Saturday, March 31


To you,

I know that you think I write for ego's sake. I don't. But even if I do, I will say that it is as valid a reason to write as anything. Like you, I used to take it against people for writing selfishly, i.e., not for the country. However, I learned that if it makes him a better person, the writing would have done its part, and more, and would not have been in vain. The written word, after all, is a mere tool, and if someone is utterly convinced that his reason is nobler / "better" than others, it says more about him than those whom he judges.

You also know, that if there's something in this world that I constantly aspire for, it is to occupy as small a space as I could, to inconvenience as few lives as possible, and to matter as little as I could. However, in spite of myself, the writing inflates my ego unnecessarily, and I sometimes forget that it is not for the self that I write. And so if I quit writing in the future, this will be the only reason: that I no longer like what it is doing to me, and my perception of myself in relation to the world, and so I must stop.

Wednesday, March 21


The Image of the Filipino in Miguel Syjuco's Ilustrado

The stance of the anarchist is much luminous, yet for one trapped in the belly of the beast, that heretical strain will do.
- Edel Garcellano

There is sustained and intentional anarchy in Miguel Syjuco's much-celebrated debut effort Ilustrado. The form he used to weave the already convoluted narrative -- metafictional hybridity, aggressive fragmentation, and a relentless pastiche of excerpts, blog entries, emails, interviews, and multi-persona storytelling -- is, in so many ways, apt, considering its representative project. Just like its great-grandmother, Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters, the disjointed nature of Ilustrado reflects the age-old identity crisis of Filipinos, perhaps inadvertently adhering to the formalist hermeneutics of what you say is how you say it.

But outside Syjuco's labirynthine prose, the attempt to encapsulate the Filipino identity is clear, even as his alter-ego Crispin Salvador had, supposedly, "unceasingly tried to shudder off the yoke of representation" (Syjuco, 6). For one, the novel's rigorous undertaking of the country's history, complete with at times caricaturish characters verging on archetypal tokenisms and all-too-convenient cataloging of representative news bites, prompts the accusation. But the final nail in the coffin is the last sentence in Salvador's (and Syjuco's) long and obviously true-to-life commentary on Philippine writing: "Don't make things new, make them whole" (209).

Whether or not the novel succeeds in making things "whole," the observations it makes about the Filipino identity all show constant preoccupation with one thing: class. "The term class," writes Garcellano, "is still the bogeyman in literary and media discourses -- almost as though Manila is in a time warp" (15). Indeed, as Ilustrado navigates through one period, place or millieu to another, everything seems to revolve around class, to reinforce it, to subvert it, or to merely articulate its whims. And why not? The level of inequality in Philippine society is one of the highest in the world, its stubborn roots surviving occupations and revolutions.

Its title alone, a reference to the upper-class intelligentsia during the Spanish period, is an exhortation to see Salvador/Syjuco in that light: educated, reform-minded, but most importantly, upper-class. And so when the novel traverses more than a century of history -- from the turbulent countryside during the 1896 Philippine Revolution to the coke-smelling bathroom of fictional Club Coup d'Etat today -- class and its many faces hover above the proceedings, the tense political ferment perpetually brewing in the background (everyone in this novel, from the druggies to the unnamed couple in some random elevator, talks about current events).

Right off the bat, we realize that we are dealing with a very class-concious narrator/persona with the "protagonist" Miguel Syjuco (a rendering, of course, that will be completely subverted by the novel's explosive ending). In detailing the supposedly dehumanizing conditions of riding coach, Syjuco, the scion of a political and landed clan, notes that "anyone who is still a Marxist has never had an economy-class middle seat on a packed long-haul flight like this one" (22).

During the same flight back to Manila, he encounters what would be the first of this novel's many archetypal characters. His seatmate, after using and keeping Syjuco's bottle of hand sanitizer, strikes up a conversation with him, complete with visual aid, a thick wad of dollar bills that he fishes from his belt bag. In broken English, the returning OFW tells his story, which, of course, mirrors a million others:

My neighbor finally asks me, in English, "You visiting?" I nod. "Me," he says, smiling, "I come home. For good ... In past times, I work very hard. I remit money for a long time. I will now change everything." I nod. The money in the middle slips out of the stack and bills shower into our laps ... The bills smell like sweaty hands and baking bread. "I work so far away. Now, for the future of my children, I come home" (41).

