(Written for Thirdest World, an anthology published in 2007, with work by me, Eric Gamalinda, and Lara Stapleton. All three of us in the collection wrote essays about our work. I commented on the short story, “Cunanan’s Wake,” and excerpts from The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata. Reading this draft on my computer, I realize the final version was completely edited—don’t remember now how or why. NOTE: I do not write short stories anymore. I like short stories [by others! especially Sabina Murray’s: I admire those very much!], but I have stopped writing them for some reason. And I would offer this caveat about this essay: I do have discomfort about a binary of New Criticism/postmodernism: there is something false about that [which may be why I edited it for the final version of Thirdest World (don’t remember anymore)?]. One day, it might be useful to return to this though and place my choices as a novelist in terms of my own overdetermined purposes: personal, commercial, aesthetic, historical, deeply existential, and of course idiosyncratic. For instance, there is the material fact that I ended up a student of John Barth, to whom I wrote after the workshop in Silliman in 1985: I sent Barth the opening sections of Bibliolepsy: thus my arrival at Johns Hopkins in 1987. Ironies of the postcolonial are quite interesting in that transmigration. But anyway, here is this draft of the essay from my computer.)
Short story and novel—the dichotomy of style in those two genres, shown in the fairly ‘straight’ narrative of the story “Cunanan’s Wake” versus the fairly ‘disjunct’ narrative of the novel excerpt The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, perhaps summarizes the split I recognize in my own self as a writer.
That split denotes a fissure of style—or at least a ‘tangential divagation,’ as Dr. Ed Tiempo liked to say. Dr. Tiempo was the director of the Silliman Summer Workshops, for a long time the pre-eminent seminar for young writers in the Philippines. Dr. Tiempo was a New Critic, trained in the rigor of the ‘realist’ short story popular to this day in America (The New Yorker, for instance, still almost exclusively features short stories in the New Critical vein—like those by Michael Cunningham or John Updike or Jhumpa Lahiri).
The Filipino short story in English was born from the writers who studied under American New Critics in the thirties through the sixties. The New Critical story was marked by a diachronic sense of history, with connected incidents threaded astutely and patterned subtly with motifs, reversals, and recognitions, elements that hark back as far as the Poetics of Aristotle, leavened by gentle modernist sleights of tongue. It is an orderly narration, thus satisfying. Aristotle noted that the best kind of plot was ‘complex’ and that the best kind of ‘complex plot’ possessed these two elements: peripeteia (reversal) and anagnorisis (recognition). Irony and epiphany seem to be the modern devices from which the form of the New Critical short story hangs on to Aristotle for dear life. These are not the only marks of that type of story; nor do irony and epiphany (nor reversal and recognition) occur only in the New Critical story. But the short story that Dr. Tiempo deemed naturally the best, no questions asked, at the beaches in Silliman, where I went in the summer of 1985, distinctly favored carefully plotted ironies and deftly built epiphanies, so that a gun on page one should go off (or at least misfire) by the end. Those stories also threw in an objective correlative here and there, for good measure.
For better or worse, when I write short stories, which tend to be about individuals trying to figure out their place in their culture, or their culture’s place in a wider culture, I keep hearing Dr. Tiempo’s aesthetic. Tangential divagation. I cannot escape its clutches. In “Cunanan’s Wake,” I hadn’t recognized until I finished the work that the figure of the pig runs through the story. I kind of liked how it turned out that way—though I certainly did not set out to make it one fat and roasting objective correlative. It kind of ‘nosed’ its way through the work, I guess. Also, sure enough, in the story the gun appears and, however erratically, goes off. The final scene is typical (though not the best kind) of Dr. Tiempo’s tangential epiphanies—the divagation from inner resolution to outward salute in the firing of the gun. An echo of the beginning. Subtlety. Recognition. The form of the story is essentially one of inherent futility. The gay son is still unspoken, hidden in the mother’s heart. Epiphanies tend to be that way—inward, individual.
It makes sense that America in the 1930s would fetishize an art form constructed around the narrow constraints of an individual’s refined perceptions: America itself collapsed (if one defines America by its stock market) and, as war became inevitable in Europe, America turned isolationist, inward. The Filipino short story in English, that transplanted species grafted directly from a capitalist wound fetishizing the individual, is doubly cankered, it seems to me—not only does it branch from the colonial master’s private agonies, it creates a whole school of Filipino writers from the thirties onward who are unaware that they are nursing the fetishes of their own oppressors.
This is not to say that one should not write short stories in the mold of Ed Tiempo or Paz Marquez Benitez. What it might imply is that the ‘realist’ mode of narration constructed from the theories of New Criticism, boldly accepted in workshops as the standard for narration, may in fact be as imported and ‘unnatural’ as Spam. That is, it is not ‘naturally the best.’ Like almost everything else, it too is a product—a product of history—and like Spam it might be unhealthy.
At the Silliman workshops, I know I felt a kind of castration (for a woman writer always has balls, you know). The Filipino short story in English, as defined by Silliman, seemed too narrow for my—or my country’s—interests. I think I began to write novels to resolve those misgivings. The form of narration I choose for my novels is as much constructed from conventions and discipline (and perhaps even more ancient models) as that of the ‘realist’ story. But the deliberate use of disjunction, or narration by parapraxes and lists, or by footnotes and leaps, or characterization by emergency not by careful coincidence—these devices are often considered ‘awkward,’ ‘wrong,’ ‘misfires.’ They are only tangential and divagate from nowhere. The gun does not go off. It’s hard to get works like these published, though writers as influential as Rabelais and Sterne prod those of us who prefer these funhouse flops.
But for me, a powerful reason to write ‘postmodern novels’ (as some people damn these cursed constructions) is precisely because their construction matches my sense of history. Philippine history is the overt result of various others shaping its sense of self. The so-called postmodern voice (for lack of a better word), which refracts, realigns, and repositions texts and viewpoints from multiple angles, ruptured plots, confused tongues, and an almost heedless anachronistic sense of history, is a potent way to fathom and portray the unfinished ‘reality’ of such a nation.
Here is an example: the notion of the Philippines, in a sense, was produced by a novel. The national hero Jose Rizal’s first work, called Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), inspired the mass movement that launched revolution against Spain. That novel was written in Spanish. At this point in history, we do not read that language. Because we were occupied by America by 1898 and officially ruled by it until 1946, we’ve read in English (at least I have) and speak at least 50 different other languages. I grew up with three languages: Waray, Tagalog, and English. I was required to study a fourth, Spanish: but my learning of it was much removed from actual practice. Thus, we must read in translation the novel that begot us. In a further spin, many of us read that novel in another colonizer’s tongue (as for me, I first read it in Tagalog: quite illuminating for a Waray).
