July 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
My third post on the World Cup in tickytocka.tumblr.com, with Noel Shaw, Eric Gamalinda, and Ubaldo Stecconi.
Recently, I read how one fierce activist refuses to watch the World Cup because it is 1) a capitalist extravaganza; 2) killer of workers; 3) “nationalist, and by extension racist”; 4) “a celebration of manhood, therefore also homophobic and sexist”; and 5) “a distraction from things that really matter.”
On the other hand, there is the blond nitwit who says anyone watching the World Cup in America is a socialist foreigner anarchist who blah blah blah blah—actually, I did not even bother to read what the wingnut said. She was as predictable as a flop from Arjen Robben (now, don’t get me wrong; Robben is probably the best player right now in the Cup, but yes, he flops).
Oddly, my response to both is: fuck you. I feel a bit of shame for my kneejerk annoyance at the killjoy vibe of the feminist activist on truthdig. And I feel superiority over anything Ann Coulter says. We are all wrought in ideology, so say Althusser and Calvin & Hobbes, and yes, our pleasures are hamstrung and cloven to the interwebzz of our collective Umwelt (whatever that means as Ubaldo just referred that to me from Wikipedia). Every four years, my pleasure in this spectacle is resurrected—but in what does my pleasure lie?
That’s so overdetermined, a colleague of mine at that curmudgeon’s paradise, Deerfield Academy, used to say, whenever he went batty over some “avant-garde,” “progressive” idea about education that assaulted his belief that teachers should stick to the English canon. By overdetermined, he meant the opposite of the word: he meant that progressives had only one way of looking at, say, Dickens. A believer in teaching “mastery” of words (his vocab quizzes were legendary), he constantly misused the term, overdetermined.
A term from psychoanalysis, overdetermined, of course, means “having more determining factors than the minimum necessary; having more than one cause; giving expression to more than one need or desire” [OED]. I imagined the reasons for his solecism might be overdetermined, but whenever this guy misused the word I could think only one thing—ass.
As a mediated space for the nakedness of ideology, as a primal spectacle of overdetermined desire, the World Cup is without parallel.
A friend texted me about the Mexican-Dutch game—did you think it was a foul, she asked.
I texted—it depends if you are a striker and Dutch, or Mexican and neutral.
LOL, she responded.
I laughed as I listened to ESPN’s Ruud van Nistelrooy explain with an earnest, straight face why it was entirely correct for Robben to drag his leg to earn a penalty and so send Mexico weeping out of the octavos de final. Ruud is not only Dutch but was also a striker, so his absolute conviction about the referee’s call was just as correct (thought still comical) as the Mexico coach Miguel Herrera’s operatic rage against the referee. (If Ruud had been a defender, Ken said, maybe he would have had some slight jot of doubt about Robben, but maybe not.)
For me, Herrera’s response and Ruud’s reasoning were equally amusing and equally understandable. Constantly, through soccer, I find evidence that reality is plagued by the principle of uncertainty—not only as we experience the game itself but also in the perspective that arises after. Heisenberg lives! Given a particular vantage in place and desire, truth shifts. And for some reason this naked display of ambiguity is compelling and hugely pleasurable to me.
Multiple and disparate ways of seeing are endemic in soccer, in which the paradoxical quality of the subjective perspective is personified by the imperious position of the referee, whose vision is acknowledged without irony as fallible yet final. (And it’s why jokes about the new goal-line technology occur in soccer, though it is ancient in American football: the technology that soccer fans have long endured, quite correctly in my view, has been the naked human eye.)
One drama of soccer is that a game’s result is definitive yet can be infinitely argued.
A knockout match’s outcome has no alternative (the winner wins, the loser loses—and too often with only minutes to spare, as with Mexico, or a shave of an inch off the crossbar, as with Greece, so that a nano-bite determines an entire country’s horror or euphoria, as with #ItalyUruguay)—there is no alternative, your country goes out, but the trauma of “what-if” can haunt a game forever.
