Notes on Finishing a Novel: Writing Raymundo Mata

I keep getting requests asking about what the novel Raymundo Mata means. I only know what it means from the writing of it. NOTE: This is a revised version of an essay appended to the Anvil publication of the novel. It is almost nine years away from that date of publication: another novena year. 

raymundo mata cover

On Finishing a Novel: Thoughts on Writing about Philippine History

I remember the solitude and satisfaction of beginning the novel that became, nine years later, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, which now arrives a full dozen years after my first book, Bibliolepsy. I remember the stillness of that spring midnight in New Hampshire. I had begun this farcical reconstruction of a solemn evening in the 1890s, in which Emilio Aguinaldo rides the calesa with the blind future katipunero Raymundo Mata, who plays an extremely minor role in history as the blind man who accompanies Pio Valenzuela to Dapitan on a fateful visit to the hero-novelist Rizal (ironically, the pair’s visit became the key incident cited by the Spanish judge in Rizal’s trial in 1896 as ‘proof’ that the novelist was the leader of Bonifacio’s revolution). I was laughing as I wrote what I thought would be the first chapter of a comic novel (it is Entry #25 in the finished draft): my daughter was asleep, my husband was in his hometown Worcester, Massachusetts, at his mother’s home, researching a novel of his own, and I was alone and exhilarated by the moment of starting a new novel.

There is nothing like the first pages of a new work—when one has finally discarded the trepidation and horror of beginning, and one simply begins. The horror of beginning lies in the immensity of a novel’s blankness. Any new novel leaves you on your own, worse than on a desert island, because it is a desertion and a bereavement of your own making. You build toward the angst of those first words, and so the frank release of that first chapter, when you begin, is an unspeakable pleasure, because to be honest—before you begin, it always seems impossible.

It is odd for me to recall now what I did not know then. That at the same time I happily began scratching out that novel, its first words, my husband, also writing, confronted his unspeakable solitude in his mother’s home. Not a word escapes to speak the immensity of his moment’s blankness. His death had no observer. And it is perhaps not so odd, though terrible and cruel, that I recognized this only after I had finished writing The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata: nine years after his inexplicable death. That I began this book on the eve of Arne’s death.

In this way we are blind to our deepest purposes, the gestures we make to survive. I strove against odds to return to this novel, after an abandonment of years, but I did not recognize until it was done why its completion was necessary.

For The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata is, on one hand, a novel about unfinished books.

I am publishing it nine years after beginning it. In the Philippines, of course, the end of the novenas marks the ninth year of mourning. And the ninth year, I guess, is meant to signal one must begin a new life. My recognition now is that despite the end of all novenas, my husband is still with me. And so he will always be. And in my mind’s eye he lives: eternally in the act of writing his undone novel. The past (as I understand it) is always present: our lives are haunted but no one dies, if memory serves us right.

I wrote my novel for my husband, Arne, who loved the Philippines and Rizal.

But the novel, of course, is not about him.

……….

Readers ask me how one comes to write a novel at all. The curse of the Filipino writer, it has been said, is that a first novel (of all things) created us, the stubborn illusion of our nationhood. Not only that, it created us absolutely and early: that book was Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere. The so-called Rizal curse is a fiction that condemns all our novelists to premature obsolescence, so we wail. But on the other hand: it is precisely the futility of our projects that may allow us to act.

Being a Filipino novelist can seem doubly irrelevant. At times it seems to me that being Filipino is fantastical enough—Filipinos are paradoxically ubiquitous yet invisible, a migrant everywhere but a known quantity nowhere; but being a novelist on top of that raises my sense of my absurdity up a notch. Who will read me? I have the strange gall of being comforted by that thought. Precisely because my audience must be invented, I feel freer to create.

……….

The seed for my novel about the revolution was double: one a dream, the other a voice. The first was a dream I had the year before I traveled to America to attend the graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins. It was 1986, the country was in the throes of the EDSA revolt, and I kept going to libraries. In my dream I was on a jeep, and a person was speaking German. I completely understood him (in real life I have absolutely no German): he was telling me I had to write some novel, and in this dust-swirled tongue he explained its entire plot. I woke up thinking—what a good plot. Then of course I had no memory of it. All I could remember was a jeepney (I fancy it was going to Blumentritt Street) and a rattling squall of dust following it, with the stranger exclaiming in German while he hangs from the back of the jeep like extra cargo. All that remained, I guess, was the dust.

