self-awareness of such variety, due in part to an exposure to and engagement of the arts, a position of privilege in a country like the Philippines. Some years back, one featureless morning after a one night stand, I found myself in front of a motel in Sta. Mesa eating kwek-kwek from a roadside cart, crisscrossing arms and rubbing elbows with groggy-eyed menial laborers for whom the street food constituted breakfast. "Para akong nasa Tagalog short story," I texted someone, half-awake.
I had in mind a feeling of groundedness, as well as the long tradition of social realism in Philippine literature, characterized by an incurable alertness to the everyday contradictions of a semi-feudal, semi-colonial society. That quip, that ability to annotate my experience in such literate fashion, already diminished my already tenuous attempt at solidarity with my fellow kwek-kwek eaters, with the majority of Metro Manila’s twelve million residents whose lives are so deadened by menial violence that they would rather watch (free) escapist telenovelas than read depressing fiction in a foreign language. ("Ang mahal, tapos ang hirap basahin!" exclaimed the guard of the building where my school’s English department was located, holding a paperback for sale at an adjacent stall.) My college self would ask: outside (literal) spheres of desire, did my queerness matter at that moment?
I recall the slur from the farmer and realized that my protracted diffidence toward notions of "gay pride" tacitly relied on the idea of a self that could be compartmentalized, that an aspect of it, imbued with cultural and intellectual capital, should have been invincible to such violence, that it was a violence to be levelled only at a certain gay demographic, the type that frequented clubs called Mr. Piggy’s and engaged in casual sex in public restrooms. It reveals an edifying, self-glorifying attitude toward artistic production, that it is exempt—and the artist salvageable—from valid taxonomies of oppression, including gender.
After all, entering the motel the night before, I recall, entailed steeling my already lowered voice at reception, affecting a casual air with my companion at the waiting area, and, in the elevator, ordering myself to ignore a young straight couple’s undisguised gaze. That I feel it is within my ability to define myself (and my writing) in terms that are sovereign from my sexuality thus overlooks such quotidian skirmishes, which simmers beneath the cosmopolitan surface of twenty-first-century Philippines, only awaiting the next trigger.
What could trigger it? It could be as innocent as an offered hand, deemed too soft for a guy; it could also be life-ending, as in an orgy of consenting adults that just so happened to involve substances that constitute this regime’s favorite scapegoat. These violences, as many have noted, intersect rather than diverge, and in engaging their roots there is always room for kindred interrogations.

Works Cited

Garcia, J. Neil. 2014. “The City in Philippine Gay Literature.” Likhaan: The Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature Vol 8.
Pascual, Chuckberry. 2016. Pagpasok sa Eksena: Ang Sinehan sa Panitikan at Pag-aaral ng Piling Sinehan sa Recto. University of the Philippines Press.
Perez, Tony. 1982. “Cubao 1980.” In Cubao 1980 at Iba Pang mga Katha. Cacho Publishing.

Wampole, Christy. 2013. “The Essayification of Everything.” New York Times May 26.

Wednesday, November 22

On Not Writing

Notes on the Fictionist's Role in the Time of Emergency*

A month or so into the Duterte administration, when the killings began as promised, a blog called “The Kill List Chronicles” began to gather works that constituted what the curator, the writer Ian Casocot, had called “the new protest literature.” These are the stories, essays, and poems, he said, that were being written in response to the manifold violence that was unleashed by the president and the impunity with which they are committed.

In a brief introductory essay, Casocot traced the genealogy of such new works to the writings during and about critical periods in Philippine history, from the waning years of Spanish rule to the American occupation and all the way to Martial Law. While he implies a sort of urgent documentary ethos to the project, the alignment with figures like Jose Rizal and Jose Lacaba nevertheless attempts to lend a sense of gravity and foresight to the endeavor.

Consider, for instance, how Casocot appraises the project’s potential value: “Only the future can tell how this literature, as a prospective tool for change, can impact what is going on at present. Protest literature are almost always considered only in the aftermath; perhaps this project can change that, and can demonstrate, once and for all, the power of literature as a social tool.”

