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.
The title is a little misleading. I bought this collection of stories, Puppy Love and Thirteen Short Stories by F. Sionil José, when I was in the later years of grade school. I wanted to get into Filipino literature and one of the names I had always heard attached to the “genre” was F. Sionil Jose. I thought it would be a sweeping masterpiece filled with little instances of love, devotion, and affection—a good start for a newcomer to Filipino literature. I could never have been more wrong.
I suppose it’s fair to assert that love comes in different forms, and that sometimes love stories are so concentrated on the aspect of the couple and their romance, forgetting how far-reaching their individual stories can be. We forget how light can be refracted by the different facets, in that it becomes something more and something different from what we initially always expect.
Anyway, it’s also not very smart of me to assume that just because the collection took on the title of one single story, that that is what the rest of the other pieces would be about. Of course not, Carina. Why would you think that? But, as I said, I was young and after thumbing through a couple of pages I forgot about this book and hadn’t come back to it until recently.
Some are stories of love, but not the kind probably brought to the mind by the title. In Puppy Love, F. Sionil José writes about loss and scandal, of debauchery, of decay and descent, and the lengths people go to sometimes for love or if not, something at least close to it. A lot of the stories can be dark and morbid, a portrait of the capacity of the human soul for evil. This was first published in 1998 and it’s astonishing to me how scandalized I still am by some of the stories. Maybe I’m still a little bit more reserved for someone who lives during the time that I do, and I think I am distraught because of the sense of realness I experienced reading through them. Can someone actually bring himself to do something like that? It’s often scary and sad, even more so when these stories are spoken as though they had been real events.
Still, there are signs of tenderness and what I can view as real love. A lot of the shorter ones are vague snippets, just glimpses of life in the many islands, nooks and crannies of the Philippines. Through Puppy Love, I did gain a strange sense of getting to know the country in which I live—of the diversity, the squalor, and also of how refreshing rural life can be. There’s no element or theme that ties these stories together (although I noticed that a lot of them have characters that go to “convent school,” for some reason), and I suppose it’s rare that collections have this common thread that binds them together, so it was quite the experience, reading through this book.
Personally, I have had a hard time writing stories that spoke truly of this home, the country I was born into and raised in. It’s strange, but I’m happy that someone like F. Sionil José can do it so well. He paints a clear picture of the “Filipino-ness” I have tried and failed to grasp in my words, and I hope that someday, I too will be able to do that in the same manner of excellence and genuine familiarity and affinity.
Original Cover and Inner Layout: Very no-nonsense, bare-bones. Even the inside is simple and direct—a content over form type of endeavor. There isn’t a flyleaf or an endsheet; it begins at once, with a title page, followed by the table of contents and so on. The stories are also presented in a straightforward manner, with a centered story title, single paragraph breaks, and centered page numbers at the bottom. The last page of the book is the last page of the last story. No frills.
Recovery: Features hand-rendered type, but stuck to something bold and graphic to place emphasis on the text.
We could have introduced this project with a classic Filipino novel, an essential for recovery and peer review but I chose this book to introduce our intentions about reviving not only the lost appreciation of Filipino literature, but to revive a general interest in what’s local: in the little buried secrets and treasures of Manila, so that we can hope for her again. We’ve chosen to start from a city where many fond memories have been erased and it seems – no sooner replaced by complaints about how things are doomed to be ugly, decrepit and broken forever. Here is a book that transports us to a Manila that was, a Manila that we don’t know, a Manila that doesn’t surface in the minds of those complaining, when she was so beautiful that she was describable; people wanted to share her.
The Manila We Knew, is a collection of essays written by participants of the workshop, the Women Writers’ Workshop (W3), reminding us of Manila in her Golden Age, when she was heralded and sought after, courted even by foreigners (who are often suspected and blamed for ruining her soul) and loved – unconditionally – by her own citizens. She had streets that we currently know by different names: Dewey Boulevard is now Roxas Boulevard. EDSA was once “Highway 54″. She was draped in finer things; her memories were adorned with gated communities rich with flora and fauna, of prestigious private schools and of horseback riding. While these short stories were written from the perspective of a small representative of the Filipino population, the upper echelons of society, they are no less real. Whether or not they are about the rich or poor, the stories in this anthology are a part of her wealthy history, carefully selected to recall the days when she was young, opulent and with her whole life ahead of her. But so it goes, things change and sometimes, take a turn for the worse.
These essays include fragments of Manila’s painful history ravaged by war, but it also captured the elusive romance that is the charm of any city. This insightful collection returns the word rich to when it was synonymous with privilege and hard work and not especially to names of corrupt politicians or corruption itself. It provides us with the nostalgia we need to start believing in our city again.
She has kept a whole spectrum of memories, both grand and grey, but she can have many more. She is still alive – dying perhaps- and yet here she is, the underdog of the underdogs, all odds against her only made worse by our resignation to how things are. We forget that anyone whose heart can still function has a fighting chance to be revived, restored and renewed. We start by this book cover. Take the memories from this anthology, preserve your own, fight for her – and we can breathe hope into the Manila we know and watch her grow.
Back Cover & Alternate Cover: