Sarita See, that indefatigable director of Center for Art and Thought, invited me to

a dialogue with wonderful artists and scholars—Kale Bantigue Fajardo, Dylan Rodriguez, Teresia Teaiwa, and Joi Barrios Leblanc on the subject of history, typhoons, unnatural disasters. I remember that we shared that conversation online during the time of the relief efforts for typhoon Yolanda. Here is the link, and below are some passages.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013, 7:49 PM EST
Via: E-mail
Subject: CA+T Dialogue about Haiyan

Dear Teresia, Dylan, Kale, Joi and Gina,

Thank you so much for agreeing to take part in this CA+T Dialogue over email (or Facebook, if folks prefer that). It’s such an honor to bring this particular circle of teachers, scholars, and artists together.

But first I want to send deepest condolences to Kale Fajardo on the recent loss of your mother. Kale was able to travel to the Philippines at the end of last week in order to be by his mother’s side. She lost that struggle this past Sunday, but she departed while surrounded by her family. Kale: I thought long and hard about whether or not to disturb you during this time of loss. Please feel free to completely ignore this email thread. However, as I’ve learnt from my own experience dealing with losses in my own family, it can be good to take a break and reconnect with one’s community of colleagues, even or especially amidst grief. So I’ll leave it entirely up to you as to whether or when you’d like to join our conversation.

In the face of the incomprehensible loss, displacement, and trauma wreaked by Haiyan/Yolanda, I appreciate being able to reach out to the five of you. With this conversation, I hope to draw on our collective hearts, talents, and minds so as to learn from and teach each other about the unnatural histories and conditions that created Haiyan/Yolanda and its aftermath. We then will publish this installation ofDIALOGUES on CA+T’s website so as to provide the broader public with the kind of alternative knowledge and perspectives that we are so desperately in need of. With the waning of the media’s attention, we also hope that the publication of this Dialogue will draw renewed attention to the kinds of relief efforts that demand our continued support and donations.

By way of introductions, Gina Apostol is a novelist. Joi Barrios is a poet, Filipino language instructor and author, and former dean at the University of Philippines.Kale Fajardo is an interdisciplinary anthropologist and queer studies scholar. Dylan Rodriguez is an ethnic studies scholar, and Teresia Teaiwa is a Pacific studies scholar.

I’d like to open up this Dialogue with a prompt for Gina about Jenifer Wofford’s work: What do you make of the other’s renditions of Douglas MacArthur? Jenifer Wofford’s series of drawings, MacArthur Nurses, appeared in Sea, Land, Air: Migration and Labor and explicitly recreates MacArthur’s 1944 landing. In your work you have referenced the history of General Douglas MacArthur and the statue in Tacloban commemorating his 1944 return to the Philippines. You also recently wrote the essay “Surrender, Oblivion, Survival,” which helped me to remember how Leyte “has always attracted opportunists” and has multiple histories of plunder and invasions.

I look forward to seeing where this conversation takes us.

With my respect and gratitude,


Thursday, December 5, 2013, 9:25 AM EST
Via: E-mail
Subject: Re: CA+T Dialogue about Haiyan

I have just finished watching a video of the independence rites of the Philippines, July 4, 1946, while researching this new novel I am writing, William McKinley’s World, and it was interesting to see that the speaker at the center of the independence hoopla is not Paul McNutt, the ambassador and stand-in for Harry Truman at the rites, or Manuel Roxas, the new president (take that, Back to the Future in the Philippines—he’s the granddad of that bumbling botcher of the relief efforts in Tacloban, Mar Roxas!). The man of the hour who gives the speech that the newsreels repeat is Douglas MacArthur. He is smarmy, teary, sincere, and terribly troubling and, to me, repellent all at the same time.

I grew up with MacArthur, as I always say—with MacArthur, Imelda [Marcos], and typhoons. A trifecta of horror, I could call it, except that I liked the typhoons. We used to practice what we called “playground dancing demonstrations” for the rites of remembrance of Leyte Landing: October 20, 1944, a date I’d remember in sleep. We’d be trundled in cleaned-out garbage trucks to dance for the Americans, old soldiers who always mispronounced the name of the city, plus of course Imelda, who liked to go home to Leyte to do the honors, it seems (she was not there all the time, I imagine, but in my recollection she hovered over my childhood in Tacloban, her bibingka of hair always finding its way home, at our school’s Christmas pageants, being our alumna, and so on).

