That Big Love, with Paul Auster (A Book Review of ‘4 3 2 1: A Novel’)

The moment you turn the last page of a book, finally heaving a sigh of relief or perhaps some dejection at the end of a journey you wanted to go on, you become a different person.

It’s funny how I can always remember the empty feeling I’m left after finishing a really good book, a kind of piercing emotion that throws me off every single time. Such as when I read Exit West, during my lunch break at work. Having to walk back to my desk was a little disconcerting, having just spent so much time, all of it memorable with Nadia and Saeed as they drifted from one place to another. It almost feels like spending a lifetime with these people, as if these characters were people whose numbers I had saved on my phone, that I could call up on and check in whenever I want.

After finishing Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1: A Novel (Amazon | Indiebound) one evening, I had to take a walk. I could’ve settled for my neighborhood, a suburb south of San Francisco, but instead I headed to the nearest mall by my house. I felt like I needed to engulf myself in a sea of strangers.

The book is the story of a young man, Archie Ferguson, who lives four different versions of his life, a grand tale, a coming-of-age story.

On my short drive to the mall, I was thinking about the boy. In the eleven days that I spent with the book, not once did this character leave my mind. There’s the story, or stories I should say, the structure, and the character that struck me over and over again as I slogged my way through the brick of a book 4 3 2 1 was.

First, there was the story of Archie Ferguson, actually, the many stories of Archie Ferguson from his grandfather’s descent in New York City up until his youngest son’s marriage to the beautiful Rose Adler, Archie’s mom. Getting to know his parents’ story and his birth, his childhood in its many variants was interesting, because this way, you get to know Archie four more times as intimate as you normally would in a typical novel. Who he was was pretty consistent, a mild-mannered child whose internal world was filled with characters from the books that he read, who was incredibly drawn to the people in his childhood, people who revolved around him that he couldn’t seem to let go off. This was a common thread throughout his life, no matter which version I was reading.

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Second, the structure is seamless, as if there were events from another version or distinct scenes that would continue on to the next one, as if the four stories was one whole epic called The Book of Terrestrial Life. This is such a masterpiece in its entirety, a labor of love, except for a few quirks and the early deaths that made me wonder if they were intentional or quite frankly, if Auster just got lazy. (I mean, I’m struggling to write only one book but here’s Auster with four different versions of the same story, four books all in all). I like that he really kept it consistent, that Archie was Archie through and through, with the kind heart always looking for the big love that he always dreamt of. Continue reading

Loving in Ireland, with John Boyne (A Book Review of ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’)

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Before I picked up John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Amazon | Indiebound), I must confess that I barely knew anything about Ireland. The most I’ve read about the country and its history was from Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire, wherein he mostly talked about how a crop, the infamous potato, from a historical, political and epistemological context in the country.

The book centers around Cyril Avery, an Irish gay man who survived. Emphasis on the last word because he did, in every essence, survived everything he went through from being carried in his mother’s womb in the beginning of the book until its last page.

I was traipsing in the Riviera Maya when I started reading the book so that probably made it a little harder for me to get acclimated to. While I was burying my feet in the warm Caribbean sand, it occurred to me that The Heart is probably not the best beach read (whatever that means). But I forged ahead, certain that Boyne had an important story to tell with Avery.

And boy did he! I wasn’t prepared for the kind of violence in the book, even though it’s the kind I’ve known throughout my life even as a young girl in the Philippines. Ireland in 1945 following the declaration of a free Irish State in 1922 was largely influenced by the Roman Catholic Church. Spain brought Catholicism to the Philippines in the 1500s as part of conquest strategy, while Catholicism in Ireland dates back to the fifth century with a history rich with violence itself.

This violence brought on by the Catholic Church: from Cyril’s mother’s exile from her town after getting pregnant out-of-wedlock to the pervasiveness of homophobia in Irish society which resulted to violent deaths. It wasn’t surprising then when one of the characters, whose lover was murdered by his own father on accounts of being gay, would say this:

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This Body Is, with Roxane Gay

My dad’s signature greeting to family relatives, friends and people he meets has always been, roughly translated from Tagalog: “Looks to me like you’re getting skinny!” It doesn’t matter if it was the first time my dad has ever seen the person, or if they’ve just seen each other the day before.

Cue a hearty laugh, a grateful smile, a relieved sigh; the greeting always yields the intended effect. At an early age, I knew that being skinny was a compliment. It was a good sign. If one was gaining weight or on the heavier side though, one could expect a frown, a hushed tone, a look that implies shame.

So I knew my dad was on to something: losing weight = looking good = feeling good. It’s a brilliant formula, but only if you were actually losing weight. But that doesn’t matter.

When I picked up Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Amazon | Indiebound) by Roxane Gay, I only had the faintest notions on what it was about. All I know is that I have to read Gay’s work — from An Untamed State to Bad Feminist (I’ve yet to read Difficult Women) as she’s become one of my favorite writers (in spite of that tweet suggesting Lebron join the Golden State Warriors).