Some 9 million Filipinos, or roughly 1 in every 10, work abroad -- from the deserts of Algeria to the seas off the coast of Zaire -- their remittances fueling the economy to the detriment of relationships. The social cost of the OFW phenomenon is largely unstudied, but to be sure, growing up without one or both parents is less than ideal. This dependence on foreign capital, mainly due to the absence of national industries, is tangentially responsible for the lack of employment opportunities in our own shores.

This preoccupation with class is at times evident, such as the aforementioned connection. At other times, it needs to be fleshed out. For instace, the novel has explicitly championed education as an enabler (Ilustrado literally means "the enlightened one"). But the Ateneo- and Columbia-educated Syjuco finds himself reprimanded by his rich, influential grandfather for "wasting [his] life" in a magazine, working as an editorial assistant when he is supposed to be editor-in-chief (38). "I sent you to an Ivy League school," he insists, even taunting him later, "Are you the janitor?"

Another thematic mine for Ilustrado, the Filipino family is shown in the novel as extremely didactic to a point of suffocation. Both Salvador and Syjuco tried to escape their prescribed paths. Salvador published a memoir that supposedly shamed the family and attacked the Catholic church, while Syjuco refused to enter politics and write about "nice things." The resulting estrangement practically banished them from Manila, to live exilic lives of solitude and alienation.

Both functioning as instruments to maintain their economic class, such value on family exacts Filipinos to, in turn, put a high premium on formal education. The common Filipino home is adorned with framed diplomas, giant graduation pictures, and medals dating back to kindergarten. This hunger for intellectual capital is largely class-driven: poor families break their backs to send that one intelligent child to college, middle-class families move heaven and earth to pay for tuition, and rich families give their kids the best education that money can buy.

This fetish for schools and degrees is revisited when Syjuco dines with Sadie's upper middle-class family, the Gonzalez's. Her father, upon finding out that Syjuco went to an Ivy League school, shares, "I went to Harvard for my master's, then to Princeton for my PhD" (193). The two even get into a mild tussle regarding the the composition of the Founding Four, after the elder Gonzalez calls Columbia a Little Ivy.

Marxist theory posits the primacy of commodity in the market economy, a coopting that affects all facets of life, including education. This commodification gives things value that is not inherent in them. To illustrate in this case, the value of an Ivy League education is perceived to be commensurate to how much it costs in the market and the consequent entitlements it brings, be it prestige or a high-paying job.

Even the novel's running joke about the Atenean, Lasallian, and the AMA student is rooted on class. When they see a "particularly skanky girl" wearing high-heeled shoes "popular with dancers of the exotic discipline," the three's reactions venture beyond the realm of harmless school jokes:

The Atenista says: "My God! A veritable whore of Babylon!"
The Lasallista says: "Nyeh! What a puta!"
Erning Isip ... exclaims: "Uy! My classmate from Intro to HTML!" (50).

The humor of the remarks relies heavily on the fact that they are class articulations, loaded with meanings that shed light on things beyond themselves. This is akin to the acrimonious but all-too-normal taunting of the "Tuition ninyo, allowance lang namin" variety.

Ilustrado doesn't pull punches with its jokes, the distinct Pinoy brand of humor palpable in something as silly as odd names (Boy, Baby, Keana Reeves) and long-winded acronyms (the DCSMNLLR Prize) or as grand as the protracted saga of Wigberto Lakandula, something that verges on magic realism. Vowing revenge on a couple who killed his girlfriend, the goodlooking Lakandula decapitates the family's Chihuahua's then takes them hostage. A testament to the quirky Pinoy variants of "celebrity," a crowd, led by the shrill screams of collegialas, gathers outside the house to sho support. The couple, coincidentally but not really, belong to the Changco clan, the archetype for corrupt big business and entrenched oligarchy.

Reminiscent of formulaic Pinoy teleserye, the episode brings to fore the issue of class. But while teleseryes portray class as malleable and prone to divine whimsy instead of structural and fiercely defended, the Lakandula story depicts class antagonisms playing out on a very public venue. This fascination, some would argue, is rooted on a collective imagining of class distinctions being eradicated altogether, although material conditions preclude that possibility as of yet.

However, as the novel on one hand illustrates class antagonisms and therefore the possibility of subverting the hierarchy, it offers a stern warning to those who will actually do it:

Pity not the elite, but do not condemn them all ... Vilification, by its definition, creates an antagonistic struggle, an us-versus-them mentality, that throws us all into a senseless battle-royale. The slaves of today will become the tyrants of tomorrow -- the proletariat overthrows the hegemon to become the hegemon itself (70).