The essence of a country like the Philippines is that it seems to exist in translation—a series of textual mediations must be unraveled in order to reveal who or what it is. More precisely: it exists in the suspension of its myriad translations—it is alive in the void of its borrowed speeches. The New Critical-realist mode cannot hold that overflowing reflexivity—the dictates of its devices are too prissy and neat. On the other hand, the postmodern or ‘metafictive’ narration makes the problem of this translated self both its subject and its form: it unfolds a plot of reflexivity, introspection and narrative disjunction, weighted and measured in texts though alienated by words. These excerpts from the novel, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, attempt to conjure this dizzy history. In the end it must be that all literary forms are forms of ‘realism.’ Or maybe we just infect all things with words. Short story or novel, writers must choose with care which poison is most ‘real’ for the unnatural purposes we have in mind.
On this anniversary of that week in February in 1986, I go back to my first novel Bibliolepsy, which ends with that week, and wonder if this reading of EDSA still holds.
“It was at about this time, I believe, that the country became afflicted with what one might call semiosis, a sepsis of the semiotic tract, an infection of the sign-making glands. We assign to this event meanings that all lead to questions of life and death, philosophical heartburn and patriotic dread. We revise and revisit our feelings toward it the way Romans of old found omens in the intestines of birds. That, too, was a form of semiosis. The street itself, EDSA, takes on, at odd moments in the present day when I travel through it, a weirdly disorienting sense of a symbol gone awry. Why should it? It’s still just a street, going to seed in an unremarkable third world way.
Other people (e.g., psychoanalysts, romance novelists, air traffic controllers) have pointed out before in different contexts that the ability to see meanings is not necessarily a sign of wisdom, or health. It may indicate intellectual training or acumen, yes, but it may also be a symptom of delusion, fierce heartache, severe ennui, and other renditions of mental weakness. We must take into account that our own revisions of the rebellion we call, eponymously and thoughtlessly, EDSA may be all of the above, and more.
If it is at all possible, in a non-Heraclitean world, to go back, to step into the same river twice, maybe when we do we must ban all meanings, tropes, and symbols—the maladies afflicting EDSA. Maybe if we can stem memory within some filtering contraption, a device of a sort for disinfection, by which we can flush out metonyms, similes, ugly gigantic memorial statues, newspaper editorials, biblical references, mythical allusions, and this entire paragraph, maybe then we might distill something more pure and light, closer to the original weight of a single minute on that street.
The problem with epiphanies is that by definition they cannot be shared. There was no national epiphany in February of 1986; there may have been a million revelations lodged quietly and inarticulately in each heart.
Which may be a flaw in the message, if you wish to see it that way.”
The Swedes wondered what Trump was talking about at his bloviating rally in Florida (a rally to help out his ego after being slaughtered by citizens, intelligence community, and media for the savage executive orders and patent incompetence of his opening weeks in office)—when Trump said, “You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?” And Sweden started head-scratching about what the hell was happening last night in Sweden—a wooden moose got the attention of a lovesick bull??
The articles on his speech were funny—but too familiar for Filipinos.
Trump is too much like Filipino president Duterte: people scratch their heads over his dumb dangerous comments, then the man backtracks and says he was referring not to a terror attack but to blablabla (in this case an equally foolish exchange on Sweden in Fox News)—he is an incoherent mess, where when he talks about “last night” he means a goddamned news show he watched, not an actual night in Sweden. The horrific narcissism in that slip of the tongue just boggles the mind.
Then his White House will say righteous things about bad media who hate him and the malevolent hearers who distort him—just as in the Philippines after every Duterte press con, his Palace people have to come out and be sycophant translators of the man’s fentanyl dementia.
This Trump presidency mirrors Duterte because for both leaders their speech shows constant psychopathological slips of the tongue. Their speech shows their frequent lapses into insanity, but in banal and kind of comic ways—parapraxes that are seemingly trivial. They actually sound funny. But deranged words are serious business, even if you’re not the leader of your world.
Trump and Duterte’s language shows they are unable to process information in a reality-based way. But the problem is their countries’ citizens (and in this case poor Swedes too) make an attempt to process their speech: we become entwined in the scary contortions of their deep neurosis, laid bare by their weird words.
If reports on Duterte as mastermind of death squads is true, actually handing out money for kills, then his lapses in speech have a much more ominous pall: they cover up/reveal a much more disturbing figure than someone who insults and swears at popes or foreign presidents. His violent Tourettesian invective begins, in hindsight, to rise like semaphores of a deep-seated loathing in Duterte—but in a Catholic country where in some ways confessing your sins soothes you, what sin were we actually being asked to attend to whenever he said fuck-you to obvious figures of authority in his juvenile mind, like the Pope or the United Nations? Duterte is always telling us how fucked up he is, reveling in his fucked-upness—when the truth comes out about Davao’s Death Squads (I will admit, I believe that truth will be grave and horrifying), his fucking words have already told us, putang ina, all we needed to know: that Duterte believes in his heart he is a mess and he’s telling us his mother should not have borne him, putang ina (which makes him sad, actually, though not tragic—nor, for me, would it rouse any sympathy for him).
Whether Trump’s bigoted speech during his campaign was merely calculating was up for grabs for some people (not me) but we see now a psychotic view of race that his policies betray: the violent focus on vulnerable brown and foreign bodies in his executive orders—immigrants, refugees, including their children—is one with Trump’s (in my view, psychotically) racist comments and beliefs on criminal blacks and, of course, his horror of the sheer being of Barack Obama, original birther that Trump is.
Of course Trump is also one with the psychotically racist people who voted for him—and I do believe that at the heart of America is its unresolved issue of race, which makes America a weirdly high-functioning schizophrenic place. And of course the political calculus of keeping immigrants out helps the GOP in its Reconstruction delusion that a political lynching of brown bodies will mean fewer anti-GOP voters.
But as we know we can view this in overdetermined ways: just because an action might be politically rational does not mean it may not also be deeply disturbed.
The psychopathologies of these men’s tongues might seem comic and even trivial on one hand. But lapses in language are always the most puzzling but most powerful signs of a self’s division. We are dealing with damaged people here. They will keep sounding funny but of course we know they are profoundly not.
And what then is the end, what then is the point of recognizing the madness of leaders?
Quite simply: we must protect the vulnerable that their insanity kills.
We must protect and fight for the adult former-children of DACA, the immigrants rounded up unconstitutionally by ICE, the refugees who will have no home despite all their extreme vetting and extreme suffering, the poor who will lose their health care, the women whose bodies will not be free to choose under this Trump/Pence idiot regime.