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Gay’s book is about hunger in many forms: that adolescent need to fit in and be wanted, a yearning to speak the truth without pain, the comforting solace of food, the promise of safety, to being desired and desiring other bodies.

At the core of Hunger is how Gay has turned to food and literature among other things to keep herself safe, after being raped by a group of boys when she was younger. She didn’t know how to tell her parents for fear of hurting them, so she buried the painful truth and built herself an armor of defense, a fortress for one.

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In a culture run by capitalism, the need to cater to the male gaze and the unending dissatisfaction brought about by the media and so many industries to turn a profit come first.  Continue reading

An Intimate Look of How Plants View the World, with Michael Pollan

My grandfather was an avid gardener and the house I grew up in the Philippines was surrounded by an orchard of fruits and vegetables, flanked by different kinds of flowers, plants and trees.

A favorite one when I was growing up was a flimsy flower tree by the foot of the stairs that led to our house — it was tall, but light enough for me to shake gently so that my sisters and I can pretend that it was raining (the dew drops filled in). On sunny afternoons, I would give the tree a gentle shake, its flowers falling slowly from its branches and the three of us would sit in wonder, in awe of the falling pink petals.

I was thinking about that tree, and these things in my childhood as I read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire (Amazon | Indiebound). The book has brought up a lot of different emotions and memories for me on nature, on food, on my complex history with these things; it even prompted a post on my personal history with food earlier this week.

The Botany of Desire is a book about the plant’s eye-view of the world — specifically the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato — and how each of these things have been shaped by human desires. What seems to be at first a process of domestication, Pollan explores how humans can actually be objects of these plants’ desires for survival.

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Malus Domestica

A is for apple. A is for America(n). How many times have you ever heard of the phrase “as American as apple pie”? The apple has been an essential part of American lexicon — wholesome, healthy and sweet. These attributes, specially sweetness, has elevated the symbol of the fruit, actually a native of Kazakhstan to a symbol that most of us identify with. Continue reading

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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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

A Lifelong Affair with Poetry

 

My family home in Apalit, Pampanga (Philippines)

It must’ve been the year 2000, a few months before my elementary graduation. I was sitting on my “study table,” a wooden contraption with shelves, drawers, a pull-out chair and a fold-out desk trying to figure out what poem to write for my school’s literary journal.

In my eleven year-old mind, I’ve written so much about trees and the “beauty of nature” that I was running out of topics to write. Writing poems about nature back then, was my one true forte. I grew up in a house surrounded by greenery: acacia, banana, tamarind, coconut, jackfruit, mango and bamboo trees dotted our fields, while a variety of santan and gumamela flowers crowded the stairs of our house, with tomato, bitter melon, chili, squash, calabash gourd, cucumber plants and other varieties filled the northern section of our garden. I had an orchard of poems.

I certainly didn’t want to write about love, because I knew I didn’t really know much of it, no matter how many love poems I’ve read. I’m not entirely sure how I was able to resolve that situation but it’s one of the earliest moments of my lifelong affair with poetry.

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

— Audre Lorde, Poetry is Not Luxury

These days, I don’t write much poetry although I still read a lot of it. There are so many poets whose work I swear by that I’ve dedicated parts of my body for these lines to be tatted on: Audre Lorde, Wislawa Szymborska, Hafiz, Adrienne Rich, Tomas Tranströmer, Ocean Luong, Nikky Finney, Lorena Barros, June Jordan, Danez Smith, Juan Miguel Severo, Warsan Shire, Saeed Jones.

I’ve also written so many posts on this blog about the work of beloved poets: The Inevitability of Ocean Vuong’s Poetry, Poems of a Half-Finished Heaven with Tomas Tranströmer and The Poetics and Physics of Hugot, with Juan Miguel Severo.

 

A page out of Juan Miguel Severo’s book, Habang Wala Pa Sila

I can remember most of the most memorable — beautiful and painful — moments of my life through poems with the likes of Cherríe Moraga’s The Welder and Warsan Shire’s For Women Who Are Difficult to Love. Everything in my life, it seems like, is punctuated by a poem.

April is National Poetry Month and I’ve been thinking about my relationship with poetry, although I don’t write much of it anymore. Some of the last poems I’ve written were back in 2014, written while riding jeepneys in the Philippines. I’ve also been featured in one of the earliest online poetry collections of Nayyirah Waheed, the very first installment of Salt on Tumblr. I read some of my poems at a Sugarcane reading event in Oakland, where I workshopped my poems with a bunch of amazing queer, women of color for months.

Maybe I’ll find my poetry groove back one of these days, but my love for reading poetry has never stopped.