I remember being puzzled by this project, in particular the self-christening as “new protest literature.” It diverged so wildly from the tradition that I was familiar with. The spirit of works like Lope K. Santos’s Banaag at Sikat (1905), Amado V. Hernandez’s Mga lbong Mandaragit (1965), or the anthology Sigwa (1971) go beyond mere documentation. While they sought to bear witness to the immediate reality of everyday violence and injustice, what sets them apart is an astute diagnosis of how such violence and injustice are rooted in entrenched social structures. And always they culminated in a clear call for these structures to be dismantled. Their radicalism, their protest, in other words, whether they’re novels or vignettes or poems, lies in how they situate something within a larger ecosystem of oppressions.

Also curious for me was the role that the project assigns to the writer in the task of fermenting social change. Too cavalier, I thought. Too writerly, which again represented a divergence from the tradition that I knew. After all, we remember that Carlos Bulosan became heavily involved in the labor movements in early 20th-century America en route to writing America is in the Heart (1946); Emman Lacaba, as an NPA cadre in Mindanao in the 1970s, not only penned what is often considered the ars poetica of Philippine revolutionary literature, he also learned Bisaya and put revolutionary lyrics to popular Visayan folk songs, some of which are still used today; and, more recently, groups like KM 64 write protest poetry even as members participate in teach-ins and mobilizations, bringing their works to the broader society about which they write.

Their writing, in other words, represented but a mere fraction of a broader engagement with society’s myriad contradictions. They venture outside the page and abandon the heinous solitude of writing in order to participate in other ways. Which means protest literature didn’t really stop, especially outside traditional publishing channels, the natural and most potent habitat for these works. They continue to be written and recited and sung, whether it be in picket lines outside factory premises and haciendas or the invisible forest trails in the countryside. Any grandiloquent declarations about its resurgence must reckon with this fact.

These misgivings, of course, are not incompatible with welcoming a project like “The Kill List Chronicles.” Any well-meaning response to Duterte’s bloodbath is a move against acquiescent silence and is thus welcome. It is understandable for writers to be moved by images of bloodied bodies splayed on pavement and to respond in the way writers know: by words.

But it’s instructive, I think, and might reveal a pervasive attitude about writing as a response to crisis that’s worth further examination. After EDSA, there was an upswing in literary production due to a regained sense of independence and the potency of an experience like Martial Law. But the increasing academization of creative writing in the country with the establishment of creative writing centers and programs saw the writer retreating ever so gradually to the cozy cocoon of academia, lulled by the occasional award, grant, or publication. And as the writing community grew insular, for many, this also imperiled, if not completely discarded, modes of involvement that go beyond writing.

For instance, that the works in “The Kill List Chronicles” are archived in a website for wider access and posterity certainly has its value; but in the context of such an insular writing community, and as an intervention in Duterte’s genocidal rampage, its worth is suspect. I think it’s important to be suspicious of the comforting notion that writing can ever be enough, and that by writing about something, we would have already done our part.

In an interview, the poet and teacher Conchitina Cruz talked about the danger of poetry acting as “insufficient proxy” in responding to a crisis. She said: “I think the least we can do as poets is to be conscious of the limits of engaging ‘as poets’ in the work of social transformation. Our words on the page simply can’t stand-in for our bodies out on the streets.” An infatuation with writing’s relevance, she said, can authorize detachment from collective struggle. For me this is why it is always heartening to see writers participating in the many mobilizations against the killings, to see writers, in other words, not writing, or not only writing.

But isn’t the intervention proffered by fiction enough? Fiction, after all, by its very nature, engages with notions of reality and is thus inherently in the business of raising political consciousness in some shape or form. Furthermore, by scrutinizing motivation, it cultivates empathy. By attending to details, it commands a meditative attitude. Because it relies on imagining a possibility, an alternative, whether for the self or for society, its default stance is always hope, even as its avenue is via hopelessness. These alone can be radical, especially as antidotes to things like modernity’s penchant for speed, for example, or the reign of literal-mindedness, or a broad sense of debilitating despair.

