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.
They are surprisingly refreshing! How many stories have you read about farmers or clerks that have you feeling as if they could be any of your friends, if not you? The very notion of having workers as characters repels some readers immediately as time has stereotyped this set as vernacular literature–those kinds of stories with a social twist that are excellent material for classrooms but hold no room in personal collections. It might not always be the case but don’t we often complain about that?
Our writers concern themselves too much with the poor (of course they must if they’re really worth their salt) and if I am not poor, this is no longer my story. Touché. There is some room for debate there but I would urge anyone to take a more pleasant route. Pick up Polotan’s Stories. Funnily enough, her name translated from the Tagalog gives us the root pulot meaning pick or the act itself: to pick! In the mother tongue, it’s also a snack to be taken while drinking which lends some metaphor to my own reading of KP’s work.
We’re already drunk on the realities of living: the dizzying metropolis and the way it yawns in response to the increasing gap between rich and poor, the reality of work, the soberness of raising 8 children in a house made for two. This is our everyday but drinks aren’t the only things on the menu. There is still substance, nourishment—things upon which our lives are enriched with meaning: a coming of age, the first feelings of lust that may or may not settle into affection, the joys and pains of being women and the equal yet often underrated reality of finding happiness in relationships.
In these 11 stories, KP will undoubtedly give you a fair share of both. Expect the unexpected because plot lines, though often predictable, are treated differently here. These characters are not cardboard cutouts. They have the necessary depth to keep you awake many nights later wondering what might have happened if situations weren’t the way they were. Don’t be surprised also if you come across a sophisticated Filipino who not only carries a good conversation but can also make the mundane seem worldly and mind you, most of these people KP brings to life in her stories aren’t heroes or bigwigs. They’re ordinary folk who go about their business lending matter to form. You’ll never look at them the same way.
Here is just a sampling of my favorite KP lines from this collection (they are a testament to her talent as a writer):
- She trembled in the clumps, among the leaves and the trunks where she stood, she was forlorn all at once, and these boys and girls with whom she had run the past hour were strangers. Where she was, the ghosts of old and recent dreams fluttered about…and if she but moved a foot from these familiar groves to the more solid darkness just beyond, she would step suddenly into a world full of knowledge and certitude, where she would know everything…
(excerpt from This Door)
- We had begun to write themes again and I looked for words like agony and happiness and soul. Each time i used such a word, a bell seemed to ring inside me.
(excerpt from The Trap, This does little justice to the story though. The last lines are the most poignant but without the context of her story, they don’t hold the same weight.)
- In the room of her unburied dead, she had held up her hands to the light, noting the thick, durable fingers, thinking in a mixture of shame and bitterness and guilt that they had never touched a man.
(excerpt from The Virgin)
- He stood in a corner, pushed beyond the reach of moonlight streaming in through the window. As strangely as it had come, her anger left her and only the tautness of remembered desire remained. Afterwards, that too (the soft, the golden, the sweet confusion) receded, fled.
(excerpt from Cost Price)
- You knew an instant of pain or joy or love or desire and you were never the same again because the darkness inside you had known so much illumination.
(excerpt from The Sounds of Sunday)
- I thought of the woman leading her drunken escort up the narrow steps of the lodging house–another dream perishing on a dirty bed. (excerpt from The Tourist)
The list goes on and the quotes get longer and longer until entire stories are worthy of one’s remembering. But at the very least, suffice it to say that in my own memory bank, Kerima Polotan has indeed been recovered.
Recoveries: For this book, there are two covers, because Sarah and Carina both started working on Nash’s review. In any case, here are two flavors for this collection of stories, and we hope you enjoy them. Both utilize the front and back covers of the book, resulting in two spread-oriented designs.
By guest designer, Sarah Tan: