Book Expo Talk on Insurrecto

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I was invited to speak at LibraryReads this year to talk about my book, Insurrecto, to a roomful of librarians (my FAVORITE people!). I know I teared up a bit being in a room with just READERS, but I was also so happy—and just so honored to be invited. This was the talk.

[13 minutes]

First of all I want to say how happy I am to be here, how honored to be among you,
the People of the Book—my compatriots in this country of books for which the
passport above all is passion—I’m so glad and honored to be here among you.
I grew up on an island, in a city called Tacloban in Leyte. It’s the easternmost island
in central Philippines, facing the Pacific, and Ferdinand Magellan the Portuguese
explorer landed on it in 1521, after his legendary naming of that ocean the Pacific, in
the process so-called discovering the Philippines in the name of Spain. In 1944
Douglas MacArthur landed on my island, fulfilling his promise to the Philippines in
1941, when as the commander of the US forces in the Far East, he had left Manila,
saying, “I shall return.” He returned to my town’s beach, Red Beach in Leyte. I grew
up dancing as a child every year on October 20 for soldiers who would return, to
remember their war—they would come as guests of another famous person—my
curse as a kid apart from staring at Douglas MacArthur for so long was that Imelda
Marcos is from my hometown, and as kids from her school we had to dance for her
every time she visited.

So I grew up with tales of grand personages landing on my little beachfront city with
great consequences—but that did not keep me from being bored in it.
I was always being punished for my indifference to my environment—I’d go to
school—it was a Catholic school, I had a uniform—forgetting my necktie, not
bringing my handkerchief, and so on—but the trick to this was, whenever I did not
obey the rules, so bored with the facts of my existence—I would be punished by
being sent to the library. It was like a bee being punished with a bouquet of flowers.

I read everything, and for me, the library in fact was where history begins.

Of course the books I read when I was a kid were pretty haphazard—I was indiscriminate—I read the entire set of Bible Stories for Children—one story in that series about a sick boy named David reading Bible stories turned out to be about Dwight David Eisenhower, for some reason—and I remember my favorite volume in the World Book Encyclopedia was the letter M, because it had all the tales of Greek and Roman and Norse mythology in it—and I gobbled up this series of books about creatures on Cape Cod, it turns out, because I found the Thornton W Burgess Museum on Cape Cod when I first came to America, and among the group of Americans, I was the only one who knew who the writer was—I loved his stories of otters, and buzzards, and minks, and foxes—they’re called The Old Mother West Wind stories—and I loved the tales of these creatures that I never saw in Tacloban.

Doing research on my novel, Insurrecto, which is about the Philippine-American War—1899-1913—I realized much later how that library must have come together.

As part of the pacification of the islands, the United States sent teachers on a boat called USS Thomas, and my school library must have still had the kinds of
books deposited in it from those Thomasites, as the teachers were called, who
arrived in the 1910s and the 1920s. I memorized the poems of Christina Rossetti
and Emily Dickinson and knew the Gettysburg Address and the Song of Hiawatha by
heart and became very comfortable with first names like Waldo or Wadsworth or
Fennimore. In the 1970s, I had a great American 1920s-era education, thanks to my wearing the wrong neckties.

And oddly because of war. It’s odd to me now, having done all this research on the
Philippine-American war—how vestiges of that war hang over my growing up. The
fact is, the Philippine war against America is unremembered in the Philippines, just
as it is unremembered in America. I never studied it as a child. Americans study it, if
they do, only as a sidelight of the Spanish-American war of 1898—in the Philippines,
we call it our war of independence. But the history Filipinos learn is really our revolution against Spain—we barely talk about the war that followed it, when our allies the Americans decided to occupy us when we mistakenly believed we would be given
freedom after helping to wage war against America’s enemy, also our enemy, Spain.