We must work for the victims of the anti-drug war slaughter in the Philippines—who are almost, to the individual, poor and outrageously hopeless in a society that degrades them. Civil society groups are helping out—IDefend, FLAG, and so on. We must help those groups. I am hoping we in Filipino America can band together in the future to help those victims: an idea for that, coming up soon.
Diane Arbus photographed him in Central Park, 1969, for Harpers Bazaar. She caught light in Borges. I like that.
also, just for kicks, the freaky baby picture of Anderson Cooper by Diane Arbus. I am beginning to feel affection for this monstrosity. She titles it “very young baby.” I will put it up here so I can stare at it. It makes me laugh.
Today is the 25th anniversary of Freddie Mercury’s death. I loved Queen because, you know, I am an 80s person. And in my anxiety the night before the elections, I ended up watching 80s videos for hours. I wondered why: and I realized when I was marching on the streets in the 80s, I’d go home and watch this new phenomenon: MTV. Weird way to remember resistance though. Clearly: a sign of trauma.
I wrote this story a long time ago, having watched this prison video that oddly moved me.
And everything I had to know
I heard it on my radio
All we hear is. I am reduced to. A doppelganger in someone else’s. The avatar of inconsequence. Look at us. Look at me. Second to the left, third row, at minute 3:44. They tell me our spectacle spanned continents, crossed the globe. I imagine it spinning in orbit, an illusion in glass, the warped regression of infinite replications of desire. Two million six hundred thirteen thousand hits. And counting.
See me. Look. Do not blink. By 4:29 you will miss me.
There I am.
I am standing in ovation, though it is I who dance. I who have practiced the steps, the swinging to the right, in unison. Sliding electric. Kick step bow kick. All we hear is. Clap clap. Radio ga-ga. I am swinging to the fervor of my fantastical praise, both hands raised.
Oh Freddie. This is all a dream, my love.
Ovate, oblate, adore.
It is enough to have lived in the seventies with dreams of Freddie Mercury.
That is my fate. I embrace. The country, they say, is a sweatshop of violent imbecility, each more stunning than the next. Foolishness is an aspect of our design, perhaps its foundation. First, Paul Anka. I believed he was immortal when I was six, but only for a Christmas season. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, yuletide carrots nipping at your nose. In the background, every day, Neil Diamond, like wallpaper. Singing above the church bells on Sunday afternoons. Then there were windmills of someone else’s cheerful mind. I grew up humming Sweet Caroline. It was my tune. It called my name. Hopscotch in a patadiong on Juan Luna Street. Baseball was for clumsy people, I preferred kicking, then sashay. Slide slide sweep. Practicing at home: precision was required. Kick step bow kick. Swaying then gliding; dipping, turning, then kneel, in our vast elementary playground dancing demonstrations. At school, we danced. For the VIPs. It was tradition. I danced for the extra-terrestrial Lady in July.
She was only a speck in the distance, while I spun.
Dance was the term for mystical revelation: #1.
Singing was only a distraction. A perversion.
This was Eden, my love: my mother ironing the polka-dot uniforms of our second-grade dancing extravaganzas, starching the dummy’s collarbones, dashes of haberdashery chaotic in our home. She had the grace, the moves. The chacha steps, the fancy backward dancing; the arched back and the sidelong glance; the coy kick, to show the ankles. Domestic goddess: plucked her eyebrows as if there were no tomorrow. (There wasn’t, not for her. Rest in peace.) Measuring and scotch-taping and A-lining and cross-stitching. Even beading the blue and orange harlequin shapes did not disturb. Her fingers curled like an arthritic’s over the overly sequined dresses with shining mermaid tails. She did it for love, an obsessive-compulsive woman whose only joy was art. That’s what my mother would say, pins on her lips, song in her heart. Lino, intoy, she would say: I find joy only in art. And so she did, leaving me with no money. My favorite was the old-fashioned golden skirts in serpentina draping, for my classmates the girls, and I in matching bolero vest with gold rick-rack edging: they looked like midget Carmen Mirandas while I was their matador gnome—a fine batch of burnished pastry, shining in the sun: puffed, bronzed, consumed. I remember only the dance, forget the tune.
When my mother died and I had to become a man, I was confusing. People mistook my adolescence for mourning, and they left me alone. Even my nosy aunts left me to sit all day amid the tulle piping and disorganized organza of her sudden absence, as if it were all right to live in shreds and patches, a threadbare workroom of unfinished hems. Scissors, needles, so many sharp things. I could have slashed my liver in a bias cut with rough detailing and who would have known? I could have exsanguinated my nostrils in Chantilly lace. Instead I came out of the room in a pair of bloomers made of jacquard silk, with matching top in ruching. I wished to live. I went out to seek my fortune with her perfume on my lips. Oh look at him, Carolino, sweet Lino: just eleven years old, and still clinging to her skirts. A.k.a, her memory.
Soon I was hanging out with the future dregs of Tacloban, misfits in drag who went to church. I found joy only in art, and our crimes had none: sniffing glue on Magsaysay Boulevard, throwing up on Cali Shandy, crying to the moon. Bunch of melodramatic goons who will grow up to be fiscals and, worse, one day they will pay to ballroom dance. I stowed away on a ship, M.V. Sweet Fate, the vampire one that will not drown. They bloodied me up when I was caught, and I almost landed in jail. (It would have been my first time, but as you know not the last.) They spat on me for vagrancy and touched my nipples with the hook, like a question mark, of a rusted hanger. Their weapons were as poor as my ass, it was sad. They were twisted, I was twelve: they let me go for a song. A song and dance.
Specifically, Tom Jones’s Delilah.
I still remember those ticket conductors of M.V. Sweet Fate. Fat angels with underarm odor. Toothpick in their mouths, nightstick at their belts. Harmless men, after all, but with the vice of the sea’s inertia. Wiseass conductors of my dance. They plucked names of singers from the air, like a Song Hits quiz. Elvis Presley? Neil Sedaka? Tom Jones—the leader, a man with odd gray eyes, decided (he looked like a dead fish, like Filemon’s tambasakan). If only they had asked me. I would please like to sing The Platters, particularly The Great Pretender. It has a great pause, dramatic. O-o-o-o-oh, yesss—I’m the great. Instead they named all the other heroes of my childhood to whom I had danced with the midgets of my generation. Glenn Campbell. Andy Williams. Plus sad Karen, of course, and her smiling brother, Richard. They named all of the singers that I used to believe were Filipino, we loved them so much. In the end, in triumph, I sang. With feeling, in my jacquard silk outfit, stitched for the joy of it.
Why, why, whyyyyyy, Delilah? Forgive me I just couldn’t take anymore.
Kick, step, bow.
Thank you. I would like to—
My little hips swayed and their feet tapped and toothpicks waggled and if only they knew how they were turning the key, switching me on, alive, as I waltzed to the rhythm of Tom Jones’s cry: or was it Engelbert Humperdinck? My mother could have told the difference.
