Debriefing, with Susan Sontag

Book Reviews

Reading Susan Sontag has always felt like gentle rain coming down on you midday, on a quiet street with no shade in sight, no umbrella on hand.

So you soak all of it in. You let her words seep through your pores, a place where water meets itself.

After reading her diaries and journals, I was eager for more.

And just as I was getting into short stories, Sontag’s own collection materialized — Debriefing: Collected Stories (Amazon | Shop your local indie bookstore) happened.

I was curious: would these stories be different from her journal entries, musings and observations, each a pseudo-short story in itself?

Surprisingly, I settled within each story naturally.

Sontag’s rhythm even in prose is unmistakable, and I sought to find her in each one as I did with her journals.

And there she always was, gleaming in between action or whatever emotion came hurtling out of the page.

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In Pilgrimmage, Sontag writes how two curious high-schoolers, also voracious readers, managed to get themselves invited to their favorite writer’s home. The story is an ode to reading and writing, both ends of the literary spectrum where the writer meets the reader in the pages. But in this particular story, the writer meets the readers in real life in an encounter so surreal it had me sitting on the edge of my seat.

After all, isn’t it every reader’s dream to meet/have coffee or tea with their favorite author?

Then there’s a story that reads like Sontag’s journals, called Project Trip to China wherein she notes a myriad of topics and things coming up for a trip to the country. I love how meticulous she is about this particular topic, as she weaves facts about China and her presuppositions. She writes about her own observations about the political conditions of the country, at a time of Mao Tse-tung’s reign.

What I’m Reading / Thinking / Feeling this February

#GetLit, Soul + Spirit

Fresh off of a trip from New York City and I’m feeling all sorts of inspired + excited for this year’s opportunities and gifts!

I just wrote a piece on Hella Pinay about making 2018 the year of emergence, along with a couple of book recommendations that I hope can guide and enlighten. You can check out the full piece here, and share with a friend or two.

February is probably one of my favorite months, in anticipation of March (my birth month) where for the past couple of years, a lot of life-changing things have been happening. It’s also usually Chinese New Year (I’m not Chinese but have reverence for the occasion), Black History Month and duh, Valentines Day (which is always a good time to challenge/recreate/celebrate the different ways we love).

I know we’re almost halfway into the month already, but I’ve got a few more literary-ish things I’m hoping to publish in addition to weekly book reviews. I’m reading a bit slower than usual though, and usually I would berate myself for not keeping on track with my reading/publishing schedule but I learned a lot of good but hard lessons last year.

A few things coming up your way is a V-day special, books to celebrate Black History month and this month’s reading of course! I just finished Tom Hanks’s book of short stories An Unncommon Type and unexpectedly loved it. I’m about to dive into another set of short stories by Susan Sontag, so watch out for reviews of both of these. This week also, my review for Ana Simo’s Heartland will be out!

As I continue to open myself up to new experiences and things that make me want to cower in bed and hide, I find myself feeling lighter and expansive at the same time, each day a wave of goodness (even on the bad days). I can say that for the first time in my existence, I feel at peace with what I have, what I’m doing, what I’m feeling. Is this what being in your 30s feel like?!

Navigating a tumultuous political and economic reality can wear even the strongest spirit down, so for the past few months, I’ve been focused on nourishing my mental, emotional and physical health. And it’s worked wonders! Apart from living within the books I devour, I’ve also learned how to truly live in this world–to be ever present. At the end of the day, knowing that everything I chose to say yes and no to feels good in my heart (and gut!) gives me a sense of power and agency I’ve never really felt before.

This, in spite of continued attacks on women from heads of state (Trump & Duterte) — u got a domestic violence apologist/misogynist for your adoptive country with a macho-fascist for your homeland. Talk about being a Filipino-American queer woman at this time!

Still, we resist. We create. We thrive and continue to exist. I am grateful to feel rooted, grounded and centered like never before and it is my wish that every single one feels the same way. We need all of our strength and resilience as we fight to make our way in this planet, as we make room for many more. I love how I’ve been able to connect with so many folks through this Libromance and as always, thank you for supporting me and my blog! 🖤

#GetLit this January 2k18

fiction, Sunday Spotlight

Halfway into the month and I’m just sharing this month’s reading list! Truth be told, I’ve been slow to start this year with my reading, and I’m finally wrapping up some books I started back in 2017.

This month, I’d like to keep it real, keep it slow. In the past, I’ve sped through books that I wasn’t able to dwell in them for as much as I would’ve loved to. But since I’m off to a slow start, I’ll continue with keeping this kind of pace — live within the pages for a few moments, as they say.

I just finished The Diary of Anaïs Nin a few days ago and I’m still thinking about it. It wasn’t until I finished that I started researching more about the writer, and I think knowing how her personal life intertwined with her writing process was a startling point for me. More of these though on my upcoming review, but for now, she’s brewin’ in my mind.

Here are this month’s glorious picks:

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Heartland (Amazon | Shop your local indie bookstore) by Ana Simo

Synopsis: In a word-drunk romp through an alternate, pre-apocalyptic United States, Ana Simo’s fiction debut, Heartland, is the uproarious story of a thwarted writer’s elaborate revenge on the woman who stole her lover, blending elements of telenovela, pulp noir, and dystopian satire.

