The Plant Messiah at the Conservatory of Flowers

A Return to the Natural World, with Carlos Magdalena (A Book Review of “The Plant Messiah”)

Book Reviews, Call to Action

You see, plants are our greatest yet most humble servants; they care for us every day, in every way. Without them we would not survive. It is as simple as that.

In return for their generosity, we treat them appallingly.

I’m probably the last person to talk about plants or nature in my circle but in the past couple of years, I’ve been slowly seeking the natural world, listening to an intimate pull towards it.

When I finally read The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species (Shop your local indie bookstore) by Carlos Magdalena, it felt like a culmination of sorts because I’ve been thinking so much about my own relationship to flora and fauna, to a world beyond what human beings have created for ourselves. It doesn’t help that we are bombarded with so much news about catastrophe and destruction and violence (usually man-made) that a return to the natural world feels inevitable, incredibly urgent.

In some ways, reading Magdalena’s account is a lot like reading about my own childhood. Although he was born and raised in Spain, and I, in the country Spain colonized for over three hundred years (the Philippines), there were many moments of nostalgia. While he was growing up in Asturias tending to plants, trees and animals that his whole family nurtured, I spent many afternoons in Apalit helping my grandfather tend to his ducks and chickens, waiting patiently for tomatoes to ripen.

While I’m thousands of miles away from my hometown, I went to the closest place I can go to that reflected a growing intimacy with the natural world, aided by The Plant Messiah: San Francisco’s own Conservatory of Flowers.

The Plant Messiah at the Conservatory of Flowers

Traveling with Che Guevara

Book Reviews, Call to Action

I hopped on a Philippine Airlines flight last May with only one book in my carry on: Ernesto Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey (Shop your local indie bookstore)Fourteen hours later, I was in Manila with my parents and at 6am, we sped past the early risers of the city. We went straight to my hometown in Pampanga. A couple of hours later, I was headed back again to Manila to fly to Bali with my bestie. On my bag — still Che.

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Che and Alberto (source)

I wanted to bring Che with me as I moved from one part of the world to another, mimicking the way 23-year old Che traveled all over Latin America with his friend, the 29-year old biochemist Alberto Granado, on a break before the last semester of medical school. While our itineraries, intentions and experiences were drastically different, I wanted to capture my own movement with his.

While I was waiting in airports, ready to be drifted from one continent to another on jet planes, Che and his friend relied on a motorcycle they called “La Ponderosa” (or “The Mighty One” which seemed to break down a lot throughout their journey).

The first commandment for every good explorer is that an expedition has two points: the point of departure and the point of arrival. If your attention is to make the second theoretical point coincide with the actual point of arrival, don’t think about the means — because the journey is a virtual space that finishes when it finishes, and there are as many means as there are different ways of “finishing.” That is to say, the means are endless.

Carrying nothing but the clothes on their back and a few essentials, the duo departed from Buenos Aires ready to see their side of the world.

One of my favorite moments is when they came upon the sea, the South Atlantic ocean bordering their home country. Calling it as his confidant, as his friend, Che reveled in the body of water in the same way that I have sentimentalized living by coastal California, passing by the Pacific Ocean on my way to work everyday.

They met many along the way, kind strangers who open up their homes, barns or any dwelling that they can set their sleepy heads on for a few nights. Most offer them food and other necessities, and point them to places where they can get the motorcycle repaired. At other times, they worked odd jobs in return for food and shelter . They also used what they knew as students in the medical field to bring respite to impoverished communities needing medical care.

On their four-month journey, there were many nights spent sleeping under the stars. La Ponderosa would break down in the middle of nowhere and after being exhausted by their feet, they would sleep and settle on the side of roads. They were usually hungry, running out of money. But time and time again, strangers came to their rescue. Most of the people they encountered were peasants who lived humbly. In other places, town officials fawned over their foreignness and offered them all the comforts they needed.

