Narration and History

(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.


EDSA and Semiosis.

bibliolepsy-picture.jpgOn 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.”

Professor Lector at the Faculty Center

I learned this week the UP Faculty Center burned down. I spent formative years there. My first novel, Bibliolepsy, was born there. I went to UP because I was told Franz Arcellana taught at Diliman. I never took his short story class, but I used to give Franz drafts of my work (they were all terrible—unbearable pieces of impossible malaise), and we’d talk about Dostoyevski (Franz talking about the fly buzzing about the the cold body of Nastasia Philipovna in The Idiot is somehow frozen in my memory) and Virginia Woolf and Kafka and so on. I liked best his stories of his friendship with Estrella Alfon, his Cebuano cohort in madcap literary stuff. Franz is not at all Lionel Lector in Bibliolepsy, but in Bibliolepsy, Lionel Lector is the only writer who escapes whole from the narrator’s crazy pen. I recognized once when I was reading Bibliolepsy to a crowd that the scene in Chapter 7: Third Poetry Reading is my own private homage to my conversations with Franz (you don’t think of these things when you are writing), and now I see it entombs my days at the FC.

Note: I was thinking of where Franz’s papers were: it turns out they were at the FC. This is very painful. May Jurilla blogs on the English Department: “The Department of English and Comparative Literature (DECL) suffered a particularly gut-wrenching loss: In February this year, the family of the late Francisco Arcellana, National Artist for Literature, donated his library to the department. It comprised over a thousand books, the most special ones marked with annotations in his hand and inscribed by their authors for him, along with rare first editions of Philippine literary works. Some of my colleagues and I were in the process of sorting through the collection. It was tedious and literally dirty work, but it came with the privilege of catching a glimpse of the life of the mind of a brilliant man who was a pillar of Philippine arts and letters and who was once one of us, a member of the DECL faculty.”

from Bibliolepsy, a novel

‘The door of the cafeteria, which was housed in the Faculty Center, opened. It had a slow way of moving, this door—a bit like the careful, rheumatic movements of many of the people who frequented the place: old or aging professors with different measures of gall drained in them. The door opened but did not close. Instead, a head seemed to hold it ajar. It peeked through the door and looked into the room. Not looking, you’d say, but glaring, or almost as if startled into our presence—the flies on the food, the aluminum dullness of the counters, the grime on the cracked plywood walls, colored flesh now, withered to the hue of our questioning faces as we looked at him, he who seemed surprised by his own arrival.

His head, when seen this way, preening back as though ready to be sliced by the door, was all eyes—a wide gray reckoning of his place and time. …

Professor Lionel Lector—though I don’t recall my naïveté anything to be proud of—was the reason I had decided to go to university at all, and this university in particular.

He was famous for one poem, a song of love and faith and dying, a common enough tale for any song, and a rare occurrence in being written so simply, powerfully and completely, easy to memorize and quick to move the one who reads. It was a poem embedded in our national memory now, published as it is in grade-school texts, definitive anthologies, commemorative books, and even periodically in the Philippine Journal of Education (as though it were a tic in this august body’s neck). Even babies, it is said, were affected by this poem. They cried at the right parts. Or so Prospero had said to me. I would cry, turning my head into my sheets, when my father recited the penultimate line of grief.

“I thought he was dead,” said burly but unsaintly Bernard.

“He should be,” said Tina. “It’s better than appearing mad like that. He gives me the creeps in the hallway, I think his dental fixtures will one day pop out. What’s he always chewing on in his mouth—cotton balls?”

“When you are old and gray, Tina,” I said, “I hope someone gives you a mirror and knocks it into your gums. I’d like to do that to you right now.”

“Hey man,” said Bernard, “chill out. It’s cool, Prims: everybody knows we worship the Prof.”

“He only wrote one poem after all,” said Tina.


You know one learns a lot from one event, sometimes from even the most innocuous ones. Spending a day talking frivolously with a group of friends, you feel upon walking away from the table a generous repulsion in your chest, like a cotton wad of gross but natural excretions. You feel that you’ve wasted time, it will not come back, and worse still, you wasted it posturing, peacocking your image, or cheaply frittering away your passion upon indifferent people—the usual feelings of self-loathing that come upon us in fitful times. And you think: Why do I even allow myself to speak?

It was like this that afternoon, as I walked out of the Faculty Center to my new apartment in Area Six. I had moved all my books to the university area, and this trooping over from Adriatico to Diliman to Adriatico took a toll on my nerves. The daily diesel fumes were deadly. And as I passed by a room where people normally had classes, because of the shortage of space in the college, I saw again the old poet, Professor Lector, by a door.

His back looked like the upright back of an amphibian, leaning in.

“I like to look at them.” He turned to me.

I was startled by his address.

His voice was loud, from the habit of years of teaching, which unduly modulates speech to this high treble.

He motioned me to move closer.

“Look at them,” he was whispering. “It’s my class.”

“Then why aren’t you teaching it, sir?” I asked.

“I am,” he whispered, nodding his head. “They just don’t know it.”

“What are you teaching them, sir?” I asked.

“It’s just this.” He motioned me even closer to him, so that he said loudly in my ear: “It’s that the author is dead. He is no longer in our midst.”

Through circumstances and an almost strange delicacy, I had never enrolled in his class. I call it delicacy, a reader’s weird sense of abomination. Later as I got more comfortable being around these hallways, the mere sight of the poet in the building produced in me a kind of pain.

It was not just that he was old and intermittently lucid and altered from what he may have promised to be when he wrote the poem. It was not only the mental readjustments one had to make when one saw him (continual as those adjustments were), from one’s continuing historical image of him to his continuing, or may I say deconstructing, presence. The historical image, of course, receded as the present man daily peered through doors, gnashing his teeth as though chewing lifelong sheaves of paper.