At that time, I used to go to the embassy libraries in Manila. By 1986 the rallies were passing by new places, like Thomas Jefferson on Buendia in Makati; but way before that I would detour to the British Council because of its new fiction titles. I also liked to go nearby, to Goethe Institute, for two things: it possessed a facsimile copy of the novel Noli Me Tangere in Rizal’s hand and the double-volume German correspondence between Rizal and Ferdinand Blumentritt. For some reason, it moved me, in those days of the EDSA rebellion: to hold the facsimile copy of Rizal’s novel, even though I would not read it.

I had read the Noli in high school in Tagalog, and I could not relate to its Victorian syrup. I hated Maria Clara and the tragic odium of her sentimental end. I was also, at the time, rather Maoist, and I thought Crisostomo Ibarra was a coño balikbayan, a limited perceiver of his country’s ills. At Goethe, I read instead the letters Rizal wrote to his friend Blumentritt in Bohemia.

I knew my dream of the person speaking in German had something to do with finding Rizal in Goethe Institute—the dream was somehow a demand to write about that past trapped in the strange white walls of a German library during the height of a rebellion. Unfortunately, the dream was gobbledygook.

The voice I heard a few years later at Johns Hopkins was by no means gobbledygook. The clarity of that speaker’s erudition is luminous to me even now. This happened maybe in 1989 or 1990. I was newly married in a foreign country. My husband discovered that a historian was going to speak on campus about a Philippine novel, and he took me and a few others to listen to him. So there was that voice in a Baltimore auditorium talking about Crisostomo Ibarra walking through a piss-soaked cemetery in fictional San Diego, conjuring for me the phantom of my old dream, a return to an incoherent desire to articulate this past. The clarity of the speaker’s commentary on the literary qualities of the Noli Me Tangere struck me also as a kind of blow—a reproach.

I was caught by the profound empathy with which the speaker described the ironic style of Rizal. He rendered the ‘syrup’ text humorous; he called it complex. My husband demanded: why have you never told me about this writer Rizal? I had no defense. It was my husband who ended up looking for the novels, the Noli and the Fili, and making the Noli required reading for his students later on at the International School Manila when I moved my family back home. It was he who bought Santiago Alvarez’s Katipunan and the Revolution, which became so central to my novel because of the quotidian quality of its recollections of revolution (having diarrhea in the middle of battle in the rice paddies of Caloocan because of eating pakwan; the drunkenness of Matandang Leon, a tulisan turned revolutionary; a blind man being blindfolded when he is initiated into the Katipunan; et cetera, et cetera: a joy ride of consequential inconsequence).

We learned that the historian’s name was Benedict Anderson; in those days without Google, we had no idea what that savant did or why he knew so much about Rizal. All I knew was that his view of Rizal in that Hopkins lecture, the way he read him with wit and correctness as a terribly forgotten novelist, haunted me—while my ignorance rebuked me, though for a long time I did nothing to remedy it.

………

I went back to writing Raymundo Mata in 2005: what drove me to it is a mystery: I have no idea why or how I began to write. Because for seven years, I did not think I would get back to writing at all. I had finished a draft of one novel, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, the year my husband died, and I had begun a page of Raymundo Mata. In the 90s an agent contacted me about publishing Gun Dealer. But I had no heart in me to work on any of my books. I felt guilty about being a writer. I felt dread about being alive at all.

Instead, at his publisher’s request, I edited my husband’s novel, leo@fergusrules.com. The horror was that his first novel was accepted by a publisher two weeks after his death. The miracle was that it was accepted by a publisher two weeks after his death. I put away my novels’ drafts and worked two years on Arne’s book. It came out from Leapfrog Press in 2000.

On the other hand, in a sort of bravado, when friends asked what they could do for me, I would ask them to to scour the bookstores of Manila for works on the revolution. I don’t know what I was thinking: the fact was, for months I could barely read a newspaper. Those Philippine history books, which sat unread for years, signify for me the faith and support of friends: each book was an express act of generosity that silently told me one day I might work again.

In my mind I wished to return to that first writing night of comic exhilaration. In my heart I knew I couldn’t. But at the very least, I urged myself, I could read the books. Slowly, I did. Given a sabbatical, I began reading full-time. And as I read the history, the novel emerged. I wished to write a comic historical novel written like a puzzle. I made up rules for play, and the strictures I placed on myself seemed both amusing and necessary. I would enclose an entire history of Filipino texts—from balagtasan to bugtong, Bonifacio’s poetry to Mabini’s politics—wrapped in the search for a lost and longed-for novel. The book would have traps for the reader, dead-end jokes, textual games, unexplained sleights of tongue. I wished to write a funhouse-text. (Maybe my curse has never been Rizal; my curse, perhaps, is Nabokov.)

