Bibliolepsy is out from Soho Press January 4!

I began this book when I was nineteen: the year Ninoy Aquino was murdered on the tarmac by Imelda Marcos’s goons. In a weird loop, a circular pattern that mocks my own work’s ways of shaping time, this book, my first novel, is out two-times-nineteen years later—two times the length of my life when I began it. It marks the time I became a writer. To see it in print beyond its home (it was first published in the Philippines in 1997, winning the country’s National Book Award that year) is for me a kind of grace. For personal reasons having nothing to do with the novel, I never tried to sell Bibliolepsy when I ended up living in the United States. Its appearance now does not sum up my life (by no means), but it makes me glad. I’m glad to be experiencing the happiness I had when the book first came out.

I hope you can share in the gladness of this time. Buy the book, share it with others, be glad, I hope, in reading the book—which is about reading, about readers, and about books.

(Of course, the revolt that backgrounds my book only gives us pause—in that the Marcoses are returning, the son with a huge lead in the upcoming presidential elections—two-times-nineteen years later. As the Jan 6 Insurrection anniversary comes upon us here in the United States, the Philippine experience says: Beware when justice is not done to those who wreck democracy 😦 Bad things return.)

I talk with Viet Nguyen about Bibliolepsy at Politics and Prose on January 4, its pub date: link here. I talk with Sabina Murray at Books are Magic Jan 5, with Neferti Tadiar at Vromans Jan 6, with Zack Linmark at Literati on Jan 11, and with Malaka Gharib at City Lights Jan 18

You can read about the book (it’s about sex and revolution, about fucking over dictators as well as writers) from Publishers’ Weekly here, from Soho Press hereThe New York Times reviewed it on its pub date— “Craving Books, Sex, and Revolution”! Link here!

You can preorder and buy it at any bookstore, but I hope you do not choose Amazon. Bookshop link is here

Bibliolepsy was about my wish to preserve ardor—the ardor I had for books the minute I learned to read. It’s about recalling the sense of that very first time. I hope you can find it, Bibliolepsy, both the book and your own recall of that kind of love—in this pandemic, we need that memory of primal ardor (that’s for sure).

My best to you all in this new year—hope to meet up one day again, in person, to toast all books—

Ace Hotel Residency

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 10.00.38 PM I will be at the Ace Hotel one Sunday in June (but no, not with Rizal—that photo was at the Philippines’ San Francisco consulate). Thanks to the Filipino-American Museum for inviting me. I will be working on my foreword to Nick Joaquin’s stories, to be published by Penguin Classics in 2017. So excited for that book—and such a pleasure to be rereading Nick Joaquin, especially now that I am much older and not reading him only for color, for language, which is what I loved him for. Just finished his “Doña Jeronima,” which is like the love-child of Borges’s Circular Ruins and a telenovela starring Rizal’s Padre Florentino. “Woman with Two Navels” still has the razor-sharp edge of modernity that I remember—now more than when he wrote it, I think, because his layers of postcoloniality are in greater relief as I read, with theory at my back and a history of the Filipino-American war on my mind. And still, reading him is pure pleasure: his writing is so sure, so replete. Thanks, FAM and Ace Hotel.

Duterte: Strongman, Jokerman (in CNN Philippines)

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Thanks to Don Jaucian of CNN Philippines for publishing the article on Duterte in its entirety. This was written in the heat of the election cycle, and I have read it again in light of the results and my own ambivalent feelings about Duterte (I sympathize with his voters, and I find Duterte himself—and the phenomenon of him—absolutely fascinating, a complex story of the Philippines and of overdetermined desire, that is, in this case, of a people’s political desire, a kind of idealism, an anguish, “having more determining factors than the minimum necessary—having more than one cause”). And I recognize demagoguery as an election strategy—heralded it seems as a Filipinism—Dutertism; but however much you make a Juan Pusong hash of his affect, the violence underlying it is a problem. I reread the article, and I would not change a word of it.

There’s that story of when Gertrude Stein first saw the portrait Picasso made of her, and she complained: “But it does not look like me.” The artist replied: “Don’t worry, it will.”

The issues behind this election outcome are structural, not personal. I was interested not only in a portrait of Duterte and his voters but also to consider  what constructs us.

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My Foreign Policy article on Duterte

The editor of this piece chose the title—not I! I do not think the Trump analogy is the best—nor is the sensationalizing caption—really annoying, actually. My original draft of this piece (published in its entirety on CNN Philippines) does not even mention Trump. The editor wanted the link to Trump to make it “understandable” to an American audience. Personally, I think the U.S. still needs to make the phenomenon of their Trump understandable to the world. With its sensational headline (again, not my fault!), this piece has also been picked up by NZ Herald and The Chicago Tribune, and cited in Forbes.

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Paltik Candidate: Duterte and the Duranos of Danao


Paltik Presidente

It is fascinating to check out the genealogy of Rodrigo Duterte. He excuses his foul mouth by such comments as “hindi ako anak ng konyo”—I am not a child of the upper classes.

But if you look up his bio, his father, Vicente G. Duterte, was in fact the governor of his province, Davao, when he was growing up, in 1959 to 1965—his formative, teenage years. Thus, he was no unknown peasant when he was learning to be a man. He grew up a governor’s child. He is, in fact, “anak ng konyo”—that is, a child of privilege.

There is no sense that his father had oligarch ways; in fact, there is very little info on what his father had done for Davao.

But Davaoeños on my FB page mention that his mother, Soledad Roa-Duterte, was known for her good heart, a civic leader—she supported Cory Aquino in 1986. It is said Cory Aquino handpicked Duterte to be officer-in-charge of Davao City when his mother declined the honor. He was elected mayor in 1988 and served six terms, a mayor of Davao City well into the 2000s.

That the origin story of Duterte, champion of death squads as a form of justice, lies in his being handpicked by Cory Aquino says a lot.

The Philippines’ continuing accommodation of Marcos-style fascist warlords, from the Cory years on, is the country’s rot. State violence remains our cancer though the dictator has, so they say, died.