—dedicate this song—
The seamen returned me to my home, then my aunts shipped me out. In my aunts’ eyes, the city was the site of regeneration. The seminary in Manila will set you straight, they said. The Seminary of Saint Peter the Degenerate, in Carriedo (name changed to protect my horror). The only straight animals in that den of thugs were the dogs. Priests give gay people a bad name. They wrap our love in self-loathing, the way we turn away in bed awkwardly from the heart; then they sell it as a sin to earn their keep. I would have offered my virginity to the first monsignor who loved me, but he was a pervert who only liked it with a crown of thorns. I used to give him a beating with a midrib broom, and he would yelp in silence on a pillow, drooling like his labrador. I had for him: only scorn. Knowledge is power, ad maiorem dei gloriam, it’s—Caroniiiia! I came out of the seminary with an education in Greek and a liking for purple fingernail polish, stilettos, and cheap consecrated wine.
But in the meantime I found Freddie.
It is not the fault of the boys in the seminary that music for them was only an escape, not as it was for me: a blessing. I gave myself over to my new loves: Olivia Newton-John singing Summer Lovin’. Whoever it was who sang Afternoon Delight. All my loves were passing, but true. I memorized the poem Desiderata. My misfortune was that my idolatry was self-trained. My good taste: autodidactic. I spent eight months in the purgatory of Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees singing Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band before I got hold of the Beatles. Sometimes in momentary lapses I listen to Peter’s singing, his falsetto. I can’t help it. I was born to disco.
Once, I became monastic, dedicated to John when he died. On December 8, 1980. So sad. It was an aberration. I was just going with the crowd, my monogamy was only a phase. The tv kept showing the musical vigils in New York, and the priests let us watch the mourners singing novenas to the bullet wounds of the dead. America is a violent place that kills men of peace, said the priests who could have cared less, he was not of their era. I fasted from December 9 to New Year’s—I played only Mother, on my red turntable, with the curtains drawn against Manila. You had me but I never had you. To this day I cry every October, his birthday, a renewal of vows of celibacy that happens to me during the time of anniversaries.
I, too, am a Libra, like John. With words of wit, but I am more sentimental.
But why go on about John?
John is a contingent being, according to Thomas Aquinas. According to me, Freddie is necessary.
You can imagine (perhaps not) what it felt like that day in August—August the fifteenth. I know because it was the feast of the Assumption, a sacred day of obligation. The dorms of Saint Peter the Degenerate were lonesome. All the boys who were not orphans had permission to go home. I was solo. I had the radio on, and I could turn it up as loud as I wanted. And I heard it.
Biiiicycle! Biiiicycle. I want to ride my bicycle I want to ride my bike.
Who is the voodoo on the radio? The manananggal rising in the air? What is that screaming? And for why? Por que? My questions were phenomenological—if I might use my education for a purpose, to explain my source of ardor. The genesis of desire is the recognition of death. Desolation. The only reason to be Catholic is to masturbate excessively, with expression. Isolation. Difference is bliss. The inconceivable triviality of our passion marks our passing on the stage. No one was like Freddie. I waited for another song, the way they sometimes do whole albums, if you get lucky, on DZRJ. I waited for the name of the singer. They did not mention. I learned it later. And it was satisfying when I learned his name was a classical allusion.
Mercury, one of the gods.
Patron of trickery and transmutation.
I got all the albums named for the comic movies. Night at the Opera. Day at the Races. From the record shops hovering like thieves about the Avenida, now you see them, now you—one great day I found their Greatest Hits, Volumes I and II. Only in cassette, but still, it was a miracle. I did not know there were three hundred million being sold around the world, especially in Japan. The playlist was perfect, and I can speak it by ear if you ask—I mean, I know the order of it all by humming. In the middle is the song Save Me:
…I clothed myself in your glory and your love…
How I loved you, how I cried…
…We’re nothing but a sham, it seems.
The years belie we lived a lie:
I will love you till I die.
Save me! Save me! Saaave meeee!
…I’m naked, and I’m far from home…
It is easy to understand from the poetry above, including the ellipses (my contribution), how Freddie’s melancholy vibe could suffuse a sordid life. It is the cry of the abandoned. His lyrics have a Messianic quality that does not escape my scholastic ear, but words are beside the point. The osmosis of great music is biological. An arterial clogging of an ontological kind. It is what makes me human; otherwise, as Freddie says, I am not: nothing but a sham, it seems.
I played his songs. Again and again.
Yes, I know. I exist only when I adore. Wherefore I am?
What a shock it was when I left the seminary and fell under the spell of MTV. My puny journals in spidery handwriting that had disgusted the Father Superior were nothing compared to music video programming. And to think it was open to the general populace. My dramas with innocent domestic props, so appalling to Monsignor Diakol, the Academic Dean, paled beside the things I witnessed in public spaces, on the tv screens at Ali Mall or while eating pizza at Shakeys. Bondage scenes of indecent anarchy, Achilles and his Patroklos in lurid pants illuminating every single carnal sin. Genitals multiplying in vulgar, shiny angles, lewd acts in improbable poses: my damned manual of desire.
Everywhere I looked in Quezon City, the world was going to hell.
At first, I wanted it all—everything that I saw on MTV. The muscles, the lips, the feathered outfits, the cars, even the vaginas (admittedly, I was confused). Let me say: I envied the women not for their anatomies, which were disgusting. But I understood the vaginas were the same as the cars, and the cars were the same as the stiletto heels, and the stiletto heels were my phallus, and my phallus was my infernal longing, or something like that; subliminal Freudianism in capitalist orgies are common in this world. I am the repository of it all, the last receptacle—the final anus of all that crap, if you know what I mean. I know. No need to tell. That is all water off my cloacal—
No, it was not envy I felt, the greed to acquire and satiate, I had no wish to be Madonna or Cyndi Lauper.
How to put it?
It was oneness. It was unity and communion that I desired.
For instance, I hated music videos with plots, the fake personas in a factory, pounding meat in metonymic ways. Material girls with sad stories up their sleeve. They separated me from the singer. And visual metaphors were boring. Even Freddie’s masterpiece, the revolutionary video operetta Bohemian Rhapsody—it was prescient years before the genre of music video as a formidable advertising tool and transient work of art—even that leaves me cold (sorry, Freddie; it’s me, not you).
I am mesmerized by the concert video, the ones that offer the star, sui generis, so needy before you, and clearly the singer cannot exist without the viewer, and I have him in the palm of my hand. His gaze is mine, and we are one—in our desire we are conjoined. It is the observer who transforms the observed (though in abject conditions it seems the other way around). The gaze of the one alters the other: and we are fixed, transfixed—and we are: our prison, our trap.