But at the same time, I wished to be true to the past I was plundering. My concept of Raymundo Mata, a cipher of history whose relatives are perhaps still alive, maybe living even now a stone’s throw from the Aguinaldo Shrine, is cut out of wholly imagined cloth. My invention of him as a ‘kelptobibliomaniac,’ a hapless fan of the writer Rizal, is entirely uncorroborated. But the details I conjured had to breathe through the prism of the life he actually lived.

The task was to see Rizal and his history from an ‘awry’ lens: in this case, the nightblind eye of a ‘kleptobibliomaniac,’ a wordy lover of books. From the start, I had this obscure desire to resurrect Rizal the writer—my ambition was to lay him bare for us as a man who, when all is said and done, only wished to finish a novel, not start a war. But the fact is, I know all I could do was clothe him in my own personal delusions.

………..

The task was huge—I needed to acquaint myself not only with the hero’s history but with all his work that I could find. And for some reason, I needed to feel “pure,” as if that were possible: I needed to conceive of history from my own vantage. In this way, I banned theorists and many secondary sources from my diet. First, I read only Rizal’s work itself. My favorites were his Miscellaneous Writings, a wonderful compendium that includes gossip in code and morbidity in scientific notes, and his supple, seductive second novel, El Filibusterismo, a narrative stew of tonal dexterity, a brilliant light polemic and bitter farce. My translation of a text singular in Rizal’s oeuvre, Memorias de un estudiante en Manila, an adolescent narrative I could not find in English, became the chance engine of the entire novel’s prose. In this way, plagiarism by translation has its uses.

Of history, I chose to read only contemporaneous or historiographical texts—those books that give us the history of our history. My aim was not to be comprehensive (I was writing a novel, not a syllabus); I merely wished from these books to catch the quotidian in flux.

So I read around seven revolutionary memoirs, plus French travel books of the 18th century; Austin Coates but no Epifanio San Juan; Father Schumacher but not a word of Anderson. (In fact, it is perhaps the novel’s witless irony that while its trigger was a haunting lecture by Ben Anderson, my actual draft bears none of the blessings that a reading of Anderson might have cast.) The trials of finding those books are, perhaps, grist for another essay (I will only mention here that the many branches of National Bookstore will shelve the same book in as many ways). A cruel and unusual punishment imposed by my accidental writing strategy was that, when I finally began to write the text, I banned myself from reading prose published after 1896. This was tough (I diverged in one item: I kept rereading Borges). Sadly, my friends soon pointed out that a diet of Eugene Sue, Ariosto, hero hagiographers, and obscure history about insane events was not conducive to polite conversation.

My research bore out that not a single incident in the history of the Philippine revolution is, in my view, not subject to ambiguity. This is a truism of all history, true: but it is almost alarmingly so when we read Aguinaldo’s memoirs versus Ricarte’s versus Valenzuela’s versus Alejandrino’s versus even the brief and innocuous testament of the terse musician Julio Nakpil. Every text raises questions. To paraphrase that master of ambiguity, Hamlet: we are all errant truth-tellers all. Thus, in order to tell the story of our history, one must have not one but multiple ways of telling—and so in the novel, the blind memoirist’s text is riddled with critics, and in the margins the critics happily slander one another, throwing footnotes, not stones.

The only way to distill the multiple reality of such a country was to take apart its texts and ‘botch’ them, as the Danish court said of the sad Ophelia: construct a history by pointing out how it unravels. Thus my novel, a deconstructed story, might seem strange to read, though it was fun to write.

The hero I conjured, the character Raymundo Mata, was serendipitously blind in the history books and appropriately blind in my illusory version. It’s through a blurry lens that we might see clearly. What became true to me was that to finish a novel is a miraculous act of recovery. The recovery of a text, a body; the recovery of a hero, a history; the recovery of a country, a past. And so in this novel I came to terms with the reality of who I am: I write. It is an act that makes me, however temporarily, whole, and my husband, a writer, above all would understand. I say this to myself. It is small consolation, but it consoles.

It was odd to me how writing was such a joy: I looked forward to writing Raymundo Mata every day, and finishing the novel was the least of my surprises. It turns out finishing a novel is completing a past, while knowing the act is never quite done. The power of Rizal, and the power of our history, is that this genie—the exemplary postmodern text that is our country’s story—is inexhaustible. This is precisely so because these postcolonial sources are contradictory, unresolved, a cast of maddeningly personal voices with axes to grind (both amusing and not so much).