It’s one of the weird, recurring joys of sport, but especially of the Cup: watching indeterminacy run rampant. It engineers narrative. Chance passes and missed goals—so like life. And one never knows how things will end, unless you have replay. At the same time, the Cup also operates those semiotic machines—nationalism, notions of art and tactical beauty, sexual excitement, class systems, race, and so on—which intensify the multiplicity of perception endemic to the game. It creates internationalists (Italians for Belgium, Filipinos for Colombia). It engineers fallacy. And yes, the game = the nation is a fallacy, but try telling that to the wailing fans of Chile or triumphant Brazil last Saturday. Because the fatality of your identity does matter.
As Ubaldo says, soccer is like a book that mediates reality, and we must learn to respond in at least two ways: as if the book were real, but knowing also that it is not—soccer is a screen. And unlike a book, the livid game is played by real people with terrible intensity (Neymar cries for Brazil even before the game starts), with an audience dragged into drama by what it believes is its own free will, with corporate greed, racial trauma, historical battles, athletic rivalries, and the backdrop of a truly malevolent, capitalist, masculinist, imperialist hegemonic system hovering about it, creating it and creating us.
Soccer has more determining factors than the minimum necessary. It gives expression to more than one need or desire.
In the end, I’m never neutral. I felt for Mexico. I was for Nigeria, then sick for Algeria. My reasons, if I counted, were overdetermined: 1) heartbreak loss (e.g. Mexico in 88th); 2) gutsy teams—Algeria in 1st half!2) cuteness—i.e., Enyeama, Nigeria’s Mr. Smiler; also Memo Ochoa, the gum-chewing goalie with the glacial composure of a four-year-old in a trance; 3) my reflexive binaries, e.g., Third World versus First; 4) fans—crazy Aztec garb versus Orange clowns; and 5) so on and so forth. But then, to be honest, I also liked Netherlands because 1) fake expertise—Mexico got annoying in second half; and I liked France because 2) Pogba; but I will always wish Germany out because 3) TMWC—too many World Cups.
(There are, of course, other pleasures of a Cup—the sudden fiesta of camaraderie among nations in the city of New York, but also haircuts, the fun of hearing Borges playing against Sokratis [Borges won!], upsets, male bodies, scandals [subsets: vampires, the bickering of Cameroon], jerseys [Ghana had the best], brackets, watching with Ken, emails from Eric, Noel and Ubaldo, atmosphere in certain bars, conversations with fellow fans, and, most satisfying, emerging attachment to new teams [Chile! Costa Rica! Nigeria!], and so on.)
Does this mean that I do not care that people are dying in Abuja, Brazil is in shambles, and some of America’s fans end up sounding like fucking exceptionalist bozos when they sing their I believe chant? I can see the specter of my righteous colleague, pointing his finger at my pleasure, the desire of a soccer fan—and I respond, it’s so overdetermined.
June 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
(my second post on tickytocka, the soccer blog of Noel Shaw, Eric Gamalinda, and Ubaldo Stecconi).
Roberto Baggio, the divine ponytail obscured.
Skeff is one of my best friends and the most mild-mannered of men. But we fight over Italia. He thinks they play dirty and wish they’d stop falling down. I tell him a team needs to learn to play Italia and stop touching them in the penalty box. People tell me I have no judgment when it comes to Italia. I tell them they don’t know soccer. Or calcio, as the Italians call it.
It’s not really about judgment. Maybe it’s just me. As if watching soccer develops a heart’s muscle memory.
Even at the height of my admiration for France (with Zidane in 1998) and Spain (with its entire team since 2008)—whenever they played Italy, no matter who was on Italy, I wished the other team would lose. My memory of Italia began in the late 80s with Roberto Baggio, Il Divin’ Codino, The Divine Ponytail, as he was called, the gorgeous Buddhist who was a classic Italian striker, quicksilver and preternaturally lovely in his game, and prematurely injured by his fellow Italians in Serie A; Paolo Maldini with his upsetting, otherworldly eyes and this ineffable pose—his left arm was always lofted before him, like a ballerina’s in first position, as he dribbled the ball, a deceptively delicate look for one of the fiercest and most effective defenders in a team that defined the concept of defense—and last but not least Franco Baresi, Italy’s sweeper, who like Maldini played at only one club throughout his career, Serie A’s AC Milan.