Anyway, what struck me watching that video is how central, in an absolute way, without any question about its rightness, Douglas MacArthur is—the man of the hour on our day of independence. I understand the event’s closeness to war, which makes him the star: World War II has just ended, and thus, the event has an emotional misreading—that our link to our independence is the war, as if this day were a culmination of the American and Filipino response to our recently dead and the horrific suffering we have just come through, though of course Tydings-MacDuffie had already set the independence date in the thirties. (I will not go into the betrayal and history of revolution in the country that makes this independence day, given “voluntarily” by America, problematic, as that is a different though corollary angst.)

But why does the prominence of MacArthur make my skin crawl? That is the question I would ask the scholars, as I am still quite unclear, aware as I am of my own biases being a kid who grew up with a chip on my shoulder about MacArthur, a crummy statue I could not stand. My reasons, if I spoke them, might need a novel, not a polemic. I was horrified on Tacloban Yolanda online sites, just after I had finished writing that op-ed in the [New YorkTimes, to see the reactions of the people of Tacloban to the arrival of the American carrier on Red Beach, MacArthur’s Leyte Landing beach, this November [2013]. People made instant Facebook collages of MacArthur wading into Tacloban side by side pictures in the Times of the US aircraft Carrier George Washington and its soldiers; the Tacloban instant posters repeated, Thank you, America, MacArthur returns! I tried to save those pictures, should have made screen shots; they have disappeared from the sites (the Yolanda Update people cleaned out the weird politics, it seems), but here is a video of MacArthur’s speech in 1946: his voice quavers as he speaks of his love for the Filipinos.

My initial, knee-jerk answer to my question to you, Sarita, about why MacArthur and why he makes my skin crawl, has to do, I think, with the way my own city has long responded to this bipolarizing American vision, which in some ways makes us schizophrenics of history—just as it has responded to the Marcoses and stuck with Imelda’s family, the Romualdezes, all these years. All these histories are somehow connected, a primordial goop of blindness and dysreadings of self and time. I keep having to deal with the historical oblivion that commands the place I am from and the contortions in a heart and troubled brain that must try to understand and love my city all the same. I am part of our blindness, I imagine, too.

So maybe for me, it is my city’s rendition of MacArthur, which may be a pervasive Filipino rendition, I am not sure, that is the “other’s rendition” here that I am grappling with. For me, there is always the “other” in us Filipinos, the voice of the colonizer and history of power that is also ourselves, part of us, that we must constantly struggle to recognize, deconstruct, resolve, if not vanquish.


Transparency: Relieving the Body of Despair

an op-ed I wrote for Typhoon Yolanda and Kusog Tacloban. It was for our efforts at the time to get transparency for aid monitoring.


Transparency: Relieving the Body of Despair
By Gina Apostol
Author of Gun Dealers’ Daughter, winner of the PEN America/Open Book Award 2013

I was getting my first dose of chemotherapy for cancer on the day Yolanda hit Tacloban, November 8. I was in the middle of research on my fourth novel, William McKinley’s World, about Tacloban and Balangiga in 1901. My veins were dripping steroids and taxol, cytoxan and dexamathosone as I was looking at pictures of the dead killed by American forces in 1901. And when I turned on Facebook, I saw this other horror.

It was a trifecta, one might call it: history and body and geography all at once surging into my bones and saying—help me.

Even now, remembering that day, I feel this weakening, a crying jag falling upon me—because I grew up in Tacloban. It is my city. I grew up in Housing and then on Juan Luna Street, corner Burgos, but now I live abroad, like too many of us, and like everyone else in these Yolanda stories of horror, I scanned FB and local tv patrol shows online for signs of my street and family. By Day 4, in perhaps some hyperactive ravage of taxotere and steroids, I wrote an op ed for the New York Times about the unconsoling wreckage of my city’s history. In so many ways, you see, I have always been dismayed by Tacloban.