There’s the writer, who is appealing to her unconscious, to her profound sense of unknowing. And then there’s the reader, who, as the poem comes into being, as I say, as one word puts itself after another, is trying to figure out what the impact of those words in that order might be from a position of knowing. Right? And it’s the negotiation between these two, the unknowing and the knowing, that, crudely put, would represent the positions of the writer and the reader. So if the first reader of the poem is the writer herself, in a strange way the poem is, indeed, only finished, only completely — becomes completely what it might be when that other person comes to it.

— Paul Muldoon, A Conversation with Verse

Here are a few of the poetry books I’m reading this month:

Tuwing Ikatlong Sabado compiled and edited by Juan Miguel Severo
(Amazon | Goodreads)

There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyonce by Morgan Parker
(Amazon | Indiebound)

Look: Poems by Solmaz Sharif
(Amazon | Indiebound)

Check out the Academy of American Poets’ 30 Ways of Celebrating #NaPoMo, listings and other events here. Write a poem, get a book of poetry for a loved one or read with me! Happy National Poetry Month!

The Urgency of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Review of “The Souls of Black Folk”

Reading W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (Amazon | Indie Bound) in these times is not only necessary, but also critical. Apart from this list of resistance literature I compiled earlier this year, this classic originally published in 1903 bears a resounding message of hope and of liberation. At the same time, it also outlines what has been done, what has worked and what hasn’t as he explored the state of black Americans’ road to liberation.

As a non-black immigrant from the Third World, understanding the struggles of black folks is rooted and grounded in the collective struggle for justice, liberation and self-determination. My survival is bound with those of others — those who have suffered from European imperialism down to its newer, more toxic form, U.S. imperialism.

I admit: the book was a challenging read for me because I wasn’t used to his diction and style of writing. But form aside, all fourteen chapters are explicit in illustrating what emancipation looks like — from raising self-consciousness, the formation of the Freedman’s Bureau, the importance of education, the role of religion and the church and a pointed, materialist analysis of black leadership.

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Source: Amistad Murals by Hale Arpacio Woodruff

He started with an examination of identity, of being black in the U.S.:

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,–this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

When I read this, I immediately thought of what’s happening today with the recent Muslim ban. Many folks are leaving their home countries because of war and economic hardships, eager to start a new life in the U.S. These are parallels, as over and over again, we see how history repeats itself. Ravaged in your home country, you flee to places with opportunities only to be spurned and rejected. Continue reading

Economics as if People Mattered, Economics in a Spiritual Sense (with E.F. Schumacher)

“An attitude to life which seeks fulfillment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth — in short, materialism — does not fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited.”
–E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered

I’m not one to jump for the joy at the sound of economics, nor do I find the subject of economic progress appealing. I can, on the other hand, understand the necessity of work, of having a job in order to sustain one self. It is only from this perspective, this incredibly minute perspective that I was brought up in: life is about finding the right job and living comfortably until you die peacefully.

Until it’s not.

This perspective changed as soon as I became an activist. When you come face to face with the dire working conditions of your people, you want nothing but change. You know what the ideal world you dream up with others look like, but you don’t exactly know the specifics of what it takes to get to that world.

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“What becomes of man in the process of production?”

This, by no means, is really your fault. There are numerous institutions and systems at work.

When I read Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual last year, he wrote about how news cables were first laid on the ocean floor — in the service of economics.

Historically, the evolution of the modern news media has been closely linked to the need for market information on the part of capitalism’s banks, brokerages and trading houses.

The transoceanic cables laid between the United Kingdom and the United States in the mid-nineteenth century were jointly funded by financiers and news companies (Reuters, for one).

Most of the economic news we also receive for the most part fly over our heads: there is no section of the New York Times dedicated to economics as a whole, but there is a Business section. It isn’t too hard to guess which portion of the population it aims to serve — either the rich, or for those of us who see trade and job-making a way of life.

I haven’t heard of Schumacher before, but I came across a Brain Pickings post once called “Buddhist Economics.” Those two words together caught my attention. That same day, a friend pulled it out of her shelf and told me that I should read it. I took that as a beautiful happenstance. This book and I were fated.

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“The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom.”

This book was first published in 1975, about twelve years before I was born. Schumacher’s book was dismissed as wanky, crazy even to quote Gandhi and Buddha in a field ruled by statistics. His premise was simple: in a world where capitalism is god, we needed to face hard facts about the way we lived our lives.

We is the operative term; most of the major economic decisions made back then (and to this day) were beyond what the average citizen had a control of. In understanding the scope and essence of our economic lives, he referenced other concepts: peace, permanence, Buddhism, consumerism, nature as capital, materialism.

I started to get even more interested. As I get older, I find myself drawn to things that evoke a sense of spirituality. I found this in Small is Beautiful as he pointed out man’s irreverence and arrogance, reminding us — mere human beings — of our own impermanence. It was humbling.

He [Schumacher] reminds us that economics has only become scientific by becoming statistical. But at the bottom of its statistics, sunk well out of sight, are so many sweeping assumptions about people like you and me — about our needs and motivations and the purpose we have given our lives.

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“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed.”

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