A Return to Sacred Land, With Rosario Castellanos

“All moons, all years, all days, all winds, take their course and pass away. Even so all blood reaches its place of quiet, as it reaches its power and its throne.”
— From the Chilam-Balam of Chumayel, an ancient Maya manuscript 

It’s the last night of my trip to Mexico City (Distrito Federal of Mexico), and I was curled up with Rosario Castellanos’s The Nine Guardians (Amazon | Indiebound) in a little house on Atlixco, in the neighborhood of Condesa.

I didn’t know about Castellanos prior to my trip to the DF, but a little research on the web told me that I needed to be familiar with her work. A few days before my trip, I dropped by Green Apple Books in San Francisco and picked up The Nine Guardians along with a book by Octavio Paz. I needed a little schooling on Mexican literary greatness.

Back in the bedroom in Condesa, I felt myself loosening up a little. The last few chapters had stayed with me so intensely that I started to feel like all the spirits Nana, one of the characters in the book, was referring to were with me in the house.

Set in the state of Chiapas, the book centers around the Argüello family during the presidency of Làzaro Càrdenas. It was during the time of Càrdenas that the Mexican Revolution was “consolidated” and that agrarian reform started taking place.

Told from different viewpoints, the book tackles the onset of agrarian reform from the Mayan organizers who tilled the farms, slaves to mestizo Spanish families or ladinos like the Argüellos.

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A Tzeltal woman in Bachajón (Source)

The story opens from the viewpoint of the family’s eldest daughter, usually accompanied by Nana, her nanny of Mayan ancestry.

Does Nana know I hate her when she combs my hair? No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t know anything. She’s Indian, she doesn’t wear shoes, and has no other garment under the blue cloth of her tzec. She isn’t ashamed. She says the ground hasn’t any eyes.

The unnamed seven-year-old narrator grows up with Nana, who explains the ways of her people to the curious child, knowing the complications of their own relationship. The wounded, taking care of the master’s child. Nevertheless, Nana stays warm, is tender. A refuge from a life she herself could barely understand.

One day, the family receives unsuspecting news:

“A law has been passed by which proprietors of farms with more than five families of Indians in their service must provide facilities for teaching, by establishing a school and paying the salary of a rural master.”

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Homesick for Another World, with Ottessa Moshfegh

It’s rare for me to come across a book where I don’t want to annotate it. Over the years, I’ve learned not to fold the corners, stop writing on the edges or underline/highlight passages for the simple act of preserving them. Instead, I’ve resorted to using a nifty app called Evernote to take notes.

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Reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s book Homesick for Another World: Stories (Amazon | Indiebound) then was a rare case, because I plowed through the book without even going to Evernote once. A barometer for engagement and how I’m in love with the book is how much I would go on the app to take notes (which could be quite annoying but worth it). This time around — a first in Libromance history — there was not one single note.

It’s not that the books is bad, but it was an unusual read for me. Homesick is a compilation of short stories about people you’ve met or will never meet, people whose lives are all shrouded in the kind of “normalcy” we all refuse to acknowledge. A lot of freaks and kinda freaks. There’s Jeb from An Honest Woman, pining for his new neighbor, decades younger than he is. There’s the story about the small town boy in pursuit of his acting career in Hollywood, who spends most of his time with his tabloid-astrologer-landlady. There’s the story Mr. Wu, a nondescript man obsessed with the cashier at a local arcade. And then a teacher who keeps calling her ex-husband to leave him voice messages (reminiscent of Girl on the Train), drunk and drugged up for the most part:

“Dear Principal Kishka, Thank you for letting me teach at your school. Please throw away the sleeping bag in the cardboard box in the back of my classroom. I have to resign for personal reasons. Just so you know, I’ve been fudging the state exams. Thanks again. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

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I got really uncomfortable many times throughout reading the book, with a sickening feeling on my mouth. I guess it’s true that she Moshfegh’s work is Flannery O’Connor-esque. I’ve always looked for the “universally relevant” in my book, and I think reading Homesick takes a little more digging.

It’s not for everyone. If you do want a dose of weirdly, dark lit about the other side of the people you know but you’ve never imagined — this might just be your book.

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All artwork is made by the amazing Michael Kerbow.

51zp1zkt38l-_sx328_bo1204203200_Homesick for Another World: Stories (Amazon | Indiebound) by Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press (304 pages)
January 17, 2017
My rating: ★★
Homesick for Another World

The Life & Death of Andrés Bonifacio, with Ambeth R. Ocampo

“History does not repeat itself.
We repeat history.”
–Ambeth R. Ocampo

These lines from Ocampo couldn’t have been more relevant today, as the Philippines is facing yet another political crisis: on May 23rd, President Duterte declared martial law in the southern part of the Philippines (Mindanao), after terrorist groups clashed with the country’s armed forces.

