On Wilfrido Nolledo’s But for the Lovers, originally in Post Road

Writer Gina Apostol wrote this brief paragraph about But for the Lovers for Post Road, a journal from Boston College. Thank you Gina ~ Mimi Nolledo

=============================================

But For the Lovers, by Wilfrido Nolledo

Practically flawless in its use of free indirect discourse as a weapon of national memory, this novel set in Japanese-occupied Manila during the Second World War is written as if in cold-blooded delirium. When Jane Austen in the early nineteenth century began writing in the free indirect style, she of course could not have imagined how her narrative simulation of the vagaries of consciousness would engender one day the dream-novel of a Filipino expatriate in Iowa. Nolledo, who was a journalist, short story writer and playwright as well, weaves pitch-perfect voices, each haunting and distinct, of multiple misfits on the ragged edges of a war-torn city—a city fractured not only by violence but by language, rent not just by war but by history. Having been plundered for centuries by Spain, then raped by plan by America, Manila in 1945 is in the grip of the lunatic Japanese as it waits in numbed thrall for the arrival of its tardy saviors, MacArthur’s GIs. Witnesses to the country’s dissolution are an aging star of the obsolete Spanish theater, a pensive urban thief, a provincial virgin left for dead, a Japanese ‘ghost,’ a raving, downed American pilot mistaken for a savant. The lush fevered imagery never descends into mere tropical cliché because of Nolledo’s absolute mastery of voice—from the extravagantly worn Spanishisms of his vaudeville Manila clown to the tour de force hallucinations in Midwestern slang of the raving American pilot, Nolledo crafts with conviction the story of a doomed city, ravaged ‘but for the lovers, their arms/ round the griefs of the ages/ who pay no praise or wages/ nor heed…craft or art.’ Nolledo’s prose is a powerful marriage of modernist poetry and disciplined narration. Reprinted by Dalkey Archive in 1994, with an introduction by Robert Coover (!), But for the Lovers has been hailed as a ‘cult masterpiece,’ another term for those great books unjustly unread.

Below are some things I wish to add

 

My time at National Bookstore’s Philippine Readers and Writers Festival has been rewarding, unsettling, fulfilling, destabilizing, and above all moving. It is the first time I return home only for my books (I usually return for my family). This conjoining of home with such intense focus on Insurrecto, which is a novel about a return home, creates spin in my head, the kind I perpetrate on readers. On top of this, I am deep in the writing of a novel. I’m jetlagged and in the time-free fever-dream of a first draft (actually a revision of the 266 pages of William McKinley’s World, but I have decided to junk almost all of those pages, I’m writing again from scratch). So in between my immersion in this new novel and my interviews on my old one, all enjoyable (this year of Insurrecto I made up my mind to enjoy the book events), this has been a whirl—fun, but intense. So of course I did not eat lunch on the day of my actual public event for Insurrecto—I kept working on the novel. Then I rushed to get to Ambeth Ocampo’s then Viet Nguyen’s then Butch Dalisay’s panels—all great! By the time it was 5, I was lightheaded—I was dizzy and I realized for some reason I was very very hungry. So at the end, I felt I had left gaping holes in the answers, befuddled as I was by my body. So below are some of the things I wished I had elaborated or fleshed out a bit during the discussion. I feel huge gratitude to the Philippine Readers and Writers Festival for inviting me—to the tireless employees of National Bookstore, esp JB Roperos, all of whom made the stay easy, to Xandra Ramos who led it all, to James Abuan who facilitated the prep for the events, to Raffles Hotel (for the breakfast buffets!), to Andrea Pasion-Flores who supports my books at Anvil, to Yvette for moderating the talk. The audience at this festival was wonderful—rapt, intent, intelligent, curious. Above all, they were readers reading these Filipino books. It is a gift that any book festival offers to us, to readers and writers—this gift of connection. So thank you to the festival, to all the readers and writers that I met.