We must be glad for the patently unfinished and infuriating history that we have—our untranslatable dystranslations—our frank misreadings of who we are—our disingenuous ambiguity. In this way, it seems Filipinos must represent the complexity of everyone’s incomplete and indeterminate self, the one we grope for in the dark, and our surprising, endless resurrections.

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.

 

Language, Trump, Duterte

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, a man who actually handed 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 (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—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 historically perverse, Southern-anti-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.

Duterte and our revolutionary history

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philippines-duterte-drugs

I wrote in response to the historical allusions that troubled me as Duterte defended the killings committed under his presidency. It was published by CNN Philippines, the full article here.

“It was as if the country was caught between two mirrors, and thus in that doubling, our tragedy as a nation was made infinite. Caught between the trauma of our history and the trauma of our present, Filipinos were gaslighted. An abuser condemned an earlier abuser of the nation in order to sanction his own abuse. I found myself reeling, wondering if I had misunderstood why the country had waged revolution in the first place. This infinite regression of trauma is not for the weak of mind: but it weakens us. It further destabilizes our vague memory of that revolutionary past…

Duterte’s rant has teeth — but no virtue.

The slippery slope of his self-serving rage is that, on top of having bare knowledge of our history, now we must also misapprehend its ethics.

Via Duterte’s pique, our history becomes mere trapo — a ragged cloth to wipe off spittle from a foaming pikon mouth.

But most of all, his rage misreads our history as blind nationalism. His is history as neurotic fetish, egotism’s scar — not space for reflection.”

 

Multo ng Malacañang: Read Our [Ghosts’] [S]lips

 

A month ago news came out that Duterte would not live in Malacañang because he said it was full of ghosts. The statement, coming three weeks after election day, was one among many of the personal, close-up glimpses the country had of the incoming president as both the Philippines and the world were coming to grips with a new order. A video of his statement is here.

The newscast first sets up Duterte’s macho style, contrasting it with his multo fear, or, as he calls his fear of living in the Palace—“maramaing mumu diyan”—in deliberately childlike speech that both makes light of his position and underlines it: because as far as I can tell, only he can make fun of it.

There were the usual jokes in the comments section about Noynoy Aquino, his predecessor, being the real multo, and of course the irony that it was Imee Marcos—who should know—who relayed the information to Duterte that the presidential palace had “five” resident ghosts. The reporter interviews one of the Palace’s gardeners who reveals that he once saw a wheeled office chair move on Malacañang grass on its own, as if sitting on it were some unseen man just going about his official multo-of-Malacañang business. And, of course, now we know that “Mister Brown,” a tikbalang, lives in a balete tree on the palace grounds.

But to be honest, at this point in the post-election cycle, Duterte’s pronouncement was a cliché. We were used to strange moments coming out of Duterte’s press conferences. As a person, he was beginning to be predictable—a bit like a crazy uncle that you tolerate because at Christmas he might give you money.

So I began looking at the comments section to see what else was new. As many have noticed, the followers of Duterte are a fiercely faithful bunch. It’s also useful to note, as some have already, that they are a faithfully parsing bunch: they love to deconstruct the incoming president’s pronouncements.

What exists beside every Duterte statement that flummoxes normal beings is a paratext—a marginalia of interpretations that coexist with his oracular voice and accompany his message precisely like a ghostly trace: a trail maybe not of supernatural but of supra-aural or subliminal (at least to them) meanings. Duterte’s faithful are sophisticated readers of his words: literary explication is central to his followers’ understanding of the incoming president—they point out metaphors, puns, historical allusions, and so on. Like Biblical scholars, they constantly engage in exegesis.

‘Ekai Atoneg’ explains, “Ghost means under the table operatives not the literal ghost mahina talaga kayo di nyo pa talaga kilala si Digong.”

Ekai underlines ‘ghost’ as a political pun: ‘under the table operatives.’ He/she also emphasizes the “slowness” [mahina] of those who do not “know” Duterte [the verb used is kilala, which also implies something a bit more personal than abstractly ‘knowing’ someone: kilala is a verb that, however metaphorically one might mean it, includes interpersonal knowledge, e.g., being friends with him; contrast ‘kilala’ (know) with ‘alam’ (know): one verb is more personal, familial than the other]. They feel an intimacy with him.

Of course, Ekai gets it from a heckler, ‘Ravy Hackfield’—“Haha. Daming alam. Laliman mo pa.”

Equal to Duterte’s supporters are Duterte’s hecklers, those who laugh at the ‘deep readings’ [‘laliman mo pa’: or ‘yeah, keep digging for deep meanings’] and ‘daming alam’ [sarcastic phrase for ‘great knowledge’] of Duterte supporters.