Duterte likes to talk about Davao as a safe city under his long mayoralty; Human Rights Watch notes otherwise. Davao City certainly was not safe when a rash of hostage taking occurred in 1989, a now infamous year after his well-publicized account of the rape and death in 1989 of Australian missionary, Jacqueline Hamill. Davao, then and now, is probably no more safe than any large city in the Philippines with guns and assassins and petty thieves and drug lords operating in militarized local settings—in which too often state oppression joins with personal revenge—that have marked the Philippines since the guardia civil killed Crispin in the Noli, and the Americans took up where the Spaniards left off, and then our own series of sad republics has had its day.

Instead, what is remarkable about Duterte’s Davao City is not its dubious safety but its death squads. Duterte’s fans like to say that the extrajudicial killings of street children and drug addicts are worth it if the rest of citizens can walk the streets free. But no citizen in her right mind should sleep well at that cost. As far back as 525 B.C, the ancient Greeks knew well enough that Orestes and the rest of his bloodletting ilk of the house of Atreus had to stop taking justice in their own hands already. Thus courts were invented (so says Aeschylus). Courts, as far the civilized world goes, remain a fine alternative to bloodletting.

State-supported violence to tamp down crime is not security: it is crime. But when one looks further into Duterte’s genealogy, one gets an insight into his assassin-friendly rule. The Dutertes, like many Davaoeños, are emigrants from elsewhere, usually Cebu. In Duterte’s case, his father Vicente was from Danao City, in Cebu province. That lone consonant shift, v to n, Davao to Danao, is a significant différance. Danao City is the stronghold of the Duranos, a warlord family to which the historian Michael Cullinane devotes a whole chapter in Alfred McCoy’s classic anthology on Filipino cronyism, An Anarchy of Families. The figurehead of the violent, gun-loving Duranos is their patriarch, Ramon Durano, Sr. His wife was Beatriz Duterte.

There’s the rub.

Turns out the Dutertes of Danao are linked to the notorious Duranos, potent deliverers of Cebu votes to the Marcos dictatorship in every crucial election of Marcos’s reign.

This is what I gather from the family trees that have proliferated since the man has become a buzzword—not all of his words so nice—in these elections (correct me if I am wrong, as the genealogies are actually conflicting): Beatriz Duterte Durano is the first cousin of Vicente G. Duterte, the late governor of Davao. Beatriz and Vicente’s fathers, Facundo (Vicente’s) and Severo (Beatriz’s), are brothers, children of Isabelo Duterte and Concepcion Buot. Since 1955 to 1986, Beatriz Duterte Durano was a force in Cebu politics, trading off the position of Danao mayor or congressperson with her children, Boy and other boy Duranos, so that their elections were “monotonous,” says Cullinane.

But her husband, Ramon Durano, Sr., is the kingpin—the Marcos crony whose spectacular devotion to martial rule is not meteoric but metonymic: his name is a substitute for the GGG (not galunggong, but guns, goons, and gold) of Philippine politics.

When I was growing up, visiting Cebu every summer, I’d hear of these toxic Duranos. Their fiefdom, Danao, was the well-known, dreaded (to a child’s mind) place of paltik. Some towns are known for their puto or their piña; Danao was known for its paltik—crude but effective Filipino-made guns, made illegally, but the Marcos-era police turned a blind eye. I grew up thinking that if you entered Danao, you’d be riddled with drug addiction or bullets. The Duranos were the overlords and masterminds of an un-charming cottage industry. At a time when violence was normalized and rumors of disappearances were as common as the whiff of kaingin, to me violence in Cebu equaled the Duranos. Guimaras was famous for its mangoes; Danao for its deaths. These were childhood equations of my martial law years.

If I mention the Duranos to my sister, for example, she immediately says—so violent. If I mention Duranos among Manileños, I only get glassy eyes. The power of the family is unknown. Information about the provinces is so lacking in the capital that it is no surprise that to many, the Duterte phenomenon catches them unaware. This is one more strike against the blinkers of the people of the national capital region. Significantly, in the last Pulse Asia Survey, the only region in which Poe and Roxas win is the Visayas. Who knows if that is because—they are aware of Duterte’s entire career—or of course Poe and Roxas have their own familial footholds in the Visayas—or maybe the Visayans are more intelligent and knowledgeable than the people in Manila would care to admit, knowing both the capital region’s personalities as well as their own. Who knows.

News reports state the Duranos of Cebu City (don’t know about Danao City) are not (publicly) on Duterte’s side in this election (the family had huge splits after Marcos years, according to Cullinane); but that does not negate the Durano/Marcosian style of Duterte’s views of law and order, ie, extrajudicial killings as state policy. He’s interesting (and thus maybe worse) in that he’s pretty open about it.

I keep wondering why the biography and genealogy of Duterte barely make play in Manila news. I imagine it is because for so long the man was ignored in the capital, for his Bisaya accent, his outrageous mouth, and his provincial affect as some no-name bumpkin. It would have been useful to figure out that the man has long had pertinent examples from his own set of relatives, however distanced or estranged he may be (I have no information on his actual personal relations with them) as an example of how to remain in power.


I talk a lot about language in this interview about Gun Dealers’ Daughter

because, in my view, a writer’s job is to recognize reflexivity constantly: to wonder why it is we use the words we do. And for a Filipino, that angst is vital: because with our multiple tongues, the fact that a human is a translated being, a split self divided by words, is always in our face.

Thanks to Rowan Hisayo Buchanan of Asian American Writers Workshop. Listen to the interview here. Best perhaps to use the subtitles tool. It is on the roof deck of my apartment building, and we did not realize how noisy the airplanes would be. Also, I hate my hair! It’s ugly. I should have had my haircut before, not after, the interview!

My Borgesian Rizal.

This is a reworking of a discussion I published earlier here on my blog. I cut it up to include only the Rizal stuff.