Of course, Freddie said it the best.
This is the last dance, this is the last chance, this is the last dance, this is our—
It is this that Freddie had: He had my capacity to yearn. Why else did he wander the stage looking like a walking penis? His ripe and sneering, engorged and gorgeous gaze; his controlled epileptic orgasms with projectile microphones. His arrogance, when he said fuck you to his audience at Wembley in 1985, during the Live Aid Tour, the one where he wore the yellow jacket, not the legendary one in which he exercised complete hypnotic power over the audience (voted The Best Rock Gig of all time!, according to youtube). Fuck you, he said before 72,000 in Wembley. This from a hero whose generosity for his audience knew no bounds, who moved for the joy of it. But you know he would give us his wounds if he ever felt them. I liked him for that. He was tactful. The way he showed his fans only his infallible cock, never his tears. A gentleman. But I recognized the façade for what it was.
For my approval.
He needed me. I knew he did. In 1985, he was in his prime, tight-assed homunculus of the divine, and he needed me to sit beside the cash registers in Pizza Hut with its badly angled tv, take up my garlic breadstick, and watch.
I believe my own needs were not tawdry. They were also not cheap. Nothing less than three hundred pesos. Those days of secret gropings in crowded fast food joints or casual looks in dark cinemas are long gone. And even then, they had nothing to do with Freddie. Acts of desperation. Certain episodes have nothing to do with passion, though on the surface the incidents share a resemblance. After all, I’m a progressive, not a hyperbolic. A poor distinction, but as you see, I cling. For almost a decade there—through the nineties—I lived a normal life, sinful but law-abiding. My outerwear was conservative. And I never made a fuss: I was patient with even with the greediest of pimps, like Marcel the dwarf of Binangonan, my fellow orphan of the Marcos years.
And I always paid cash, on the spot.
I clothed myself in your glory and your love—How I loved you, how I cried. I have always admired how songs sweep narrative from verse to chorus to bridge: trailing light-years in a breath. I like that pop economy. How I got from kicked-out seminarian to locked-up solipsarian needs only a coda, a chord in a surprising range. Otherwise, the story is not that interesting.
Mystical revelation #2: never trust dwarves. Their ethics is not the problem. It is their state of oppression in a country in which they can only be either/or—pimps or waiters. The binary is the question. It creates self-loathing.
He was twelve. I was foolish. I tell you Marcel lied: it’s just his big eyes, Marcel said—makes the kid look young for his age. I put the kid in a jacquard outfit, and as I gazed at him I wept. He ran away. I told Marcel, I want my money back. That’s when Marcel got mean.
My story is lyrics you will end up forgetting, humming them just to get to the money note. Brian and Roger knew that. Brian May: lead guitar. Roger Taylor: drummer. They wrote my favorite Freddie songs. Classics in pop song structure: quatrains as tight as his.
So I landed here, in Santarin.
At Santarin Penitentiary Detention Center, I was given a bunk in a cage with the Bastard, whose misspellings on the wall drove me nuts, but anyways he also had no use for my Latin. He took to calling me Father, with a smirk, when he learned. It did not take those perverts a day to learn my past. I will not relate here the gestures of provocation those pedophiles and druggies awarded me, offering kinship in their lousy ways, as if I were one of them. I am only a paying customer who made an honest mistake! Okay, so I was hoping my suspicions of his age were incorrect, but it was the dwarf who did me wrong.
At sight of me, they would make signs of the cross in unmentionable places. Kleptos and con men, retards and recidivists, giving me the evil eye. Taunting me, calling me Father. I had nothing to do with them. If they only knew I could assonate all day and they would never catch my drift.
Bunch of lowlifes.
I was not surprised by my diminuendo, as I call it myself. My aunts had always told me where I would end.
But God, I just hated the companionship!
Fifteen hundred men in one cinderblock lock-up, divided in two parts—one for scoundrels, the other for scum—and united only by moral degradation and a cement courtyard in the sun. Prisons give gay people a bad name. N.B.: We are not criminals because we are gay; we are criminals because we committed crimes! It is the universe that is dystopic. No: on one hand, I am not a tender hairdresser with a heart of gold, crying over the hetero beauty with the badass attitude who takes all my money and looks like a model in Giorgio Armani commercials (they’re all gay). I’m just a customer, born to disco.
I’m a platonic pedant with latent aristotelianism, if you really want to know the truth.
Being an Aristotelian, I myself tend to divide gays into categories. It is unkind, also essentialist. A poor distinction, but I cling. I’ve mentioned before—one, the progressives; two, the hyperbolics. Oh what I cannot bear above all are the performative, too-joyful hyperbolics. The ones who think they need to act like Liza Minelli all the time. You are goodhearted, but girl, even Liza has moved on. Those golden boys with their girlie walk and their hairdos and the beauty marks and the sequins that killed Zsa Zsa Gabor. I mean—the eighties are over! The eighties are sad. We who live are the losers, the ugly ones who were not fucked, so I survived, like in the song by Gloria Gaynor.
—Speak for yourself, said Noravilma. I survive because I love and am loved.
—Oh, Noravilma, you forget. Let us bow our heads in remembrance. Let us be circumspect in somber times. The gorgeous have abandoned us in the twenty-first century. Does it not break the heart?
Freddie Mercury still sings, but only in heaven.
—Liza is alive.
Oh but when will we learn that goddesses like Liza are for adoring, not for the likes of us?
—Speak for yourself, Father. You are old and gray and full of shit.
But oh, it is time to put away childish things. It is puerile (i.e., the word for boy in Latin is puer: singularly declined, to wit, puer, pueri, puero, puerum, pero—puero, finito, oh decline right now, intoy, Lino sweet Carolino.).
I tell you Liza would appreciate restraint. Look at her now, a mature woman, speaking words of wisdom about anti-depressants, in pantsuits.
—You are old, Tanda, be off or I’ll kick you—
Freddie Mercury knew, of course. He was genius. He gave back to us our kickass glory on the stage. Look at him in his interviews in silk Italian outfits looking like the mafia (they’re all gay). Progressive. Classy. Makes me proud.
Noravilma tells me—bah! You are just overeducated.
I bow my head at that, humble.
Love will kill you, if you can’t make up your mind.
In Santarin Penitentiary Detention Center, at first the hyperbolics stuck to themselves. They wore manicures and mascara and got roughed up by badasses like the Bastard, whose build accorded superficial respect. His crime was a mystery that kept us doing his bidding—his status kept shifting with the gossip, and so we kept obeying. The guy had too much menace for just estafa, but you know I could not imagine him killing a flea. Maybe a debt collector, but not a flea. He looked like an overgrown principe Constantino, searching too long for his lost Holy Cross, with his pink, overweight cheeks, and his curly locks. At first I mistook him for a progressive. Turns out he was just a macho—playing with hearts, just for fun. Insecure. I began to feel sorry for the hyperbolics, to be honest.