Tacloban is a city of hierarchies and a venal fiefdom of families and their entrenched henchmen, and I have always, even as a child, hated its feudal personality politics, a divided city with a very few rich, often fatted by plunder, and a too vast poor, often failed by plunder, and the many able professionals in the middle who, like me, leave it. Not too different from any of the other provinces in the country, maybe. I am very aware of my unstable place in the country as I weep over it: we who leave because mind and body find shelter conveniently elsewhere. It is both a human circumstance and a Philippine condition—this migration. Paul Nadal, a critic at Berkeley, tells me that the Filipino novel (the kind of book I am writing in New York about Tacloban and Balangiga) began as an envoi from abroad, starting with, say, Rizal’s Crisostomo Ibarra, and the work of the great Filipino novelist, Juan C. Laya, for whom the National Book Award for the Novel in English is named. The Filipino novel is a kind of tax from the migrant who is always thinking of home.

Help me.

In the wake of the typhoon, a group of us, some abroad, most in Tacloban, created a volunteer relief organization, Kusog Tacloban (kusog means strength in Waray), organized mainly on FB, to help with the vanquished manpower on the ground. No one could help because the mobilizers were also victims, reported Joji Dorado to my sister, who, though a consultant who audits global labor practices, is also an entrepreneur running a business in Palo. We’ve been doing stopgap relief since the storm’s second week—recruiting doctors for the MSF and UNFP, aiding soup kitchens, hammering in temporary roofs, assessing school damage, fielding calls from desperate barangays, setting up psychosocial services for traumatized children.

Help me.

Like all who have joined in the relief effort, from international to national to local to private aid groups, from barangay to familial, we find that needs are constant, heartbreaking, and overwhelming.

The work already done is herculean—not to be dismissed. The generous aid of international groups, the harassed yet constant work of the national government, the frazzled and committed work of the local units, the frustrated yet persistent work of the barangays—the daily difficulty of rebuilding is clear.

We know everyone is trying to pitch in—concern is there.

And yet, and yet. A cancer dripping in the bones, a weakened body.

Help me.

The aid work is turning from “emergency response phase to early recovery programming,” as the USAID website calls its shift in goals beginning December 18 [2013]. But what Kusog Tacloban workers on the ground have noticed is, instead of optimism, a deepening despair.

On our ops page, we post this: Hi Kapitana Epang han Bgy 62C han Sagkahan, Tacloban, nagsiring kan Magina Fernandez: Diri man kami naabat ha amon barangay nga mayda nasulod nga bulig tikang ha gawas. Nahuhulop na kami hit kabutangan hit amon barangay. Kutob san-o kami maghuhulat?

Kapitana Epang of Barangay 62C of Sagkahan, Tacloban, tells Magina Fernandez (of Kusog and of Barangay 62C): We do not feel in our barangay any sense of aid coming from outside. We are losing hope over the state of our barangay. How long are we going to wait?

This is what we understand from people on the ground:

Makahurulop gud man it diri nasabot hit mga nananabo. Para kan Kapitana Epang ngan hi Kapitana Nimfa han Candahug, makakabulig it informasyon parte hit mga aid: pera it maabot? para ano nga mga project? ano nga mga barangay it makakakarawat? ginaano nira pagpili kun hin-o it makakakarawat? san-o matikang ito nga project? san-o matatapos? ano nga klase hin materiales it dapat gingamit han contractor, kun balay man ito or eskuwelahan? ano’t kadako?

It makes you lose hope—makahurulop—when you don’t know what’s coming up. Kapitana Epang of Sagkahan and Kapitana Nimfa of Candahug will be helped by specific information: How much aid is coming? For what projects? Which barangays will get them? How will the beneficiaries be chosen? When will the project begin? When will it end? What materials will the contractor use, for homes and schools? How big will the buildings be?

Here’s what we see on the ground:

Kun maaram it aton mga kapitana, makakasamwak hira hit ira mga residente hini nga datos. Makakagi-os hira. Diri hira sugad nga mahuhulop. Kun maaram it mga tawo hini nga mga datos, pwede hira mag-evaluate ngan mag-monitor: tama ba ini nga hingangadtuan hini nga aid? Amo ba gud it aton panginahanglan? Maupay ba it ira kagamit han kwarta? Makakasabot gihap kun baga may nangungupit.