My Borgesian Rizal: Lessons on Language and Revision in a Re-Reading of the Noli and Fili

I’d like to talk about Rizal here from my perspective a bit, from reading him as a novelist. My favorite among Rizal’s works is the Fili. Recently, I did a rereading of the Noli and the Fili in tandem, mainly for fun (and for the usual occult reasons as I write a new novel, but I still don’t know what those reasons are). I also wished to confirm a thesis I had about his art.

Disclaimer: I love Rizal. He’s a mutant nerd before whom my irony fails. I’m not one of those who’d like to smash the idol with my hip wit—that’s a job, equally entertaining, for some other reader, or maybe my other me. I think we are lucky to have him, period. For this current project, I read first Chapter 1 of the Fili, then Chapter 1 of the Noli, and so on, creating a puzzle reading that I thought might simply be amusing. My thesis, however, was this: the Fili is a mirror text of the Noli—written mainly to revise it. But what I found, oddly enough, was also the converse: read in tandem with the Fili, the Noli gains complexity and texture as a strangely doubled text, as if the rich and fluent Fili also lives in it, a ghost within its machine.

In the end these mirror-texts could tell me a story of Rizal as a novelist. My project really is to recover Rizal as an artist. What might come from the reading is a portrait of a writer questioning his means, wondering through his second novel about his first novel’s choices. Ambeth Ocampo tells me there is yet no book on Rizal as a novelist, which does not surprise me. His use of perspective, or narration modes, for instance, rarely comes up in discussions of Rizaliana, though some social studies thesis on vegetable gardens, or opium addiction, or student life in Manila, could be well served by a close reading of the books’ choices of discourse. (When vegetables come up, the discourse is a woman’s, a priest’s, or an ironic description of fiesta.)

I have always found the Noli a less interesting text: my trite formulation has been that the Noli is great as propaganda but not as artful as the Fili. When I was reading Rizal for my second novel, Raymundo Mata, I began to think that our sensibilities are still tied to his favored nineteenth-century romances: the pop melodrama of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas that so enthralled Jose Rizal. If the Filipino novel is germinated by Rizal, then Rizal’s tastes tell me nineteenth-century French blockbusters, like Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew and Hugo’s Les Misérables, are in our DNA. And the Noli’s voice, to me, seems more tuned to the Frenchmen Hugo, Sue, and Dumas than to their younger, seemingly more experimental contemporary, Flaubert. (To be honest, I kept wishing the Noli would read more waywardly, like the eighteenth-century, like Candide.)

As I read his letters and miscellanea, I kept looking for signs Rizal had read Flaubert. I knew he had certainly read Balagtas, a romantic spirit that runs through the Noli. Benedict Anderson in Under Three Flags notes he had one book by Flaubert in his library and many by Dumas. I knew from his letters he loved Eugene Sue, The Wandering Jew in particular, now a fairly unreadable novel (at least to me; I tried, and I sadly found it ghastly), but I wished to know whether he was familiar with that exemplar of style indirect libre, or free indirect discourse—Flaubert. I had this theory that my enjoyment of the Fili has to do with the fluidity of Rizal’s narration modes in the book, an entertaining, complex, para-Flaubertian style. (I recognize this happens to turn on my own taste in novel-making: I accept that my comments are shot through by my own views of art. I also accept that my concerns with his texts are technical: I read all books, from Poe through Perec, for instruction on my own writing.) But I did not need to find Flaubert under Rizal’s pillow to confirm my idea about narration modes; I just needed to read the Noli and the Fili in tandem, one chapter after another, and compare their narration modes.

Free indirect discourse is a supple narration that enters multiple consciousnesses within an omniscient frame. The psychological acuities of Henry James and the comic shrewdness of Jane Austen (to mention just two of my favorite novelists, who teach me a lot) arise from those authors’ fabulous control of this third person form. Free indirect discourse allows for multiple and contingent authorities and in turn also plays tricks with the reader’s consciousness. The nineteenth-century novels of Dumas and Hugo, beloved of Rizal, enthralling in other ways, indulge mostly in the straight omniscient voice. And it’s true, in general, Rizal does use a straight omniscient in both novels: his default mode is a single, ironic voice of authority that delivers his themes with excellent and subtle wit. He’s good at it. He follows a good writing workshop mantra: he sticks to his strengths. Especially in the Noli, his godlike, omniscient perch above the fray is a powerful tool to impel reader response—specifically, outrage.

Rereading Father Damaso’s evil malice at the beginning of the Noli, I still get angry. I hate Father Damaso as much as I hated him when I was a kid, and I want to kick him in his stupid, handsome Roman coño face. Rizal’s Noli begets a powerful reader response. It became clear, on rereading, how Rizal’s omniscient narration in the Noli binds the reader to his seductive bias. It is important to note that his godlike irony is the vessel of speech for the angry Filipino in the text—whom in fact Rizal does not picture in chapters 1 and 2 of the Noli. Instead, he foregrounds the acts and dialogue of the elites, all Spaniards. In those opening scenes, Rizal’s omniscient voice therefore is the sole witness for the otherwise mute, absent, and angry Filipino. It’s a strategic, powerful partnership: His omniscience and our absence whet our anti-Spanish rage. And its result, this sharpening of our knives, that is, our reader response, is a prominent part of his novel.

Reader and narrator are entwined in the Noli and the Fili: we, the reader, are part of Rizal’s narrative moves, and shrewd as he was, his choices of narration inevitably bound us to him—they incited revolt. He clearly had a social studies thesis in mind, and he played his readers with a puppeteer’s skill to create a novel of propaganda that, as we know, worked only too well—it killed him (a narrative consequence I do not necessarily recommend). This keen sense of readership is crucial to the Noli and central to its power. Neglecting the role of the reader in the Noli diminishes our understanding of the text.

The fascinating mirroring of the two novels, the eerie incidences of twinning in the Noli and the Fili, further complicated any superficial reading I had of the Noli. One of the more obvious mirrorings is the twin structures of scenes.