  • The Role of the Reader. A smart reader asked a lovely question: was the name Chiara connected to chiaroscuro, since the filmmaker Chiara began the novel in the dark (oscuro), and as she proceeds to Balangiga she has more clarity (pun on Chiara)? I loved the question. And I said—aha, that is exactly what I mean by “the role of the reader.” What I mean is—if the novel is open enough, and the reader knows detail closely enough, it can produce a creative reader. For me, in a book, it’s not only the writer who creates. I did NOT have to answer his question because his lovely reading made my own intentions as a writer moot. (This does not mean you can have ANY reading; it is still possible to read irresponsibly.) If you create a text that is a labyrinth, parallels and conjunctions and puzzles for the reader to figure out, wordplay such as the questioner’s chiaroscuro can be part of a good reading—the reader also makes his own connections, and that is the fun of a text. In one book group in the States, a reader said to me, You know I’m Mexican so I could see so many connections to Filipino colonization, but [blank], he said, who is Irish read other things—we all had our own connections. (I will say I like this chiaroscuro reading because there is in fact an Italian painter in the novel, the master from Umbria, Piero della Francesca, and the act of painting and capturing and shading in a character’s face [the portrait of Caz—and it is interesting to note which scriptwriter created Caz] is also part of the novel, so the art allusion in the question is proper, in that a close reading of textual detail can explain how chiaroscuro might occur to one: it comes from the text.) A novel that deliberately creates an open role for the reader and requires reader-discovery allows for the creativity of the reader.
  • Parallels in History. Asked about Duterte-era scenes in the novel, I noted how it was sadly easy to include tokhang, though I had begun the novel before Duterte’s election, originally designed to make parallels between violence in Marcos and Phil-Am war era; but it is terrible that I could seamlessly insert Duterte’s violence into the novel. I pointed out in the discussion that the close structural link between the executive and the police was material history: when the executive (governor-general) was set up in the American era, the functions of the police were directly linked to his office, since of course it was an occupying government that still hounded suspected revolutionaries—American rule was first set up as essentially militarist, counterinsurgency-oriented, in my view terrorist. (This is mostly from Al McCoy’s Policing America’s Empire.) The Phil-Am war explains the executive-policing structure of Philippine governance-by-counterinsurgency, which Marcos exploited and Duterte does now, too. It’s odd how the Phil-Am war explains many things we do not think about. I forgot to add this logical extension (which I have pointed out at other Q&As)—in this policing structure, the victims are materially different, of course (Americans killed katipuneros; Marcos killed “communists”; Duterte kills drug “criminals”), but the structural similarities are chilling: e.g., in a transitive effect, the drug “criminals” = katipuneros. All execute extra-judicial killings. Thus, Duterte IS the violent Kano in our age.
  • I regret what I said about Kring-Kring. It’s the Romualdezes who are the devils of Tacloban. The former mayor Cristina just unfortunately married into the family; I should not go after the poor woman. I still stand by what I said about Imelda though.
  • The organism and the reader. A question frequently asked of writers—for whom do you write? As I said, for me, I write for the text—the text is the organism I am trying to keep alive. I seem to be writing for this organism—to figure out how to keep it alive. But the reader is part of that organism: part of the text. So it is not true, as I said in the discussion, that I would not think about the Filipino or white or whatever reader. I’d revise that to say that if the novel’s structure demands an address to Filipino or to white etc, then I’d address or consider those readers in the organism. For example, the Phil-Am war topic of Insurrecto means that any of the scenes might be read differently by 3 key readers embedded in the novel’s design: Filipino, Filipino-American, white/American: the novel directly relates to their histories. So I did work hard in Insurrecto to think about how each might see the scenes I was creating. The organism of Insurrecto required that the scene could have layered, different meanings depending on which of those three is reading it.
  • What Advice Would I Give a Young Writer. My advice about pleasure and enjoyment is often the following: write if writing gives joy, don’t write if it doesn’t, there are other ways to be happy apart from being a writer, the goal is not to be a writer but to take pleasure in living in this world. I would say this advice is hard-won, for me. Also, what I’m saying is that for me, writing gives me great joy—because of course I have kept doing it. But I’d like to add this recurring experience—whenever I find that the work is hard to write, when I labor at it, it is usually not good—my choices are probably wrong. When I find the tone and technique that make it fun to write, a huge pleasure, I know the novel is working. With Gun Dealer, I found writing laborious, excruciating. But I kept working on it—I finished a whole draft. But late in the writing, I found the key—I needed to shift to first person (the original mode of Gun Dealer was snarky, sarcastic third person). Once I did that—the novel was lots of fun to write. Both Raymundo Mata and Insurrecto were just fun fun fun from the start—as I have said, writing Insurrecto was like butter. That’s because I think from the beginning I felt I had made the right choices—tone, technique, structure. From the get-go, Insurrecto was structured like a banig in multiple third person free indirect style, and that was correct. Very recently, just last week, I found the key to Wm McKinley’s World, and I’ve been so immersed in it, and it is so much fun I don’t eat.
  • Syntax and Words. Yvette, the moderator, asked me about my use of language: she read aloud a description of a cockroach: “An obscene dead cockroach, its genitalia splayed out for the world to see, is coming and going in waves, like an upturned boat with frail masts. ” I said instantly I had seen that cockroach—in 1975 during a typhoon when waters flooded our home in Tacloban. But the choice of words was linked to the psychological reality of the character, her moment in time, plus the themes of alienation and historical obscenity in the book, as well, of course, as that personal memory. But I will add—because this is actually very important to me—that the heart of the work is the sentence. I hear syntax and sound—I’m an incorrigible fan of assonance and its twin dissonance! which is both error and pleasure—but most of all I work with the sentence, and I always think the sentence is linked to the character’s voice, her temper and times, as well as the book’s need. So Gun Dealers’ Daughter has florid sentences mirroring the word-bound damage of her storytelling that, in my view, Insurrecto does not—I needed to pare down sentences in Insurrecto because the banig, the weft of voices, was complex (I even used fragments, which I don’t remember much in Gun Dealer); whereas the journal of Raymundo Mata (not the footnotes) was based on late-19th century syntax lifted from Rizal (I more or less plagiarized Rizal’s Memorias of his time in Ateneo, which helped me write the rest of the book). I stuck to reading only work from pre-1896 to write Raymundo Mata, just to get that syntax down. Of course, I claim complete culpability for all those puns, whichever book I write 🙂
  • Insurrecto was Recess. That Insurrecto was recess from writing Wm McKinley’s World is part joke, part truth. I’d write it when I was tired out by the excruciating thing that was Wm McKinley’s World. Then at some point it became the only novel I was working on. Then suddenly I finished it. That recess metaphor is instructive. Why not approach all work as recess—to consider the novel always as experiment and play? I think of that now—I am trying to change my perspective—turn writing into recess, just free play. See what happens.

Book Expo Talk on Insurrecto

IMG_0590.JPG

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

 

 

Narration and History

(Written for Thirdest World, an anthology published in 2007, with work by me, Eric Gamalinda, and Lara Stapleton. All three of us in the collection wrote essays about our work. I commented on the short story, “Cunanan’s Wake,” and excerpts from The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata. Reading this draft on my computer, I realize the final version was completely edited—don’t remember now how or why. NOTE: I do not write short stories anymore. I like short stories [by others! especially Sabina Murray’s: I admire those very much!], but I have stopped writing them for some reason. And I would offer this caveat about this essay: I do have discomfort about a binary of New Criticism/postmodernism: there is something false about that [which may be why I edited it for the final version of Thirdest World (don’t remember anymore)?]. One day, it might be useful to return to this though and place my choices as a novelist in terms of my own overdetermined purposes: personal, commercial, aesthetic, historical, deeply existential, and of course idiosyncratic. For instance, there is the material fact that I ended up a student of John Barth, to whom I wrote after the workshop in Silliman in 1985: I sent Barth the opening sections of Bibliolepsy: thus my arrival at Johns Hopkins in 1987. Ironies of the postcolonial are quite interesting in that transmigration. But anyway, here is this draft of the essay from my computer.)

Short story and novel—the dichotomy of style in those two genres, shown in the fairly ‘straight’ narrative of the story “Cunanan’s Wake” versus the fairly ‘disjunct’ narrative of the novel excerpt The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, perhaps summarizes the split I recognize in my own self as a writer.

That split denotes a fissure of style—or at least a ‘tangential divagation,’ as Dr. Ed Tiempo liked to say. Dr. Tiempo was the director of the Silliman Summer Workshops, for a long time the pre-eminent seminar for young writers in the Philippines. Dr. Tiempo was a New Critic, trained in the rigor of the ‘realist’ short story popular to this day in America (The New Yorker, for instance, still almost exclusively features short stories in the New Critical vein—like those by Michael Cunningham or John Updike or Jhumpa Lahiri).

The Filipino short story in English was born from the writers who studied under American New Critics in the thirties through the sixties. The New Critical story was marked by a diachronic sense of history, with connected incidents threaded astutely and patterned subtly with motifs, reversals, and recognitions, elements that hark back as far as the Poetics of Aristotle, leavened by gentle modernist sleights of tongue. It is an orderly narration, thus satisfying. Aristotle noted that the best kind of plot was ‘complex’ and that the best kind of ‘complex plot’ possessed these two elements: peripeteia (reversal) and anagnorisis (recognition). Irony and epiphany seem to be the modern devices from which the form of the New Critical short story hangs on to Aristotle for dear life. These are not the only marks of that type of story; nor do irony and epiphany (nor reversal and recognition) occur only in the New Critical story. But the short story that Dr. Tiempo deemed naturally the best, no questions asked, at the beaches in Silliman, where I went in the summer of 1985, distinctly favored carefully plotted ironies and deftly built epiphanies, so that a gun on page one should go off (or at least misfire) by the end. Those stories also threw in an objective correlative here and there, for good measure.