Reading Che’s travel diaries while he and Granado drifted from one town to another was inspiring, diligent repositories of memory. After crossing the border from Argentina to Chile, the duo came upon the town of Chuquicamata. Che’s recollection of what transpired here along with the people he met is probably the most memorable part of the book for me. Turns out, Chuquicamata is not just any town — it’s a copper mine.

There we made friends with a married couple, Chilean workers who were communists. By the light of the single candle illuminating us, drinking mate and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man’s shrunken figure carried a mysterious, tragic air.

The couple, numb with cold, huddling against each other in the desert night, were a living representation of the proletariat in any part of the world. They had not one single miserable blanket to cover themselves with, so we gave them one of ours and Alberto and I wrapped the other around us as best as we could. It was one of the coldest times in my life, but also one which made me feel a little more brotherly toward this strange, for me at least, human species.

Imprinted in his memory and slowly marking his consciousness, his diaries reveal a profound understanding of capitalism, of exploitation. He wrote that the country had a capacity for sustaining itself but because of greed and the need for profit, foreign private companies–specifically from the U.S.–has created and enabled the kind of suffering Chilean workers go through daily.

It is in this same vein that Che writes about Peru, as he ascended Macchu Pichu. His sentiment of anti-colonialism becomes stronger, as he sees the destruction of indigenous communities. First ravaged by the Spaniards and their relentless conquest of land, resources and people, he recounts how indigenous communities rose up to defend and protect themselves and their land.

He also gave us the key to the strange ritual observed by our traveling companions earlier in the day. Arriving at the highest point of the mountain the Indian gifts all of his sadness to Pachamama, Mother Earth, in the symbolic form of a stone. These gradually amass to shape the pyramids we had seen. When the Spaniards arrived to conquer the region they immediately tried to destroy such beliefs and abolish such rituals, but without success. So the Spanish monks decided to accept the inevitable, placing a single cross atop each pile of stones. All this took place four centuries ago (as told by Garcilaso de la Vega) and judging by the number of Indians who made the sign of the cross, the religious didn’t make a lot of progress.

I flew back to the Philippines after a few days in Bali, right in the thick of Holy Week. It took us four hours to get to my hometown from Manila, a trip that would’ve usually taken an hour during that time. My friend and I miscalculated the schedule of city-dwellers anticipating a long weekend back at their provinces, as we all sat in the freeway-turned-massive-parking-lot.

My home country was also conquered by Spain and four centuries later, churches and crosses and rosaries became synonymous with being Filipino. After just having spent some time with the Hindus in Ubud, wrapped up in their gentleness and tenderness, I wasn’t prepared for the rituals and traditions observed by my fellow countrymen at that time.

Bali made me wonder what could’ve happened to the Philippines if we weren’t conquered by the Spanish, ravaged by the Japanese and colonized by the Americans (to this day). How Catholicism is at the cornerstone of each institution, the Church heading every aspect of activity. We even had a priest as a governor in my province at one time!

Towards the end of his travels, it became clear that Che’s simultaneously toughened and softened by everything he witnessed. His resolute to free himself and his Latin American kinfolk was evident, as he centered his life’s work borne out of empathy for the struggle and suffering of the many he encountered.

At a celebration in Peru, he made a declaration that he stood by up until his last breath:

I would also like to say something else, unrelated to the theme of this toast. Although our significance means we can’t be spokespeople for such a noble cause, we believe, and after this journey more firmly than ever, that the division of Latin American into unstable and illusory nations is completely fictional. We constitute a single mestizo race, which from Mexico to the Magellan Straits bears notable ethnographical similarities. And so, in an attempt to rid myself of the weight of small-minded provincialism, I propose a toast to Peru and a united Latin America.

* * *

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The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey (Shop your local indie bookstore) by Erneste Che Guevara
Ocean Press (218 pages)
August 1, 2003 (first published October 1, 1992)
My rating: ★★★★
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter, #4)

What Terrorism Is & Isn’t, with Patrisse Cullors

Book Reviews, Call to Action, Soul + Spirit

“Terrorist” first rang in my ears upon being politicized at 18, a young immigrant from the Philippines trying to make sense of the U.S.