The Bastard never touched me. He went after the others. It was not their fault; they were not enlightened, like me. I looked away when they were at it. How could anyone like them? How could he be with them?
He never looked at me. I was always at my spot, alone by the warden’s office. I had my radio. I felt for the hyperbolics: only pity. At first I had admired Noravilma, though she was the Bastard’s favorite. She was knowledgeable about music, America’s Top 40. Casey Kasem was her oxycodone. It was only later that I hated her guts.
I liked Noravilma until he (sorry, Noravilma—she) became the Recess Gestapo.
I don’t know exactly when it changed, and Noravilma, who had a mystical six-fingered limb and liked to caress the useless digit with an inattention that fascinated me, gained the upper hand, so to speak, in our calisthenic exercises. Even The Bastard began following her instructions, like she was Jane Fonda, but with an extra pinky, which Jane would not be touching the way she did—like a miniature dildo on her skin, “a supernatural efflorescence,” as I wrote in my prison diary (sadly, still unpublished).
Usually, during recess, all we wanted to do was lie in the sun and listen to the radio.
You know it is sweet how radio unifies even perverts.
That is my mystical revelation: #3.
I liked to take mine out, a tiny pink battery-powered Sansui that had seen better days, out in the shade by the warden’s office. People did not like to wander to the warden’s. Mr. Percy Shelley the Romantic Poet. That’s what I called him, the warden. We’re friends now. He has delusions of grandeur. Don’t get me wrong. I have my place in the line-up—I am working my way to the spotlight. After all, as you can see I have been rehearsing such moves all my life. And if I get my words right in this story, who knows—one day I could be the star.
Yes, his delusions are very good, he is benevolent. Like all great dictators, Mr. Percy Shelley the Romantic Poet’s heart is in the right place. Of course, it is said his methods are questionable, but that is only the view of ignorant commentators on the Internet. Shoutout to: zanzibari_bum46, bohemianrapsheet91, KilerQueen (sic), kharoline65, and most of all, FarrokhFromMumbai. Really, it is for history to decide. As history has done, you know, to Hitler, George W. Bush, Stalin, et al.
The rest of the prisoners liked to listen to the hiphop, young people’s music, in Killing Times Square, as it is called, in the center of the prison courtyard of Santarin. I tried to get out of the way of the gangs, they’re trouble. They play cards, they rumble. I listened to many things, I wasn’t picky—Imelda Papin (so martyr!), Lite FM, even classical. I wished I had my records, and my red LP player with its silver ornaments symmetrically shaped like the figures in the Rorschach tests they used to give me all the time in the school, a scientific test of my abandoned soul: but I tried not to think too much about that.
Number One Rule in Prison: Do not think about home, it makes you homesick.
I was lying out there as I always did, minding my own banana, when Noravilma came over.
—Father, she said, your sounds—please turn off.
She was polite. I did what she said because she had a whole posse behind her, a group of petty criminals, estafadoras in green eyeshadow.
From that day on, I knew something was up.
I blamed it on the uniforms. That summer, everyone was told to wear that ugly orange pajama set with the letter P on the back, for prisoner, as if we did not know that already. It was the new governor’s ordinance, Mr. Percy Shelley the Romantic Poet said—to maintain discipline and all. Mr. Percy Shelley the Romantic Poet did not like the overcrowding, the way justice overflowed in Santarin. But what discipline do you need to pick your nose? The Bastard drew -uta on his uniform, and I drew –uto, twin words of boredom, not disrespect. They punished us immediately. Partners in crime. (But still he did not touch.) I tried to behave. I hate the isolation ward. If I spend one day in isolation—I turn into an animal, I lose my brain. And the brain is my most valuable asset, as you can see. You do not know what it is like—to be isolated. No one should ever do that to a human, much less a Filipino. We are social beings.
Noravilma emerged from the warden’s office wearing a slinky satin tank top, her old-man thinning hair parted in a novel way, with fancy butterfly clips. You could see the patches of her red hair dye, cross-pollinating with the talcum. I thought: Oh no, the hyperbolics are taking over.
But I enjoyed Noravilma’s dancing exercises. They were a diversion. I liked the songs. Spandau Ballet, Tears for Fears, Wham! Noravilma was a fan of the eighties, though she was only in her thirties. She used to be a D.I., she said. She was a ballroom Dancing Instructor-cum-hairdresser before she turned to crime (petty estafa, embezzling from her cousin, Magenta the beauty parlor boss). That’s why she was so eclectic. She could do Michael, the entire bestselling, world-record breaking album Thriller!, she could do the Black-eyed Peas. She had knowledge, though no ethics.
You cannot do choral dancing if you only play the diva songs, she said to me.
Remember. Everyone must exercise.
Soon, people were out in Killing Times Square learning break dancing, the moonwalk. For their health and sanity, the warden Mr. Percy Shelley the Romantic Poet said. He read about it in a book he had bought from the good Daughters of Saint Paul. To me, it was like second grade, when the entire school—all the bullies and the crybabies and the girls and the boys—would practice our vast elementary playground demonstrations for the birthday of that deranged killer diva, the president’s wife, that Lady, the one who should never be called Queen (oh sacrilege, oh Freddie, forgive).
But in Santarin we were not dancing for the VIPs.
We danced for ourselves.
I give Noravilma all the credit. She was the brains. She was the oracle. Not the warden, Mr. Percy Shelley the Romantic Poet. It is only that he knows how to use the laptop, uploading the youtube of our moves. No, not him, it was Noravilma who saw the moment of our redemption, our chance for stardom. It was she who understood that if we became a fifteen-hundred man team, a marching phalanx in Michael Jackson’s vampire army, we could be a video sensation.
Me, I just thought it would pass the time.
And Noravilma had taste. She saw who had the talent. Look at Tanda, she would say, look at Father. He’s an old man, but he has the spirit, he has the moves. I’m not old, I wished to say. I was born in ’65—I am younger than the Beatles. But I would only smile and do the chacha in a fancy way, walking backward, with a sidelong glance, the way my mother did.
Could everyone else in the world see? Look at me. Look at me on the screen: at 3:45. I find joy only in art. Kick step bow kick. Swaying and gliding. Dipping, turning, then kneel. The Bastard saw how I could do the electric slide without turning my head at all to watch other people’s moves. In dance, I never cheat. Killer Dancing Queen. Finally he noticed me. The Bastard nodded his head, he clapped. But he could never copy.