For better or worse, when I write short stories, which tend to be about individuals trying to figure out their place in their culture, or their culture’s place in a wider culture, I keep hearing Dr. Tiempo’s aesthetic. Tangential divagation. I cannot escape its clutches. In “Cunanan’s Wake,” I hadn’t recognized until I finished the work that the figure of the pig runs through the story. I kind of liked how it turned out that way—though I certainly did not set out to make it one fat and roasting objective correlative. It kind of ‘nosed’ its way through the work, I guess. Also, sure enough, in the story the gun appears and, however erratically, goes off. The final scene is typical (though not the best kind) of Dr. Tiempo’s tangential epiphanies—the divagation from inner resolution to outward salute in the firing of the gun. An echo of the beginning. Subtlety. Recognition. The form of the story is essentially one of inherent futility. The gay son is still unspoken, hidden in the mother’s heart. Epiphanies tend to be that way—inward, individual.

It makes sense that America in the 1930s would fetishize an art form constructed around the narrow constraints of an individual’s refined perceptions: America itself collapsed (if one defines America by its stock market) and, as war became inevitable in Europe, America turned isolationist, inward. The Filipino short story in English, that transplanted species grafted directly from a capitalist wound fetishizing the individual, is doubly cankered, it seems to me—not only does it branch from the colonial master’s private agonies, it creates a whole school of Filipino writers from the thirties onward who are unaware that they are nursing the fetishes of their own oppressors.

This is not to say that one should not write short stories in the mold of Ed Tiempo or Paz Marquez Benitez. What it might imply is that the ‘realist’ mode of narration constructed from the theories of New Criticism, boldly accepted in workshops as the standard for narration, may in fact be as imported and ‘unnatural’ as Spam. That is, it is not ‘naturally the best.’ Like almost everything else, it too is a product—a product of history—and like Spam it might be unhealthy.

At the Silliman workshops, I know I felt a kind of castration (for a woman writer always has balls, you know). The Filipino short story in English, as defined by Silliman, seemed too narrow for my—or my country’s—interests. I think I began to write novels to resolve those misgivings. The form of narration I choose for my novels is as much constructed from conventions and discipline (and perhaps even more ancient models) as that of the ‘realist’ story. But the deliberate use of disjunction, or narration by parapraxes and lists, or by footnotes and leaps, or characterization by emergency not by careful coincidence—these devices are often considered ‘awkward,’ ‘wrong,’ ‘misfires.’ They are only tangential and divagate from nowhere. The gun does not go off. It’s hard to get works like these published, though writers as influential as Rabelais and Sterne prod those of us who prefer these funhouse flops.

But for me, a powerful reason to write ‘postmodern novels’ (as some people damn these cursed constructions) is precisely because their construction matches my sense of history. Philippine history is the overt result of various others shaping its sense of self. The so-called postmodern voice (for lack of a better word), which refracts, realigns, and repositions texts and viewpoints from multiple angles, ruptured plots, confused tongues, and an almost heedless anachronistic sense of history, is a potent way to fathom and portray the unfinished ‘reality’ of such a nation.

Here is an example: the notion of the Philippines, in a sense, was produced by a novel. The national hero Jose Rizal’s first work, called Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), inspired the mass movement that launched revolution against Spain. That novel was written in Spanish. At this point in history, we do not read that language. Because we were occupied by America by 1898 and officially ruled by it until 1946, we’ve read in English (at least I have) and speak at least 50 different other languages. I grew up with three languages: Waray, Tagalog, and English. I was required to study a fourth, Spanish: but my learning of it was much removed from actual practice. Thus, we must read in translation the novel that begot us. In a further spin, many of us read that novel in another colonizer’s tongue (as for me, I first read it in Tagalog: quite illuminating for a Waray).

The essence of a country like the Philippines is that it seems to exist in translation—a series of textual mediations must be unraveled in order to reveal who or what it is. More precisely: it exists in the suspension of its myriad translations—it is alive in the void of its borrowed speeches. The New Critical-realist mode cannot hold that overflowing reflexivity—the dictates of its devices are too prissy and neat. On the other hand, the postmodern or ‘metafictive’ narration makes the problem of this translated self both its subject and its form: it unfolds a plot of reflexivity, introspection and narrative disjunction, weighted and measured in texts though alienated by words. These excerpts from the novel, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, attempt to conjure this dizzy history. In the end it must be that all literary forms are forms of ‘realism.’ Or maybe we just infect all things with words. Short story or novel, writers must choose with care which poison is most ‘real’ for the unnatural purposes we have in mind.

 

EDSA and Semiosis.

bibliolepsy-picture.jpgOn this anniversary of that week in February in 1986, I go back to my first novel Bibliolepsy, which ends with that week, and wonder if this reading of EDSA still holds.

“It was at about this time, I believe, that the country became afflicted with what one might call semiosis, a sepsis of the semiotic tract, an infection of the sign-making glands. We assign to this event meanings that all lead to questions of life and death, philosophical heartburn and patriotic dread. We revise and revisit our feelings toward it the way Romans of old found omens in the intestines of birds. That, too, was a form of semiosis. The street itself, EDSA, takes on, at odd moments in the present day when I travel through it, a weirdly disorienting sense of a symbol gone awry. Why should it? It’s still just a street, going to seed in an unremarkable third world way.

Other people (e.g., psychoanalysts, romance novelists, air traffic controllers) have pointed out before in different contexts that the ability to see meanings is not necessarily a sign of wisdom, or health. It may indicate intellectual training or acumen, yes, but it may also be a symptom of delusion, fierce heartache, severe ennui, and other renditions of mental weakness. We must take into account that our own revisions of the rebellion we call, eponymously and thoughtlessly, EDSA may be all of the above, and more.

If it is at all possible, in a non-Heraclitean world, to go back, to step into the same river twice, maybe when we do we must ban all meanings, tropes, and symbols—the maladies afflicting EDSA. Maybe if we can stem memory within some filtering contraption, a device of a sort for disinfection, by which we can flush out metonyms, similes, ugly gigantic memorial statues, newspaper editorials, biblical references, mythical allusions, and this entire paragraph, maybe then we might distill something more pure and light, closer to the original weight of a single minute on that street.

The problem with epiphanies is that by definition they cannot be shared. There was no national epiphany in February of 1986; there may have been a million revelations lodged quietly and inarticulately in each heart.

Which may be a flaw in the message, if you wish to see it that way.”

Radio Gaga

Today is the 25th anniversary of Freddie Mercury’s death. I loved Queen because, you know, I am an 80s person. And in my anxiety the night before the elections, I ended up watching 80s videos for hours. I wondered why: and I realized when I was marching on the streets in the 80s, I’d go home and watch this new phenomenon: MTV. Weird way to remember resistance though. Clearly: a sign of trauma.

