DISORDER & CONSTANT SORROW
Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years
Susan F. Quimpo & Nathan Gilbert Quimpo, with David Ryan F. Quimpo, Norman F. Quimpo, Emilie Mae Q. Wickett, Lillian F. Quimpo, Elizabeth Q. Bulatao, Caren Q. Castañeda, Jun F. Quimpo, & Maria Cristina Pargas-Bawagan
Manila: Anvil Publishing, 2012
In the process of finalizing the current issue of Kritika Kultura, Ateneo’s online journal, on Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night, I went over some of the notes I took during the too-few interviews I had with the director. One of the statements he made, that our stories as a people are better told as a collective, became the basis of several articles and an entire dissertation on the film and its author. The format, which we can call by its description “multiple-character,” is a tricky one to pull off. Seemingly “social” fictions like Gone with the Wind or, closer to home, Noli Me Tangere typically begin with a large group of characters, then reduce the narrative threads until they focus on a hero, sometimes with a romantic interest or against an antihero, or (in the case of GWTW) a love triangle – which, by presenting a character torn between two options, invites singular identification and thus maintains the heroic arrangement.
The multi-character film format actually originated in literature, so it would not be surprising to find it deployed more readily in fiction and theater, where the “star” demands of cinema can be more easily ignored. The more ambitious samples, like Manila by Night (and Bernal’s avowed model, Nashville), succeed in portraying, via the interaction of its characters, an abstract, singular, social character that embodies the conflicts, frustrations, and aspirations of the milieu the text’s figures represent. The unexpected delight of my current Pinoy reading experience, in this wise, was in recognizing several of these qualities (and then some) in a recent book, titled Subversive Lives. Listing Susan F. Quimpo and Nathan Gilbert Quimpo as authors, the Anvil publication actually comprises contributions from the Quimpo siblings and the widow of their brother.
The Quimpos achieved fame (or notoriety, depending on one’s perspective) for having had several of them participate in the anti-dictatorship movement during the martial-law regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Since the only genuine opposition during most of this period was provided by the outlawed Communist underground, the Quimpo family, by its association, underwent dramatic upheavals, acute heartbreak, and occasional but still-too-rare moments of grace that would appear almost fantastic had the book been announced as a fiction. The fact that these events actually happened, related by the individuals who directly experienced them, provides the reader with a sense of how irreparably damaging authoritarianism has always been for our particular national experience. I remember how, as a student at the state university, I could always rely on the fact that my smartest classmates would be sympathetic, if not involved outright, with student-activist causes – in sharp contrast with the situation I later observed as a teacher. Subversive Lives provides a panoramic chronicle of how the militarized dictatorship, profitable only to foreign and mercenary local business and religious interests, upheld the worst legacies of colonial education and magic-patriarchal morality: backward thugs armed, fed, and protected by the machinery of an irredeemably corrupted state were allowed to wield life-or-death mastery over the very people in whom, by virtue of their capacity to exercise discernment, creativity, and determination, the future of the nation would have resided.
The Quimpo children, in this respect, may be regarded as representative of the country’s best and brightest, had they emerged in another place, another time. Starting out as stereotypical overachievers, the only source of pride of their financially distressed parents, they grew up just when the storm clouds of tyranny were gathering; having moved to a cramped apartment near the presidential palace, they were initially witnesses, then active participants, in the increasingly violent protest actions then taking place in their neighborhood.
One of the most powerful dramatic undercurrents in the book is how the Quimpos’ parents coped with the spectacle of several of their children giving up their scholarships, then their bright futures, by moving from school dropouts to wanted figures, hunted down and tortured by the military. One of the sons recollects his reconciliation with his father at the latter’s deathbed, and his story suddenly breaks free of the storytelling mode, addressing his father in the present as if he were still alive, and as if no reader would wonder: “Talk to me. I’m your son…. Why don’t you express all your heartaches, disappointments, and frustrations?” The siblings never shake free the realization that the paths they chose were not what their parents had hoped for them. If their parents lived long enough, they would have seen that the Quimpo children had been able to attain impressive career trajectories, covering several continents and participating in impactful projects (of which the book serves as group memoir) that would have been the envy of the more privileged families with their utterly predictable and vision-impoverished choices.
