Poetry as Vulnerability, with Words Anonymous and Juan Miguel Severo

Book Reviews, Fil/Lit

It all started with Juan Miguel Severo.

Thursday evening dinners are a thing in our family, as my siblings and I, along with our partners enjoy a homecooked meal at home with my parents. Over pork cracklings (toppings for a mung bean dish), my sister showed me video that has just gone viral.

It was Severo’s Ang Huling Tula Na Isusulat Ko Para Sa’yo (The Last Poem I’ll Ever Write For You) and by the end of the 6 minute mark, I was utterly floored.

It was my first time seeing Filipino spoken word poetry. The words that came to mind instantly were tagos sa puso (straight through the heart). Most of the poetry I’ve read from Filipino poets like Lorena Barros, Jose Garcia Villa and Bienvenido Lumbrera have awakened my consciousness, touched my mind with indelible truths. And while I am grateful for these poets for bringing the kind of light needed to usher in what has been the darkest, Severo brought out a different, more tangible element with his spoken word: how it feels to be vulnerable.

I was hooked and I wanted to find out more about the Filipino spoken word poetry scene. Severo was a member of Words Anonymous, a group of spoken word artists in the Philippines.

When I was in the Philippines earlier this year, I was hoping to catch a show. I wasn’t so lucky, but I was able to pick up a few copies of the Words Anonymous’s first collection of poetry Tuwing Ikatlong Sabado (Every Third Saturday).

The book is a transcript of spoken words by the group, compiled and edited by Severo. There are 26 pieces in the collection, poems about love and heartbreak and tenderness and yearning. Of unrelenting hope, of day breaking with the promise of (even more) love.

While my eyes glossed over the pages, I tried to imagine what it would like to be in the presence of these poets, how it would feel like to be in the same room with them and engulf my senses in their pain, in their hope, in their magic.

Two poems that stood out to me, interestingly enough, shared a word in the title of their pieces: landi or “flirting/to flirt.” The word is versatile, as it can denote playfulness in one second, or a weapon of slut-shaming in the next.

I particularly enjoyed Abby Orbeta‘s poem “Hindi Lumandi si Rizal Para Lumandi Ka” (roughly, “Rizal Did Not Die So You Can Flirt”), a poem about a long-lost love, written in a timeline of the worst things to happen to the country.

Orbeta intersected what-coul’dve-beens as she narrated a massacre that happened down south, to a typhoon that ravaged a city. The poem was a commentary on longing, on political consciousness, on a former lover’s attempt of “helping out” at a time of disaster. The country’s national hero, Jose Rizal, did not die after all, so that the youth can engage in “vo-landi” — volunteering while flirting.

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While Orbeta’s poem had more of a playful tone, Jonel Revistual‘s poem “Biyaheng Malandi” (roughly, “A Flirty Trip”) is an entirely different landscape.

Loving in the Martial Law Years, with Lualhati Bautista

Book Reviews, Fiction, Fil/Lit

“Martial law” was just a buzzword when I was growing up, hemmed in within the walls of an all-girl Benedictine school compound, something we talked about in passing during our history class. While the lesson itself was short, I remember feeling a sense of indignation towards the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his family who imposed martial law on the nation from 1972 to 1981.

This was how the conversation with one of my classmates went: “Imagine — at this age, we already have debt because of the Marcoses. Grabe! All the money they stole from the kaban ng bayan, all of Imelda’s shoes, all of their extravagances — even our great, great, great grandkids are already indebted!”

At that age, my comprehension was limited to what my mind could fathom: the ridiculousness of it all, the audacity of the Marcos family, and how I would be paying for a debt when I haven’t even started earning yet. That was about 20 years ago.

In May of this year, President Duterte declared martial law in the southern part of the Philippines after alleged ISIS-backed groups clashed with the country’s armed forces. To date, more than 84,000 have been displaced after being forced and ordered to evacuate from their homes. Last year, I published a post about martial law revisionism after seeing the resurgence of the Marcos family in the Philippine political area, backed by Duterte nonetheless.