I wrote this story a long time ago, having watched this prison video that oddly moved me.

screen-shot-2016-11-24-at-5-14-32-pm

“Radio Gaga”

And everything I had to know

I heard it on my radio

All we hear is. I am reduced to. A doppelganger in someone else’s. The avatar of inconsequence. Look at us. Look at me. Second to the left, third row, at minute 3:44. They tell me our spectacle spanned continents, crossed the globe. I imagine it spinning in orbit, an illusion in glass, the warped regression of infinite replications of desire. Two million six hundred thirteen thousand hits. And counting.

See me. Look. Do not blink. By 4:29 you will miss me.

There I am.

I am standing in ovation, though it is I who dance. I who have practiced the steps, the swinging to the right, in unison. Sliding electric. Kick step bow kick. All we hear is. Clap clap. Radio ga-ga. I am swinging to the fervor of my fantastical praise, both hands raised.

Oh Freddie. This is all a dream, my love.

***

Ovate, oblate, adore.

It is enough to have lived in the seventies with dreams of Freddie Mercury.

That is my fate. I embrace. The country, they say, is a sweatshop of violent imbecility, each more stunning than the next. Foolishness is an aspect of our design, perhaps its foundation. First, Paul Anka. I believed he was immortal when I was six, but only for a Christmas season. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, yuletide carrots nipping at your nose. In the background, every day, Neil Diamond, like wallpaper. Singing above the church bells on Sunday afternoons. Then there were the windmills of someone else’s cheerful mind. I grew up humming Sweet Caroline. It was my tune. It called my name. Hopscotch in a patadiong on Juan Luna Street. Baseball was for clumsy people, I preferred kicking, then sashay. Slide slide sweep. Practicing at home: precision was required. Kick step bow kick. Swaying then gliding; dipping, turning, then kneel, in our vast elementary playground dancing demonstrations. At school, we danced. For the VIPs. It was tradition. I danced for the extra-terrestrial Lady in July.

She was only a speck in the distance, while I spun.

Dance was the term for mystical revelation: #1.

Singing was only a distraction. A perversion.

This was Eden, my love: my mother ironing the polka-dot uniforms of our second-grade dancing extravaganzas, starching the dummy’s collarbones, dashes of haberdashery chaotic in our home. She had the grace, the moves. The chacha steps, the fancy backward dancing; the arched back and the sidelong glance; the coy kick, to show the ankles. Domestic goddess: plucked her eyebrows as if there were no tomorrow. (There wasn’t, not for her. Rest in peace.) Measuring and scotch-taping and A-lining and cross-stitching. Even beading the blue and orange harlequin shapes did not disturb. Her fingers curled like an arthritic’s over the overly sequined dresses with shining mermaid tails. She did it for love, an obsessive-compulsive woman whose only joy was art. That’s what my mother would say, pins on her lips, song in her heart. Lino, intoy, she would say: I find joy only in art. And so she did, leaving me with no money. My favorite was the old-fashioned golden skirts in serpentina draping, for my classmates the girls, and I in matching bolero vest with gold rick-rack edging: they looked like midget Carmen Mirandas while I was their matador gnome—a fine batch of burnished pastry, shining in the sun: puffed, bronzed, consumed. I remember only the dance, forget the tune.

When my mother died and I had to become a man, I was confusing. People mistook my adolescence for mourning, and they left me alone. Even my nosy aunts left me to sit all day amid the tulle piping and disorganized organza of her sudden absence, as if it were all right to live in shreds and patches, a threadbare workroom of unfinished hems. Scissors, needles, so many sharp things. I could have slashed my liver in a bias cut with rough detailing and who would have known? I could have exsanguinated my nostrils in Chantilly lace. Instead I came out of the room in a pair of bloomers made of jacquard silk, with matching top in ruching. Like Susan Hayward, I wished to live. I went out to seek my fortune with her perfume on my lips. Oh look at him, Carolino, sweet Lino: just eleven years old, and still clinging to her skirts. A.k.a, her memory.

Soon I was hanging out with the future dregs of Tacloban, misfits in drag who went to church. I found joy only in art, and our crimes had none: sniffing glue on Magsaysay Boulevard, throwing up on Cali Shandy, crying to the moon. Bunch of melodramatic goons who will grow up to be fiscals and, worse, one day they will pay to ballroom dance. I stowed away on a ship, M.V. Sweet Fate, the vampire one that will not drown. They bloodied me up when I was caught, and I almost landed in jail. (It would have been my first time, but as you know not the last.) They spat on me for vagrancy and touched my nipples with the hook, like a question mark, of a rusted hanger. Their weapons were as poor as my ass, it was sad. They were twisted, I was twelve: they let me go for a song. A song and dance.

Specifically, Tom Jones’s Delilah.

I still remember those ticket conductors of M.V. Sweet Fate. Fat angels with underarm odor. Toothpick in their mouths, nightstick at their belts. Harmless men, after all, but with the vice of the sea’s inertia. Wiseass conductors of my dance. They plucked names of singers from the air, like a Song Hits quiz. Elvis Presley? Neil Sedaka? Tom Jones—the leader, a man with odd gray eyes, decided (he looked like a dead fish, like Filemon’s tambasakan). If only they had asked me. I would please like to sing The Platters, particularly The Great Pretender. It has a great pause, dramatic. O-o-o-o-oh, yesss—I’m the great. Instead they named all the other heroes of my childhood to whom I had danced with the midgets of my generation. Glenn Campbell. Andy Williams. Plus sad Karen, of course, and her smiling, clueless brother, Richard. They named all of the singers that I used to believe were Filipino, we loved them so much. In the end, in triumph, I sang. With feeling, in my jacquard silk outfit, stitched for the joy of it.

Why, why, whyyyyyy, Delilah? Forgive me I just couldn’t take anymore.

Kick, step, bow.

Thank you. I would like to—

My little hips swayed and their feet tapped and toothpicks waggled and if only they knew how they were turning the key, switching me on, alive, as I waltzed to the rhythm of Tom Jones’s cry: or was it Engelbert Humperdinck? My mother could have told the difference.

—dedicate this song—

The seamen returned me to my home, then my aunts shipped me out. In my aunts’ eyes, the city was the site of regeneration. The seminary in Manila will set you straight, they said. The Seminary of Saint Peter the Degenerate, in Carriedo (name changed to protect my horror). The only straight animals in that den of thugs were the dogs. Priests give gay people a bad name. They wrap our love in self-loathing, the way we turn away in bed awkwardly from the heart; then they sell it as a sin to earn their keep. I would have offered my virginity to the first monsignor who loved me, but he was a pervert who only liked it with a crown of thorns. I used to give him a beating with a midrib broom, and he would yelp in silence on a pillow, drooling like his labrador. I had for him: only scorn. Knowledge is power, ad maiorem dei gloriam, it’s—Caroniiiia! I came out of the seminary with an education in Greek and a liking for purple fingernail polish, stilettos, and cheap consecrated wine.