But once you get into the mode of such ‘laliman,’ it is actually hard to extricate yourself from the possibility of alternate meanings. The language of Duterte becomes intrinsically intriguing because the possibilities for meaning have been opened up by his readers, his faithful audience who keep noting that all words have alternate texts—everything has a paratext.

‘Chum Bian’ says, “Hindi yan literal na ghost matalino yan si digong kung maka Du30 ka alam nyo na.”

Chum Bian does not even need to explain what the non-literal, metaphorical meaning might be (nor does he/she need punctuation, for that matter)—it is enough that a metaphorical explanation must be implied in ‘ghost’ because the man is “matalino”: intelligent.

(Of course, ironically this implies also the lack in Duterte’s words—one takeaway is that, because you need to reach for metaphor to understand him, you cannot take him, or his literal words, seriously, which is a drawback, politically.)

But there you have a third word for knowing, apart from ‘alam’ and ‘kilala’—‘talino,’ in this case a noun, not a verb—meaning intelligence. Matalino is a Tagalog adjective: the binisaya adjective could be baltok, or the Spanish cognate intelihente. (I see Chum Bian, a “maka Du30,” as a reader who speaks binisaya, likely Cebuano; though of course he could be Tagalog or Ilocano or Waray, who knows—Du30’s followers have a wide geographical swath.)

In Waray we might also use maaram; in Cebuano maalam. In short, our different Filipino languages have many root words for knowing and for intelligence. The fact is, given our various words for it, it seems we value knowing, but above all we recognize different modes of it: cunning, or academic, or commonsense Juan Pusong knowing, and so on.

I am not sure if matalino and baltok imply exactly the same thing: though they both mean intelligent. To know (alam) might be different from being intelligent (baltok). In Waray, maaram hiya, she is smart or she knows, has a different shade from baltok hiya, she is smart. I do think in the adjectives maaram and baltok, cunning is implied, something beyond academic knowledge, perhaps intuition, too; though if one is being entirely complimentary, baltok or maaram will mean a layered knowing—erudition in school and smarts outside of it.

But Chum Bian uses a Tagalog word “matalino” for Duterte here. Let’s say Chum Bian is Visayan, perhaps Cebuano. Once in the Visayas you use Tagalog to describe someone, you have broadened your audience, of course—you are aiming beyond your home—you have cosmopolitanized yourself.

The fact is, that is the annoying default experience (so default we in the provinces never even think when we code-switch to Tagalog) of being outside of the metropole (for me who grew up in Leyte, that is Manila, not New York). In my view, one implication of the word matalino is that Chum Bian is suggesting Duterte’s linguistic sophistication, just as he, Chum Bian, is sophisticated linguistically (for one thing, unlike the Tagalog, Chum Bian probably knows at least three languages, English, Tagalog, and Cebuano, e.g.).

Thus, for his supporters, Duterte’s metaphorical language is part of his talino—just as Chum Bian’s trilinguality, and his knowledge of alternate linguistic meanings, including metaphorical meanings, is part of Chum Bian’s talino, of his having ‘alam’—unlike the non-followers of Duterte.

This intense parsing of Duterte’s words by Duterte’s followers is fascinating not only because his followers have given us a new president, a new regime—whether we like it or not. I think this parsing of words is fascinating because it keeps revealing to us something integral to Filipino experience but always somewhat unexamined about Filipino experience—that our ‘knowledge’ of the world is always ‘sophisticated,’ in that we are aware, because of language, of multiple worlds and meanings always at once.

We always bear within us several texts, a paratext for our English and a paratext for our Tagalog and a paratext for our Waray or Ilocano or Ilonggo—we bear a marginalia of tongues all simultaneously and at once. We cannot help it. We cannot help but bear multiple worlds in us. And I mean that word ‘bear’ in those multiple senses: we are burdened by it, we are born to it. [I will not get into our damned colonized history here that condemns us to what we are born to and to what we bear.]

We are always trailing ghosts of words, a trace of other words and thus meanings, as we speak. (Note: This is true of humans; but it is existentially transparent with Pinoys. Pinoys, in this sense, are uber-humans: or the colonized is hyper-human—but that is too much theory for now.) When I say baltok, I also have the word smart in me, as well as talino and maalam. As Eliot’s Wasteland goes, I can do the police in different voices. We live daily with the ghosts of our various selves, our triple languages, our multiple worlds via our several, and severing, tongues.