Even the sister who had opted for life as an Opus Dei numerary found inevitable parallels between her Order and the fascist system that her siblings were struggling against. The story of the retrieval of their brother’s body is hers to tell, and one would probably wind up smiling, in the face of the long-anticipated tragedy, at how she had managed to muster enough reserves of strength to confront and intimidate the military officers who felt like aggravating her and her grieving female companions, just for the heck of it. When, famished after the confrontation, one of them mistakenly brings one too many orders of Coke and the driver of their vehicle innocently asks whom the spare bottle is for, then they turn toward their brother’s body and cry all over again, I could not help turning as well toward the best moments in Pinoy cinema, where our film-authors are so casually able to incite these tender combinations of humor and warmth amid overwhelming sadness.
The book ends with a controversy that has shaken up, and continues to do so, the Philippine revolutionary movement. The Quimpos who were then still involved were major participants, and express the opinion that the leadership they challenged had taken on qualities of the dictatorship that they had fought against and (in a sense) succeeded in ousting. Like the best Filipino multi-character texts, Manila by Night foremost among them, Subversive Lives is sprawling, occasionally meandering, sometimes indulgent, and necessarily open-ended. It is also gripping, heartfelt, insightful, and forward-looking, so much so that the aforementioned “flaws” would be a small price to pay for its still-rare literary largesse, just as the Quimpo children’s rebellion has made the country’s journey to a more meaningful present a trip for which we as their witnesses ought to be grateful.
[First published September 18, 2012, as “The Marcos Dictatorship and the Irreparable Damage to a Family and the Filipino Experience” in The FilAm]
Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata
Quezon City: Philippine Writers Studio Foundation, 2011
The results of the recently concluded American presidential elections seemed guaranteed to make everyone happy – except for the Republican Party and its now less-than-majority supporters. American conservatives could have spared themselves their historic loss if they had taken the trouble to inspect the goings-on in a country their nation had once claimed for itself, the Republic of the Philippines. The admittedly oversimplified lesson that Philippine cultural experience demonstrates is: when conservative values seek to overwhelm a population too dispossessed to have anything to lose, the pushback has the potential to reach radical proportions.
This is my way of assuring myself that a serendipitous sample, Ricky Lee’s recent novel Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata (Amapola in 65 Chapters), could only have emerged in a culture that had undergone Old-World colonization followed by successful American experimentations with colonial and neocolonial arrangements, enhanced by the installation of a banana republic-style dictatorship followed by a middle-force uprising, leaving the country utterly vulnerable to the dictates of globalization and unable to recover except by means of exporting its own labor force – which, as it turns out, proved to be an unexpectedly successful way of restoring some developmental sanguinity, some stable growth achieved via the continual trauma of yielding its best and brightest to foreign masters.
Si Amapola is one of those rare works that will fulfill anyone who takes the effort to learn the language in which it is written. A serviceable translation might emerge sooner or later, but the novel’s impressive achievement in commingling a wide variety of so-called Filipino – from formal (Spanish-inflected) Tagalog to urban street slang to class-conscious (and occasionally hilariously broken) Taglish to fast-mutating gay lingo – will more than just provide a sampling of available linguistic options; it will convince the patriotically inclined that the national language in itself is at last capable of staking its claim as a major global literary medium. In practical terms, the message here is: if you know enough of the language to read casually, or enjoy reading aloud with friends or family – run out and get a copy of the book for the holidays. The novels of Lee, only two of them so far, have revived intensive, even obsessive reading in the Philippines, selling in the tens of thousands (in a country where sales of a few hundreds would mark a title as a bestseller), with people claiming to have read them several times over and classrooms and offices spontaneously breaking into unplanned discussions of his fictions; lives get transformed as people assimilate his characters’ personalities, and Lee himself stated that a few couples have claimed to him that their acquaintance started with a mutual admiration of his work.
This is the type of response that, in the recent past, only movies could generate – and the connection may well have been preordained, since Lee had previously made his mark on the popular imagination as the country’s premier screenwriter. The difference between the written word and the filmed script, per Lee, is in the nature of the reader’s participation: film buffs (usually as fans of specific performers) would strive to approximate the costume, performance, and delivery of their preferred characters, while readers would assimilate a novel’s characters, interpreting them in new (literally novel) ways, sometimes providing background and future developments, and even shifting from one personage to another.
Si Amapola affords entire worlds for its readers to inhabit, functioning as the culmination of its author’s attempts to break every perceived boundary in art (and consequently in society) in its pursuit of truth and terror, pain and pleasure. For Lee, the process began with his last few major film scripts (notably for Lino Brocka’s multi-generic Gumapang Ka sa Lusak [Dirty Affair]; 1990) and first emerged in print with his comeback novellette “Kabilang sa mga Nawawala” (Among the Missing; 1988). More than his previous novel Para Kay B (O Kung Paano Dinevastate ng Pag-ibig ang 4 Out of 5 sa Atin) (For B [Or How Love Devastated 4 Out of 5 of Us]; 2008), Si Amapola is a direct descendant of “Kabilang,” at that point the language’s definitive magic-realist narrative.