But in the meantime I found Freddie.

It is not the fault of the boys in the seminary that music for them was only an escape, not as it was for me: a blessing. I gave myself over to my new loves: Olivia Newton-John singing Summer Lovin’. Whoever it was who sang Afternoon Delight. All my loves were passing, but true. I memorized the poem Desiderata. My misfortune was that my idolatry was self-trained. My good taste: autodidactic. I spent eight months in the purgatory of Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees singing Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band before I got hold of the Beatles. Sometimes in momentary lapses I listen to Peter’s singing, his falsetto. I can’t help it. I was born to disco.

Once, I became monastic, dedicated to John when he died. On December 8, 1980. So sad. It was an aberration. I was just going with the crowd, my monogamy was only a phase. The tv kept showing the musical vigils in New York, and the priests let us watch the mourners singing novenas to the bullet wounds of the dead. America is a violent place that kills men of peace, said the priests who could have cared less, he was not of their era. I fasted from December 9 to New Year’s—I played only Mother, on my red turntable, with the curtains drawn against Manila. You had me but I never had you. To this day I cry every October, his birthday, a renewal of vows of celibacy that happens to me during the time of anniversaries.

I, too, am a Libra, like John. With words of wit, but I am more sentimental.

But why go on about John?

John is a contingent being, according to Thomas Aquinas. According to me, Freddie is necessary.

You can imagine (perhaps not) what it felt like that day in August—August the fifteenth. I know because it was the feast of the Assumption, a sacred day of obligation. The dorms of Saint Peter the Degenerate were lonesome. All the boys who were not orphans had permission to go home. I was solo. I had the radio on, and I could turn it up as loud as I wanted. And I heard it.

The Voice.

Biiiicycle! Biiiicycle. I want to ride my bicycle I want to ride my bike.

Who is the voodoo on the radio? The manananggal rising in the air? What is that screaming? And for why? Por que? My questions were phenomenological—if I might use my education for a purpose, to explain my source of ardor. The genesis of desire is the recognition of death. Desolation. The only reason to be Catholic is to masturbate excessively, with expression. Isolation. Difference is bliss. The inconceivable triviality of our passion marks our passing on the stage. No one was like Freddie. I waited for another song, the way they sometimes do whole albums, if you get lucky, on DZRJ. I waited for the name of the singer. They did not mention. I learned it later. And it was satisfying when I learned his name was a classical allusion.

Mercury, one of the gods.

Patron of trickery and transmutation.

I got all the albums named for the comic movies. Night at the Opera. Day at the Races. From the record shops hovering like thieves about the Avenida, now you see them, now you—one great day I found their Greatest Hits, Volumes I and II. Only in cassette, but still, it was a miracle. I did not know there were three hundred million being sold around the world, especially in Japan. The playlist was perfect, and I can speak it by ear if you ask—I mean, I know the order of it all by humming. In the middle is the song Save Me:

 …I clothed myself in your glory and your love…

How I loved you, how I cried…

 …We’re nothing but a sham, it seems.

The years belie we lived a lie:

I will love you till I die.

 Save me! Save me! Saaave meeee!

…I’m naked, and I’m far from home…

It is easy to understand from the poetry above, including the ellipses (my contribution), how Freddie’s melancholy vibe could suffuse a sordid life. It is the cry of the abandoned. His lyrics have a Messianic quality that does not escape my scholastic ear, but words are beside the point. The osmosis of great music is biological. An arterial clogging of an ontological kind. It is what makes me human; otherwise, as Freddie says, I am not: nothing but a sham, it seems.

I played his songs. Again and again.

Yes, I know. I exist only when I adore. Wherefore I am?

What a shock it was when I left the seminary and fell under the spell of MTV. My puny journals in spidery handwriting that had disgusted the Father Superior were nothing compared to music video programming. And to think it was open to the general populace. My dramas with innocent domestic props, so appalling to Monsignor Diakol, the Academic Dean, paled beside the things I witnessed in public spaces, on the tv screens at Ali Mall or while eating pizza at Shakeys. Bondage scenes of indecent anarchy, Achilles and his Patroklos in lurid pants illuminating every single carnal sin. Genitals multiplying in vulgar, shiny angles, lewd acts in improbable poses: my damned manual of desire.

Everywhere I looked in Quezon City, the world was going to hell.

At first, I wanted it all—everything that I saw on MTV. The muscles, the lips, the feathered outfits, the cars, even the vaginas (admittedly, I was confused). Let me say: I envied the women not for their anatomies, which were disgusting. But I understood the vaginas were the same as the cars, and the cars were the same as the stiletto heels, and the stiletto heels were my phallus, and my phallus was my infernal longing, or something like that; subliminal Freudianism in capitalist orgies are common in this world. I am the repository of it all, the last receptacle—the final anus of all that crap, if you know what I mean. I know. No need to tell. That is all water off my cloacal—

No, it was not envy I felt, the greed to acquire and satiate, I had no wish to be Madonna or Cyndi Lauper.

How to put it?

It was oneness. It was unity and communion that I desired.

For instance, I hated music videos with plots, the fake personas in a factory, pounding meat in metonymic ways. Material girls with sad stories up their sleeve. They separated me from the singer. And visual metaphors were boring. Even Freddie’s masterpiece, the revolutionary video operetta Bohemian Rhapsody—it was prescient years before the genre of music video as a formidable advertising tool and transient work of art—even that leaves me cold (sorry, Freddie; it’s me, not you).

I am mesmerized by the concert video, the ones that offer the star, sui generis, so needy before you, and clearly the singer cannot exist without the viewer, and I have him in the palm of my hand. His gaze is mine, and we are one—in our desire we are conjoined. It is the observer who transforms the observed (though in abject conditions it seems the other way around). The gaze of the one alters the other: and we are fixed, transfixed—and we are: our prison, our trap.

Of course, Freddie said it the best.

This is the last dance, this is the last chance, this is the last dance, this is our—

 ***

It is this that Freddie had: He had my capacity to yearn. Why else did he wander the stage looking like a walking penis? His ripe and sneering, engorged and gorgeous gaze; his controlled epileptic orgasms with projectile microphones. His arrogance, when he said fuck you to his audience at Wembley in 1985, during the Live Aid Tour, the one where he wore the yellow jacket, not the legendary one in which he exercised complete hypnotic power over the audience (voted The Best Rock Gig of all time!, according to youtube). Fuck you, he said before 72,000 in Wembley. This from a hero whose generosity for his audience knew no bounds, who moved for the joy of it. But you know he would give us his wounds if he ever felt them. I liked him for that. He was tactful. The way he showed his fans only his infallible cock, never his tears. A gentleman. But I recognized the façade for what it was.

Need.

For my approval.

He needed me. I knew he did. In 1985, he was in his prime, tight-assed homunculus of the divine, and he needed me to sit beside the cash registers in Pizza Hut with its badly angled tv, take up my garlic breadstick, and watch.