Even to remember their names, to speak the name Baresi, makes me happy. Arne loved Franco Baresi. In Manila, where we taught in the nineties, he would explain to Jay, a baseball fan, why Americans should follow soccer. And what’s so great about him, Jay would tease, pointing at Baresi, who did look like some frump, a disheveled uncle, with his receding hairline and surprisingly slight figure (I remember always being surprised when play would begin to find out once again that Baresi was several inches smaller than the extra-terrestrial, improbable Maldini, who in my mind was Baresi’s mere lieutenant).
Baresi possessed neither Maldini’s space-alien eyes nor Baggio’s obvious beauty to make one think twice about him in a crowd. But by simply walking onto the pitch, Arne said, Baresi changes the game. Jay would laugh—you mean just by putting on his shirt, walking up in his cleats? Yup, Arne would say, the mere appearance of Baresi changes the game. Soccer is not a sport, I explained to Jay—it’s the Iliad, and Baresi is Achilles—the sight of his armor alone makes twenty men die. Arne laughed when we made fun of his oracular soccer speeches, spoken with the conviction of an Italian-American who had grown up playing an outcast sport—but about Baresi, Arne was never joking.
Baresi was a sweeper, the libero, the fifth defender in Italy’s catenaccio—that door-bolt style of Italian play that locked up the enemy’s offense and infuriated me. Why can’t Italy just allow Roberto Baggio to play, I’d whine. Arrigo Sacchi did not like Baggio and kept benching him. It was the libero’s free, roaming moves from the back that orchestrated the game. Arne loved two liberos: before Baresi there was Beckenbauer. But Beckenbauer was German, and Arne’s father was from Le Marche. Italia was Arne’s team—and Baresi was Italia.
Defense, for Arne, had a kind of sacral quality, a commitment to attentiveness, to self-rigor and observation, to watching your man. Arne also loved goals, especially the goals he made. The first thing he would tell me when he came home from a game was whether or not he had scored. But a team with sloppy defense drove him crazy. Kovach, his team’s captain in Manila, was a happy-go-lucky Bob-Marley-loving jerk, a striker who was always high on marijuana and himself, who believed his destiny was to become a kicker for the Broncos, and he drove Arne wild. No matter what they agreed about man-marking in advance, Kovach the captain just never bothered and expected no one in the team to care. Arne cared a lot. Fuming over Kovach made him lose five pounds every game he played in Manila, and he was a wraith by the time he was done.
We used to watch AC Milan at 3 a.m. in Manila, a team Arne, who was a Fiorentina fan as a kid, followed because of Baresi. It was from watching AC Milan in the 90s at 3 a.m. that I appreciated the deadly tranquility that marked a great team, a kind of luxe, calme et volupté that was equal parts torpor, patience, self-belief, and silken skill. Talent, of course, was the Italians’ luxury. It was like waiting for cheetahs to pounce. When I watched Italia in 2006, I declared by the end of the first round the team had that calm that marked champions. Everyone told me I was partial, even the Italians. Calcio was again under a cloud, this time a referee scandal that would demote Juventus to Serie B (AC Milan, also a cheater, got by with a slap on the wrist and stayed up, just barely). But despite all that, tranquillo was the Italian team in 2006—intense, patient, linked to each other by skill and scandal. That was the year I fought with Skeff about Italia. Everyone remembers how that madman Materazzi apparently kept giving the demonic and typical yo-mama speech to Zidane in the final game, making Zidane go bonkers over slurs against, who knows, his sister, his mother, his grandmother, and probably even his yaya. I cried with the world, watching Zidane walk toward the tunnel past the trophy of the FIFA World Cup, which oddly looks like a monorchid, golden scrotum, by the way, missing one other, shiny, obscene ball. Noel, Eric, and I were trying to recall Materazzi’s name the other day, justly misremembering him as the man who had head-butted Zidane. And because that was the tournament when the world lost Zidane, no one remembers the semi-final game Italy played against Germany—a suspenseful 119-minute bout of sheer conviction about one’s fate. The semi-finals are often (to me) the best games of the tournament. And they are usually better when they involve the defeat of Germany. Italy broke Germany down. Germany had looked invincible—with the usual athleticism, power, and heart of a very good German team—and this time Germany was actually likable (they even had Poles). But that year, if there was one team to beat Germany, Italy would. In 2006 Italy were tranquilli—they gave me that surreal sensation, luxe, calme et volupté—under the gun of collective scandal and thrill, and they beat the Germans 2-0 in extra time. That is why they were champions.