Despite this stylistic connection Si Amapola is sui generis, impossible to track because of its fantastically extreme dimensions that abhor any notion of middle ground. The contradictions begin with the title character, a queer cross-dressing performer who possesses two “alters”: Isaac, a macho man (complete with an understandably infatuated girlfriend), and Zaldy, a closeted yuppie. His mother, Nanay Angie, took him home after she found him separated from his baby sister and, notwithstanding the absence of blood relations and any familial connections, raised him (and his other personalities) with more love and acceptance than most children are able to receive from their own “normal” relatives. A policeman named Emil, a fan of real-life Philippine superstar Nora Aunor, then introduces Amapola to his Lola Sepa, a woman who had fallen in love with Andres Bonifacio, the true (also real-life) but tragically betrayed hero of the 19th-century revolution against Spanish colonization. Lola Sepa moved through time, using a then-recent technology – the flush toilet – as her portal, surviving temporal and septic transitions simply because she, like her great-grandchild Amapola, happens to be a manananggal, a self-segmenting viscera-sucking mythological creature.
Already these details suggest issues of personal identity and revolutionary history, high drama and low humor, cinematic immediacy and philosophical discourse, and a melange of popular genres that do not even bother to acknowledge their supposed mutual incompatibilities; if you can imagine, for example, that a pair of manananggal lovers could be so abject and lustful as to engage in monstrous mid-air intercourse, you can expect that Lee will take you there. The novel’s interlacing with contemporary Philippine politics provides a ludic challenge for those familiar with recent events; those who would rather settle for a rollicking grand time, willing to be fascinated, repulsed, amused, and emotionally walloped by an unmitigated passion for language, country, and the least and therefore the greatest among us, will be rewarded by flesh-and-blood (riven or otherwise) characters enacting a social drama too fantastic to be true, yet ultimately too true to be disavowed.
At the end of the wondrously self-contained narrative, you might be able to look up some related literature on the novel and read about Lee announcing a sequel. Pressed about this too-insistent meta-contradiction of how something that had already ended could manage to persist in an unendurable (because unpredictable) future time, he replied: “Amapola the character exists in two parts. Why then can’t he have two lives?” Nevertheless my advice remains, this time as a warning: get the present book and do not wait for a two-in-one consumption. The pleasure, and the pain, might prove too much to bear by then.
[First published November 8, 2012, as “High Drama and Low Humor in Ricky Lee’s New Fiction about a Cross-Dressing Manananggal” in The FilAm]
Gang of 5: Tales, Cuentos, Sanaysay
New York: Mariposa Center for Change, 2013
While awaiting the international availability of Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite, I placed some orders for a number of dead-tree editions – which also ran into unexpected delays. Meanwhile a packet arrived in the mail, containing a slim volume titled Gang of 5: Tales, Cuentos, Sanaysay. The author, Ninotchka Rosca, was someone I’d never met in person, although anyone with even a remote association with progressive literary circles in the Philippines would have heard her name sooner or later.
My personal regret is my failure in going beyond the opening pages of her first novel, State of War – I was then preparing for overseas graduate studies and ran out of time to read all the then more recent Filipiniana titles (mostly eventually damaged by the elements) in my collection. After having made the author’s acquaintance on a social network, I recognized certain qualities I’d grown familiar with from an earlier generation of activist authors, with whom I once hung out as a way of furthering my unsentimental education. Assertive, impatient with detractors, firm in her convictions, unsparingly self-critical, she would nevertheless surprise everyone with a graciousness that could only have come from a first-hand familiarity with people-oriented service – from gestures as casual as sharing pictures (of her home, or her past) that made her happy, to helping an infirm neighbor abandoned by everyone else, to offering assistance to anyone devastated by natural calamity.
My Gang of 5 copy will never leave my personal book shelf, mainly because of the author’s signature succeeding a handwritten quotation from Conrad Aiken – and also because of the text, “Limited Edition,” affixed above the title. In an exchange, Rosca said that the book will be available to a general readership by mid-year, and however one cuts the argument, it would be a major loss for readers of Philippine literature if it weren’t. For this, out of all the several anthologies of Pinoy English-language short fiction ever put out, will satisfactorily serve as the all-purpose single-volume introduction to local writing that anyone will ever need. None of the five pieces is less than inspired, each one represents a writing challenge distinct from the rest, and everything builds up to the larger anticipation of greater pleasures awaiting in the output of other Filipino authors – final proof of Rosca’s generosity of spirit in honoring her colleagues by providing evidence of how equal they are, as she is, to the challenge of literary excellence.