But all these are impotent in the face of a nation that doesn’t read us. The fundamental material conditions for many Filipinos remain violently incompatible with the nourishment of an interior life, for many a prerequisite for the complete appreciation of literature. For Filipino writers then, I think an important truth that writing should testify to is its own inadequacy, whether in times of emergency or not.

And for Walter Benjamin, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” In the Philippines, this state goes well beyond the killings, horrible as they are. Just recently, Manila’s hosting of the ASEAN Summit gave us a scene right out of either a terrible dystopia or a Latin American dictator novel: Duterte toasting to Donald Trump at a lavish gala dinner in a sparkling pavilion while Manila’s homeless scavenge for their next meal, driven away from their regular spots along the suddenly immaculate Roxas Boulevard.

More importantly, the mad hosting signaled the country’s dogged belief in a mode of development that had brought little relief to its citizens. Between 2010 and 2015—before the killings—the wealth of the 10 richest Filipinos has more than tripled, from an already obscene P630 billion to P2.2 trillion. This, as 66 million Filipinos live on less than P125 a day. Elsewhere: landlessness, extrajudicial killings, attacks on higher education, institutionalized bigotry, fake news, the West Philippine Sea and China, the traffic on EDSA, climate change, etc. etc.

Any form of artistic production is necessarily in conversation with these realities. In a country like the Philippines, inscribed in the Filipino artist’s subject-position are the many privileges that make art production possible in the first place, be it education or a disposable income or free time. My book, which will be launched later, costs just shy of the daily minimum wage in Metro Manila. It may contain interesting ideas about the call center industry and globalization, but it is written in a language and structure that some call center agents, my target audience, might find inscrutable or unappetizing. (I hope I’m wrong though.) Thus, the categories of “truth” that I think fiction should bear witness to has not changed: the capacity of fiction to imagine an alternative and at the same time a constant disenchantment with this self-same capacity.

I’d like to end with a quote from a writer whose fiction writing was famously interrupted by doing something else other than fiction writing. It took 20 years for Arundhati Roy to write and publish a follow-up to her 1997 debut The God of Small Things. In the intervening years she did many things. She joined Maoist fighters in central India and lent her voice to many causes that could use amplification, consequently earning the ire of just about every group in the country, from the religious right wing to big business, among others.

Responding to being described as an activist, she said: “To call someone like me a writer-activist suggests that it’s not the job of a writer to write about the society in which they live. But it used to be our job. It’s a peculiar thing, until writers were embraced by the market, that’s what writers did—they wrote against the grain, they patrolled the borders, they framed the debates about how society should think. They were dangerous people.”

The absolute lunacy of this regime, it’s true, demands more than ever for writers to regain this sense of danger, not only in condemning the killings but in dissecting the basket case society of which the killings are merely symptomatic. Fiction as a form can of course do this, but given our realities its value as a potent intervention might well be fictional as well; hence, the need to do more. Thank you.

* Delivered during the “The Fictionist and the Challenge of Truth Telling” panel, Philippine PEN 60th Congress, Buenaventura Garcia Paredes OP Alumni Center, University of Santo Tomas, November 21, 2017

Wednesday, April 5


Weeks ago, the one-two punch of the GE brouhaha and Chingbee's newly published critique of the Silliman workshop left me penduluming between rage and nostalgia. Eventually, as was my wont, I found myself settling into a blessed catatonic space, no thanks to teaching-related exhaustion and the usual Darwinian composure. The point of contact between these two subjects is, to me, my writing, which is to say my life. Thinking about my GE subjects, I realized that my education in Philippine society began not with MKLRP or Kule, but in the Pan Pil 40 classroom of Dr. Tet Maceda, where we read stories like "Sulat Mula sa Pritil," "Sandaang Damit," and "Pulitika at Skateboarding" (which I tried to plagiarize with "Shooting"). Years ago, in the course of thesis-writing and the weekly consultations-cum-chikahan with Chari, I realized that my "odd" and "un-CW" sensibility was perhaps because I was a Tagalog writer writing in English. The "weaknesses" of my fiction reliably identified in workshops--the overwriting and being prone to stereotyping and the unshakable political baggage, among others--might have been misdiagnosis. They were the Tagalog stories flailing and crying for a salbabida, adrift in the ocean of English. This discovery, long overdue, brought me unbelievable grief. I had been complicit in the erasure of traces of my own tradition from my writing, correcting them when I should have been saving them. I had been corrected into English.