What would have Andrés Bonifacio, hailed as the “Father of the Philippine Revolution” done if he were alive today?

Back when I was in the Philippines a couple of months ago, I picked up Ambeth R. Ocampo’s book Bones of Contention: The Andrés Bonifacio Lectures (Amazon) at a local bookstore. I was immediately drawn to the face of the revolutionary leader against the Spanish colonizers on the cover — austere, pensive, the look of a determined man against his oppressor.

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The book  is a compilation of lectures delivered by Ocampo, a historian and professor in the Philippines. It wasn’t until I started reading that I realized how little I knew of Bonifacio.

Other than his legacy in the revolution, I had little to no knowledge of his life. What Ocampo offered in his lectures was a closer look on not just the life of the Supremo, but on his assassination, the political atmosphere of his time, and how deeply rooted the Filipino elite has been in the country’s politics.

Boy was I in for a surprise. Reading Ocampo is a bit like reading a TMZ version of Filipino history, and a bit like watching a telenovela.

Instead of purely historical accounts, Ocampo delves into Bonifacio’s downfall within the Katipunan which eventually led to his death.  In Opening Pandora’s Box, Ocampo recounts the factions within the revolutionary secret society (KKK, and no, not the white supremacist group). Continue reading

Notes on Tyranny, from Timothy D. Snyder

History can familiarize, and it can warn.

I was making my way through the fog this morning, both literally (hello, Karl the Fog) and mentally when suddenly, I got updates that martial law was declared in the entire island of Mindanao in the Philippines.

My first thoughts were: how could that be when Pres. Duterte was in Russia and what on earth compelled him to declare martial law?

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As news are still developing in my homeland, my mind turned to Timothy D. Snyder’s book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Amazon | Indiebound) which I finished last week. It’s a slim book, so handy that you can fit it in your pocket, on resisting tyranny specially in the age of Donald Trump (also a response to the wave of populist movements around the world?).

In founding a democratic republic upon law and establishing a system of checks and balances, the Founding Fathers sought to avoid the evil that they, like the ancient philosophers, called tyranny. They had in mind the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of law by rulers for their own benefit.

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Snyder is a historian well-versed in Eastern Europe history, and the book is abundant with references to Nazi Germany as well as other communist states. Broken down in 20 chapters which can also be read as a manifesto, Snyder uses history and provides practical tips on resisting tyranny with each point:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one-party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

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Experiencing Nature Through Feelings, with Alexander Von Humboldt and Andrea Wulf

“…he believed that a great part of our response to the natural world should be based on the sense and emotions. He wanted to excite a ‘love of nature’. At a time when other scientists were searching for universal laws, Humboldt wrote that nature had to be experienced through feelings.”

To understand Alexander Von Humboldt, as told brilliantly by Andrea Wulf in The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World (Amazon | Indiebound) is to see the natural world in relation to everything — philosophy, art, music, poetry, politics and most of all, ourselves.

It was no surprise that I stumbled upon the book again, after hearing about it two years ago in a piece from The New Yorker. I walked into Book Tree in Oakland for the first time and there it was. I thought it was only fitting since it was Earth Day that day (April 22), a day to demonstrate environmental protection around the world. It wasn’t until after reading the book that I found out that Earth Day also falls around the birth anniversary of John Muir (April 21), the American naturalist and environmentalist greatly inspired by Humboldt.

Since then, learning about Humboldt became a wild ride — his life was a rich tale of discovery, of curiosity, of connecting, of giving. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a man whose sole purpose in life was to find out more about the natural world and weave it seamlessly with other disciplines.

Humboldt wasn’t interested in classifying plants for the sake of research alone, nor was he scaling mountains and measuring height and altitude to make money with his discoveries. He was interested in making connections and seeing how every thing was interrelated.

Humboldt was assembling the data he needed to make sense of nature as a unified whole. If nature was a web of life, he couldn’t look at it just as a botanist, a geologist or a zoologist. He required information about everything and from everywhere, because ‘observations from the most disparate regions of the planet must be compared to one another.’

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Illustration by ATAK

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Teach Me How to Hygge, with Meik Wiking

It all started with a trip to the annex of Green Apple Books in San Francisco. The bookstore in the Inner Richmond district of the city has become a haven for me, and I’ve gone for the past 11 years. But it was about three years ago when I picked up a copy of Kinfolk, a lifestyle magazine based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

As soon as I picked up the magazine and started reading it, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm. I remember driving home to North Oakland and settling in a brown, wicker papasan with a cup of tea, eager to dive into the magazine. I would savor every page, each photo and story, because reading it had a calming effect on me.

Since then, I’ve owned every issue. There are also a bunch of issues strategically placed in my room, so that I’m always reminded of that feeling. It wasn’t until lately that I realized what it was that made me so enamored with Kinfolk, so drawn to its mere presence — the Danish concept of hygge.