We have no such Italia this year, but I still wanted them to win. To me, the mere appearance of the team changes the game. I guess disappearance matters, too. At least, we got the drama of a vampire bite. Which still gives us no chance for resurrection.As Arne would say, until the day he died, Forza Azzurri.
June 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
Did he hear the drums, Fernando: his last goal.
June 21, 2014 § Leave a comment
Here is the link.
June 21, 2014 § Leave a comment
((a post I gave to a tumblr blog, click on link, tickytocka, run by my friends Noel Shaw, Eric Gamalinda, and Ubaldo Stecconi))
The crowd at La Nacional, New York City, after the final World Cup match in 2010.
Three tournaments in a row I followed them. For three centuries they owned us. Even as I write this, I say damn, that connection is specious. That Spain ruled the Philippines for three hundred years (mostly through a bunch of Dominicans and Augustinians, plus on-and-off, frequently exiled Jesuits) has nothing to do with the pleasure I have had watching the great Spanish team, whom I used to call Barcelona con Iker menos Messi—soccer watchers are in love with fallacies, and the biggest fallacy of all is that a sports team equals its country and its history. Team Spain is no more the Spain of the Bourbons that overran America and stumbled into Asia than the underdog Team USA is the United States of imperialism. And yet I felt the need to explain in an FB status in 2008 why, though I was writing about the Philippine revolution against Spain, I was rooting for Spain’s revolution in soccer. As if I were apologizing for my recolonization.
Spain mesmerized me: they made a soccer fantasy real. Xavi plays in the future was how his Barcelona teammate, Dani Alves, described Xavi Hernandez, “heartbeat of Barcelona—and Spain” (and lost twin brother of Robert Downey, Jr). He imagined the run before the players did, conjuring space where there had been none. These metaphors of magic keep bubbling up when I try to capture the way I felt as I watched Spain play, an unimaginably skilled team so tightly unified and astonishingly precise that when they lost the ball it seemed like a space-time aberration, an erratum in the laws of the universe. Amid a packed crowd at La Nacional, New York’s Spanish club on Fourteenth Street, I watched Fernando Torres score the winning goal against Germany in the final game of the Euro Cup in 2008, and that palpable sense of a new order dawning was both eerie and irrefutable. Finally, Spain had stopped being the butt of tournament jokes—up till then, as my soccer friends at Hopkins used to say, they were the most reliable chokes in big games. The identity of a country in soccer has a curiously fatal permanence—until the country, for whatever reason, changes. And Spain changed: it was a Cinderella story, with cleats. And in 2010 they won the World Cup with their 1-0 wins, a score line that, for me, defined elegance (though watching it play out created agony). And to clinch their dominance, in 2012 they won yet one more Euro Cup.
A trifecta of wizardry.
For three tournaments in a row, I had the privilege of watching Spain invent a way to play the game that was new to me (I had never seen Ajax play)—but more than that, they played with what I experienced as a kind of beauty, a term I usually reserve for spatial poetry in Raphael’s School of Athens, the loose perfection of tercets in the Inferno, or structural invention in the novels of Georges Perec. I was never bored by Spain, even in the long moments of non-goals. I was hypnotized by a precision that made indeterminacy look inevitable, that turned space into prophecy.
It was a privilege to watch Spain play. They were calm, impervious to remarks about their art, for which critics baptized a clumsy term that matched their (to me, weird) scorn for what looked like possession for art’s sake, tiki-taka. Still, Spain stuck to their one-touch geometries, their triangles of passes. Because they could. I used to read articles on the Dutch team Ajax with Cruyff, or Brazil with Pele, or that goal by George Best in the Euro final against Benfica at the Estadio da Luz—and I’d feel this weird pinch, somewhat like envy, though it was aimed at no one I can think of, for not having been there, alive, to watch those games. A soccer game, like theater, is essentially ephemeral, despite its fake permanence on youtube. This is because, like a theatergoer, you are aware as you watch a great team live that what unfolds before you has never happened before, you are in the middle of Fate and her twin, Heartbreak, watching history unravel, and yes, the pundits and the replays will have their say, but what you witnessed will not happen again—a soccer game gestures to the fact that we cannot hoard time. It’s why sport seems primal: a great soccer game watched live is basically orgastic, never to be repeated, recuperated, or remade. It was a privilege to watch Spain beat those fit monsters, a different set of young Germans, 1-0, in that nerve-wracking game that sent Spain to the championship final of the World Cup for the first time ever, winning with a pass from a corner by Xavi to that header by Puyol. (I choose that semi-final moment to enshrine Spain, not their 4-0 win over Italy in Euro 2012—that’s another story.) A moment clinched in mid-air after seventy-three minutes of nail-biting, eternal passing. Xavi made 563 passes during that 2010 tournament—563 touches into the future.
