(A paper read on the panel “Apocalyptic Literature: Disaster and Imagination”
during the Philippine Center of International PEN Literature Conference,
1&2 December 2011, Cultural Center of the Philippines)
I WOULD LIKE to start with an idea that for a writer every disaster is personal. Whether this disaster is natural or human-made; or whether it is trivial, minor, major, or apocalyptic, a writer has no choice but to deal with it in a personal way for the way of the writer is always personal.
Let us take for example the Black American writer Jamaica Kincaid in her autobiographical narrative My Brother (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997). She says, “I became a writer out of desperation, so when I first heard my brother was dying I was familiar with the act of saving myself: I would write about him, I would write about his dying. When I was young, younger than I am now, I started to write about my own life and I came to see that this act saved my life. When I heard about my brother’s illness and his dying, I knew, instinctively, that to understand it, or to make an attempt at understanding his dying, and not to die with him, I would write about it.”
Life is depressing. It is a series of disasters.
In July 2008 a typhoon named Frank wreaked havoc on Panay Island. Half of Iloilo City and its neighboring towns were severely devastated. Many lost their homes and properties. Many died. My filmmaker friend Oscar Reuben Nava, who volunteered in the rescue efforts of the city government (and who in the moment of panic called me asking if I have a jet ski or a speedboat—Thank God he did not ask for a submarine! I mean, he knows that I’m a mermaid so what is the use of a jet ski or a speedboat for me?), made a video documentary titled “Hupa” or “Nightmare,” maybe to save his mind from disintegrating after witnessing the unspeakable onslaught and aftermath of the flood. This film is a masterpiece. It won in the Gawad CCP para sa Alternatibong Pelikula at Vidyu and in the Moonrise Film Festival. It was screened in film festivals abroad like in the Documentarist in Istanbul, Documenta in Madrid, and Al Jazeera Film Festival in Doha. The narrator in the film is Nava himself enjoying a party during the beginning of the flooding and waking up to a nightmare of a disaster. The film has the texture of a bad dream that is real and surreal—cars on top of each other in the middle of what remains of a rice field, crying men digging with their bare hands family members who were buried alive in the mud.
I was still working in Iloilo when Frank happened. But thank God my apartment was in the part of the city that was protected by the Iloilo River, which is really not a river but an arm of the sea. Paradoxically, or expectedly, the Mermaid was saved from the flood. But in November 2009, I was already teaching at Miriam College in Quezon City when Ondoy came. My house was in Rosario, Pasig, in the path of the rushing flood. Again, the Mermaid was lucky for my house, which I discovered only during that time, is in the part of Rosario that is higher. The flood water did not reach my house. But then I know many people—some are students, co-workers, friends of friends—who were victimized by the flood. For a week we did not have classes for many of our students are from Marikina City which was badly hit. We had to forgo of the final examinations and submissions of final projects that semester for humanitarian reasons.
A few days after Ondoy, around six in the morning, I was on a taxi going to school. Along the C5 hi-way overlooking Marikina Valley, the sun is shining brightly—it is like a ball of gold bestowing blessings to everything. The valley is sleeping soundly. The scene is so beautiful as if the disastrous flood did not happen at all. That instant, a poem descended upon me. I titled that poem “Pathetic Fallacy” which was published in the “Disaster and Survival” issue of Ani (Vol. 36, 2011). Please permit me to read it to you:
Parang birheng prinsesa na natutulog
Habang kayakap ang banal na ulop
Ang Lambak Marikina
Mula sa bintana ng sinasakyan kong taxi
Na tila nagmumuni-muning binabaybay
Ang C-5 Katipunan ngayong alasais ng umaga.
Parang kay ganda ng kaniyang panaginip,
Siguro hardin ng mga gintong bulaklak
Na biniyayaan ng halina ng kagigising na araw.
Parang walang bahang dumaan.
Parang walang lumubog na mga bahay.
Parang walang naanod na mga pangarap.
Parang walang pami-pamilyang nalunod.
Parang walang natagpuang mga lumulobo at nabubulok
Na katawan ng mga bata, babae, at lalaki
Na bahagyang nakalibing sa putik
At nakasabit sa mga nakalbong punungkahoy
Sa tabing-ilog nang bumaba ang tubig.
Parang wala lang.
Parang walang mga kalye, eskinita, at subdibisyon
Na hanggang ngayon abot-pekpek at bayag pa rin
Ang kulay-putik na tubig na pinamamahayan na
Ng mga lamok na buntis sa dengge.
Parang walang bundok ng mga basurang
Buong pagsuyong inihandog ng baha
Sa maraming sulok ng lungsod.