The most powerful among these mirrored chapters, for instance, are the parallel Chapters 24. Fili Ch. 24 is titled “Un cadaver:” Multiple deaths or decays are imagined in this chapter but the corpse in question lies in the news Basilio delivers to Simoun, on the brink of his revolution plot—that Maria Clara is dead. And what is the parallel chapter in Noli Ch. 24? Hauntingly, it is the memorable scene of the picnic, when the young lovers are completely blissful, and Elias the pilot saves them from the crocodile, and we hear a full poem by Rizal sung in Maria Clara’s voice—sweet are the hours in one’s native land. How eerie to have these two chapters side by side, like inverted envelopes in which one scene enfolds the other: so that the news of Maria Clara’s death encloses her voice in the past singing Rizal’s distant poem of his country, and the song of Maria Clara in the Noli encloses her future as un cadaver, destroyed by a priest’s lust.

This twinned incidence, coincidence or not, is chilling and deeply moving. It is correct that the most moving twin-chapters are of Maria Clara—she is the ghost of the dyadic, of the primal memory of wholeness, that haunts Rizal’s twin books (and perhaps Rizal), heightening the social fractures and tragic personal fissions in his texts.

But even in less haunting ways, these seeming accidents of analogy occur. In Chapter 5 of both novels, for instance—in Fili Ch. 5, Basilio, an orphan, returns home to San Diego on Christmas break; in Noli Ch. 5, Ibarra, who has just been told why he is an orphan, is spending his first night home on his return to Manila. Orphan versus orphan returning home in these parallel chapters. These hallucinatory mirrorings kept happening as I reread: funhouse returns of doubling scenes. In the analogy created by this tandem reading, Ibarra, the upper-class victim of priests, is translated in the Fili into Basilio, the lower-class victim of priests. Thus, in the Fili, Rizal recasts his hero, turning the upper class into the lower class, and so in the Noli, vice versa. (Remember Rizal was a sculptor, too, and thus familiar with recasting: of remolding and overlaying forms.)

This structural twinning gets underlined in the mirrored narration strategies of Chapter 6 of both novels: Fili Ch. 6 is a flashback, telling the backstory of Basilio, that is, the saga of the education of a poor servant kid. But interestingly, Noli Ch. 6 is also a flashback, telling the backstory of Capitan Tiago, that is, the saga of how a dumb wealthy kid becomes wealthier. Constantly, the Noli’s chapters on the elite become implicated in the saga of the lower classes through analogous mirrorings in the Fili. Talk about demonio de las comparaciones indeed (to borrow from Ben Anderson quoting the Noli).

Surely one can also say he’s just a writer with a narrow imagination—he doesn’t have too many plots. But as Poe’s detective Dupin might say: that is possible but not interesting. It is fascinating to imagine how these doublings and analogies in the two novels allow us to imagine Rizal’s problems as a writer, his self-critiques. Rizal in his ephemera is garrulous, about boxing or books or bagoong. But he never much talks much about his art: he talks about problems with nation not narration. But the amazingly persistent mirroring of structures, characters, scenes, and tropes in the Noli and Fili tells us that, in some way, the Fili does rewrite the Noli, not, as I imagined, only by his narration modes but also by his weird doublings, capturing, but in elusive and not strictly absolute ways, how Rizal commented, through the Fili, on the Noli’s devices, questioned them, resculpted them, reframed binaries of elites and masses, or indio and Spaniard, or civil and religious, or slave and revolutionary, and so wondered about his art. Someone else can write a whole book on that.

It is only by Chapter 7 in the Noli that Rizal moves into free indirect discourse, in the third person limited voice of Maria Clara; most of the novel otherwise is in persuasive third person omniscient. Rizal is very comfortable in a woman’s voice. The first trace of free indirect discourse in the Fili is also the psychological perspective of a woman: Basilio’s superstitious girlfriend, Juli. But unlike the Noli, by Chapter 4 onward, the Fili moves fluidly into multiple third person perspectives, indirect and free indirect modes of various characters—he ventriloquizes the psychological perceptions of the untutored Juli, the unlettered wit of the coachman carrying the medical student Basilio back home, the grief and terror of Basilio confronting the frighteningly radical Simoun in that creepy place of textual doubling, “Ibarra’s wood” (which is the site of Elias’s death in the Noli and entombs both the focus of Basilio’s grief, Sisa, and the focus of Simoun’s grief, the twin of Ibarra, that is, Elias—an infinite trail of mirrorings) and so on.

So fluid in his use of perspective in the Fili, Rizal seems to have liberated himself from the straitjacket of the omniscient in the Noli, giving consciousness to multiple voices in that new, confident, but experimental style, from Chapter 4 onward. For such a young writer, working only on his second book, Rizal displays no nerves, making unexpected moves, some noted by Ben Anderson already in readings of the chapter “Tatakut” in Why Counting Counts, among other essays on the Fili. It is no wonder the Fili is less taught in high school classes—the book gets weird. Rizal shifts in and out of the minds of casual cynic Pecson, cowardly bully Juanito, opportunistic but oppressed Chinaman Quiroga—a whole panoply of tipos manilenses, as Rizal called them—in ways that seem to acknowledge the flat urgencies of the Noli’s singular propaganda voice. But interestingly, even as he moves into fresh narrative territory while recycling old plots, he honors the problems of Filipino discourse he had solved in the Noli. A novel quite clearly about the ‘social cancer’ of colonialism, the Fili also ponders the art of the novel—Rizal’s first novel, the Noli, in particular.

Chapter 7 is a touchstone passage in both the Fili’s themes and the Fili’s art.

Chapter 7 of the Fili is a gorgeous set piece. Amazingly reflexive, it weaves perhaps one of the most complex reader-writer-text-[language]-nation webs in Philippine writing—that imagined community in novels that I find most persistently engrossing and problematic in my own experience of writing novels.

It’s important to recognize here that the central plot of the Fili puts the novel in reflexive, refractive, mirroring territory—the reading/writing theme of language. The students in Chapter 2 are agitating for a Castilian Academy in Manila: a school for teaching Spanish. A crisis of language is the plot’s pivot. Rizal asks: is it revolutionary for Filipinos to learn Spanish?

One hears loudly the self-critical question of the writer Rizal: what does it mean for him to be writing a Filipino novel “hold[ing] a mirror up to nature” in Spanish?