That was then.
My friends lamented on FB posts—?que paso, España?—when Spain lost twice before the first week of this World Cup was over. But why be sad? It was a privilege to have watched Spain for those years when they were as mythical as Ajax, as wondrous as Pele, and (thankfully) more enduring than George Best. We were there in the moment to watch greatness passing, the art of time unfolding before our eyes. Why be sad? We were there.
!Long live Chile!
June 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
Listening to Bong Revilla is Worse than Cancer
In July, I got the news I had breast cancer. In August, my surgeon told me it was not only cancer, it was a BRCA2-positive, triple-negative basal-cell carcinoma—a kind of super-duper invasive genetic mutation that sounded like a cross between alien kryptonite and at least eight of the ten plagues that descended on Moses. In September, I had a bilateral mastectomy with one-stage reconstruction using acellular dermal matrix thingamaboobs (yes, I think that is what they are scientifically called, actually made of pigskin, I think; like a good Filipino, and Angelina Jolie, I have pork in my breasts). Then I had eight weeks of bed rest and nonstop eating of barbecue-flavored garlic-ridden Boy Bawang. A lymph node was taken out, examined, then declared negative for further cancer—but despite the good news, the procedure was torture, numbing me on my right side so that I thought a zombie had eaten up my flesh while everyone kept telling me all was good. Then, because of the high incidence of second cancer recurrence given my newly discovered mutant genes, I had four toxic doses from November to March of Taxotere with Cytoxan, despite being “cancer-free,” meaning for four months I lost my hair and my taste buds, gained gastroesophageal reflux disease (fondly nicknamed Gerd, like some just acquired pet iguana), and, what the hell, could get no pedicure for weeks (nail cells are fast-growing, like carcinoma, and chemotherapy eats up everything that looks alive). In addition, my oncologist packed steroids into my veins because, she said, it turns out in her experience, hello, every single human being is allergic to chemotherapy. No kidding, I said, skin burns all over the place but flushed with that steroid high.
And yet, when I woke up to my FB feed this morning and saw the message some “friend” was sending around, I thought—fuck Jesus and all of the seven dwarves.
The sight was worse than cancer.
Like this page, said my so-called friend (now not)—Bongbong Marcos for President in 2016.
And as if this were not enough to make me want to zap my news feed until the world looked like the dunes of Paoay, I then clicked like a masochist on Senator Bong Revilla’s privilege speech.
I mean, those are two oxymorons in one mouthful. “Senator Bong” and “privilege speech.” The first sounds like no senator and the second is no privilege nor, as far as I could tell, speech.
It was a comedy routine.
As I told a friend, this is the kind of thing you do for art. In my job as a writer, I have taken the dictum of Flannery O’Connor to heart when it comes to the Philippines: “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” Unquote.
And this is true of Vhong Navarro as of Bong Revilla.
So I clicked play.
While a grim, ineluctable rage and dawning sense of tragedy came over me looking at the page for President Bongbong for 2016, a nonstop run of giggling took over as I listened to Senator Bong.
I mean, this is too much fun in the Philippines. As another friend, survivor of Thatcher’s Britain likes to say—I laughed so hard I cried.
Batter my heart, three-personed, music-video playing, tearful pop-song-writing pork barrel demonyo, Bong Revilla. And was that a trinity of pigs I saw hugging each other in inexplicable self-congratulation, unashamedly bunching together at the end of the speech (screen shot below), like a trio about to sing “My Way” before (I hoped) a righteous gunman shoots them—or was it just my imagination running away with me, damaged by basal-cell carcinoma?
How on earth could a snapshot like that be possible?
Only in the Philippines is not my answer.