Parang wala lang talaga.
Parang wala talagang pakialam
Ang kagandahan ng umaga.
Last week I watched with my students a documentary about the sorry state of education in the Philippines which is really a sociological disaster—1 in every 7 students do not have a chair; 1 in every five students do not have a table; a student copying the contents of the only textbook in their school on a black board, half torn and with three big holes, so that her classmates will be able to copy the lessons on their notebooks that have seen better days; a classroom with cracked walls and half of the roof missing; a classroom in Metro Manila with 150 students; a young girl who is number one in her class but have to collect rusty nails, iron wires, and tin cans in a polluted river so that she will have five-peso baon to school; a school teacher who in his “free time” drives a tricycle to augment his meager income; and many other horrific scenes especially to the eyes of my students who most of them came from exclusive schools. During the discussion, a student of mine cried saying that we should stop blaming each other and instead do something to help those children in the public school. Then another student, a feisty one, raised her hand and shouted, “Shit, sir, kung may trabaho na ako, I will help them!” At times like this I allow my students to swear.
That is why I cannot stop myself from hurling invectives to my television set every time I watch news about Gloria Macapacal Arroyo being conveniently “detained” at the state-of-the- art St. Luke’s Hospital in Taguig City. Her room alone costs PhP50,000 a night! If you donate PhP50,000 to the Kapuso Foundation of GMA7, this money is enough to build one badly needed classroom. (Well, it is as if it is the role of private foundations to build classrooms.) Gloria (she has given a bad meaning to this rather beautiful, pleasurable, glorious word) during her first State of the Nation Address in 2001 promised to build a classroom in every barangay. Every barangay my foot! I’m so angry because I wrote a column article praising her about this in a local newspaper in Iloilo City. That is why I am taking this issue personally.
Imagine this apocalyptic scene: the Devil Incarnate is sitting on her throne with wheels wearing the crown around her neck. Her royal portrait is Naruto-like. She does not have to say anything. She has spokespersons—a handsome angel with a forked tongue, a mother of all liars who is aptly named “Sungay,” and a harlequin who became a lawyer and announces on national TV that he is willing to sell his testicles to the devil. And there is another one, in the Supreme Court, a spokesperson who is named after a king who at his touch turns everything into gold including his own daughter. Imagine if he touches a court’s decision, let us say for example a Temporary Restraining Order? One time he allowed illiterate reporters to call him “Justice” even if in real life he is just a court jester. He appears so serious on television that he looks like a joke.
This is my point: To do nothing about this, meaning letting loose of the Devil Incarnate and her phantasmal entourage, is a real national disaster. And as a writer with some kind of imagination I have no choice but to write about it. Of course I would rather be the policeman who would be tasked to arrest Gloria and drag her from her hospital bed and throw her to the prison cell. But too late for that already, I mean, me being a policeman. Although I have a big tummy for that role I am afraid of guns. I shudder at hearing a gunshot. I was born a writer and my job is to write.
Writing is difficult. Writing is wrestling with words in the ring of our mind. Cirilo F. Bautista in his poem “Addressed to Himself” (The Cave and Other Poems, 1968) beautifully described this internal and eternal struggle of the writer,
How hard I have made life for you, Cirilo,
Who wrestle with words to free my mind;
Your various battles, you do not know,
Poise at me the same buckle, the same wind
That eagles in anger hotly ride on.
Yet like buckles you never break, though blind
At times you pine and pine for beauty gone—
Ah, never take the same courage, mon ami,
Wisdom and the past are never one.
But learn to distrust language that we
In constant dreams deem the only fact,
Kill it in seduction or heraldry
So eagle-like you may invent your act;
Then think you walk in a world of thrall,
Where beauty walks too but does not look back,
Crossing the foggy fjords of the skull.
This is the curse of the writer. We have no other weapons against the ugly memory of disasters but words. But we know that words would betray us because words, as I learned from Bautista, are never enough. Language is never enough to express what we want to express. We can do nothing about it and just live with it. This in itself is another disaster.
What I don’t understand is that we always refer to the apocalypse when we encounter a cataclysmic disaster. Apocalypse is just one of the major disasters humanity will see and experience. The human spirit will always survive and we writers have no choice but to write about it. We will deal with these disasters sitting down and writing. For this is our gift. For this is our curse. It is given to us in our personal—very personal—capacity. We are only left with two choices—to write or to go crazy. The only Choice is clear for to go crazy is to surrender to the devil our beautiful mind, our imagination, our very soul. As writers we just have to endure.