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.