Only among public servants with a brutal lack of shame—this aggressive candor that smiles and smiles and is a villain, so Hamlet says, is not endemic only to the Philippines. But it is perfected and limitless in people like Enrile, Revilla, and Estrada—three consummate, incredible pigs. We need to remember they are actual people who have kicked back real people’s taxes and blood and tears. They are not abstract ghouls. To say “only in the Philippines” diminishes their atrocity, as if they were only a trope.
On the other hand, the sight of triplet pigs smiling unabashedly all in a row does not diminish the scene’s irreality.
People ask me why I have never written a novel about current events in my country. My response is—how can you write fiction about real but unbelievable things? Writing a novel requires crafting a suspension of disbelief. Listening to Bong Revilla’s speech, I was beset with one weird travesty of sense after another. Did he really wag his finger over the ills of the country—families with no food or jobs, lack of money to fight crime or help sick people in hospitals—when he is accused precisely of stealing the money needed to combat those ills? Am I missing something? Did he really ask us to unite with him against—well, him? Did he really invoke a list, like Napoles’s or Schindler’s, and so incriminate even God in his crimes? Did I really hear him issue a death threat in the Senate chamber (to the sitting president, no less) like some junior Nardong Putik or something, a gangster without a cause? The imperviousness to artistry in his script combined with the moment’s clueless cinematic posturing was breathtaking.
Comedy is tragedy plus time, so said Mark Twain (I think)—but in the Philippines, we keep getting comedy minus time equals tragedy. The depths of inanity in our political circus are not only an assault on citizens—they are also the despair of any novelist. When I began writing novels, I never wrote directly, but only in ‘side-view,’ with a peripheral eye, about Imelda, because, growing up as I did in Imeldalandia, I kept thinking—how can any writer top that? Imelda is a novelist’s burden to bear, because the story of her continued existence, the eye-opening fact that she is not in jail or at least once-upon-a-time crucified, is simply incredible—and yet for me, a citizen of Leyte, she’s a zombie reality that is also painfully true (in Tacloban, she’s a literal walking zombie, going around hugging people during high school reunions that are not even hers).
So instead I keep sitting at my desk writing about the horrors of the Filipino-American war—that gruesome history is less traumatizing than the surreality of Imelda.
But WTGF, our current events keep confounding my youthful rhetorical question—how can anyone top that? This indicted clown, Bong Revilla, has had not only one but two privilege speeches. Jesus Christ, did Senator Drilon not learn from his mistake already? Goddamn, Senator Drilon—two Bongs do not make a right! Is it the fault in our stars that there is no word as far as I can tell in any language, not even ours (which has the capacity for punning in at least seventy-three ways) that can sufficiently describe the nightmare of relentless irony attacking the defenseless funnybone of the Filipino public the minute Bong Revilla opened his mouth? Anak ng teteng does not cut it. In all of his elaborate, exhaustively catalogued, in fact slightly obsessive-compulsive ordering of sinners in his Inferno, not even Dante Alighieri imagined the circle of hell for that dense inversion of moral intelligence that typified every gnomic note in Senator Bong’s speech—not to mention the circle of hell in which we, the public, were cast into, merely for being alive at the time of his criminal privilege.
And then—he sang.
As one commenter, Anonymous, wrote, Karimarimarim. Or as another, also Anonymous, judiciously said—Just kill me now.
Of all the trite, unbelievably inevitable tropes of fun-in-the-Filipinisms he could have pulled out of his comedy ass, he did exactly what no self-respecting novelist would expect—or, he trumped the modernist (who still believes a story must be meaningful) with exemplary postmodernism—he reminded us in that moment, as the Senate turned into a music-video karaoke bar before our ears, that as a nation, we’re better off as fictions. The truth is a wound.
Worse, he composed a song, put it on an immortal youtube loop, and now we can make it the theme of our lives.
Huwag kayong mag-alala, he more or less threatened as he shifted into what he thought was his moving, musical valedictory—hindi kami mawawala.
The most truthful moment of his speech: Don’t worry, we will never be gone.
We know, Senator, we know.