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More hygge, less hassle. (Source)

Hygge (pronounced as hoo-gah) is a Danish word which has no direct translation, but it roughly means “cozy” and it pertains to a kind of lifestyle that the Danes have adapted, and has influenced the way they view or arrange their homes, their offices, down to creating the kind of atmosphere that is hyggeligt (as in, hygge-ful); to a feeling of being at home within ourselves and in the society, a moment to let their guards down. It also comes from the Norwegian word meaning “well-being.”

About a month ago, I came across Meik Wiking’s The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living (Amazon | Indiebound) and decided to get into it. But instead of the good ol’ way of holding a physical copy, I got an audio book through Audible. Within the two days that I listened to the book, I learned about the hygge lifestyle: its origins, how to hygge at home, in the office and outdoors, what makes for a hyggeligt time and how my obsession with Kinfolk, candles and books finally make sense.

What freedom is to America, hygge is to Danes.

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The Feminine Ferment, with Claudia Salazar Jiménez

The experience of all liberation movements has shown that the success of a revolution depends on how much the women take part in it.
–Vladimir Lenin

I’m writing this right after attending a May Day mobilization in Oakland, California, where black and brown people took to the streets to commemorate and continue the struggle of workers. To pay homage to the labor movement, and to continue the resistance of working class communities in the Bay Area and around the world.

And as I march, I look around me and see the beautiful faces of GABRIELA San Francisco — an organization of Filipino women for self-determination and liberation in the Bay — leading, chanting and marching with strength and vigor.

I think of all the revolutionary women I’ve learned about, from whom I’ve derived so much inspiration and strength to continue resisting: Gabriela Silang, Lorena Barros, Assata Shakur, Audre Lorde, Bai Bibyaon Ligkay, Angela Davis, Cherrie Moraga. I think about these women as I was reading Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Blood of the Dawn (Amazon | Indiebound), a fiction novel about the women of The Communist Party of Peru, known as the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) in the 70’s.

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Blood of the Dawn (Amazon | Indiebound) is a novel about the lives of three women during the emergence of Peru’s Shining Path, a Maoist guerilla group which started out of universities and distinctive for its promulgation of the strong role and participation of women.

At the center of the novel are three women: Marcela/Marta, Modesta and Melanie, women from different classes of Peruvian society. Melanie is a young photographer, who wants to travel to the country’s small villages and record what’s happening. Modesta is a farmer who’s contented with her life, a witness to the civil war around her. Marcela on the other hand, a teacher, is someone who ends up becoming a member of the Shining Path. Continue reading

To Break the Wall Between Self and the Future, with Carlos Bulosan

“I will be a writer and make all of you live again in my words.”
–Carlos Bulosan

My introduction to Carlos Bulosan, perhaps one of the greatest Filipino-American writers to have ever lived, is a little late. While most of my peers learned about Bulosan and read his work in college, I finished the book just a little over a week ago.

It is the year 2017, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. As the month of April nears its end, many of the preparations in the community are geared towards May 1st, International Workers Day.

I think about Bulosan and his words, and the significance of May Day as I write this. How a book that was written in the 30s of the last century — which detailed the simultaneous heartbreaking and back-breaking struggle of Filipino farmworkers in the Northwest, and Bulosan’s first encounter with fascism — is still relevant to this day.

America is in the Heart (Amazon | Indiebound) is presented as the autobiography of Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino peasant migrant from the Philippines to the U.S. While many facts in the book are refuted, it nonetheless stands as a testimony and a witness to the early experiences of Filipinos in the country.

The book is a sweeping account of his life, from growing up poor in the Philippines, in a small village in the northern islands. Allos, as he was referred to initially, grew up helping his father farm and his mother vend small goods. At an early age, Allos was becoming more and more aware of the conditions of people like him, which made up the majority of the Philippines — the peasantry.

Most of those who were young and able-bodied, specifically men, knew that in order for their families to survive, they had to get out and look for jobs elsewhere.

In the provinces where the poor peasants lived and toiled for the rich hacienderos, or landlords, the young men were stirring and rebelling against their heritage. Those who could no longer tolerate existing conditions adventured into the new land, for the opening of the United States to them was one of the gratifying provisions of the peace treaty that culminated the Spanish-American war.

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Early Filipino American farm workers, as in this 1936 picture of a musical get-together at Estalio’s labor camp. (Photo courtesy of Rosalie Marquez)

America became a dream for young Allos, and as soon as he was given the opportunity to board one of the ships that could potentially change his life forever, he immediately hopped on. Continue reading

The Stories of Refugees, with Viet Thanh Nguyen

When I saw Viet Thanh Nguyen at City Lights Bookstore for a signing of his new book The Sympathizer (Amazon | Indiebound) back then, I didn’t know that I was going to be a huge fan of his work.