Couched in an essay by Salvador called Socrates Dissatisfied, this pronouncement is unfortunately silent on alternative modes of engagement (a tell-all book is a hardly realistic solution in the face of a non-reading public). It speaks of what we shouldn't do without mentioning what we should. Inadvertently, Salvador, a mouthpiece through which the novel speaks, reveals the preoccupation of the entrenched elite, true in Ilustrado and true in society: the preservation of the status quo. What, then, of armed struggle? How does the novel portray the communist insurgency in the country, the longest-running in the world?

After finishing school in Europe, Salvador went on to become an award-winning journalist in the Philippines. He was soon conscienticized and, prompted by the gruesome murder of a woman he admired, he decided to take up arms in the late 1960s. In the hinterlands of Mt. Banahaw, he learned the following: firing a Kalashnikov, spotting edible plants, navigating by the stars, and puncturing an enemy's lung with a knife.

Trained in guerilla warfare but suspiciously with nary a lesson on the theoretical framework of Maoist-Leninist armed struggle, he described his experience as the "schooling in the best and the worst of humanity" (261). His portrayal -- and the novel's -- of the communist movement is temporal, a phase that a people will outgrow. "Call communism my youthful reaction to the garish conservatism of an entrenched elite" (127). Needless to say, Marxist critics bristled at the clear repudiation. He explains further:

I felt at the time that communism was the way because it was the only viable means to real progres in my country. I no longer believe it can work. We're simply not that noble. I still believe revolutionary change is the only remedy, but it will be through something far more primitive (127).

Syjuco even situates this point of view in the context of the world at large, a cosmopolitan treatment with which the novel positions Filipino identity. In between plans to build houses for Habitat for Humanity and volunteer for the Peace Corps in Swaziland, Syjuco and his old girlfriend Madison decide to boycot China in light of the accusations of human rights violation in the conduct of the 2008 Beijing Games. Tangentially, they note how American broadcast giant CNN stopped calling it Communist China, except during negative news stories (84).

The cosmopolitan strain goes beyond the conduit of education- and family-led diaspora. From the ski slopes of Matterhorn to the Ajaccio countryside, Salvador jetsets around Europe with indefatigable haste and ease, something that a vast majority of Filipinos cannot imagine, much less do themselves. Ironically, he seems the least home in Manila, the proverbial cutting off of the umbilical cord that he justifies as necessary in creating genuine art.

What's in Manila anyway? A hodgepodge of influences has made Manila inherently schizophrenic, in fact "most impermeable" of cities, says Salvador. "If one writes about its tropical logic, its bitter aftertaste of Spanish colonialism, readers wonder: Is this a Magical Realist? So one writes of the gilded oligarchs and the reporters with open hands and the underpaid officers in military fatigues, the authority of money and press badges and rifles distinguishing them as neither good nor bad, only satiated and dangerous. And readers wonder: Is this Africa" (60)?

The magic realist bent complements the novel's willful and successful blurring of the fiction-nonfiction divide. Manila, after all, is no stranger to strangeness. To cite, the bus that was bombed in EDSA killing four people was driven by a guy named Maximo Peligro. Recently, the disgraced former armed forces chief of staff committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart in front of his mother's grave.

And so, in Ilustrado, when a disgruntled lover held his girlfriend's killer hostage, the strangeness escaped the general population. Instead, they trooped to the house, held placards declaring their support, and sent a text message to everyone in their phonebook to "take to the streets for Lakandula" (268).

However, the oddity of the Filipino psyche is loudest with the novel's political import. With representative characters like President Fernando V. Estregan, Senator Nuredin Bansamoro and Reverend Martin, the events in the novel, though different in particulars, mimic real-life events. The circus-like turn of events, complete with sex video scandals, allegations of bribery and massive levels of corruption, is all too familiar for the jaded Filipinos. This perhaps explains the nonchalant stride in which most took the daily barrage of negative news.

But unlike in real life, the events in Ilustrado somehow culminate in a slightly reconfigured EDSA 5 (the protests took place in Manila, in the vicinity of Malacanang Palace). On one hand, this hopeful fictionalizing counters a general feeling of fatigue among Filipinos. However, the fruits of the revolution are purposely made unclear, with differing accounts on who was arrested and who was vindicated.