A one-two punch: the agency that I had thought my fiction dramatized turned out to be fictitious, a roundabout failure; worse, my writing was instrumentalized, however briefly, to sanction an imperialist apparatus. At a certain point, one has to account for this complicity in the question of language. English as an "accident of history"? Sure. This might have once been valid, but today--with neoliberal globalization's march in the backdrop--the defense it puts up is just untenable.

Tuesday, October 7


The skeleton of what I told a bunch of poor, unsuspecting kids for Kritika Kultura a couple of weeks ago, which of course borders on overzealous and bullshit:

This afternoon I will talk about the phenomenon that has influenced my own writing the most, both in terms of theme, sensibility, and the way I process the world. I don’t think I will ever be capable of writing anything without this phenomenon as a pervasive backdrop. Globalization assaults us in many fronts. Political, economic, military, cultural, even technological, which is linked to both the economic and cultural brands, which shows the systematic quality of this phenomenon. For our purposes today my usage of the term will refer almost always to the cultural brand of globalization.

The most direct and least complicated influence of globalization in this generation of writers is in terms of thematic, material, and sensibility. A cosmopolitan worldview that is a result of being exposed to a wealth of information and experiences suddenly accessible. Superficially, this can mean having characters who listen to John Legend, make jokes about Game of Thrones, or religiously maintain a tumblr account—all terrible examples. I’d hate to workshop that kind of story. My current project, if I may use my own work as example, is about the call center industry. It attempts to show how outsourcing typifies a new global configuration that is merely a continuation and a new stage of colonialism, only this time there is no battlefield, at least not in the literal sense. It’s a storyline that could only have been produced by a highly globalized reality.

In an early story, I remembering taking on the voice of an old Spanish woman who has migrated to Australia. So I told the narrative from her point of view. In hindsight, the brashness and foolishness of such a move could’ve only come from thinking—foolishly—that the psychology of such a character would be accessible to me simply because I was able to relate to Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie About Schmidt. How hard could it be, right? When that story was workshopped, one disgruntled panelist asked rhetorically: “Do we need this character? Do we need a story like this in Philippine literature?” I wanted to apologize to her right there and then and concede that maybe she was right, maybe these stories needed to be told from the point of view of a Filipino. But the following year the story was accepted for publication in Likhaan so I withheld my apology.

That’s one way. Thematic, material, and sensibility. Aside from this, I’d like to suggest a more subtle, a more insidious way in which globalization influences the way we think about the world and, in the case of writers, what they write about and how they write. And I’d like to use the experience of using Facebook to illustrate this, because I’m egalitarian and populist that way. I’ve always thought that the way we use Facebook today is the modern-day equivalent of “pagtunganga.” Unless you’re a very intense person, you do both activities almost mechanically, without much thought. The very configuration of Facebook invites this act of mindlessly scrolling down, and it allows nothing more than a cursory and superficial engagement of the world outside it. It’s like “pamimintana” in this sense, too, like passively watching the world go by, only Facebook offers an infinitely and monstrously bigger window. It is the smorgasbord of items, the vertical spread and sprawl that Facebook offers, that in my opinion precisely creates this inattentiveness to detail, this aversion to depth. There’s simply too much to see! As a result, it has created a generation with a severely diminished attention span. To me, this is diametrically opposed to the act of writing, which requires a meditative and even obsessive quality of thinking about the world. My favorite critic James Wood has paralleled the rise in the use of details in realism to the act of noticing. The abiding attention to reality that writing fiction teaches is to me more than enough reward for writing it.