The emergence of Duterte, who makes prominent the language of an other, at least if we consider the political convention of Tagalog as the not-other (by the way, that is not, for me, my lived experience, since the language of a so-called other, Waray, is my motherland, my tongue-ina, to use that witchy code-switching term of poet Eric Gamalinda)—the emergence of Duterte only makes that existential multiple-tongued reality of the Filipino slightly more obvious.

Our ‘sophisticated’ knowledges—talino and alam and baltok realities arising from our everyday sophisticated experience of our multilinguality—are made prominent in the emergence of Duterte. But perhaps more importantly, in the emergence of Duterte’s readers.

But on the other hand, that existential linguistic quality is not enough to sustain the mesmerizing, messianic qualities of his words upon his followers (not to mention the distressing, to say the least, effect of them on his not-followers). Sylvia Mayuga, in her essay on Duterte and the Pilandok tale, and Ninotchka Rosca, in her comment on Duterte and his ‘duro’ politics, have brought out folk aspects of the man that many respond to. In another post, I looked at the most immediate historical moment that strikes me in Duterte: his strongman-nostalgia (and our strongman-attraction that may also be part of the country’s vote for him). And he does contain folk qualities—a Juan Pusong type, an insider who acts like an outsider, seemingly dumb but actually always victorious, a justice avenger, a pun-twisting joker, etc etc. One can look at him in an exterior, narrative way and parse him as a riddle, a folk image, and so on, and we can get a quite complex, edifying or not, mirror of ourselves achieved by those readings.

But reading the comments makes me also aware that his significance lies in the readers themselves—his readers are a fateful text. I’d say this includes both the responses of his faithful and of his hecklers.

‘Lea Sanchez’ goes, “May point si Mr President haha. Lahat ng kaganapan sa history ng Philippine politics dumaan diyan haha XD.”

The president has a point, says Lea Sanchez: to read Duterte’s comment on the palace is to read all the events [lahat ng kaganapan] of Philippine history through Duterte’s proclaimed fear of the ghosts of Malacañang.

An anonymous poster adds, “Malacañang means malaking lakan, o ahas [snake]. I think we have to change the name. Puro ahas diyan. SNAKEPIT.”

For both Lea Sanchez and Anonymous, Duterte’s fear of multo in Malacañang then is a historical allusion and political critique—and the historical allusion, inevitably, is encased in a linguistic pun. For Filipinos, history is a matter of pun. In Anonymous’s case, malacañang, malaking lakan, house of a big lord, but also, house of a snake, is a linguistic and physical pun, both the snakepit that is language and the house of ghostly snakes. I have no idea if this punning interpretation of the word malacañang, as snakepit, is accurate, but it is sufficient perhaps that Duterte faithful go there.

It is impossible in the Philippines to separate historical critique from language play.

Thus, the presidential palace, as parsed by Duterte evangelists through his messianic, metaphorical language (however aware he is of the meanings his followers will make), becomes a tongue-lashing snakepit, that is, a historically corrupt house of politics that has poisoned the nation through the years.

I would not say that his followers are mistaken.

But then an anonymous poster responds: “Malay nyo naman po matakot sila sa yo”—Who knows, sir, if it is the ghosts who will be afraid of you.

To which ‘Kevin Mercado Linsao’ gleefully answers, “The famous ghost still won as Mayor!”

And so ‘Losi Garo’ jeers, “Akala ko astig ka. Looks like he does not have balls afterall.”

But ‘Alesha Mohhamed Lavender Unica’ laughs at Losi Garo, “lol have sense to understand what he means.”

While ‘Rotsen Naalcab Agirab’ goes on, “Hahhahaha taga davao ako boy!! Hindi mo pa mkuha ang style ni mayor!! Ganyan yan marunong magbiro peru wag lng magalit dahil lion yan.”

And so on and so forth.

(I mean, even the posters’ pen-names seem like plays on words: anagram [Losi Garo: Roli the Siga?], palindrome [Rotsen: Nestor?], chiasmus [Ekai Atoneg: Genato E?]—all those slippery games of self-naming, our treasured secret identities, through language-play, that to me are precarious ways to hold on to a passing sense of superiority, a perilous control. I imagine we like to pun because when we play with words, at least we might feel, however illusorily, we have control over meaning—since we don’t over our lives.)

There is no way out of the tangled braid of language and interpretation and politics and history and jokes as ways of knowing that bedevils our islands.

In the voice of the Duterte critic, Duterte himself will become a metonym: Duterte will inevitably become the ghost that Duterte himself fears.

It is hard, in our political world especially, and in our tongues in cheek that respond to it, not to see the reflexive, inevitable fallibility of the leader.