The final version of events -- "a blank page [rising] up to receive black letters, fingers pushing and resting in the warm curls of the keys of an old Underwood" -- is touted to supposedly "make most sense" (296). This message, no matter how sentimental and potentially hollow, nevertheless leaves room for interpretation. As Filipinos negotiate the murky terrain of their quotidian histories, the future remains to be told.

But can the future really be shaped by art in general and literature in particular? The journalistic project of the novel is lucidly undertaken, but on the question of engagement, Ilustrado seems painfully undecided. On one hand, its stand is clearly a call to action:

And yet, "No lyric has ever stopped a tank," so said seamus Heaney. Auden said that "poetry makes nothing happen." Bullshit! I reject all that wholeheartedly! What do they know about the mechanics of tanks? How can anyone estimate the ballistic qualities of words? Invisible things happen inside in intangible moments. What should keep us writing is precisely that possibility of explosions. If not, what then? (205).

But the call is a hollow cry. Pandering on the populist "The pen is mightier than the sword," the solution it offers is naively simplistic, ignoring the systemic roots of corruption that it is, in fact, on the verge of discovering. Its extensive commentary on the many contradictions that Filipino writers have to negotiate may seem like a reprimand, but who is to say that it is not guilty of the same things? So while Ilustrado can be lauded for the mostly faithful portrayal of the Filipino in its celebrated pages, it will be hardpressed to claim that it does more.

Friday, March 16


I think, I think I just got a glimpse of how my life would be 20, 30 years hence (which is timely, as had been barraged lately with déjà vus, which, despite smart-sounding scientific explanations, I choose to believe are indication that I am on the "right path," whatever this tricky judgment means). Earlier, my fiction class met at Sir B's house in Area 2 for a sem-ender semi-party. Mood was relaxed, food was plenty, and classmates were nice/r in the way people get nice at the prospect of not seeing each other again. Ever.

Sir B's advice to our class about writing and Writing (that is, writing for others and writing for yourself) is not new to me. But to hear it from someone like him, with all the issues and baggage that a long and pretty much notable career put on the counsel, gave me the kind of perspective that I need at the stage where I am right now. This is by no means an attempt to find an affinity with Sir B (although there had been comparisons... Chos!) but a statement of fact: that the kind of professional writing that he does now is the kind of projects that my writing rakets want to be when they grow up. And in some ways (that I will never admit in the light of day), the kind of fiction he does is the type of fiction that my fiction wants to be after years of practice. Which is to say, excellent in craft, excellent in spirit.

In Dumaguete, some panelist or other said the years and decades turn writers either jaded or mellow. I have absolutely no doubt in the world that I will follow the latter path. In my 50s (supposing I reach that age), I will be a glassy-eyed man impoverished by credit card debt and taking too many cabs. I know it will be a life full of pain, feeling it and thinking it. As early as now, I notice that trying to write seriously had made me more sensitive. I am very thankful for it. There is no doubt. But there are times like today when I worry for 40-, 50-year-old me. When he browses Facebook and sees my smirking 26-year-old face, what will he say? What hurtful accusations will he hurl against me? What, other than laying off Coke and porkchop, will he tell me in hindsight?

Friday, March 9


Scott’s apartment is just as I remember it, perhaps a little tidier. The books on the white wooden shelf are more neatly arranged. There is no longer a carpet of paper on the patch of floor near his bed. The smell of dirty socks is gone, replaced by a dingy, unclear scent. The apartment is still chair-less, but there is a big blue-green bean bag in front of the TV, a concession. His laptop, which sits on his desk right by the window, blinks, this room’s nerve center.
I can tell he is watching my face in search for a flicker of recognition, perhaps even nostalgia. I try to hide it, but my lips twitch involuntarily at the sight, at once so familiar and distressing, the site of many happy nights but also a lot which we would rather forget.
From the door, I go to the bean bag, on the left side, while he walks straight to the bed, on the right.
“Come here,” he murmurs, like in that coffee shop where we met after chatting online for a month. I had recognized him; he was the only Caucasian in there, but did not move until he spotted me two tables away – 20-years old, brown, and cowering under an oversized plaid polo – and sweetly ordered, “Alvin? Come here.”
Tonight, I shake my head. “You come here.” 
The bean bag recedes under his flimsy weight, the sand-like pellets quickly rearranging, remolding into a new shape. His skin is warm. Closer, I notice that his face is red-tinged and tired, the face of an old man. He smiles, and I fumble for irrelevant things to say. We’ve had too many beers, too much of things. “Are you OK?” he asks. I nod, and recline to a more comfortable position.