Tangentially, the way Facebook “arranges” and presents its version of reality is also worth looking at. I’m sure there’s a complicated algorithm behind the ordering of your friends’ posts in your newsfeed, but by and large there is an appearance of randomness in how such posts are sequenced. Meaning, you will see, one after the other, a link to a news story on the bombing of children and innocent civilians in Gaza, a clip of the trailer for the latest episode of Game of Thrones, and a picture of the fried chicken that your needy friend had for dinner. For the sake of argument, let’s just say that it’s the picture of the food that will get the most likes, then the Game of Thrones trailer, then the news story on Gaza, because that is such a downer. The impression of this arrangement is primarily randomness. Unless you actively choose otherwise, the impression is that each hold the same weight, are equally important, which of course isn’t the case. The configuration of Facebook, to my mind, lends itself to the delusion that all these things carry the same value, that a friend’s fried chicken, which exists in the same universe as one where children are systematically slaughtered, deserves equal consideration. That, to me, is the same illusion of globalization, a pluralistic worldview that sacrifices potentially important things in favor of inane things. I think that should be opposed.

But I’m not going to be fascist and actively demand “relevance” in other people’s works. I’m sure there’s a beautiful and meaningful way in which writers can write about the proverbial fried chicken. Here I will quote the notoriously acerbic and nega critic Anis Shivani, who essentially writes how banal and superficial much of American fiction is, and disparages anyone from Junot Diaz to Amy Tan, Jorie Graham to John Ashberry, and even Michiko Kakutani. He writes, “The individual fiction writer would have to be strong enough to take the moral offensive against writing that deludes the reader into thinking that his private ignominies are worth celebration and memorialization.”

Ganda ‘di ba? This critic calls it morality; I prefer to think of it as ethics and, to a certain extent, responsibility. I will also say that a certain measure of awareness in this regard will probably go a long way. An awareness that, as in the case of Facebook, there is an unseen infrastructure that governs how we experience the world. From a marketing standpoint, the ultimate triumph of Facebook is how it has seemingly effaced itself, how it has made its own apparatus invisible. What we normally do is we log in automatically and see the buffet of information and experiences laid out before us, and often we don’t see, much less scrutinize, the mechanism at work behind it, which is what makes the platform so successful and potent as both medium and symptom of globalization.

In the Philippines, our experience of globalization is really Americanization. Every now and then, there would be outliers. Like the song Gangnam Style. The show Sherlock. The milk tea craze, which I think originated from East Asia. But by and large, our version of globalization emanates from Washington. We no longer question the fact that the most popular sport here is basketball, that this very sentence I am uttering right now is in English. These things are excused as normal, as par for the course. The turbulent historical circumstances that gave birth to them are nowhere in the equation. The result is of course that Filipinos are among the biggest fans of America. On one hand it’s an almost blind fanaticism; on the other it’s the result of a highly complex colonial strategy that began when the Thomasites sailed forth from San Franciso, so complex that I will no longer talk about it. It always depresses me.

To end, I will say that I’d like to think that writers are in the business of interrogating man’s relationship with the world, and globalization has shaped and continues to shape this relationship in a very fundamental fashion. Sometimes it is direct, and sometimes it is oblique. I have never been an intuitive writer, I’m not gifted that way, so to compensate, I become obsessively mindful about writing. I’ve always been convinced that it is a good place, as in any other, to start.

Monday, September 15


Last Friday, I tagged along Ma'am C and hopped on a bus to a meeting for what we refer to in our nightly Twitter support group as that which had temporarily stolen our little lives from us. The coaster was small, probably a 20-seater, and of course I thought about what would happen if this bus, full of chitchatting culture experts, would well, you know. This is Manila. I think I said a prayer. A convo via SMS with M:

G: Andito sa bus si Betsy, editor ng broadcast volume.
M: Bechay! Hehe.
G: Sana hindi ko siya matawag nyan.
M: Mag-ingat ka.