And it implicates the text-within-this-text, the Noli—because the Noli has the odd effect of being both a bomb, la mecha, set among friars but also the fuse, a call to action, among Filipinos, precisely for its art-crime of convincingly mirroring (considering any number of projections and misrecognitions such mirroring entails) the conditions of Rizal’s Philippines.

In Fili Ch. 7 Simoun says to Basilio, whom he accuses as a lower-order thinker, a reformist, who does not understand that a Filipino’s faith in Spain’s civil authority is a radical failure of self-analysis: “Go ahead, ask for Hispanization and do not blanch from shame when they tell you no…You want to add another language to the forty-odd we already speak here so we can understand one another even less?”

Simoun’s speech is a beautiful expletive that explodes in a singular tongue the problem of having multiple tongues. He delivers his illuminating rant on the Castilian in illuminating Castilian:

“El español nunca será lenguaje general en el pais, el pueblo nunca lo hablará porque para las concepciones de su cerebro y los sentimientos de su corazon no tiene frases ese idioma: cada pueblo tiene el suyo, como tiene su manera de sentir. ¿Qué vais á conseguir con el castellano, los pocos que lo habeis de hablar? ¡Matar vuestra originalidad, subordinar vuestros pensamientos á otros cerebros y en vez de haceros libres haceros verdaderamente esclavos!”

How odd for Simoun to ventriloquize this point that Rizal has, in fact, already made quite moot through the persuasive phrases of his last novel, the Noli:

“Spanish will never be the language of the country, the people of the country will never speak it because for the thoughts of their own mind and sentiments of their heart that idiom does not have phrases: each people has its own tongue, as it has its own manner of feeling. What will you gain with Spanish, the few who will speak it? Kill your originality, subordinate your thoughts to others’ minds and instead of gaining your freedom make yourselves truly into slaves!”

And so Rizal questions both the Noli and himself—wondering about his own originality and subordination, one of “the few who will speak it.” At the same time he frees himself from the bondage of being the iconic author of the Noli, indicted by Simoun as a suspect text, while also, oddly enough, recognizing its power.

The breathtaking reflexivity in this passage is contradictory, provocative, and dizzying on several levels: Simoun, speaking in Spanish, convicts himself as one of the verdaderamente esclavos [truly enslaved]; Basilio, understanding Simoun’s Spanish (he functions, too, as the reader’s proxy in the passage), is thus complicit and so also esclavo; the Filipino reader who understands Simoun’s Spanish is also part of the textual crime and thus esclavo; the novel, written in Spanish, is destabilized explicitly by the writer who devised this passage denouncing el español in español; and the writer, writing in Spanish, convicts himself, too, by the damning words he fashions in Simoun’s oracular voice.

This conviction by language—to play on that English pun—raises that specter (or speculum, Latin for mirror, as Rizal’s pedant Sybila might note, using one more of Rizal’s tongues) of that great mirror-novel hidden in the Fili, that is, the Noli. But he also knows the Noli has paradoxically already opened the eyes of the verdaderamente esclavos—in some sense freeing them (and in terms of the Noli’s reach, this is true not only of those Filipinos who read Spanish, but extends also its voice to us, those who read it in translation).

By what awry, magical stroke, then, does Rizal in this passage complicate his novels but also conjure the problems of the Filipino reader of his novels? He creates a destabilized, reflexive people who must cross-examine who they are, or, in a sense, understand that they must recognize themselves through misrecognition, as a constantly lost and yet found figure of translation, when they read the nation in Rizal’s words.

This is the crux of ourselves as a nation—and the problem of all our novelists—we exist in translation, colonized and mediated and lost yet found in our multiple texts—and tongues. We are condemned to our multiple speech-selves. Very early on, like a prescient prophet of our “postcoloniality,” as some call our traumatic condition, Rizal in his novels grapples explicitly with the labyrinth of language that defines us.

As the student Sandoval exclaims in Fili Ch. 14: “What does the integrity of the state have to do with the rules of syntax?!”

Well, Rizal the novelist might say—everything.

Of course, one must also take Simoun’s speech with a grain of salt: Rizal’s dialogues are diabolically dialectical (to be honest, as a writer I most envy Rizal’s skill as a luminous debater of plural ideas in conversations, powerful in both the Noli and the Fili). One is meant to refract this speech through Basilio’s (the proxy reader’s) modest skepticism in the scene, and as the novel unfolds, Simoun—versus such idealists as the poet Isagani or hopeful cynics like the student Pecson and so on—keeps shape-shifting: he is a masked, unstable truth-teller. We do not know even until the end if we are on his side.

This ambiguity is deliberate. Rizal is very aware of personalities as analogies, comparaciones rather than singularities, existing within a dialectic of ideas and forces, not simply as a flat image without a glass backing—without a mirror of comparisons. It is hard to see the elite Simoun without seeing his translation, or reflection, in the poor orphan Basilio in the scenes they have with each other, or to view poet Isagani without his twin, lawyer Señor Pasta, in that dialogue in which they both appear: scene by scene, Rizal keeps projecting one character in the other, and not only that, one book into the other, mirroring perhaps the multiplicity of his own desires and, more obviously, the rigors of his highly reflexive intellect.

As I have already noted in the novel Raymundo Mata, it is no accident that Ibarra’s middle name is Magsalin, an infinitive verb, a pun, meaning both to translate and to transfuse blood—to me the name shows how aware he was of words, homonyms, and doubling texts running in our veins. In his Miscellaneous Writings, he gossips about his friends, such as the pseudo-novelist Paterno, in code—he’s a word trickster. One hears him laughing as he sets up his unexpected cryptogram for resurrecting that cryptic head in the Fili’s Quiapo Fair chapter—the password Deremof—an anagram not in his novel’s Spanish but in unexpected yet prophetic English, a double-tongued sword, meaning freedom.