Duterte, as far as history goes (even in the tautological logic of his own followers, who accurately label his future home as a snakepit, so that then Duterte himself is the big snake in it) will inescapably become the ghost of Malacañang.

The one who is killed and will kill.

Maraming mumu diyan. Including, who knows, what Duterte fears of and for himself even as he speaks.

It’s exactly as Freud calls it—this comment on the multo of Malacañang. It’s a psychopathology of the tongue: the extreme self-awareness that occurs in lapses of speech.

The fact is, the readers of Duterte, whether follower or critic, will keep on dragging our multiple ‘sense[s] to understand,’ our many ways of being ‘marunong,’ including, of course, our most palpable intelligence—the great intelligence of jokers—‘marunong magbiro’—our jokiness being ultimately a mark of our own sense of our slips—the way our completeness of self lies in our seeming ineffability, our multiple selves that constantly escape our grasp via our multiple tongues—as we slouch toward our Bethlehem, to one more inauguration of a leader who, one only hopes, will be not the lakan in the snakepit but the healer outside of it.

Malay nyo, as Anonymous says. Who knows?

I wish for him to be the hilot, the healer. Above all, I wish us all the best.

But then, my own paratext bubbles up in me, as I also think, he could also be just the snake charmer.

But does it matter who, in fact, he is?

Maybe it is for us the readers to go deeper, into ourselves. We are the text, the ghost, whose lips we must read. With empathy, with hope, with a sense of our mutual intelligences, for after all in our multiple ways there is only the one country for which the many dream.

Laliman pa natin.

 

Two American writers of the Filipino-American war period

There are two interesting Americans of the period who wrote about life in the archipelago. One style of writing was to do captive narratives—I imagine those were popular among Americans, the way stereograph pictures of dead Filipino bodies were mass entertainment. Similar to these captive-memoirs would have been narratives of army officers, etc. Those seem to be well published. Of course, there were the travel narratives, many of them by women, Thomasite teachers and such. The other writer I am thinking of is a Conrad-esque one—his work was like a hybrid of Orwell’s Burmese Days and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

James Marie Hopper was an aspiring literary stylist who wrote in the vein of Joseph Conrad (Hopper seems to have been a fan of Conrad, as a letter from Conrad shows, and as the contemporaneous book reviews acknowledge). Some of the stories in Caybigan were published by the literary magazine McClure’s; he was most famous for his reports on the SF earthquake, in Harper’s—he made money enough on it to buy a home in Carmel (now Carmel-by-the-Sea), CA. He was said to have published 300 stories in his lifetime. I looked up whether or not a Filipino scholar had done any research on Hopper; could not find any references. I found him because I was looking for evidence of what seems to be an apocryphal story about Jack London—that in his time as a correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner during the Russo-Japanese war, he passed by Manila and thus owned or stole a Katipunan flag. Anyway, found no source for that rumor, but I found the work of Jack London’s friend James Marie Hopper instead. Hopper, in the Google book of Jack London’s letters, is said to have been known in the literary world as “the Kipling of the Philippines”—an intriguing, if not necessarily complimentary, epithet.

The other writer is Albert Sonnichsen, a former prisoner of war who wrote a 12 Years a Slave-type narrative, called Ten Months a Captive Among Filipinos. Mark Twain wrote Sonnichsen a very nice letter approving of his book: the memoir was, in fact, an evenhanded narration, in some places poignant, of incidents of war. Most powerful to me is his anecdote of a grieving Filipino mother offering food to the prisoner of war Sonnichsen, asking him whether gringos treated their prisoners well. It turns out the old woman’s son was a katipunero captured by US forces—a haunting mirroring in that scene. I saw Sonnichsen’s papers, including that nice autographed letter from Twain, in the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division when I was doing research on my never-ending novel William McKinley’s World. Sonnichsen was a Danish American captured by Aguinaldo’s army in Malolos; he was sailor who left his ship to take pictures of the outbreak of war, then the Katipunan captured him when he got off a train (or something Reds-like like that). He went all around Bulacan then Northern Luzon as a POW of the Katipunan, becoming friends with one of his captors Juan Villamor, an Ilocano general under Aguinaldo (a hero also mentioned extensively in Scott’s Ilocano Responses to American Aggression). The American senators who cross-examined Taft about Balangiga in 1902 in Affairs of the Philippine Islands were very familiar with Sonnichsen’s captive-memoir (it was because of Sonnichsen’s book that the senators insisted to Taft on their belief that Aguinaldo himself killed Luna; Taft dissuaded them). Ten Months a Captive is available online here.