Call it historical amnesia if you will, call it historical apathy. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States, until I moved away did I start to see my home country in a different light. Loving her from a distance. And it wasn’t until I became part of a national democratic movement did I learn about the atrocities of martial law, beyond what I learned in the classroom.

There were the economic ramifications, but also the grave human rights abuses. The suspension of writ habeas corpus. The torture. The enforced disappearances. Fear. The erosion of trust within communities, within movements.

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“Malumbay si Ina” by Pablo Baens Santos

I saw all of these when I read Lualhati Bautista’s book Desaparesidos (Amazon), a novel about a family’s struggle during Marcos’s martial law. Anna is a mother, a widow, a survivor of torture and a former member of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines that the administration was trying to crush. The book revolves around her struggle and her story, from the time that she was part of the NPA, to her abduction where she was tortured and raped, to the time when she was imprisoned, and up until she went back to her civilian life as an NGO worker.

The story starts with a convening of NGOs, faith-based leaders, international human rights organizations, lawyers and martial law victims and survivors as a case against the Marcoses is being prepared. Anna is present, but her mind wanders back to the time when she saw the body of her lifeless husband in the town plaza, afraid to claim it for fear that their newborn child in her bosom would suffer if she did. She would be immediately identified as a rebel, her cover blown.

Hinigpitan niya ang yakap sa anak. Anak, tatay mo. Ayun siya, iyong nasa pangalawa. Namatay siya para sa bayan.

Gustong-gusto na niyang yakapin ang bangkay ni Nonong. Gustong-gusto na niyang bugawin man lang ang mga langaw na nagpipista sa natuyo nang dugo sa mukha nito, halikan ang mga daliri na binunutan ng kuko.

Pero wala siyang magagawa. Kailangan niyang magpakabato, timpiin ang sarili, mag-isip ng masaya.

(What follows is my meager translation:)

She held on tight to her child. My child, here’s your father. There he is, on the second. He died for the nation. 

She wanted so badly to embrace Nonong’s corpse. She wanted so badly to swat away the flies hovering over the dried blood on his face, kiss the fingers where his nails were torn out.

But she couldn’t do anything. She had to be steely, compose herself, think about happy thoughts.

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“August 21” by Phyllis Zaballero

While Anna was helping build a case against the Marcoses, the story pivots between several events and characters to reveal the kind of repression Filipinos were dealing with at that time. There were mass arrests, harassment from soldiers, even the burning of homes in villages.

Bautista painted fear in every character: from the former rebel who pointed out his comrades’ hideouts, the pregnant lady who was entrusted to take care of Anna’s newborn, Anna’s second child Lorena (named after the revolutionary martyr Lorena Barros) who resented her parents for being away, and the family of Mang Manuel and many others. 

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

Book Reviews, Fil/Lit

“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).

May’s Reading List

Call to Action, Fiction, Fil/Lit, Sunday Spotlight

The month of May is a lot of things: May Day or International Workers’ Day (May 1), Mental Health Awareness Month, Memorial Day in the U.S., Mother’s Day (May 14), Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Malcolm X Day (May 19) among a slew of other celebrations and observances.

I’m still reading Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World (Amazon | Indiebound) and it’s been an eye-opening experience as I read about Humboldt’s passionate pursuits. His curiosity and drive is infectious, coupled by Wulf’s engaging writing. I find myself looking at plants and trees a little more closely these days, to see with Humboldt’s eyes and find the connection in everything. File this under Japan’s Greenery Day celebrated on May 4th (which is also Star Wars Day).

After being immersed in Humboldt’s world, this month’s reading list is shaping up to be an exciting one! I finally get to some titles I’ve had for a while but haven’t found the time to delve in. Knowing myself, it’s easy to get swayed into reading a book not on my monthly list once it has arrested my attention and my imagination. Sometimes it’s worth it though — see Wulf’s title above.