Thus, any consideration of the representation of the elite or of peasants or of diaspora or of womanhood and any other social studies themes must consider the profoundly analogical, refractive acts of representation that run through these novels: there is nothing flat in the work of Rizal. There is trickery in his texts: he’s a demonic comparative thinker—and highly aware of readership, or acts of reading and writing in the text. These art gestures in his novels must be front and center in any reading of his words. Even in his practice as a novelist, he exercised reflexivity and found a way to read himself, and so forge his fresh, astonishing style in the Fili. And he creates, in the figure of Simoun, perhaps, his twin of himself, a doppelganger—a desperate, despairing fixer of plots: that is, a fictionist.

Too often we fail to imagine Rizal as a writer who is creating fiction, hence our flat readings of our nation, the Philippines, in the otherwise fascinatingly unstable mirror of his words.

What we often think of as an absolute commentary on revolution—the vacillating revolutionary response in the Fili—that is, the failure of the plot of Simoun—because we view him through that social studies lens, needs also to be seen perhaps as Rizal’s artistic response to the Noli. What psychological acuities, aesthetic considerations, and political moves are gained, refashioned, and lost when one moves into free indirect discourse? You have a more reflective, doubting, politically and psychologically ambiguous character in Simoun, more ambiguous certainly than Elias—because Rizal’s narrative technique has changed. I doubt Rizal was not aware of his conundrum. (I am not saying one cannot extract sociopolitical insights from it, but the aesthetic point is crucial to our understanding of his novel.)

On one level, the Fili is a university novel, and many of its powerful scenes in free indirect discourse are set among students. I’ve written two university novels about revolt, and so it is easy to see why my favorite among Rizal’s student chapters is Chapter 13, “La clase de fisica.” After considering the dizzying puzzle of mirror structures in Rizal’s two novels, how fascinating to read that this chapter centers on the trope that illuminates what I consider Rizal’s major device for evoking the nation in his novel-“diptych,” as Neil Garcia accurately names the pair of novels, the Noli and the Fili, so uniting them as one. In Fili Ch. 13, this satirical chapter set in a physics class, Rizal’s illuminating plot device is—a mirror.

Padre Millon, the sadistic physics teacher who is also an idiot, makes students memorize a numbing definition of that basic subject of materials physics: un espejo:

“Se da el nombre de espejo á toda superficie pulimentada, destinada á producir por la reflexion de la luz las imágenes de los objetos situados delante de dicha superficie por las sustancias que forman estas superficies se dividen en espejos metálicos y espejos de cristal…”

“The name mirror is given to all polished surfaces, destined to produce by the reflection of light the images of objects placed in front of said surface by substances that form these surfaces divided into metallic mirrors and glass mirrors…”

This theme of reflexivity, or reflection, or doubling, or mirroring, that becomes the literal center of this chapter satirizing education in Spanish in the Philippine (and is succeeded by the Quiapo Fair chapter on mirror tricks, and so on), causes a vertigo of refraction in this self-referential text. Because the novel, of course, any novel, really, but especially this novel, is also a trick with mirrors, as is Imuthis/Ibarra’s storytelling deception in the Quiapo chapter: “destined to produce by the reflection of light the images of objects placed in front of said surfaces by substances that form these surfaces….”

This scene of the mirror in a physics class conjures a vertiginous layering of images—an infinite regression of reflections that is the fatal, unstable condition of novel-writing, a knowing deception that attempts truth, a ‘truth’ founded on ‘tricks’ [supercherías]—enclosing as a novel does the projections and mirrorings of the reader, the writer, the novel, and the world it hopes to mirror (which includes the reader, the writer, and so on).

Thus, Rizal becomes Borgesian when encountering the Fili with a close reading of his narrative moves. ‘Whimsical,’ yes, but intriguing.

In Rizal’s two novels, by trying to describe what the novels were doing as novels I found myself in a surprising conversation with Rizal’s books, and experiencing a pleasure that I had not realized before I sat down to describe their effects. I am addressing myself to readers here, ordinary readers of novels: I learned to appreciate the Noli in ways that had escaped me. (And to be honest, I was amazed, even creeped out, by the weird mirror congruencies persisting in the texts—and I had to email Ambeth Ocampo, to make sure I was not hallucinating; he told me that for a new annotated edition of the novels, he found himself grappling with the same hallucinatory doublings.) Rereading the Noli and Fili through the lens of its art-devices, I was excited when I noted an image that had escaped me in early readings, the persistence of that poststructuralist mirror image—a trope in one of my favorite writers, Borges, that I found beautifully enlaced in Rizal: so in effect I could read Rizal as an odd “precursor” of the Argentine, in a funhouse-mirror way. And it gave me a way of imagining Rizal as a writer, and to picture him in that fleeting, mortal act—revision.

An explicit close reading of the work of art and its effects is useful because otherwise the readings you beget, if driven by an extrinsic thesis first rather than led by the engrossing complexities inherent in the art itself, enforce fairly one-dimensional ways that people already read our nation’s novels.

By reading closely an artist’s gestures in his art, we can avoid those ways of reading that so bedevil our artless ways of confronting art—those calloused, prescriptive readings that end up in mere name-calling of novels as ‘revolutionary’ or ‘not revolutionary’ or blaming the novel for framing the ‘elite’ in one way or the other, or praising or condemning a book for serving or not the ends of ‘nation’ (however that word is defined, endlessly differing or deferred, by the artless writer) and so on and so forth—instead of carefully reading how an artist devises his words. Careful close readings might help us avoid such one-dimensional traps of readings—that are dangerously unsurprising and, worse, unsurprised.


((a post I gave to a tumblr blog, click on link, tickytocka, run by my friends Noel Shaw, Eric Gamalinda, and Ubaldo Stecconi))37525_426474037792_6050937_n




The crowd at La Nacional, New York City, after the final World Cup match in 2010.