It was a pain of all of these but not quite—not simply an everyman’s sorrow over the passing of time, which happens to all of us, even though we are not poets.

I could not quite put my finger to it, at least not at that moment.

I had to return to the building for a class that afternoon, and I saw him again in greater shadow: the way light fell upon the day. He was in a dark hallway a bit ahead of me.

“And how did the class take it, Professor?” I asked.

“Ah, hello, hello,” he said jovially, seeing but not placing me. He spoke with that jocular twang of his, peculiar to him, although they say he picked it up from his student days in the American Midwest, in Iowa with Paul Engle or Kalamazoo, amid the scent of Bienvenido Santos’s apples.

Professor Lector’s speech was a healthy rounding of vowels, an amused adoption of a foreign language.

“Take what, my dear?”

He stopped in his tracks to wait for me near the glass entrance midway through the hall.

Light was better there.

“How did they take the fact of the death of the author?” I asked.

He put out his hands in that gesture of doubt, moving his palms up and down. “So, so,” he said, shaking his head conspiratorially. “It’ll take them a while to get over it.”

“How long did it take you?”

I regretted that I had spoken.

Because there was this tragedy about which people whispered. How Professor Lector had stopped writing at an age too young for everyone’s wishes.

It was as much a tragedy, for some folk, as it was a mystery.

People thought they saw some signs of its cause. Knowingly they point out how after the writing of his seminal poem, Professor Lector had condemned it. He condemned the anthologizing, the commentating and the repeated publications in Philippine journals. All of this is true. He liked the poem, he had said in an interview, but he liked others better. He pointed to his masterpiece, which the world ignored. He wrote other poems, but we continued to memorize the same lyrical relic. He grew old, but people still confronted him with his boyhood poem.

And then he had confronted them with silence. He showed them the speechlessness of his days. And it became a mystery to everyone that he spoke nothing (for when a poet publishes nothing new, he may as well be mute); when in fact, say some clever souls, when he had spoken before, readers had drowned out his words by their thoughtless applause.

That was one theory. That readers, by their early, too partial pleasure, had killed Professor Lector. The public had made him sit on his laurels, squashing them.

It’s a fanciful theory.

There are others.

When I saw him in the hallways, it would sometimes seem as if his speechlessness were a long bout of self-revulsion, a cradling of an unspent loathing—”Why do I even allow myself to speak?”

But I recognized my own pale miseries in that.

He looked at me with those wide-open, humorous eyes and answered my question, which I had regretted, with that booming trill to his speech: “How long did it take me? Most of my life, my dear, most of my life. I had to teach it to myself.”

I moved on with him. We had reached his office.

“Yes,” he said, frisking himself for his keys, “the author annihilates himself.”

“Literally or symbolically?”

“Eternally and daily,” he grinned. “That’s how it should be. But mind you,” he said, pointing a finger at me, “I’m not revealing any of my secrets.”

He tinkered with his door’s lock, as if it were difficult, but it was easily opened.

He gestured that I take a seat.

I did.

His office held the clutter of a life dwelt in the mind—books, scattered paper, college bluebooks, greeting cards from students illustrated with Virginia Woolf in facsimile smile. I suppose I sought what I hoped to find: a sign of writing in progress, his secret life that would astound skeptics and pierce the mystery once and for all.

A typewriter lay on a side table, a bulky, dusty Remington. On a sheet on his desk I quickly noted the type he favored, the merry, wide font of Pica.

“A letter to a student,” he said to me. “They write me from all over, you know.”

“You write them back,” I said.

“Everyone. When I can, you see, when I can.” He gestured to all the papers on his desk, chairs, settee and cabinets, and upon a host of other papers and books. “They like to write to me. That’s my son,” he pointed to a picture. “He lives in Belgium, in Liege. Where they have these town fairs, you know—market days where they only sell guns and bullets. Can you believe it? My son lives in the world’s marketplace for guns. He’s a travel agent. And that’s my grandchild. She plays the piano, but more spectacular than that—she drives a car. Mine! At the age of sixteen! And that’s my wife.”

I saw a picture of a lady in sepia. I saw calendars given by colleagues. I saw pens and penknives. I saw coffee spoons and cheery, literary mugs. But apart from the space held by the typewriter, cramped in the corner by a cabinet of books and a settee with a flowered footstool, shouldered by a calendar of wit, beginning with Oscar Wilde and downhill from there, draped with bluebooks on its keys, I failed to see his space for writing.

As if mysteries might be so easily unravelled.

And what I saw clearly was my bungling, sorry vulgarity.

Professor Lector had seated himself before me.

“Now,” he said, “why are you so interested in the death of the author?”

I knew somehow he had found me out—a sneaky reader with misplaced concern. My intentions were more folly than malice, of course. I had no excuse for my spying and indecent interest but my lack of understanding.

For here was a writer whole in his world—his letters and his sons and the books he read and spoke about; a man booming with amusement in his voice, with a healthy attachment to his world—always peering in through doors, taking us all in with bright, living eyes, with the penetrating, permeating voice of a midsummer’s turtle.

I may have caged him in his poet’s cell: I had given him only a strip of paper, long as a poem, on which to stalk and speak about things. But he had jumped out of it—he had bidden himself away from the reader.

And even when and if he did take the bluebooks off the Remington and dusted the keys to type his words in merry, fat Pica—did he have to wave the matter to the world, to the rampaging bull of readers that snorts in small circles, inhuman and impatient to see his unlifted, furled and secret cape?’