That era of peacetime, as the Philippines oddly calls the period of the American
occupation, 1902 to 1946, is one long era of forgetting. We forgot the brutality of
how we were occupied. And so has America. I think such gaps have consequences.
What I have come to see is that Philippine history is part of America, and American
history is part of the Philippines. In my experience, this twinning of the two is so
weird that for a long time, honest to God, I thought Elvis was Filipino. No, really, I
only learned a few years ago that all the songs my uncles used to sing during their
long guitar-strumming nights were not, in fact, Filipino kundiman, or love songs, but
Elvis. Are You Lonesome Tonight? Love Me Tender—I had no idea they were Elvis. It was a very odd recognition, and to be honest it was a pretty staggering, let’s say, misapprehension on my part—and so let me say this—I put Elvis in my novel of the Philippine-American war.

What my misrecognition of Elvis led me to think about was — how do we really
know the things that make us? We put ourselves in categories— and above all,
others put us in categories— Filipino, islander, woman—when we know very well
we are fragments and fractures and parts of so many others. We are named by our
mothers, for instance, in acts of misrecognition—we carry our mothers’ unknown
desires in our names that we did not choose. We call ourselves American—but the
richness of Americanness lies in its multiplicity, including not only the known
worlds it has occupied but, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, including also the
unknown unknowns —the things we don’t know we don’t know about ourselves.
And I call myself Filipino—but I have multiple cultures in me—Elvis, Frank Sinatra,
Douglas MacArthur—I claim Warhol’s Double Elvis as irreparably part of my
imaginary—my world of images.

And what I must do is figure out how to include all my worlds as part of my sense of
self and find sense in my fragmentation—in the traumas and the wars and the
violences that have made me.

Of course, as opposed to the colonizer, the world of the colonized is visibly and
thus irreparably multiple—because included in the world of the colonized IS the
world of the colonizer.

Whereas the colonizer is so-called privileged in thinking his world is exceptional and singular. Unfortunately he is mistaken— “privileged” is not the correct word for such a world view—ignorant, or poor, is more correct—because of course such exceptionalism impoverishes and diminishes his reality. And with such a misperception, considering only the known knowns—if he persists in his misperception, he is unable to see himself clearly.

It is only when the world of the colonizer includes the world of the colonized as part
of his reality that such a world can heal itself.

On the other hand, I must inevitably read that world of the colonizer in which I live
with at least two gazes—it’s simply a daily part of how I exist: the colonizer’s world
is in fact also my reality—it is part of me—but I must simultaneously see this world
awry, in an inverse gaze, in order to see myself whole—

This is why libraries have been such a refuge for me, from the time I was a child. It is a place of multiple worlds, it offers multiple identities, and because it is so, in a
library paradoxically one can always be oneself.

I could be part of the world of otters in Cape Cod even as I left the streets and found myself facing the dictator’s bazookas.

By the time I was sixteen, I was going on marches, against the dictatorship—we called it the U.S. Marcos dictatorship because the man’s murderous rule was propped up by the United States during the Cold War as a hedge against communism in Asia—but when the march would pass by the business district, which was also where the US embassy’s cultural center—The Thomas Jefferson library was—I had no qualms about leaving the march in a kind of recess to read Harper’s magazine in their library. And that’s where I learned that this writer that I loved—I loved his book called Chimera and The Sotweed FactorThe Sotweed Factor is an extremely beautifully crafted book about early American history that’s practically footnoted—I love that novel—and I loved the novelist John Barth—anyway, he wrote an article in Harper’s called “Teacher”—and I learned that
this great writer—taught—so the next time the march passed by the American
library, I checked the address of Johns Hopkins, his school, and I wrote John Barth at
Hopkins.

And in those days of the marches and the bazookas, miraculously I got this letter
back—it was like getting a letter from Andromeda Galaxy to be honest—there I was,
marching amid rubble, and I had had the temerity—or let’s say ignorance—to send
Barth my novel and asked him what he thought—I thought that is what you did with
writers—and what Jack said was, thank you for your novel, but you need to send an
application. And he included the forms in his reply. So I got into Hopkins, because I
took a detour from being in the revolution, and that is how I came to America, and
what I’ve ended up doing—coming from that island I grew up in—is that I ended up
thinking a lot about history.