Three tournaments in a row I followed them. For three centuries they owned us. Even as I write this, I say damn, that connection is specious. That Spain ruled the Philippines for three hundred years (mostly through a bunch of Dominicans and Augustinians, plus on-and-off, frequently exiled Jesuits) has nothing to do with the pleasure I have had watching the great Spanish team, whom I used to call Barcelona con Iker menos Messi—soccer watchers are in love with fallacies, and the biggest fallacy of all is that a sports team equals its country and its history. Team Spain is no more the Spain of the Bourbons that overran America and stumbled into Asia than the underdog Team USA is the United States of imperialism. And yet I felt the need to explain in an FB status in 2008 why, though I was writing about the Philippine revolution against Spain, I was rooting for Spain’s revolution in soccer. As if I were apologizing for my recolonization.

Spain mesmerized me: they made a soccer fantasy real. Xavi plays in the future was how his Barcelona teammate, Dani Alves, described Xavi Hernandez, “heartbeat of Barcelona—and Spain” (and lost twin brother of Robert Downey, Jr). He imagined the run before the players did, conjuring space where there had been none. These metaphors of magic keep bubbling up when I try to capture the way I felt as I watched Spain play, an unimaginably skilled team so tightly unified and astonishingly precise that when they lost the ball it seemed like a space-time aberration, an erratum in the laws of the universe. Amid a packed crowd at La Nacional, New York’s Spanish club on Fourteenth Street, I watched Fernando Torres score the winning goal against Germany in the final game of the Euro Cup in 2008, and that palpable sense of a new order dawning was both eerie and irrefutable. Finally, Spain had stopped being the butt of tournament jokes—up till then, as my soccer friends at Hopkins used to say, they were the most reliable chokes in big games. The identity of a country in soccer has a curiously fatal permanence—until the country, for whatever reason, changes. And Spain changed: it was a Cinderella story, with cleats. And in 2010 they won the World Cup with their 1-0 wins, a score line that, for me, defined elegance (though watching it play out created agony). And to clinch their dominance, in 2012 they won yet one more Euro Cup.

A trifecta of wizardry.

For three tournaments in a row, I had the privilege of watching Spain invent a way to play the game that was new to me (I had never seen Ajax play)—but more than that, they played with what I experienced as a kind of beauty, a term I usually reserve for spatial poetry in Raphael’s School of Athens, the loose perfection of tercets in the Inferno, or structural invention in the novels of Georges Perec. I was never bored by Spain, even in the long moments of non-goals. I was hypnotized by a precision that made indeterminacy look inevitable, that turned space into prophecy.

It was a privilege to watch Spain play. They were calm, impervious to remarks about their art, for which critics baptized a clumsy term that matched their (to me, weird) scorn for what looked like possession for art’s sake, tiki-taka. Still, Spain stuck to their one-touch geometries, their triangles of passes. Because they could. I used to read articles on the Dutch team Ajax with Cruyff, or Brazil with Pele, or that goal by George Best in the Euro final against Benfica at the Estadio da Luz—and I’d feel this weird pinch, somewhat like envy, though it was aimed at no one I can think of, for not having been there, alive, to watch those games. A soccer game, like theater, is essentially ephemeral, despite its fake permanence on youtube. This is because, like a theatergoer, you are aware as you watch a great team live that what unfolds before you has never happened before, you are in the middle of Fate and her twin, Heartbreak, watching history unravel, and yes, the pundits and the replays will have their say, but what you witnessed will not happen again—a soccer game gestures to the fact that we cannot hoard time. It’s why sport seems primal: a great soccer game watched live is basically orgastic, never to be repeated, recuperated, or remade. It was a privilege to watch Spain beat those fit monsters, a different set of young Germans, 1-0, in that nerve-wracking game that sent Spain to the championship final of the World Cup for the first time ever, winning with a pass from a corner by Xavi to that header by Puyol. (I choose that semi-final moment to enshrine Spain, not their 4-0 win over Italy in Euro 2012—that’s another story.) A moment clinched in mid-air after seventy-three minutes of nail-biting, eternal passing. Xavi made 563 passes during that 2010 tournament—563 touches into the future.

That was then.

My friends lamented on FB posts—?que paso, España?—when Spain lost twice before the first week of this World Cup was over. But why be sad? It was a privilege to have watched Spain for those years when they were as mythical as Ajax, as wondrous as Pele, and (thankfully) more enduring than George Best. We were there in the moment to watch greatness passing, the art of time unfolding before our eyes. Why be sad? We were there.

!Long live Chile!


Listening to Bong Revilla is Worse than Cancer

Listening to Bong Revilla is Worse than Cancer

In July, I got the news I had breast cancer. In August, my surgeon told me it was not only cancer, it was a BRCA2-positive, triple-negative basal-cell carcinoma—a kind of super-duper invasive genetic mutation that sounded like a cross between alien kryptonite and at least eight of the ten plagues that descended on Moses. In September, I had a bilateral mastectomy with one-stage reconstruction using acellular dermal matrix thingamaboobs (yes, I think that is what they are scientifically called, actually made of pigskin, I think; like a good Filipino, and Angelina Jolie, I have pork in my breasts). Then I had eight weeks of bed rest and nonstop eating of barbecue-flavored garlic-ridden Boy Bawang. A lymph node was taken out, examined, then declared negative for further cancer—but despite the good news, the procedure was torture, numbing me on my right side so that I thought a zombie had eaten up my flesh while everyone kept telling me all was good. Then, because of the high incidence of second cancer recurrence given my newly discovered mutant genes, I had four toxic doses from November to March of Taxotere with Cytoxan, despite being “cancer-free,” meaning for four months I lost my hair and my taste buds, gained gastroesophageal reflux disease (fondly nicknamed Gerd, like some just acquired pet iguana), and, what the hell, could get no pedicure for weeks (nail cells are fast-growing, like carcinoma, and chemotherapy eats up everything that looks alive). In addition, my oncologist packed steroids into my veins because, she said, it turns out in her experience, hello, every single human being is allergic to chemotherapy. No kidding, I said, skin burns all over the place but flushed with that steroid high.

And yet, when I woke up to my FB feed this morning and saw the message some “friend” was sending around, I thought—fuck Jesus and all of the seven dwarves.

The sight was worse than cancer.

Like this page, said my so-called friend (now not)—Bongbong Marcos for President in 2016.