Keeping up with my year-long commitment of reading a Filipino book author a month and participating in the #DiverseBookBloggers projects, here are this month’s goodies:

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I’ll be reading Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: img_5724Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Amazon | Indiebound) up next, after coming across a Lithub piece on the historian’s take on Russia, Trump and Terrorism. I’m always curious about what historians think of current political contexts and with tyranny on the rise, it would be a good read to see how it dissects democracy as well as people’s movements. The book is a short read, with only 128 pages. I thought of this book for this month right after reading Claudia Salazar Jimenez’s Blood of the Dawn, which I reviewed just last week about the Peruvian’s communist group The Shining Path.

img_5723Right after is Ambeth R. Ocampo’s Bones of Contention which I picked up in Manila when I was in the Philippines a month ago. When I was at Arkipelago Books a few weeks ago, I had the chance to chop it up with the new owner and I asked about the popularity of Jose Rizal books versus Andres Bonifacio’s. These two Filipino men are heroes in the country, although the former is more prominent. As expected, Rizal’s books are being sought more as opposed to Bonifacio’s. I can go on a different tangent here about the legacy of these two men but I think I’d save that for another post. Watch out for my book review of Ocampo’s book — I’m just as excited to read about Bonifacio as I’m part of a movement he started. I also just looked it up on Amazon recently and whoaaa — it is selling for $651.02! Hit up Arkipelago Books in San Francisco if you want a copy, they may have it or help get it for you.

Another one that I’m already giddy about thinkingimg_5721 of reading is Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World: Stories (Amazon | Indiebound) because the title alone gives me all the feels. I’m a little bummed that I missed her reading in San Francisco at Green Apple Books in February but I’m all eyes. I’ve recently enjoyed reading short stories and this one is a must, having coveted several literary awards. Keeping up with the #DiverseBookBloggers project, I’m so eager to dive right into the work of a Persian novelist hailed as “our generation’s Flannery O’Connor.”

img_5722And last but definitely not the least, I’m diving back into one of my favorite marketing guru, philosopher, author, blogger, overall life coach’s book The Dip (Amazon | Indiebound). From the day I started reading his work, I’ve been a fan. The conceptualization of this blog came out of reading his daily emails, inspired by the wisdom he imparts. To be clear, he’s a marketing guru professionally. To me though, he is what I would call a modern-day philosopher. Subscribe to his blog if you want to know what I mean. There should really be a national holiday for Seth’s book because it was released about ten years ago this month. It’s only fitting that I end this month on that wonderful note.

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Have you read any of these books? Tell me what you’re reading this month!

Filipinos for Export and Their Stories, with Mia Alvar

Book Reviews, Fil/Lit

About 6,000 Filipinos leave the Philippines each day, off to countries around the world in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families. Off to any place where any currency except the Philippine peso is stronger, where dreams of living large are bigger.

In the 80’s, the term “Overseas Filipino Worker” or OFW became a real thing. They were touted as the modern heroes of the country, as they raked in dollars or euros or riyals all bolstering up the country’s GDP. Remittances became a huge boon.

This is the premise of Mia Alvar’s book In The Country: Stories (Shop your local indie store), a compilation of nine short short stories of family, love and migration — and also of neoliberal economic policies.

The book begins with a short story titled The Kontrabida, a word which translates to “villain.” Images of Miss Minchin (from Sarah, Ang Munting Prinsesa) and Angelica Panganiban as Madame (from Pangako Sa’Yo) immediately popped up in my head. I’ve watched enough telenovelas to understand the depths of crazy there is in a kontrabida character, so I was expecting a grandiose tale of the bida or the “hero” at the end of the story victorious, the kontrabida slighted in some way.

But that wasn’t the case in this story. It revolves around a family of three: a son (Steve) who works as a clinical pharmacist in New York City, his ailing father in the Philippines, and his mother the caregiver who also vends household items from their sari-sari store. The best part about it is that you can’t really tell which character is the kontrabida, each with their own ghost from the past.

For years there’d been no question of how much she leaned on me, like any mother on her overseas son. It never dawned on me how much I’d leaned on her: to play her part, stick to the script. Her saintliness was an idea I loved more than I had ever hated him.

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By Jose Ibay