On the carpeted walkway to the meeting's venue, Nic T. said hi to me. I pissed myself a bit; as a young gay boy who spent some time in Plaridel Hall, I had wanted to take Sir Nic's classes, but, well, I was a young gay boy. I didn't know any better. What took place in the meeting ought to stay private (I suppose), but perhaps can say that it was the funnest seven-hour meeting I've been to. And genuine laughter. Meaning, I actually laughed because I found things funny. Not because the six-figure contract is contingent on how loudly we collectively chuckled. Maybe it's presumptuous to claim to belong to this milieu--was probably the only one in that huge hall who isn't in the academe--and of course it's a political exercise, the canon-making and the fallible, arbitrary whimsy that informs it. But there was also well-intentioned effort in that room, a self-awareness, and a concern for the same things that I love, or at least hold dear.

I am putting it here because it is September, a historically fascist month along with August. On a stolen yogurt date with M, she said it might be rooted in indigenous culture after all--August being the leanest month for rice--not superstitious guesswork or convenient scapegoat. So will focus on good things: thesis successfully, if anticlimactically, defended; representation contract with agency signed (more or less); and direction for manuscript more or less settled. A talk/reading is scheduled in two weeks, and had chipped away at Everest of CCP deliverables. Nearing 30, had gotten used to the constant alarm, but think have been making headways in appeasing it, mostly along the lines of do-not-rush-it-G. During the meeting, couldn't help but occasionally gawk at the people around the table. Cases in point, laughing and making fun of all the frivolity and absurdity. It's OK, it tells me, it's fine.

Monday, July 7


On the first day of the year, I woke up with a debilitating hangover, the unglamorous kind, in which an acidic taste not unlike shame brimmed in my mouth. I plodded over to the common area and found the other residents in a more or less similar state, which is to say, the beginning of a famous John Cheever story--"It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, 'I drank too much last night.'" I mindlessly popped an aspirin. The shortness of breath came minutes later, then the vague swelling of the face, then the weariness. I knew I was fatally allergic to ibuprofen, and, well, I'm stupid that way. The administrator, bless him, thankfully had antihistamine--asthmatics of the world unite!--and oxygen, after a while, became easier to come by. But I was feeling so weak, so I asked to be taken to the nearest hospital an hour or so away. At the ER, a judgmental nurse saw the chipped (aquamarine) nail polish and bobbled her head, after which she told me to turn to my side and pull my pants down. By the time we were on our way back, it was near dusk, and I had only one thing on my vegetable-adled mind: KFC.

Flash forward to six months later, a couple of friends and I decided to head over to Baguio for the weekend. We spent it the way I preferred my vacations to be: lazy, libated, and devoid of plans. On our last day, we left our bags at our hotel and hopped over to nearby Vizco's for lunch (where Netty made a surprise appearance two days prior). Full and not so keen on returning to our little lives, we walked down Session Road hours later and saw fire trucks. A curious thing, and--getting closer to our street, seeing the crowd--I thought, No, it can't be, it just can't. When I saw thick white smoke billowing from the ground floor of our hotel--the lobby was on the second floor, customary in the mountain city--I realized that, well, what a year. We watched as one tiny water delivery truck after another zoomed along the cordoned road to help douse the flames, which would've been cute and quaint for an observer, and absolutely depressing if the fate of your bag, which contained your laptop, which contained your backup-less thesis, depended on the paltry amount of water they could carry. When we heard that the fire was under control--our bags in the lobby safe, if, like us, smelling like smoked tinapa--I just wanted to get out of there.

There's been a broad pall over the complexion of things lately, prompted by the obligatory assessment during the year's midpoint. Maybe because we were all approaching 30, a friend points out, and everything was necessarily worse off than we had imagined--we were not as rich, not as smart, not as happy. Maybe the ultimate wisdom is patience, then, I had told her. And she, being rah-rah and all, pointed out that overcoming through perseverance ought to be there, too. Of course. In asking around, I came to find that my displeasure with 2014 is something most friends share, a consolation, a happy-sad occasion, but maybe also a hapless, needless explanation.