And as if this were not enough to make me want to zap my news feed until the world looked like the dunes of Paoay, I then clicked like a masochist on Senator Bong Revilla’s privilege speech.

I mean, those are two oxymorons in one mouthful. “Senator Bong” and “privilege speech.” The first sounds like no senator and the second is no privilege nor, as far as I could tell, speech.

It was a comedy routine.

As I told a friend, this is the kind of thing you do for art. In my job as a writer, I have taken the dictum of Flannery O’Connor to heart when it comes to the Philippines: “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” Unquote.

And this is true of Vhong Navarro as of Bong Revilla.

So I clicked play.

While a grim, ineluctable rage and dawning sense of tragedy came over me looking at the page for President Bongbong for 2016, a nonstop run of giggling took over as I listened to Senator Bong.

I mean, this is too much fun in the Philippines. As another friend, survivor of Thatcher’s Britain likes to say—I laughed so hard I cried.

Batter my heart, three-personed, music-video playing, tearful pop-song-writing pork barrel demonyo, Bong Revilla. And was that a trinity of pigs I saw hugging each other in inexplicable self-congratulation, unashamedly bunching together at the end of the speech (screen shot below), like a trio about to sing “My Way” before (I hoped) a righteous gunman shoots them—or was it just my imagination running away with me, damaged by basal-cell carcinoma?

How on earth could a snapshot like that be possible?

Only in the Philippines is not my answer.

Only among public servants with a brutal lack of shame—this aggressive candor that smiles and smiles and is a villain, so Hamlet says, is not endemic only to the Philippines. But it is perfected and limitless in people like Enrile, Revilla, and Estrada—three consummate, incredible pigs. We need to remember they are actual people who have kicked back real people’s taxes and blood and tears. They are not abstract ghouls. To say “only in the Philippines” diminishes their atrocity, as if they were only a trope.

On the other hand, the sight of triplet pigs smiling unabashedly all in a row does not diminish the scene’s irreality.


People ask me why I have never written a novel about current events in my country. My response is—how can you write fiction about real but unbelievable things? Writing a novel requires crafting a suspension of disbelief. Listening to Bong Revilla’s speech, I was beset with one weird travesty of sense after another. Did he really wag his finger over the ills of the country—families with no food or jobs, lack of money to fight crime or help sick people in hospitals—when he is accused precisely of stealing the money needed to combat those ills? Am I missing something? Did he really ask us to unite with him against—well, him? Did he really invoke a list, like Napoles’s or Schindler’s, and so incriminate even God in his crimes? Did I really hear him issue a death threat in the Senate chamber (to the sitting president, no less) like some junior Nardong Putik or something, a gangster without a cause? The imperviousness to artistry in his script combined with the moment’s clueless cinematic posturing was breathtaking.

Comedy is tragedy plus time, so said Mark Twain (I think)—but in the Philippines, we keep getting comedy minus time equals tragedy. The depths of inanity in our political circus are not only an assault on citizens—they are also the despair of any novelist. When I began writing novels, I never wrote directly, but only in ‘side-view,’ with a peripheral eye, about Imelda, because, growing up as I did in Imeldalandia, I kept thinking—how can any writer top that? Imelda is a novelist’s burden to bear, because the story of her continued existence, the eye-opening fact that she is not in jail or at least once-upon-a-time crucified, is simply incredible—and yet for me, a citizen of Leyte, she’s a zombie reality that is also painfully true (in Tacloban, she’s a literal walking zombie, going around hugging people during high school reunions that are not even hers).

So instead I keep sitting at my desk writing about the horrors of the Filipino-American war—that gruesome history is less traumatizing than the surreality of Imelda.

But WTGF, our current events keep confounding my youthful rhetorical question—how can anyone top that? This indicted clown, Bong Revilla, has had not only one but two privilege speeches. Jesus Christ, did Senator Drilon not learn from his mistake already? Goddamn, Senator Drilon—two Bongs do not make a right! Is it the fault in our stars that there is no word as far as I can tell in any language, not even ours (which has the capacity for punning in at least seventy-three ways) that can sufficiently describe the nightmare of relentless irony attacking the defenseless funnybone of the Filipino public the minute Bong Revilla opened his mouth? Anak ng teteng does not cut it. In all of his elaborate, exhaustively catalogued, in fact slightly obsessive-compulsive ordering of sinners in his Inferno, not even Dante Alighieri imagined the circle of hell for that dense inversion of moral intelligence that typified every gnomic note in Senator Bong’s speech—not to mention the circle of hell in which we, the public, were cast into, merely for being alive at the time of his criminal privilege.

And then—he sang.

As one commenter, Anonymous, wrote, Karimarimarim. Or as another, also Anonymous, judiciously said—Just kill me now.

Of all the trite, unbelievably inevitable tropes of fun-in-the-Filipinisms he could have pulled out of his comedy ass, he did exactly what no self-respecting novelist would expect—or, he trumped the modernist (who still believes a story must be meaningful) with exemplary postmodernism—he reminded us in that moment, as the Senate turned into a music-video karaoke bar before our ears, that as a nation, we’re better off as fictions. The truth is a wound.

Worse, he composed a song, put it on an immortal youtube loop, and now we can make it the theme of our lives.

Huwag kayong mag-alala, he more or less threatened as he shifted into what he thought was his moving, musical valedictory—hindi kami mawawala.

The most truthful moment of his speech: Don’t worry, we will never be gone.

We know, Senator, we know.

Though there is no decent human being who is not allergic to frontal assaults on the sense of right and wrong—there is also no steroid to kill the toxic chemicals of moral perverts like Bong Revilla and all of his ilk in the Senate who hugged him without shame or fear of catching his disease after his speech (and I don’t mean just his twenty-seven hundred polygamy-bred blood relatives who have probably long sucked on the nation’s teat). Worse than cancer, these zombies will keep coming back, in different guises, in virulent strains, singing the same songs, as they eat our flesh into a numbing eternity. Don’t worry, we will never be gone. As folk wisdom knows—there is no such thing as cancer-free.