The book, as far as I can surmise from her social-network postings, was another of her selfless exercises in pursuit of a worthy crusade: it was intended as a giveaway for donors to the Mariposa Center for Change’s Stand with Grace Campaign, a so-far successful effort to prevent a corrupt and abusive Congressman from forcing his mistress, who had sought asylum in the US, to return to his overeager clutches. Such a cause-oriented origin should not mislead the reader into expecting a series of feminist philippics; rather, the pieces are feminist in the best updated sense, some of them even abandoning the literal prescription of center-positioning a lead female character, and in one case even revealing an otherwise strong and politicized woman as a villain – a lesson well-learned from the never-ending “positive images” debates of whether Others should always be depicted as virtuous, unblemished, normative, wholesome, victims-but-never-victimizers, etc.
In fact one can just as well imagine a scenario where an enterprising publisher announces an extensive search for women’s writing in diverse genres, selecting the best entries submitted, and discovering too late that they had all been written by the same author. The collection opens with an account of the musings of a murderously inclined male sociopath, an achievement noteworthy if only for its success in comprehending the morbid mind, without recourse to the generic solutions of depicting the character as evil or abnormal; the story’s ultimate source of terror lies in how such a person emerges as normal, even respected, in the Third-World milieu where he operates. The collection then shifts gears – another country, another gender – and provides a feel-good (in the well-earned sense, for which my word will have to suffice for now) tale of what it means to be a Filipina within an imagined community, even among people who have precisely nothing else but their imagination to follow-through this exquisitely complex construct.
Rosca maintains the central story, “The Neighborhood,” as a link to her past and future as story-teller. It comes from her earlier highly acclaimed anthology The Monsoon Collection (which I also have not read, to my continuing chagrin). Here she orchestrates the interactions of one of the metropolis’s several slum neighborhoods, a colony within a colony; a possibly magic-realist event closes what is necessarily an open-ended account, so it makes perfect sense that the central character’s narrative will be continued, per Rosca’s declaration, in her forthcoming novel, The Synchrony Tree (whose excerpts she has posted on her blog Lily Pad, a pun on the Filipino expression “about to fly, or take off”). The last two pieces focus on women’s heartbreak, one a semi-nouvelle à clef seemingly based on a famous Philippine multimedia pop star’s self-exile in the US, the other an autobiographical-sounding account of a mother’s abandonment of her helpless, oppressed daughter. Rosca refuses the facile options of resorting to victimological formulations of these characters’ respective plights; the reader is assured of her sympathy precisely because of her willingness to cast a cool, almost clinical eye on the inner conflicts of these personae, familiar from the stock repertory of soap fictions yet unnervingly represented with flesh-and-blood tangibility in these texts.
Rosca recalled how Julie de Lima, wife of the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, once remarked that “Only Ninotchka can render Joma [Sison] speechless.” The occasion was a public exchange on the use of English as a medium for expressing the ideas and sentiments of Filipinos, with Sison asserting the standard nationalist line that only a native language will fulfill the challenge of depicting, say, a slum child’s innermost concerns. Rosca, by her own account, maintained that “language – any language – [is] a malleable tool, per the writer’s skill. I then asked him whether reading Mao Zedong, [who came from] a Chinese peasant family, in English translation implied a loss in the thoughts of the revolutionary leader…. The question is why we accept reading scientific, philosophical, or political tracts in a foreign language [yet] demand that literature restrict itself to a first-level reality.” The incident reveals the little-known willingness of Sison in welcoming adversarial discussions, but it also cost Rosca the respect of some of his more fanatical followers.
Gang of 5 is, among many other things, elegant proof of her defiant stance regarding the utility of the language she happened to have at her command. Its achievements would have needed no further justification beyond the serendipity of reaching an extensive readership, but Rosca typically allowed it to shoulder a wide range of objectives – from assisting a battered woman, to embodying her convictions on language, even serving as a conduit in her once-and-future fiction projects – and like all major works of literature (even the shortest ones), the collection itself abides. Somewhere there’s a lesson for the country’s political and economic leaders, if they could find enough time and humility to draw inspiration from a few dozen pages of wondrously well-wrought prose.
[First published February 21, 2013, as “High Five for Ninotchka Rosca’s Sanaysay Anthology” in The FilAm]