But while Sonnichsen’s captive-memoir was well-reviewed and somewhat famous, James Marie Hopper is the literary writer. He came to the Philippines in 1901 to be a teacher; he was well-known at Cal Berkeley as a football player; he grew up in Oakland (incidentally so did Sonnichsen). His father was an Irish Fenian refugee in Paris, his mother was a Parisian who took her twin sons across the seas to California (don’t know what happened to Fenian dad). Hopper was friends with Jack London, Robinson Jeffers, etc. Hopper’s book of Conradesque short stories, Caybigan, was published in 1906; including its title’s punning use of Tagalism, caybigan, for the saccharine, reflexive term Pinoys used both for themselves as colonized and Americans as colonizer—that is, amigo—I think his book Caybigan is a lot more interesting than John Sayles’s Amigo.

Being something of a modernist, Hopper drew portraits of his fellow Americans that drip with what could pass as anti-imperial critique, in that Conrad way that is both simpatico and repulsive: racist and well-meaning (it seems). I like especially Hopper’s stories of colonist-trauma—the pathetic US soldier in Iloilo from the American South whom Hopper describes with the relish Conrad gave to the nutty Russian in the Congo or the “pilgrims” in Heart of Darkness, Hopper’s beast-like Southerner in his tattered camisa climbing up banana trees in the dark of night in order to eat (the denouement is tragic, an inverse of the balikbayan-OFW tale, quite fascinating); or the farcical life of a maestro (called Thomasites in history books but portrayed with gentle but clear-eyed self-critique in Hopper, who was, of course, a maestro himself)—funny Mark-Twainish scenes of the maestro desperately catching the truant Isidro who refuses his ‘civilization.’ And so on. Hopper liberally uses Tagalog words—baguio, for typhoon, bata, tao—but also racist words like pickaninny and brownie—all in an interesting, arch voice that I cannot quite condemn or condone, so I laugh. The racism, of course, makes the entire book a bit of a travesty, but it is an instructive read. Caybigan is also available online, here.

Those two, Sonnichsen and Hopper, give one a sense of the temper and tone of some of the literary writing about the Philippines at the onset of occupation, during a global period that was, in fact, full of great human radical movement—anarchism everywhere, factory occupations in Italy, communists in Hollywood, etc. They don’t tell us why books of that sort did not have a lasting hold on American letters. Basic American education also does not include Mark Twain as anti-imperialist, for instance, or MLK as socialist. High school students always read Gatsby but never Sinclair Lewis. And so on. The lack of American canonical literary writing on the American occupation of the Philippines does tell us that American letters is highly ideological, and rightwingish: the canon is made by a bunch of twits whose main job is to take wedgies out of their asses; canons aren’t about genuine thought but about lasting reaction. Sonnichsen actually became a freedom fighter in Montenegro, and then a leader of the cooperative movement in Connecticut (whatever that is). Hopper became a World War 1 war correspondent. The 2 were by no means great writers, but they were two of the better ones, and they were more interesting voices than the much-published, stupid “historians,” like money-grubbing, gold-mine-owning, artifact-grabbing Dean Worcester. Or Forbes and Blount.

My sense is that those 2, Sonnichsen and Hopper, were exceptions, ‘better’ Americans than the usual kano in the Philippines. No wonder a writer born of erudite parents of the Spanish period, like Nick Joaquin, had disdain for the era he grew up in, the prewar years of the American occupation (at least I see that in his stories; don’t know much about his personal views); his country’s occupiers were louts, embezzlers, midget minds out to make a buck. Not to mention very tiresome racists. McCoy captures those Americans, with fine portraits of Rough Rider Leonard Wood’s stock-market-swindler son—a son of a governor-general (favorite friend of TR) who used his influence to fleece investors in Manila and New York, etc—and other filthy characters (not excepting the annoying Filipinos, like Quezon), in his essential book Policing America’s Empire (not available online, but available at Ateneo de Manila bookstore).

Both Sonnichsen and Hopper, coincidentally, were sons of immigrant Americans (one man’s father was from Denmark, the other man’s family emigrated from France) who grew up in California. They were not the Midwestern Indian-war veterans or Southern farm goonies who made up most of the U.S. volunteer soldiers. Hopper, I imagine, was also quite different from the pious, semi-literate Christians from Ohio or Arkansas who made up the Thomasites. In general, most of the Americans who came to the country were probably like swamp people in Flannery O’Connor or Faulkner (Hopper tells a story of one of them in the opening tale of his book Caybigan). At least, that is the very unkind interpretation I make from the documents of the Filipino-American war period, which mostly come from US Army files or government documents—such texts not being beacons of enlightenment.