If the barangay kapitanas Epang and Nimfa knew, they could share the information with their people. They could be proactive. They would not feel so helpless. If people had information, they could evaluate and monitor. Is this the correct use of our aid? Is it what we need? Are they using the money well? And if people have information, they will know if someone is cheating.

Help me.

I know, as a cancer patient, that knowledge is power. To be told clearly your regimen, the specific medicines and why, the length of treatment, the numbers to call. To have a mechanism for information, for intervention, when the treatment drags you down, when your body is failing, and you need to understand why.

Help me.

The hero Rizal, of course, was an eye doctor. He wrote a novel about our need to see. As Rizal knew, and as anyone can look up in an ebook on Google, first published in 1915, Ophthalmology: Essays, Abstracts and Reviews, Volume 11, noli me tang ere, his book’s name, was also a term for an inoperable cancer, a fatal cataract that was his symbol for a darkened country. But he wrote the novel to open his people’s eyes—to let them know.

Knowledge is power.

Two months after Yolanda, the plea from the devastated—an mga na-Yolandahan, as we Warays, a verb-bound, gerund-making people, now call ourselves—is simple.

Help me.

A path to strength, to healing this trifecta of ill—of the body, the geographic, and the politic—is to give us tools for knowing. Let us have mechanisms from all actors involved, give us means to see, to monitor our aid. Let us know what is coming, to soothe this growing rather than diminishing sense of despair.

To the embassies of the generous countries offering assistance, we are petitioning that they instate one such mechanism, a website with a dedicated section on:

(1) aid amounts for Yolanda-stricken areas, allocated by project; 

(2) project plans (objectives, project sites, target beneficiaries, expected outputs/outcomes, and implementation timelines); 

(3) agencies/organizations accountable for implementing these projects;

(4) regular project updates on progress and performance.

This petition on is one in a series.

We will be urging all major actors (international, national, local, corporate, and nonprofit) to provide specific and actionable mechanisms for transparency, imagined as tools for citizens, so we are not in the dark about our future.

We are happy to hear President Noynoy Aquino’s comments on transparency at the Good Governance Summit last January 15, announcing the government’s Open Data project, aligned with its FAITH hub itemizing foreign aid. Ping Lacson, the rehabilitation czar, is working with private corporations to craft plans for a “bridal registry” of projects, and we hope transparency will also be central to their plans. We hope, through these petitions that bring transparency to the fore, urging clear information from all actors, we can triangulate details and gain the best vision of our future. A sustainable future of environmental stability, economic integrity geared toward the local population’s needs, and progress available to all, not just the few with power.

We hope you can sign this series of petitions on transparency with us, our way to counteract the cancer of the body politic—the cancer of disempowerment, the cataract of not knowing. Transparency is a way for citizens to write our own novel. It is key toward our path of healing.

Help us.

Waray poems by Voltaire Araza, read for a fundraiser in New York City

The video is in honor of poets from Leyte and Samar. It was terrible, in the days after the storm, to hear silence from my friends, the Waray poets, on Facebook. I realized, if one of these poets disappear, we lose a culture. So I wished to read Waray poems when asked to contribute for a typhoon fundraiser by Asian American Writers Workshop. Voltaire is from my mom’s hometown, Barugo—he’s a lyrical writer who puns and plays with Waray and boldly uses the every day to create meaning. Here’s from a review I wrote of his poetry:

The rich use of verbals throughout this collection is not just incidentally an aspect of the Waray; these are also the poet’s choices.  These voluptuously lucid portraits of the Waray by verbs occur because of Oyzon/Araza’s aesthetic: he believes that our ordinary lives are powerful, and the power of the ordinary is the arena of art.  Verbs are the snapshot of that individuation, conjugating, dividing and splicing time and moments, establishing the concrete absolutely.  Oyzon does this well.  His poetry makes apparent and transparent the nature of our language, which is, of course, our self.  And this is why an maupay hini nga koleksyon an paggamit ni Oyzon hin Waray: maabtik, nakakapanguga, pataraw-an, mahinumdumon. [the good thing about this collection is Oyzon/Araza’s use of Waray: shrewd, astonishing, amusing, reflective]