I didn’t know much about geopolitics but this I knew: I was vehemently anti-war and after 9/11, the scale of militarization and violence brought on by the U.S. in the Middle East unsettled me. Suddenly, “terrorist” became synonymous with Muslim.

Power was a concept that always intrigued me and in my mind, it was a huge indicator of who/what gets to label another person, country or entity as the enemy.

It doesn’t matter that you’ve committed countless acts of terror, explicitly or insidiously, towards other countries, or that you’ve orchestrated regime change in your favor across the globe — at the end of the day, whatever your posturing in the geopolitical sphere is, you have the final say.

Last week, a 25 year-old Moro (Muslim) human rights activist from the Philippines was detained and tortured at San Francisco International Airport. Jerome Succor Aba was invited by church and human rights groups in the U.S. to speak, until Customs and Border Protection agents stepped in and robbed him of his rights and humanity.

 

CBP agents accused Aba of being a terrorist, a communist. Twenty-two hours later, after being detained, tortured, held incommunicado and denied access to a lawyer, he was sent back to the Philippines.

I think about all of these things after finishing Patrisse Cullors and asha bandele’s book When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (Shop your local indie bookstore). I think about how the word “terrorist” has been historically used to label people whose actions challenge the status quo. How the term strips the accused of their own struggles for justice, how it erases the context of their suffering in the first place.

In the book, Cullors recounts being called a terrorist in 2016:

There was a petition that was drafted and circulated all the way to the White House. It said we were terrorists. We, who in response to the killing of that child [Trayvon Martin], said Black Lives Matter.

[…]

The members of our movement are called terrorists.
We — me, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi — the three women who founded Black Lives Matter, are called terrorists.
We, the people.
We are not terrorists.
I am not a terrorist.
I am Patrisse Marie Khan-Cullors Brignac.
I am a survivor.
I am stardust.

Finding An Uncommon Type, with Tom Hanks (A Book Review)

Book Reviews, Fiction

I have a confession to make: I don’t really care much for Tom Hanks the actor, but I am quite impressed by Tom Hanks the writer

34368390When Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks was released, I was immediately intrigued. I usually ignore books by celebrities and dismiss them, with the exception of The Autobiography of Gucci Mane which I reviewed last month. Ok, so maybe my barometer for legit reads is if they get interviewed on KQED which Hanks did, a signal that this was a “real book” as opposed to just a self-promotional ploy.

So when Book of the Month had the book as one of its monthly selections, I knew I had my choice picked.

It wouldn’t be for another two months after that that I would dive into the book, and as always, the timing couldn’t have been perfect. I purposely did not read any reviews or listen to any interviews because I wanted my review to unvarnished, free of influence.

And boy did I love this book.

Each story is anchored with a quiet but resolute vibrance, the kind that emphasizes humanity more than grandiosity (I expected the latter, because hey, he’s a movie star after all). There aren’t any big hooplas, no grand entrances or fire-truck alarms going off that holds your breath captive by the page. Instead, he writes about the many rhythms of daily life, the ones we will have  missed if we weren’t paying close attention.

Navigating the Heartland, with Ana Simo

Book Reviews, Fiction

If 2017 was finally the year that ushered in feminist science fiction fabulism, let 2018 be a stronger contender for more releases of the same kind!

Last year, I read two notable books in this category and reviewed them on the blog: The Power by Naomi Alderman (one of the best books Barack Obama said he read that year) and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. Folks may have casted this book as a dystopian read but come to think of it–a world where women held a tangible, lethal power over men? More would argue that that’s actually utopian.