Though there is no decent human being who is not allergic to frontal assaults on the sense of right and wrong—there is also no steroid to kill the toxic chemicals of moral perverts like Bong Revilla and all of his ilk in the Senate who hugged him without shame or fear of catching his disease after his speech (and I don’t mean just his twenty-seven hundred polygamy-bred blood relatives who have probably long sucked on the nation’s teat). Worse than cancer, these zombies will keep coming back, in different guises, in virulent strains, singing the same songs, as they eat our flesh into a numbing eternity. Don’t worry, we will never be gone. As folk wisdom knows—there is no such thing as cancer-free.
June 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
The Superhero, Secret-Spy Lacanian Baby
(I was asked to speak about language and migration in the plenary session of the National Writers’ Union 2nd Annual International Writers Conference on ‘Writing Across Borders.’ I opened with a reading of a section of Gun Dealer and proceeded with the following)
I bring up this passage because I have an interesting encounter with the question of language, a question of the use of English, whenever I read my novels to an audience. Why do you write in English? That is a very common question. A corollary question is—wow, you speak English so well, how come?
And it is very clear that most Americans do not know their own history. The early imperial history of America is a blind spot both in American history classes as well as, I have to say, in Filipino history classes. The Filipino-American war that began with the so-called Battle of Manila Bay in May 1898 and, in my reading of it, is not quite yet done, as a new military agreement has just been signed between President Barack Obama and President Noynoy Aquino III a few weeks ago, which to my mind seems to extend a historical capitulation that is never-ending—the teaching of English was part of the articles of war that prosecuted this Filipino-American war, part of the counterinsurgency policy of the Americans against the Filipinos.
My response to those readers, therefore, might be the following: I write in English because your country raped mine. So you can already see the traumatic expression inherent in the use of English in the Philippines. It is a language of aggression and of capitulation. It is a language of collusion, of delusion, of expediency, of obscenity. It was for a very long time the only language of learning. I used to have to pay five centavos for each word of my own language that I spoke in the classroom. I was required to think and to learn in English. I learned to think critically in English.
It’s almost a weird Lacanian dilemma, the dilemma of the Filipino, the postcolonial. We gain our sense of the world through speech—and all speech declares is that we are split selves. Just as when the Lacanian baby learns to speak, all his speech tells him is loss—that he is not a whole self who exists silent and complete within the loving dyad of his mother’s milky gaze—but in fact is a split being who must use words to gain a foothold on himself, on reality—so growing up in the Philippines, we are, as in that Shakespeare myth, Calibans who have learned to speak reality through the language of the magician who has defined us, only to learn that this reality created by words has already betrayed us, made us “un-whole.”
I therefore have this double-backing, if I might use a word from picture-framing: I need to be looked at from several dimensions, on at least two sides, in order to recognize my split reality. I am not fully comprehensible without the world of English—the world of aggression and territorial occupation and cultural imperialism—and the world of my other languages. My portrait, the picture that frames me, encloses both—it is not one or the other. So this panel, on the Language of Migration, Adapting the Words of the Foreigner, puts me in an interesting bind—because for me, the language I needed to live here, English, was a language that had already violated me. It lives in me. It is vital to my history. But it is interesting that while a history of violence lies in my use of the language of English, it is with a marked sense of pleasure that I play with the language of English. Which may say something about pleasure, or say something about violence, or say something about me, who knows. So I’ll start here with that premise—the violent pleasure that lies in adapting the words of the foreigner is my fantastic reality. Why is it pleasurable? And in what does that pleasure lie?
I remember as a kid, when I lived for around four years with my parents in east Los Angeles—it was kind of a slum, as far as I can tell now, though to my mom it is was just “America”—my mom used to tell me, don’t go to that kid Maria’s house, and I would say, why, because I really liked Maria’s food, her mom’s tortillas, and my mother would say, don’t go there, because they’re not Filipino, and she used to explain to me the white couple next door, the Morses, were dirty, you could tell it on their skin—and because of my mom’s bigotry, there was always this weird pride in the Filipino that I had as a kid in Los Angeles, because no one else ate adobo, and no one else was as Catholic as us, with our too many statues of Virgins praying only for us, Filipinos (since my mom would not let me go into the Mexican Maria’s house), and no one else had a mom as beautiful as mine, and no one else had the power to survive only on rice and bagoong if the apocalypse ever arrived, and so on—and when I was given a fat, five-centavo copper coin by my father when we rode the airplane to return home to the Philippines for good, I remember feeling that five-centavo coin and thinking, wow, it’s so heavy, this Filipino coin, it’s so much more real and, you know, more coin-like, than any American coin. I grew up with this Filipino bigotry, that the one true world was my mom’s Filipino world. And yet, when we returned home to the Philippines, I was not allowed to let go of the language I had acquired in the foreign country, English. I in fact had to relearn my own languages, Waray and Tagalog—I thought I would instantly know the language of my mother, but to my horror, I did not—I was a split, alien being who looked like them but did not know the language, and my teachers and the kids would kind of torture me for not knowing. When I finally did learn Waray, I perversely did not tell the teachers or the kids that I understood their words. So I had this weird experience of feeling like a spy in my own country—everyone thought I spoke only English, but whenever they insulted me for not knowing Waray, I understood them. I have always thought that learning a language is like having the secret pleasure of a pervert—of having a peeping Tom’s thrill of looking in on a world from the vantage of the other, and yet you own it, it was my own kind of occupation, and thus your power has to do with this perversion, with the power of the taboo—your outsider’s gaze.