I believe my own needs were not tawdry. They were also not cheap. Nothing less than three hundred pesos. Those days of secret gropings in crowded fast food joints or casual looks in dark cinemas are long gone. And even then, they had nothing to do with Freddie. Acts of desperation. Certain episodes have nothing to do with passion, though on the surface the incidents share a resemblance. After all, I’m a progressive, not a hyperbolic. A poor distinction, but as you see, I cling. For almost a decade there—through the nineties—I lived a normal life, sinful but law-abiding. My outerwear was conservative. And I never made a fuss: I was patient with even with the greediest of pimps, like Marcel the dwarf of Binangonan, my fellow orphan of the Marcos years.

And I always paid cash, on the spot.

***

I clothed myself in your glory and your love—How I loved you, how I cried. I have always admired how songs sweep narrative from verse to chorus to bridge: trailing light-years in a breath. I like that pop economy. How I got from kicked-out seminarian to locked-up solipsarian needs only a coda, a chord in a surprising range. Otherwise, the story is not that interesting.

Mystical revelation #2: never trust dwarves. Their ethics is not the problem. It is their state of oppression in a country in which they can only be either/or—pimps or waiters. The binary is the question. It creates self-loathing.

He was twelve. I was foolish. I tell you Marcel lied: it’s just his big eyes, Marcel said—makes the kid look young for his age. I put the kid in a jacquard outfit, and as I gazed at him I wept. He ran away. I told Marcel, I want my money back. That’s when Marcel got mean.

My story is lyrics you will end up forgetting, humming them just to get to the money note. Brian and Roger knew that. Brian May: lead guitar. Roger Taylor: drummer. They wrote my favorite Freddie songs. Classics in pop song structure: quatrains as tight as his.

So I landed here, in Santarin.

At Santarin Penitentiary Detention Center, I was given a bunk in a cage with the Bastard, whose misspellings on the wall drove me nuts, but anyways he also had no use for my Latin. He took to calling me Father, with a smirk, when he learned. It did not take those perverts a day to learn my past. I will not relate here the gestures of provocation those pedophiles and druggies awarded me, offering kinship in their lousy ways, as if I were one of them. I am only a paying customer who made an honest mistake! Okay, so I was hoping my suspicions of his age were incorrect, but it was the dwarf who did me wrong.

At sight of me, they would make signs of the cross in unmentionable places. Kleptos and con men, retards and recidivists, giving me the evil eye. Taunting me, calling me Father. I had nothing to do with them. If they only knew I could assonate all day and they would never catch my drift.

Bunch of lowlifes.

I was not surprised by my diminuendo, as I call it myself. My aunts had always told me where I would end.

But God, I just hated the companionship!

Fifteen hundred men in one cinderblock lock-up, divided in two parts—one for scoundrels, the other for scum—and united only by moral degradation and a cement courtyard in the sun. Prisons give gay people a bad name. N.B.: We are not criminals because we are gay; we are criminals because we committed crimes! It is the universe that is dystopic. No: on one hand, I am not a tender hairdresser with a heart of gold, crying over the hetero beauty with the badass attitude who takes all my money and looks like a model in Giorgio Armani commercials (they’re all gay). I’m just a customer, born to disco.

I’m a platonic pedant with latent aristotelianism, if you really want to know the truth.

Being an Aristotelian, I myself tend to divide gays into categories. It is unkind, also essentialist. A poor distinction, but I cling. I’ve mentioned before—one, the progressives; two, the hyperbolics. Oh what I cannot bear above all are the performative, too-joyful hyperbolics. The ones who think they need to act like Liza Minelli all the time. You are goodhearted and beauitfil, but girl, even Liza has moved on. Those golden boys with with their glamorous hairdos and the beauty marks and the sequins that killed Zsa Zsa Gabor. I know. I cannot afford. But I mean—the eighties are over! The eighties are sad.

—Speak for yourself, said Noravilma. I love and am loved.

—Oh, Noravilma, you forget. Let us bow our heads in remembrance. Let us be circumspect in somber times. The gorgeous have abandoned us in the twenty-first century. Does it not break the heart?

Freddie Mercury still sings, but only in heaven.

—Liza is alive, said Noravilma.

Oh but when will we learn that goddesses like Liza are for adoring, not for the likes of us?

—Speak for yourself, Father. You are old and gray and full of shit.

But oh, it is time to put away childish things. It is puerile (i.e., the word for boy in Latin is puer: singularly declined, to wit, puer, pueri, puero, puerum, pero—puero, finito, oh decline right now, intoy, Lino sweet Carolino.).

I tell you Liza would appreciate restraint. Look at her now, a mature woman, speaking words of wisdom about anti-depressants, in pantsuits.

—You are old, Tanda, be off or I’ll kick you—

Freddie Mercury knew, of course. He was genius. He gave back to us our kickass glory on the stage. Look at him in his interviews in silk Italian outfits looking like the mafia (they’re all gay). Progressive. Classy. Makes me proud.

Noravilma tells me—bah! You are just overeducated.

I bow my head at that, humble.

***

Love will kill you, if you can’t make up your mind.

In Santarin Penitentiary Detention Center, at first the hyperbolics stuck to themselves. They wore manicures and mascara and got roughed up by badasses like the Bastard, whose build accorded superficial respect. His crime was a mystery that kept us doing his bidding—his status kept shifting with the gossip, and so we kept obeying. The guy had too much menace for just estafa, but you know I could not imagine him killing a flea. Maybe a debt collector, but not a flea. He looked like an overgrown principe Constantino, searching too long for his lost Holy Cross, with his pink, overweight cheeks, and his curly locks. At first I mistook him for a progressive. Turns out he was just a macho—playing with hearts, just for fun. Insecure. I began to feel sorry for the hyperbolics, to be honest.

The Bastard never touched me. He went after the others. It was not their fault; they were not enlightened, like me. I looked away when they were at it. How could anyone like them? How could he be with them?

Uncultured.

He never looked at me. I was always at my spot, alone by the warden’s office. I had my radio. I felt for the hyperbolics: only pity. At first I had admired Noravilma, though she was the Bastard’s favorite. She was knowledgeable about music, America’s Top 40. Casey Kasem was her oxycodone. It was only later that I hated her guts.

I liked Noravilma until he (sorry, Noravilma—she) became the Recess Gestapo.

I don’t know exactly when it changed, and Noravilma, who had a mystical six-fingered limb and liked to caress the useless digit with an inattention that fascinated me, gained the upper hand, so to speak, in our calisthenic exercises. Even The Bastard began following her instructions, like she was Jane Fonda, but with an extra pinky, which Jane would not be touching the way she did—like a miniature dildo on her skin, “a supernatural efflorescence,” as I wrote in my prison diary (sadly, still unpublished).

Usually, during recess, all we wanted to do was lie in the sun and listen to the radio.

