Kerima Polotan (KP) was not the first choice. Sionil Jose was. He was the first Filipino writer I ever read and he awakened in me a fierce longing for justice that hasn’t quite been quelled by age. It was no accident that we was also Ilocano, like me and that he was introduced by a boy I took a liking to (but that’s a different story). However, beyond matters of taste and preference, I just had this feeling that these two writerswere completely different.
They were separated ideologically: one was pro-Marcos and the other wasn’t. I, on the other hand, avoided being pro-Marcos. To this day I cannot get myself to have a photo taken with Imelda. Part of me already knows that it’s silly but another stubborn and adamant side won’t give in. History, or rather the books we read that pass off as history, can often cement our prejudices and once they’ve been built and hardened, the edifices erected are much harder to take down. In KP’s case, it took her death to make me curious. Unfortunately, she died within the same time period as another literary great, Edith Tiempo—tiempo nga naman, what awesome timing! Even in death the limelight seemed to have been borrowed from her. But who was she? Google yields nothing. People haven’t read her and they don’t want to. Those who hear of her are turned off by what one online writer calls her version of Imelda’s hagiography.
Polotan must be recovered from the depths of judgment and there is no better place to start than to read her stories.
I was re-reading a non-Filipino author’s work prior to The Bamboo Dancers and I was reminded how different Filipino voices in English tend to sound. It is similar to the experience of reading any books or texts that have been translated into English. There tends to be a conscious disconnect, where we become extra aware that the author’s first language was something other than English. However, the Philippines’ unique historical ties with America and its language, proposed new contexts. The Filipinos were taught and eventually, started using and transforming the English language in their own way. It does not necessarily have to come to the old debate about who is the truer Filipino – the one who speaks in English or the one who speaks in Tagalog. Languages evolve. Cultures change it. You would never see the proliferation of such an obsessive, and yet expert use of English (as well as Filipino), on “punny” storefront signs anywhere else in the world (I could be wrong, let me know). I’ve seen a store named Adobe Putoshop, selling what else, but puto. We don’t have to see it as the language of our ex-colonizers, because the fact that we chose and still choose to tell some of our stories in English, means that it also allowed for us to express ourselves with new words, not only because old ones won’t do, but because at the core of it, we simply want to be understood. This theme, that of identity and cultural heritage would surface throughout the novel.
Granted, there were many instances when I found myself perplexed by what was happening in the story – I would even set the book down in moments of frustrated confusion – but once I had finished, I am with those who think that it is a novel with a worthwhile story. It will resonate most with Filipinos who find themselves far from their homeland, and that for me is an important aspect of its recovery. This would be the perfect book for the next friend leaving Manila for elsewhere. It’s a book that asks for a bit of rumination and introspection. Reading this certainly flooded me with memories as a young Filipina girl living abroad.
I grew up in Hanoi as well as Singapore from when I was five till about fourteen and have had my share of confrontations related to identity and my cultural heritage. In Hanoi, “The Bamboo Dancers” stereotype certainly stood. I can say that to some degree and for some time in my life, I had been a great tinikling and itik-itik dancer. However, in Singapore, the stereotype was different. Being a Filipina meant, being a domestic helper – a maid. I remember an awkward moment in high school (I attended a semi-private local Catholic girl’s school in Singapore for a year), when one of my teachers walked into the class – and upon seeing it strewn with papers – scolded us: “Why is the classroom in such a mess? Do you expect me to clean this? Please clean this now! I’m not your Filipina maid!”
She was my Math teacher, and anything related to the subject, intimidated me, but I felt compelled to confront her about what she said. I found my opportunity later that day, when I bumped into her at the library. Cautiously, I approached and introduced myself. I then recounted the incident in our classroom and with more confidence than I thought I could muster, explained how I felt it was unnecessary for her to have included my whole nation in a classroom’s mess, because I’m sure she knows that not all maids were Filipina and conversely, not all Filipinos, maids. I remember her eyes growing wide in embarrassment as I spoke, but thankfully, the conversation ended in a sincere and apologetic embrace. I think that that was the first time I ever stood up for myself as a Filipina.
N.V.M. Gonzalez’s The Bamboo Dancers revealed a lot more about Filipino culture with what it implied. There was an instance in the book, when one of the Filipino characters took offense with something that an American character shared, but instead of confronting them outright, the Filipinos in the scene covered it up by being extra polite. I think the author here wanted to point out that pride of self and pride of country begins with how you react in these multi-cultural encounters. My favorite line, is from the prologue, which I think can be taken out of context, and will not necessarily spoil the story. I believe N.V.M. writes with a quiet hope that “the amazing thing is that here, on this soil, and in this climate, anything grows”.
Edgardo M. Reyes’ ‘Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag’ should never have been made required reading. Books made victim of the slippery ground of distracted young minds is to waste praise for one of the greatest Filipino books in our history—its biting social commentary is shunned by the distance between a classroom education and the heart of an untenable Manila.
These days, people think of Lino Brocka’s film before they would Reyes’ book, which has fallen under the ‘film adaptation’ category, and therefore, under a category of either-or: ‘the book or the movie?’ I choose the book.
In the book, we follow a ‘promdi’ waif named Julio whose prior motivation, his search for his fiancé Ligaya, becomes a mere subplot as defeating his urban-derived misfortunes become a central focus. Tolerating nights of sleeping at the construction site and witnessing the tragic fates of the people he encounters (Benny, whistling innocently as the tip of a soil pipe splits open his face) hardens him irreparably to the point of violence, such that finding Ligaya becomes not only about finding his fiancée, but what the word really means: happiness.
Upward social mobility is an overarching theme that is at the same time largely absent; while at the construction site, Julio and the other construction workers continued to build higher, doing the same for their lives was not possible. Only one of the workers, Imo, was able to find a way out through education—in turn, doing nothing but rub salt into the wounds of an alternate life path too late and too unlikely. “Ang katotohana’y nguminigit sa liwanag, ngumingisi sa karimlan.”
Reyes carries the characters on his back, and though the road is clear to him, it is a road to nowhere but tragedy and whorehouses. “Sa isang panahon ng kanyang buhay ay sasapit sa kanya ang ganitong paglilimi: Ligaya? Ito baga’y ano? At mapagkukuro niya: A! ito’y wala liban sa aking pangalan.” The lack of adventure and celebrity may make the characters run a flat line, but it is precisely this lack that reminds us that the conveniences of the more well-off too easily involve an allowance for happiness.
Reyes’ writing is clear against the rubble of his setting; using only a few words his imagery lands precisely and without the injection of cliché. This perhaps is best seen in the poetic ramblings that precede every chapter. As in the excerpts above, these figurative summaries at first seem too obscure to match the traditional prose of the chapters, but by the chapter’s end, demonstrate how much his clarity thrives even within abstraction.
Preferring the book to the movie is a matter of choice. But required reading, for a great book like this, is an insult.