And I remember the first time when we were all out in the sun, fifteen hundred zombies in the courtyard, marching to the rhythm in Killing Times Square—I remember the oneness. The unity and communion. The druggies, the rapists, the check bouncers, the demented, all dancing to the beat. The music lovers, the chess players, the fathers, the sons, the gamblers, the embezzlers, the abandoned, marching to the left. And turn. The homesick, the orphans, the maniacs, the romantics. Looking to the right. How could we—how did we? Altogether now—bow.
It is the miracle of dance.
But even then, as I made my moves, there was something—something lacking.
How terrible it is to miss people, places, and things amid the joy in art.
I have to admit. I have become a weepie.
The problem with dancing is nostalgia.
That is my mystical revelation: #4.
Our daily exercise brought me back to unexpected days. The Number Two Rule in Prison: do not think, it makes you emotional. I felt a split in myself that dancing could not comfort. Was it my mother’s fingers, curled like an arthritic’s over the overly sequined clothes, superimposed over Noravilma’s tragicomic paws, the extra pinky like a dwarf penis, a mournful come-hither sign? It was awful to feel in passing the emptiness of Lino, sweet Carolino, clinging to her skirts. A.k.a., her memory. Or was it political, since I was raised in the seventies? The smell of dictatorship clings to any form of mass harmony. Or is it that the flitting present is the only manner of real existence—Søren Kierkegaard. That is a sad comment. Or is it Schopenhauer? Whatever. One of those germanics: one-track melancholics. They made me fail my Ethics class.
Noravilma did not put me in the center row for our first great hit, but that was okay. I was all right being a zombie in the sidelines (5:56 to 6:02) in that first international sensation, Thriller, tonight! Anyway I had no idea it was going to be an international sensation. Plus, Michael makes me sad. Noravilma said: you are so judgmental. (Though even saying so makes me confess, Michael, mea culpa! Forgive me. After all, I am a child of the eighties. Yes, Michael, I still love you: it is true. It really does not matter if you are black or white.)
As it became clear that we were not going to be a one-show wonder, and that the world was holding its breath for our next thrilling extravaganza, I knew I had to be well behaved. I wished to be the solo dancer in the next vehicle of global fame.
What about The Great Pretender, I suggested—it has a great pause, dramatic.
Now that she had the power over all of us, we gave her other names. Goldfinger. Six-Hand Luke. She who cannot dance the lead in Thriller because she has no gloves to fit.
—You’re so OLD, Father, Noravilma said. You know we will not be dancing to the Platters. We are not catering to the sexagenarian crowds.
—What about Save Me? Its Messianic qualities have potential for even a movie scenario, come to think of it.
—What’s that, Father?
—Save Me. It is number 8 in the Greatest Hits. You know. By QUEEN! Freddie Mercury. The greatest showman of all time.
—Oh. Wasn’t he Indian? Iranian? Anyway, he was a great pretender.
—Freddie Mercury, she said. His real name is Farrokh. Farrokh Bulsara. The singer of Queen who died of AIDS. He was a great pretender!
That’s when I had it with that hyperbolic—that calisthenic zombading! She with her ambiguous middle finger. I am sorry that she made me lose my brain. I showed her how to ride a bike, that dancing instructor, that extra-digital D.I., I showed her how to do the Thigh Master, that Jane Fonda—goddamn spandex-wearing bitch cassidy. Who did she think she was, Casey Kasem’s Pacific Islands inamorata? Knowitall. Kiss my ass, you redhaired Britney, with your talcum-blonde hair! Kiss my—
Rumble!, someone said.
It’s the Father and the Goldfinger, Teksas Slims, a check bouncer, announced.
It’s the Old Man and the D.I.!
The estafadoras began to gather, still doing their mascara. The dealers and the druggies, who are never in front because they always mess up—they were cheering from the back, already in formation. Go, mama, go! I had my hands at her butterfly clips, I was scraping off her slinky satin tank top, I was doing her the macarena.
And then the Bastard came along.
He saved me by hitting me on the butt with his electric iron (unplugged).
He had begun starching his prison uniform after he got that bit part in Thriller (he was the fat zombie, crawling on the ground and overacting).
—Enough, he said, waving the iron before my face, in warning.
I could see a ghost of myself, a blurry hieroglyph of rage, in the triangular mirror of his iron’s isosceles.
I felt the cold steel brush my angry, wet cheeks.
In fairness, it was a good deed.
—Come, Tanda, he said: the music is on—time for warming up!
Still, I gave it my last shot, before the flourish of the drums (I think it was a Journey song, b.a., that is, before Arnel).
—So what if Freddie did not tell, I screamed, so what if he kept his life to himself, including his childhood as an Asian gay in London, from Zanzibar, I wailed.
—He died with dignity, I spat at Noravilma—He was a killer queen.
Now you understand, of course, that her choice for the next tune was probably a way of apologizing. And I know she was not a bad sort, Noravilma. She was just in over her head. An amateur in a game of high stakes. How was she to know the extent of her own success? Now anyone can so easily find us on the youtube: you type in prisoner + Filipino + radio + gaga. We are always the top choice, highly rated. I was sorry, cross my heart, when they replaced her with that professional, a straight, that dancer from a game show in Manila.
As the estafadoras say: an injustice.
Because after all it was Noravilma who had envisioned our stardom, our moment of redemption (though it was Mr. Percy Shelley the Romantic Poet, of course, who took the credit on the Internet). I hope she is okay—wherever she is, there on the outside, where she is free. As for us in Killer Times Square, the show must go on. Our new D.I. has more moves but less heart, you can tell; it is hard, you know, because she does not come from us, from within.
Still, we are managing our stardom. We are receiving invitations to dance before the VIPs, the mayor, the governor, one day (who knows) even the pope, and above all the town festivals of the saints. I am always glad to know how everywhere the people welcome the sinners, the lucky few, the lucky lucky few who find joy only in art. I am happy to report. I am always one of the chosen, the select out of the fifteen hundred zombies who are allowed outside to join the feasts—swaying and gliding, dipping, turning, and then kneeling in vast videotaping demonstrations. Kick step bow kick. They always let me out to dance.
They know I will never escape.
And it is only when I see us in motion—illusions on screen in planetary orbit, the universe of our prison in the grainy frame of our infinite phantom replications, there for all the world to see—two million six hundred thirteen thousand hits!—and counting—that this sinking feeling comes over me, a split.
There is a split in myself that dancing cannot contain.
We could not do Save Me, Noravilma had said, because there is no space for choral dancing in such a diva song; she knew what she was talking about. In this I am loyal to Noravilma’s belief: everyone must exercise. (Slowly that rule is fading, as we have the superstars now, women from the outside in our midst, a platoon of ringers in orange jumpsuits—and the lowly pot addicts, the ones without the moves, now they only watch.) So for the second worldwide sensation, she ended up choosing my favorite song.