At the same time, I had this magical advantage in school through no great virtue of my own—I was in 2nd grade then, and I already spoke and wrote in English—and because English was the coin of education, the fat, five-centavo copper coin of learning—that, too, made me feel like some kind of superhero, with some special power that I had achieved sadly through no great talent I could claim. All I had done was live in a slum in L.A.
So by the time I was seven, my ego was quite interesting. I had already experienced this weird double-backing from at least two delusional dimensions—I had this feeling from the time I was a child of being a double-agent, the weirdo spy who knows two worlds at once and feels superior though also ostracized or at least strange, in both. Of course, to my peers I was mainly strange—I was a schizophrenic person living under the delusion of a superhero complex.
This is the odd feeling I have as a foreigner in America. I have the advantage of being adept in at least two worlds, and though I am also a traumatized being coming as I do from two worlds, my double-backing remains an advantage. My existence as a speaker of multiple languages makes me a person of multiple beings—and that multiplicity gives me a vantage, a point of view, necessarily broader and sometimes richer than those of others without my double-agency. Double-agency, secret-spyhood is the advantage of the migrant. There are many ways in which I have already occupied English, made it my own; and there must be many ways in which English has stamped its power over me, making me in its image, in its surds and its slurs and its words.
I am as impatient with Filipinos who make fun of Filipinos who don’t speak “correct English” as I am with Americans who do not understand why I write in English. I remember someone who made fun of Manny Pacquiao the boxer’s English—and my response—why should Manny Pacquiao speak English like him, a person from southern California? It is completely rational that a guy from General Santos would speak English like Manny Pacquiao. And as for Americans who wonder about a Filipino who writes in English, those motherfuckers, as Junot Diaz might call them, just need to read their history. The scholar Neil Garcia has told me how NVM Gonzalez, the Filipino novelist, once retorted to an American poet who commented about Filipino writing in English—I notice there is not much irony in it, she said—and NVM Gonzalez said—is it not ironic enough that I am writing in English?
There is both a richness and a traumatic, endless loss in the fact that history has given me this choice—to adapt to the words of the foreigner. In a way, I believe that is why I became a novelist. From the time I was a child, I was always beset by the perils of language—of adapting myself to the language of the places in which I lived, whether the city of Los Angeles or the island of Leyte, where I grew up—and I am endlessly wondering how language becomes us—how the language we speak creates and transforms the reality we live. This is a writer’s dilemma, after all, this constant, bedeviling recognition that language is reality. That language is the coin, the currency that negotiates reality. And so in many ways, I imagine, the migrant is always thinking like a writer—beset by the traumas of words that transform her and thus her reality. I sometimes think it would be great if, instead of thinking or wondering about whether we are one thing or another, either a Filipino or a Filipino-American, or a Mexican or Chicano, a Caliban or why not a Prospero and so on and so forth, we can imagine ourselves as some superhero with a special power, this monstrous split self who because of language is, ultimately, both super- and simply human—in our case made adamantly, perhaps emblematically so through the power of our multiple, rich languages, though it’s perhaps a power sadly achieved through no great talent that we can claim, except perhaps for the genius of arrival, of survival, of finding our tongues somehow in some place we can call home.
With Ninotchka Rosca, plenary speaker: superhero, secret-spy of Philippine literature.