I started reading The Sympathizer which is one of those future classics I would reread at some point, or  one of those books I would highly recommend to folks. I was hooked. An excerpt from my book review:

The book is set in Vietnam in the ’70s, as South Vietnam (backed by the U.S. and its anti-Communist allies) falls to the Viet Cong (VC) or the National Liberation Front of the North. From beginning to end, the nameless narrator experiences and embodies tension: as the son of a poor Vietnamese peasant and a French priest, as an army captain and junior intelligence officer of a high-ranking General of the South when he was really a spy for the Viet Cong.

At his reading back at City Lights, he mentioned that before the book he had been working on a bunch of short stories for awhile. I think it’s safe to assume that he was referring to The Refugees (Amazon | Indiebound), which was released this year on February 7. Viet’s short stories have arrived.

Along with War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, I brought this book on my recent trip to the Philippines. On the flight to Coron from Manila, I cracked the book open eager to reacquaint myself with Viet’s work.

There are eight stories in the book and to my surprise, only one really resonated with me. I spent a lot of time trying to understand the book’s essence, trying to find the outright connections between refugees and the stories.

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Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp, 2014:”The Future is in Our Hands.” Created near the entrance of Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp, this piece emphasizes the need for displaced people to rebuild their communities. Local youth painted and wrote in the mural about what they’d like to see in their future neighborhoods, whether they’re able to return to Syria or must remain across the border for years to come. Project partners included local artist Ali Kiwan, Joel Bergner, AptART, ACTED, Mercy Corps and UNICEF.

Maybe it’s because we’re living at a time when the spotlight on refugees is heightened, as wars in nations like Syria are being waged. A little less than a year ago, I wrote about the refugee crisis and how writers and artists are responding. Since I’ve written that piece, the crisis has only gotten worse.

For what it’s worth, I think what Viet was trying to do with this book is give the word “refugee” and the concept of “refuge” a broader meaning. Beyond the plight of Vietnamese refugees which I’ve come to associate with his work, the book explores what it means to be a refugee.

My favorite is one called War Years, wherein the narrator details life as a refugee from Vietnam in the U.S. After opening a small grocery store in a small Vietnamese community with other families of refugees, the narrator’s mother starts to get visits from a certain Mrs. Hoa. Mrs. Hoa was making rounds within the business community, trying to raise funds for an opposition to the Communist government back home. People didn’t want to be on her bad side, because that would mean the end of your business. Continue reading

War and Turpentine

…I wonder, time and again, what it is that connects us to our grandparents in this ambivalent way. Is it the absence of the generational conflict between parents and children? In the yawning gap between our grandparents and ourselves, the battle for our imagined individuality is waged, and the separation in time permits us to cherish the illusion that a greater truth lies concealed there than in what we know of our own parents.

It is a great and powerful naivete that makes us thirst for knowledge.

For over a month, I carried Stefan Hertmans’s (translated by David McKay) War and Turpentine (Amazon | Indiebound) in my backpack as I traveled from San Francisco to Pampanga, Philippines.

I started reading the book just as I was getting ready for a trip to the homeland, slowly getting to know Hertmans’s grandfather, Urbain Martien. It was inevitable then, that my thoughts slowly warmed to the memories of both my grandfathers, Emilio Cortez and Cornelio Galang, two significant figures of my childhood.

Hertmans’s novel (if it can be called that because it is so much more), is an ode of tenderness, memory and intimacy to an equally tender hero of the author’s heart (towards the end, mine as well) and of the First World War.

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Stefan Hertmans with a portrait of Urbain Martien

For more than thirty years I kept, and never opened, the notebooks in which he had set down his memories in his matchless prewar handwriting; he had given them to me a few months before his death in 1981, at the age of ninety. He was born in 1891. It was as if his life were no more than two digits playing leapfrog.

War and Turpentine (Amazon | Indiebound) is not your typical war novel, nor is it historical fiction. For Urbain was not just a Belgian soldier, held by the crutches of destruction of the First World War; he was also a delicate painter — a dreamer, a creator, an impassioned lover, a believer of all things beautiful.

His life in the battlefield was book-ended by his life as a painter, from A childhood spent watching his father create murals to later years when he would sit and paint for hours, in the quiet of his old age.

His grand passions were treetops, clouds and folds in fabric. In these formless forms he could let go, lose himself in a dream world of light and dark, in clouds congealed in oil paint, chiaroscuro, a world where nobody else could intrude, because something — it was hard to say what — had broken inside him.

More than his paintings, and more than his war years (1914-1918), I was struck with Urbain’s sense of the world. In spite of a childhood ravished by war and poverty, his recollections about his family, particularly his parents, contained a kind of impeccable gentleness. His was of a contemplative, quiet temperament. Continue reading