Noravilma had taste.
Written by Roger Taylor with metaphysical aplomb.
From Greatest Hits, Volume II.
It is only when I see us, in that old film, posted those months ago (a lifetime, as they say, on the Internet, though not quite so in jail)—that I feel the nausea, the throwing up. We are good. We know the moves. We are goddesses. We make us proud. The precision is military and the discipline is poetic. The way even the drugged ones know their turns, and no one is embarrassed. There we are, dancing in unison a thousand strong, raising our arms to his tightass song, the catchy tune.
All we hear is. Clap clap. Radio ga-ga.
We are standing in ovation, though it is we who dance.
At 3:59, you will see.
Freddie Mercury rising from the dead, as if imprisoned in the inset frame.
What is it the viewer said in the comments—signed kharoline65?
—“This is a great song…but this video makes me wonder what Freddie would think of this…I think it is wrong to include the clips from queen…makes me sad =(.”
What is it that makes me sad?
In the infinite prison of our fuzzy replications, there I am.
Do not blink.
By 4:29 you will miss me.
The screen splits in atomic regeneration: we are multiplied, ad infinitum, the ecstasy of our repression spanning the globe.
And there he is, his ghost over my body, as I spin. Swinging to the fervor of my fantastical praise, both hands raised. At 5:39: the observed is transformed by the observer. Wherefore I am?
All we hear is.
The stomp of fifteen hundred prisoners, born to dance.
Someone. Still. Loves. Yoooou!
Both hands raised, swinging to the fervor of fantastical praise.
Freddie Mercury sings.
I was honored to introduce Elda Rotor, publisher of Penguin Classics, at the Kundiman gala night. Below is my speech. (Note: sadly, a few hours after the Kundiman event, an Asian American poet who attended it was harassed in the East Village by a racist who was eventually arrested. Talk about orange flames of nativist hatred.)
Mentorship is a two-way gift: both the receiver and the giver eventually possess something of value when the present is right. Perhaps empathy is the most valuable gift of the mentor: and when one mentors a writer, I think it is important to recognize that empathy has to do with understanding art’s labor—that the labor that goes into art (which for the reader paradoxically must seem imperceptible)—is intangible though intensive, arduous but unseen, and too often fraught with waste and a sense of uselessness, a sense that the future, the finished work, will never come.
Mentoring an artist is the gift of believing in the future.
In the best of all possible worlds, the publisher is art’s mentor: her task is to believe in the necessity of that intangible labor, the future of art. We know in this day, in this past week, how much more urgent the work of the publisher is—quite simply—the publisher’s job is to shape a future that will allow our species to survive.
It is terrifying to say that, but it is true.
A publisher’s mentoring job is now possibly world-altering, if the publisher gets it right.
The magician nature of a publisher’s job, a kind of sorcery prophesying the future of books was revelatory for me, when talking to my own publisher & editor: I saw how so much depends on, as they say, a red wheelbarrow, that is, on one publisher’s or one editor’s imagination: that a book might or might not come about without the contents of one stranger’s mind, a stranger’s invention of a book’s future. And if a publisher’s job is world-altering, how important is that publisher’s ability to imagine? Especially to imagine the worlds one’s specific mind does not know? The gaps in one’s imagination? To mentor books outside of one mind’s comfort and bounds?
Kundiman’s great fortune and foresight today is to honor a mentor par excellence, Elda Rotor, an editor and publisher who, in my view, has that gift of empathy for the labor of the writers Kundiman cherishes—these writers of America’s future, these various and powerful voices of Asian America that America must hear so that the project of America’s democracy might go forward with the vigor and fire of America’s historical truth, instead of the orange flames of hermetic, nativist despair.
Elda is vice president and publisher of Penguin Classics, a vanguard of the past to which our future is tethered. She has been in publishing since the 1990s, working first as an assistant then becoming an acquiring editor at Oxford University Press, before moving on to become the editorial director of the venerable Penguin Classics line. Today, she is the only woman of color in an editorial position at Penguin—this is because she is also the only person of color in an editorial position at Penguin—which does not make Penguin an anomaly; in publishing, so I understand (though my stats are not highly researched), there is perhaps only Chris Jackson, publisher of Ta-Nehisi Coates and now with his own imprint at Random House, who in Elda’s generation matches her cred.
So Elda is a unicorn. A minotaur. An entirely lovely one: so glad she is with us tonight: but her uniqueness gives pause for all of us.
I will admit that I was fascinated when I saw Elda’s name once in a book of poems—because I am a fan of Arturo Rotor, a Filipino short story writer, doctor, and scientist, who turns out to be related to Elda. I’m a fan-girl, so I looked out for Elda because of her name. And it is significant that no one in this audience likely knows Arturo Rotor, though he was a leading writer during the Commonwealth, when the Philippines was part of America. But I am happy to say that Penguin is coming out with another Filipino classic, Nick Joaquin, because of Elda: watch out for it in April 2017.
In the times I have had the luck and pleasure of speaking with Elda, my sense is that mentorship is at the heart of Elda’s life work because she came to publishing as a poet, and she remains a poet. With friends from high school and college—she grew up in Manhattan where she went to Catholic high school before studying English at George Washington University—she published her own start-up poetry journal, New Digressions, which with her three friends she created and sold kamikaze style from 1992-1997, a blitzkrieg literary affair that shows the spunk and prepossession and amazing confidence that permeates Elda’s ways of going about her life—she simply acts and does, knowing that if she did not do it, who will? Her job in the world, from the time of her youth as a poet in Manhattan, was to find, as she puts it, points of wonder—and in that way, without quite noticing it, it seems, Elda in herself is a point of wonder for us, writers who understand what it means to exist in a publishing world that is in many ways not yet ready for the multiplicity and complications and wonder of the kinds of stories we wish to write, but which in fact the world needs.
Mentorship is also the work of Kundiman—Kundiman is about providing a space for empathy for the writer’s work—in particular, the intangible labor and urgent work of Asian American art. What luck, what fortune does Kundiman have to honor today a publisher who is a lodestar for the best of all possible publishing worlds, an editor and a poet, a child of immigrants and a publisher of classics, a mother bringing up children of color in a future in which the survival of people of color will be the test of this nation’s humanity. Elda is a touchstone for the ways publishing can usher into the world stories that will allow our children to grow up slightly more hopeful about the possibilities of America’s democracy, this project of the future that is the present, the gift, that the work of Kundiman and the work of publishers like Elda Rotor provide. It’s my great honor to introduce you therefore to one of this night’s honorees, Elda Rotor, publisher of Penguin Classics.
Elda (right) at her Penguin office.
At the Kundiman gala.