I remember these books while I was reading Heartland by Ana Simo, a copy that Restless Books sent to me late last year. I didn’t know much about Simo, but after reading that the New Yorker was born and raised in Cuba and participated in early women’s and gay and lesbian rights groups, I felt an instant kinship.

Heartland is the dystopian tale of a queer Latina from Elmira County who loses her ability to write and is only comforted by the fact that she will gain some semblance of her old self by committing murder. A likely but unsuspecting target: Mercy McCabe, who has recently broken up with the love of our narrator’s life, Bebe.

If this plot doesn’t interest you, consider this: how all of these things were executed, down to the would-be murderer’s schemes/thought processes/details are hilarious. Meandering between establishing an identity as a queer woman of color, as a writer, as someone worth remembering, Simo’s prose simultaneously probes and tickles.

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Living Out Our Truths, with Gucci Mane (A Book Review of “The Autobiography of Gucci Mane”)

Book Reviews

I remember hearing Wasted for the first time in 2009, at the height of my Lil Wayne obsession (specifically Tha Carter III) and I couldn’t help but mouth off the catchiest line ever:

Rock-star lifestyle, might don’t make it, living life high every day clique wasted

Granted that I wasn’t really living a rock-star lifestyle (I was going to school full-time, working part-time), was only really getting wasted on the weekends–I took this song on as a sort of paean. On the worst days, I could always count on this song to lift me up, its beat thrumming wildly in my chest. Those days are seared in my memory as I navigated a tumultuous relationship, balancing my responsibilities as a student and a health professional, an immigrant still trying to find solid footing.

I remember that time when I picked up The Autobiography of Gucci Mane (Amazon | Shop your local indie bookstore) by Gucci Mane, Neil Martinez-Belkin and read this same line from Wasted, at a time when Gucci himself was at the crossroads of his life in the streets and in the studio. Born Radric Delantic Davis, Gucci was one of the first artists to pioneer trap music way before artists like 2Chainz and Fetty Wap started popularizing it.

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Beyond the Rice Fields with Naivo

Book Reviews, fiction, Fiction

Ravinkazo nanintsana
Ka ny lasa tsy azo ahoana
Fa ny sisa ampanirina

Leaves falling
There’s no protecting those that drop
But those that stay are made to grow

(Malagasy Hainteny)

First, an embarrassing confession: I am woefully ignorant about Madagascar, the Malagasy people and the Malagasy culture.

It wasn’t until I signed up for Restless Books monthly book subscription that that changed, when I received a copy of Beyond the Rice Fields (Amazon | Shop your local indie bookstore) by Naivo, the first book in Malagasy to be translated in English. Last year’s book reviews comprised of titles gleaned from bestseller and notable lists (particularly from The New York Times and other mainstream publications such as the Indie Book of the Month), as well as shortlisted books for various distinctions so Naivo’s book is a welcome change.

Located in the southeastern coast of Africa, Madagascar is an island nation in the Indian Ocean. And here I was, thinking that growing up in an island nation myself I had a pretty good grasp of other island nation kin. This book is admittedly the first time I’ve come across any form of Malagasy literature, a surprising and embarrassing detail I honestly can’t shake off.

So I take the book in, prepared to be humbled. And boy did I.

Beyond the Rice Fields is primarily the story of Tsito, a slave who worked his way towards his emancipation. But unlike many slave narratives I’ve read previously, the conext of Tsito’s slavery is set during a time when a nation’s own people dealt with each other in a feudalistic manner–even before the vazaha, or white people came.

Naivo traces the young boy’s life from the time he caught the eye of a traveling merchant, Rado, up until he was gifted to one of Rado’s daughters, Fara. As the story wove in between the eventual lovers, he also portrayed the historical and colonial roots of Madagascar.

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From Critical Mass to Critical Relationships, with adrienne maree brown

Book Reviews

“Humans? Some of us are surviving, following, flocking — but some of us are trying to imagine where we are going as we fly. That is radical imagination.”