You know it is sweet how radio unifies even perverts.

That is my mystical revelation: #3.

I liked to take mine out, a tiny pink battery-powered Sansui that had seen better days, out in the shade by the warden’s office. People did not like to wander to the warden’s. Mr. Percy Shelley the Romantic Poet. That’s what I called him, the warden. We’re friends now. He has delusions of grandeur. Don’t get me wrong. I have my place in the line-up—I am working my way to the spotlight. After all, as you can see I have been rehearsing such moves all my life. And if I get my words right in this story, who knows—one day I could be the star.

Yes, his delusions are very good, he is benevolent. Like all great dictators, Mr. Percy Shelley the Romantic Poet’s heart is in the right place. Of course, it is said his methods are questionable, but that is only the view of ignorant commentators on the Internet. Shoutout to: zanzibari_bum46, bohemianrapsheet91, KilerQueen (sic), kharoline65, and most of all, FarrokhFromMumbai. Really, it is for history to decide. As history has done, you know, to Hitler, George W. Bush, Stalin, et al.

The rest of the prisoners liked to listen to the hiphop, young people’s music, in Killing Times Square, as it is called, in the center of the prison courtyard of Santarin. I tried to get out of the way of the gangs, they’re trouble. They play cards, they rumble. I listened to many things, I wasn’t picky—Imelda Papin (so martyr!), Lite FM, even classical. I wished I had my records, and my red LP player with its silver ornaments symmetrically shaped like the figures in the Rorschach tests they used to give me all the time in the seminary, a scientific test of my soul: but I tried not to think too much about that.

Number One Rule in Prison: Do not think about home, it makes you homesick.

I was lying out there as I always did, minding my own banana, when Noravilma came over.

—Father, she said, your sounds—please turn off.

She was polite. I did what she said because she had a whole posse behind her, a group of petty criminals, estafadoras in green eyeshadow.

From that day on, I knew something was up.

I blamed it on the uniforms. That summer, everyone was told to wear that ugly orange pajama set with the letter P on the back, for prisoner, as if we did not know that already. It was the new governor’s ordinance, Mr. Percy Shelley the Romantic Poet said—to maintain discipline and all. Mr. Percy Shelley the Romantic Poet did not like the overcrowding, the way justice overflowed in Santarin. But what discipline do you need to pick your nose? The Bastard drew -uta on his uniform, and I drew –uto, twin words of boredom, not disrespect. They punished us immediately. Partners in crime. (But still he did not touch.) I tried to behave. I hate the isolation ward. If I spend one day in isolation—I turn into an animal, I lose my brain. And the brain is my most valuable asset, as you can see. You do not know what it is like—to be isolated. No one should ever do that to a human, much less a Filipino. We are social beings.

Noravilma emerged from the warden’s office wearing a slinky satin tank top, her old-man thinning hair parted in a novel way, with fancy butterfly clips. You could see the patches of her red hair dye, cross-pollinating with the talcum. I thought: Oh no, the hyperbolics are taking over.

But I enjoyed Noravilma’s dancing exercises. They were a diversion. I liked the songs. Spandau Ballet, Tears for Fears, Wham! Noravilma was a fan of the eighties, though she was only in her thirties. She used to be a D.I., she said. She was a ballroom Dancing Instructor-cum-hairdresser before she turned to crime (petty estafa, embezzling from her cousin, Magenta the beauty parlor boss). That’s why she was so eclectic. She could do Michael, the entire bestselling, world-record breaking album Thriller!, she could do the Black-eyed Peas. She had knowledge, though no ethics.

You cannot do choral dancing if you only play the diva songs, she said to me.

Remember. Everyone must exercise.

Soon, people were out in Killing Times Square learning break dancing, the moonwalk. For their health and sanity, the warden Mr. Percy Shelley the Romantic Poet said. He read about it in a book he had bought from the good Daughters of Saint Paul. To me, it was like second grade, when the entire school—all the bullies and the crybabies and the girls and the boys—would practice our vast elementary playground demonstrations for the birthday of that deranged killer diva, the president’s wife, that Lady, the one who should never be called Queen (oh sacrilege, oh Freddie, forgive).

But in Santarin we were not dancing for the VIPs.

We danced for ourselves.

I give Noravilma all the credit. She was the brains. She was the oracle. Not the warden, Mr. Percy Shelley the Romantic Poet. It is only that he knows how to use the laptop, uploading the youtube of our moves. No, not him, it was Noravilma who saw the moment of our redemption, our chance for stardom. It was she who understood that if we became a fifteen-hundred man team, a marching phalanx in Michael Jackson’s vampire army, we could be a video sensation.

Me, I just thought it would pass the time.

And Noravilma had taste. She saw who had the talent. Look at Tanda, she would say, look at Father. He’s an old man, but he has the spirit, he has the moves. I’m not old, I wished to say. I was born in ’65—I am younger than the Beatles. But I would only smile and do the chacha in a fancy way, walking backward, with a sidelong glance, the way my mother did.

Could everyone else in the world see? Look at me. Look at me on the screen: at 3:45. I find joy only in art. Kick step bow kick. Swaying and gliding. Dipping, turning, then kneel. The Bastard saw how I could do the electric slide without turning my head at all to watch other people’s moves. In dance, I never cheat. Killer Dancing Queen. Finally he noticed me. The Bastard nodded his head, he clapped. But he could never copy.

And I remember the first time when we were all out in the sun, fifteen hundred zombies in the courtyard, marching to the rhythm in Killing Times Square—I remember the oneness. The unity and communion. The druggies, the rapists, the check bouncers, the demented, all dancing to the beat. The music lovers, the chess players, the fathers, the sons, the gamblers, the embezzlers, the abandoned, marching to the left. And turn. The homesick, the orphans, the maniacs, the romantics. Looking to the right. How could we—how did we? Altogether now—bow.

It is the miracle of dance.

But even then, as I made my moves, there was something—something lacking.

How terrible it is to miss people, places, and things amid the joy in art.

I have to admit. I have become a weepie.

The problem with dancing is nostalgia.

That is my mystical revelation: #4.

Our daily exercise brought me back to unexpected days. The Number Two Rule in Prison: do not think, it makes you emotional. I felt a split in myself that dancing could not comfort. Was it my mother’s fingers, curled like an arthritic’s over the overly sequined clothes, superimposed over Noravilma’s tragicomic paws, the extra pinky like a dwarf penis, a mournful come-hither sign? It was awful to feel in passing the emptiness of Lino, sweet Carolino, clinging to her skirts. A.k.a., her memory. Or was it political, since I was raised in the seventies? The smell of dictatorship clings to any form of mass harmony. Or is it that the flitting present is the only manner of real existence—Søren Kierkegaard. That is a sad comment. Or is it Schopenhauer? Whatever. One of those germanics: one-track melancholics. They made me fail my Ethics class.