The vestiges of the two histories, Filipino and American, exist like a haunting—a
trace that is both invisible and unknown yet whenever I look up around me now, at
this world of Trump and Duterte, for instance, twin fascists who now lead my two
countries—it is relentlessly present.

The book Insurrecto is a trace of that relationship between the Philippines and the
United States, that history that haunts me. Insurrecto is a story of valiant women, starring actors in their own dramas, trying to become whole, some in very ordinary ways—by taking a road trip, by sharing stories and space in a car—and there is of course one mother haunted by Elvis. And there is one actual historical figure in the book, Casiana Nacionales, who becomes an insurrecto, a revolutionary, simply by being a woman in her time and place.

The novel’s structure follows my sense of a self—open to multiple identities,
synchronic, that is, inhabiting multiple eras and stories simultaneously—so that in
my novel the world of the current dictator, Rodrigo Duterte, is linked to the world of
Marcos’s martial law, the world of Trump, and the world of the American invaders
in 1901—that is, the novel grapples with my synchronic sense of history, the way I
think we exist in simultaneous times—of horror but also of resistance—in which by
recognizing the limitations of our human gazes, maybe we will heal. Thank you so
much for including me in your event today. Once again, I am so honored.
END

 

 

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Trump, John Pershing, and other dumb stuff

This is a section of an op-ed I wrote a while ago for the NYT, which eventually declined to publish it. So I sent a longer version of it to CNN Philippines. That CNN piece was called “Duterte and Philippine Revolutionary History,” link here. Below are just comments on the Pershing issue that I had included in the original nyt op-ed.

…….”The American commanders of their nation’s first war in Asia, template of the messes that came after—Vietnam, Laos, Iraq, Iraq 2, et cetera—were veteran Civil War generals (Union and Confederate) who also later slaughtered the Sioux, Comanches, Kiowas, or, in the case of Henry Lawton, “was a national hero for his part in the capture of the Apache chief Geronimo.” Russell Roth in Muddy Glory: America’s ‘Indian Wars’ in the Philippines, 1899-1935 quotes Theodore Roosevelt, “The reasoning that justifies our having made war against Sitting Bull justifies our [having made war against the Filipinos].” Arthur MacArthur, father of Douglas and known as General Sherman of Northern Luzon, depended on his fellow ‘Indian-killer’ officers to scorch Luzon, the Philippines’s largest island, into surrender.

Perhaps the most famous ‘Indian fighter’ was John “Black Jack” Pershing, General of the Armies in World War I and in 1911 governor of Mindanao island—where Davao, Duterte’s city, lies, and beyond which Bud Dajo smolders. Pershing commanded a second Battle of Bud Dajo, pursuing Muslim fighters by lining his men at the lip of the volcano and killing 500 at the same crater. By then, Mark Twain [note: Twain had written about the first Bud Dajo masacre in 1906] was not alive to recall it in scathing anathema and patriotic loathing.

The Filipino-American war is barely remembered, even by Filipinos. But Pershing’s obscure exploit saw light in an unlikely moment. Donald Trump evoked Pershing at a California rally, “He was a rough guy—and he had a terrorism problem…General Pershing sat high up in his horse, ramrod…and he caught fifty terrorists and dipped fifty bullets in pigs’ blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined forty-nine of those people, and the fiftieth person, he said, you go back to your people, and you tell them what happened. And for twenty-five years, there was no problem.”

The Muslim insurgency in predominantly Catholic Philippines goes on today [note: this piece was written before Marawi], one hundred years later. The only true part of this garbled story of Pershing in Mindanao is that Trump’s fantasies of Muslims are just loony. But it tells us how this buried story of American colonization of the Philippines erupts. Farcically, in the lurid imagination of a bigoted sham like Trump, a character already thought up by that shrewd teller of American truths, Mark Twain, in his Duke-and-Dauphin con-man sections of Huckleberry Finn. Or tragically, in the sham anti-colonial rage of Rodrigo Duterte….”

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.