One of the lessons of 2017 was making space for spontaneity, which looked like leaving portions of my planner blank. It felt counter-intuitive at first, but like all things that feel natural, it grew on me. Suddenly I was more conscious of what I said yes and no to, paying close attention to how these answers felt in my body. It was Trump’s first year in office after all and instead of feeling fired up, I felt disjointed. My work in the local and diasporic Filipino communities felt insincere, and I tried different approaches to no avail. I knew I had to disengage for my own sanity.

I made space. I slowed down. So when I finally got around to reading adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Amazon | Indiebound), it felt like a homecoming. I’ve been reading speculative + science women-centered fiction and brown’s work seemed to encompass all these stories into tangible practices for one’s self and our respective communities. brown’s work as a social justice facilitator, healer and doula resonated with me throughout the book, and I’m looking forward to reading more of their work in an anthology they co-edited called Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.

I love how Emergent Strategy is a “radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help designed to shape the futures we want to live,” how it weaves how we take care of ourselves with taking care of our communities and the place/s we live in. That how we approach practices towards preserving ourselves are directly linked to our survival as a species, and also with the way we move about in this planet.

These links are glimpses of emergence, the core of emergent strategy.

emergence, libromance, adrienne maree brown, emergent strategy

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Who Run the World? Girls! With Naomi Alderman (A Book Review of “The Power”)

Book Reviews, Fiction

“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”
Octavia Butler

I remember reading Octavia Butler’s book once, the first time I’ve ever been drawn to science fiction. It was crossing a realm of spirituality that I never knew could exist in science fiction, because I’ve long dismissed the genre as something that young men only enjoyed. That was an embarrassing mistake.

These days, I seem to gravitate towards certain kinds of literature, always on the lookout for the next best read. After reading Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, I wanted more. I started reading this book soon after, and ended with the most appropriate title I could have ever picked up — Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy (review coming soon). I was on a feminist science fiction kick, and I didn’t even realize it!

The Power (Indiebound) by Naomi Alderman cements this period for me, as I dove right into a world where men are actually fearful of women. Where young boys are told to be careful while walking by themselves. Where men cry oppression for themselves because in Alderman’s book, women, specially young girls have the upper hand.

Scientists are confounded. Government officials are panic-stricken. Mothers become fearful, unsure of what’s happening at first.

And then it becomes apparent: it is only young girls who are gifted with skein, electricity humming and coursing through their bodies. Chaos ensues, as everything gets upended.

Many of Alderman’s main characters are young women, specially those who have risen out of difficulties in their life. Out of anger, out of grief, they were able to summon the power within themselves, which came in the form of jolts of electricity emanating from fingertips.

There’s a girl who calls herself Eve, (called Allie before the power) who listens to a voice she hears in her mind for the next steps, the back and forth conversation which has proved to save her life more than once. After repeated assaults by her guardian, she runs off to a convent and finds herself cared for by nuns, along with other girls who have run away themselves. This is where Eve finds footing to fulfill a prophecy, of being the chosen leader by the Goddess.

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Deviant Lives, with Carmen Maria Machado (A Book Review of ‘Her Body and Other Parties’)

Book Reviews, Fiction, Love, Writing

I picked up Carmen Maria Machado’s book of short stories Her Body and Other Parties (Amazon | Indiebound) after seeing it on the National Book Awards shortlist for fiction. The title first drew me. I looked up to see who Machado was and found she’s a queer Latinx (yes!), which made me want to read her work even more. And whoa. As soon as I finished one story, I knew I was in for a wild, beautiful ride.

The first story on the book called The Ribbon was my first introduction to Machado. Hers is a concise but weighty voice, one that told the story but kept important details hidden. It was both what she is and what she isn’t saying that drew me even closer to the text, a kind of magnetic pull impossible to resist.

I think it’s also in the way she writes about women in the book, filled with audacious desire and a wonderfully overwhelming presence that had me enthralled. They were eerie in their brilliance, as if something hummed underneath the story line.

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