Noravilma did not put me in the center row for our first great hit, but that was okay. I was all right being a zombie in the sidelines (5:56 to 6:02) in that first international sensation, Thriller, tonight! Anyway I had no idea it was going to be an international sensation. Plus, Michael makes me sad. Noravilma said: you are so judgmental. (Though even saying so makes me confess, Michael, mea culpa! Forgive me, I still love you. Yes, it is true. It really does not matter if you are black or white.)

As it became clear that we were not going to be a one-show wonder, and that the world was holding its breath for our next thrilling extravaganza, I knew I had to be well behaved. I wished to be the solo dancer in the next vehicle of global fame.

What about The Great Pretender, I suggested—it has a great pause, dramatic.

Noravilma laughed.

Now that she had the power over all of us, we gave her other names. Goldfinger. Six-Hand Luke. She who cannot dance the lead in Thriller because she has no gloves to fit.

—You’re so OLD, Father, Noravilma said. You know we will not be dancing to the Platters. We are not catering to the sexagenarian crowds.

—What about Save Me? Its Messianic qualities have potential for even a movie scenario, come to think of it.

—What’s that, Father?

Save Me. It is number 8 in the Greatest Hits. You know. By QUEEN! Freddie Mercury. The greatest showman of all time.

—Oh. Wasn’t he Indian? Iranian? Anyway, he was a great pretender.

—What?

—Freddie Mercury, she said. His real name is Farrokh. Farrokh Bulsara. The singer of Queen who died of AIDS. He was a great pretender!

That’s when I had it with that hyperbolic—that calisthenic zombading! She with her ambiguous middle finger. I am sorry that she made me lose my brain. I showed her how to ride a bike, that dancing instructor, that extra-digital D.I., I showed her how to do the Thigh Master, that Jane Fonda—goddamn spandex-wearing bitch cassidy. Who did she think she was, Casey Kasem’s Pacific Islands inamorata? Knowitall. Kiss my ass, you redhaired Britney, with your talcum-blonde hair! Kiss my—

Rumble!, someone said.

It’s the Father and the Goldfinger, Teksas Slims, a check bouncer, announced.

It’s the Old Man and the D.I.!

The estafadoras began to gather, still doing their mascara. The dealers and the druggies, who are never in front because they always mess up—they were cheering from the back, already in formation. Go, mama, go! I had my hands at her butterfly clips, I was scraping off her slinky satin tank top, I was doing her the macarena.

And then the Bastard came along.

He saved me by hitting me on the butt with his electric iron (unplugged).

He had begun starching his prison uniform after he got that bit part in Thriller (he was the fat zombie, crawling on the ground and overacting).

—Enough, he said, waving the iron before my face, in warning.

I could see a ghost of myself, a blurry hieroglyph of rage, in the triangular mirror of his iron’s isosceles.

I felt the cold steel brush my angry, wet cheeks.

In fairness, it was a good deed.

—Come, Tanda, he said: the music is on—time for warming up!

Still, I gave it my last shot, before the flourish of the drums (I think it was a Journey song, b.a., that is, before Arnel).

—So what if Freddie did not tell, I screamed, so what if he kept his life to himself, including his childhood as an Asian gay in London, from Zanzibar, I wailed.

—He died with dignity, I spat at Noravilma—He was a killer queen.

***

Now you understand, of course, that her choice for the next tune was probably a way of apologizing. And I know she was not a bad sort, Noravilma. She was just in over her head. An amateur in a game of high stakes. How was she to know the extent of her own success? Now anyone can so easily find us on the youtube: you type in prisoner + Filipino + radio + gaga. We are always the top choice, highly rated. I was sorry, cross my heart, when they replaced her with that professional, a straight, that dancer from a game show in Manila.

As the estafadoras say: an injustice.

Because after all it was Noravilma who had envisioned our stardom, our moment of redemption (though it was Mr. Percy Shelley the Romantic Poet, of course, who took the credit on the Internet). I hope she is okay—wherever she is, there on the outside, where she is free. As for us in Killer Times Square, the show must go on. Our new D.I. has more moves but less heart, you can tell; it is hard, you know, because she does not come from us, from within.

Still, we are managing our stardom. We are receiving invitations to dance before the VIPs, the mayor, the governor, one day (who knows) even the pope, and above all the town festivals of the saints. I am always glad to know how everywhere the people welcome the sinners, the lucky few, the lucky lucky few who find joy only in art. I am happy to report. I am always one of the chosen, the select out of the fifteen hundred zombies who are allowed outside to join the feasts—swaying and gliding, dipping, turning, and then kneeling in vast videotaping demonstrations. Kick step bow kick. They always let me out to dance.

They know I will never escape.

And it is only when I see us in motion—illusions on screen in planetary orbit, the universe of our prison in the grainy frame of our infinite phantom replications, there for all the world to see—two million six hundred thirteen thousand hits!and counting—that this sinking feeling comes over me, a split.

There is a split in myself that dancing cannot contain.

We could not do Save Me, Noravilma had said, because there is no space for choral dancing in such a diva song; she knew what she was talking about. In this I am loyal to Noravilma’s belief: everyone must exercise. (Slowly that rule is fading, as we have the superstars now, women from the outside in our midst, a platoon of ringers in orange jumpsuits—and the lowly pot addicts, the ones without the moves, now they only watch.) So for the second worldwide sensation, she ended up choosing my favorite song.

Noravilma had taste.

Written by Roger Taylor with metaphysical aplomb.

From Greatest Hits, Volume II.

It is only when I see us, in that old film, posted those months ago (a lifetime, as they say, on the Internet, though not quite so in jail)—that I feel the nausea, the throwing up. We are good. We know the moves. We are goddesses. We make us proud. The precision is military and the discipline is poetic. The way even the drugged ones know their turns, and no one is embarrassed. There we are, dancing in unison a thousand strong, raising our arms to his tightass song, the catchy tune.

All we hear is. Clap clap. Radio ga-ga.

We are standing in ovation, though it is we who dance.

At 3:59, you will see.

The Voice.

Freddie Mercury rising from the dead, as if imprisoned in the inset frame.

What is it the viewer said in the comments—signed kharoline65?

—“This is a great song…but this video makes me wonder what Freddie would think of this…I think it is wrong to include the clips from queen…makes me sad =(.”

What is it that makes me sad?

In the infinite prison of our fuzzy replications, there I am.

See me.

Look.

Do not blink.

By 4:29 you will miss me.

The screen splits in atomic regeneration: we are multiplied, ad infinitum, the ecstasy of our repression spanning the globe.

And there he is, his ghost over my body, as I spin. Swinging to the fervor of my fantastical praise, both hands raised. At 5:39: the observed is transformed by the observer. Wherefore I am?

All we hear is.

The stomp of fifteen hundred prisoners, born to dance.

Someone. Still. Loves. Yoooou!

Both hands raised, swinging to the fervor of fantastical praise.

Freddie Mercury sings.