Saturday, May 10


I met him last year in Bacolod. A nice kid, tall and shy, with a permanent smirk. I was in town for a workshop; he was the editor-in-chief of our host university's school paper. He saw, he said, the workshop-related banners all over the campus. He stayed the night at the nice pension house where I habitually stay whenever I'd find myself in the city, which, in hindsight, was every year since 2008, almost always for work. He had since moved back to Iloilo to go to medical school.

On Wednesday, I messaged him and was surprised when he replied. I was at the downtown area, a distance from Jaro, where his dorm was. His family lived in Passi, where, the following day, my team had lunch after a client shoot at nearby Dingle.

This year, he was ostensibly the same, perhaps taller, not so shy, but still largely quiet. We talked about Igbaras, a town where he recently went to to climb a mountain. It's an area I've been meaning to visit, I told him, the site of infamous water tortures during the Filipino-American War. Vague plans were made. Med school takes a lot of his time. My schedule is not to die for either.

Because nearby Robinsons closes at 8 o'clock, we were reduced to eating stale, overpriced Starbucks sandwiches. You know those people who eat with reckless abandon? A joy to watch, a joy to feed. I have a feeling that I will only fall in love with a man who eats just as heartily, in the same way that I feel that my growing facility with Cebuano is a preparation for a future in Davao or Dumaguete or Cagayan de Oro.

Between the sheets, he is tender, occasionally, and has nearly nothing to say. An ideal relationship, senile and always just trudging along.

Two days later in Narra, two hours away from Puerto Princesa, the youngest daughter of the client I had to interview would turn out to be his classmate. Where do you know him from, the cheeky girl asked. Exhausted, it took all my strength not to say, We had sex last night. Much was said about the world being tiny, and what are the chances. I was not, in fact, surprised. The world is small, the emotions at my disposal all too limited. Tenderness and variations thereof. Happiness. Exhaustion. Peace.

Later that day, post-pearls and dried pusit shopping, nine short hours after landing in Palawan, I lined up at the airport to head back to Manila. In the end, I always count on peace. Barring that, there are memories of nice boys and their big hands. Oh what they taught me. Things numinous.

Thursday, March 20


In Peace

The car traces a path parallel to the sea.
The names of towns, I say in my head,
the parade of saints and fruits, heroes
and Ilocano words piquant in the tongue.  
Remember where they said the sun danced?
Must be all the water nearby, suffusing
with a lucid calm. Then: hallucinations.
But the sea asserts wholeness, form,
routine. It begins, returns, changed
but also the same. From the radio, I borrow
nostalgia, an old song I know by heart
but imperfectly, like everything else. Sometimes
I hear you, your tentative annotations
in between the notes: a curious street name,
a tiny cat by the roadside, the crumbling ruins
of an old wooden house. How it remains
between surrender and persistence.
A quiet thing and tender. A truth
we had long accepted like a dancing sun:
wondrous in its illusion, held up by faith
alone, a legion of hopeful, upward gazes.

Monday, January 27

India IV

It is over.

And like the perfect writer-in-residence, I finished my manuscript on the penultimate day of the season and sent it off to a prospective agent the next. In the run-off to the end, I remembered that feeling that there wasn't going to be an end, so vast and seemingly endless and vacant the upcoming three months had sounded. That was a good quarter of a year. A long time by any metric.

Then the first week was over, then the first month, then the second month. There were days that were good. There were days that were terrible and not a single word had been written. And then there was the last week when I must have written 10,000 words or so.

I had always been suspicious of prolific people (isn't creation ought to be a struggle?) but on the day that I wrote 3,000 words I was aghast that it could be done, and I only needed to, well, do it. How trite and how senseless but there's the rub.

Who was it who said that writers don't stop writing even if there isn't a pen nearby or a keyboard? I suppose I now have less issues about calling myself a writer, for my experience of life itself, every pulsating moment and dull, uneventful breath, every mindless thought, now always gestures inescapably, inevitably to writing. I am always befuddled whenever someone would profess something along the lines of a years-long writer's block, when they "just coudln't write." Always, I am tempted to ask, but how could you let that happen? Let life pass and not consider it unto a page?

Before I go into vacuously abstract Gemino Abad territory, I will stop. The finished manuscript is just shy of 82,000 words. 17 chapters. Set in Manila and Pagudpud and Lanao and Samar and Bangalore. Epigraphs (and rented gravitas) from Bliss Cua Lim and Jose Rizal. Humility has never been my strength (read: hindi bagay) but I harbor absolutely no delusions that it will be a valuable thing. Interesting perhaps, or fun. "Maganda 'yung language," as that callous pampalubag loob refrain usually goes. 

But set amidst what we know of literature, of life, it is a modest offering. For now that is enough, for it isn't over.

Friday, December 20

India III

A few days ago, a team from a local news magazine came over to talk to me and another writer about an upcoming literary festival where we'll be reading. It was giddy seeing the writer-photographer tandem, mostly because they reminded me so much of, well, me.

Selfish remembrances aside, the past three weeks (unreported, my apologies) had passed with something that resembles calm and regularity. Another trip to the city (where I got myself a kurta), to our beloved bar at Hessaraghatta, a reading, another performance by the dancers, and the usual blur of people coming and going. I've been here for five weeks, and while I could be (rightly) chastised for not doing enough work, there is no way to adequately ascertain the impact of my stay so far on the way I have come to appreciate the depth and profundity of this civilization.

Weeks ago, the dancers performed for a group of tourists, and we were allowed to watch. The sheer beauty of the choreography; the ancient, divine origin; and the devotion of the dancers to their craft--I cannot help but be reminded of the common narratives of India and the Philippines. The thriving "indigenous" way of life, the colonial interruption, the confusion and the struggle in the aftermath. When one of the dancers were explaining to the (white) crowd that the movements of the dance were based on 2,000-year-old scriptures, in my mind I hastened to add, and this is what your forefathers had dismissed and endeavoured to erase.

Perhaps more work is needed on the serenity front. Elsewhere, progress: (1) a new story, (2) two finished overhauls, and (3) reinvigorated drive thanks to offer by a literary agent to take a look at the manuscript once it's done. "Don't show it to anyone else before me," she had said, quite needlessly.

Tuesday, December 3

India II

The initial euphoria gone, have settled into routines, always the life jacket to which we cling on when flung toward uncharted waters. Here, it is waking up at around 9 or 10 (depending on previous night's alcohol intake), breakfast of either toast or scrambled eggs (as can't cook anything fancier), lunch with the dancers at 2 (if Anand isn't cooking), and dinner at 9 or so (plus rhum and a beedi with Venkat). In between, lots of tea and long walks, watching downloaded shows and looking out the window for hours.

I still think it is a gift--all this time to write, the (largely unfounded) belief that the project is worth investing on--but the faces are now familiar; the cold, tolerable; the silence, no longer an oppression. The profound exhilaration that I had felt at the prospect of being away from Things, I had been constantly revisting it. Had it been an exaggeration? Overcompensation? The facile way to put this turnaround is simple homesickness, which is not wholly untrue, although it ignores the additional isolation of being so far away from the city, with its noise and energy, the comforting warmth of multitudes.

Am I getting a lot of writing done? I am inclined to think that that is beside the point (cover your ears, dear sponsors). The conversations with the other residents--on caste, on regionalism, on popular literature, on this absurd thing we all love called writing--there is no ascertaining its value. The primacy of experience: how can it be so simple but also so multifarious? The heartbreaking thing about a tragedy like Yolanda, on whose heels I left the Philippines, is that the cold, hungry victims in her aftermath watch the same noontime show as me, laugh at the same crude jokes, and go to an SM mall to eat the same Jolly Spaghetti. Is it a paltry claim at solidarity? Perhaps. But such is never more clear to me as when you interact with foreigners.

Which is not to say I am not taking advantage of it. From my little desk, I can see an ampitheatre and, every now and then, passing tourists and goats and sheep. Progress, then, apart from the growing comfort: (1) further revisions on a really complicated story, (2) learning how to make masala chai, and (3) a confirmed lunch date in Delhi two months from now with the author of this little book called The God of Small Things.