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Small Hours of the Night: Selected Poems of Roque Dalton (Amazon | Shop your local indie bookstore) edited by Hardie St. Martin

“English-only edition of poems written from exile, prison, and on the run by the Salvadoran revolutionary whose life and word urged love as well as change. Selected from 10 of his collections including two posthumous manuscripts, but none are from Poemasclandestinos (1980). The vital force of the intimate, conversational Spanish challenges the translators. Introductory essays by Ernesto Cardenal, Claribel Alegrâia, and Hardie St. Martin recommend work for the classroom and the general reader” –Handbook of Latin American Studies, v. 58.

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Uncommon Type: Some Stories (Amazon | Shop your local indie bookstore) by Tom Hanks

A collection of seventeen wonderful short stories showing that two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks is as talented a writer as he is an actor.

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Debriefing: Collected Stories (Amazon | Shop your local indie bookstore) by Susan Sontag, edited by Benjamin Taylor

Debriefing collects all of Susan Sontag’s shorter fiction, a form she turned to intermittently throughout her writing life. The book ranges from allegory to parable to autobiography and shows her wrestling with problems not assimilable to the essay, her more customary mode. Here she catches fragments of life on the fly, dramatizes her private griefs and fears, lets characters take her where they will. The result is a collection of remarkable brilliance, versatility, and charm. Sontag’s work has typically required time for people to catch up to it. These challenging works of literary art–made more urgent by the passage of years–await a new generation of readers. This is an invaluable record of the creative output of one of the most inquisitive and analytical thinkers of the twentieth century at the height of her power.

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What are you reading this month? Share them with me and leave a comment below!

An Homage to LGBTQ Literature

Sunday Spotlight

I’ve always found a home with books, and it wasn’t until I started reading queer literature that I found a home within myself.

The beginning was with a book called Tibok, a compilation of Filipino-American (even Canadian, I believe) poems, stories, comics and others. I started hunting for gay and lesbian literature then in used bookstore jaunts, because I knew that there were no LGBT lit in the traditional bookstore in my town or even in Manila.

I remember spending hours at book sales while my parents and my sisters shopped for shoes and clothes. Most of the time I wouldn’t find any LGBTQ lit, but I would always walk away with a title that intrigued me.

Two books that brought me significant joy throughout my adolescent years were from used bookstores in Angeles City: The Swashbuckler: A Novel by Lee Lynch and a fiction title about lesbians in rural Montana whose title I’m struggling to remember.

The presence of these books in my life represented a contradiction that many still face today: these books were brought by American soldiers who stayed in the military base nearby. While I was ecstatic with my finds, it also meant that the Philippines was under heavy military subjugation by the United States.

When I moved to the Bay Area in 2004, I found solace in books. I immediately got library cards to the San Mateo County libraries and in San Francisco. I discovered Jeanette Winterson, Rita Mae Brown and other Naiad Press writers. And then I started working at Borders Books & Music, and each day I discovered more and more titles that I wanted to read. The rest is history.

As a queer Filipino immigrant navigating life in the U.S., I’ve been fortunate enough to come across the work of queer writers who’ve saved, taught, inspired and moved me: Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Cherríe Moraga, Nikky Finney and as of late, Juan Miguel Severo, Ocean Luong, r. erica doyle, Saeed Jones and Danez Smith.

This Pride month, I want to honor the work of queer writers who’ve continued to propel me in ways I’ve never imagined. I want to highlight four specific books from queer writers I’ve featured in the blog, and pay homage to their work:

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This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. I read this anthology at a very critical time — I was going through a breakup and it helped me move on in a different direction. Instead of mulling over my breakup, I was inspired to create more, to write more, to understand myself more in different ways.

The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities edited by Ching-In Chen, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarinsaha and Jai Dulani. Most of the queer people I know are activists and this book is a meaningful resource on how we love and protect each other amidst difficult and challenging work. I also wrote a review of the book and you can read it here.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. This is one of those books that really make me feel lucky to be alive in this time, because I get to be a witness to the majesty and the importance of his work. I must’ve cried numerous times after reading this, and his pieces will stay etched in my consciousness for life.

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals & Notebooks 1964-1980 by Susan Sontag. I first heard about Sontag through Brainpickings and then through Teju Cole. Reading her journals have taught me so much about myself; her thoughts on every single thing from politics, to being a mother, an artist, the way she sees herself are all revelatory.

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Do you have any LGBTQ book or literature which have influenced or inspired you? Do share in the comments below!

 

It’s been exactly one month since I got to the U.S. from the Philippines.

The first few days back almost negated the entire three weeks I was there with my family, in really confusing and frustrating ways. Jetlag and homesickness were daily themes, as my sisters and I tried to console and comfort each other. We looked at photos, relived memories. Each new detail we discovered about our trip brought us immense pain and also joy. We would laugh, and then cry. We made pacts, we changed our plans.

For us, there was only one thing that became prevalent: we needed to be back home as soon as we can, in Pampanga.

I started to think about all the photos I took — most on my phone, some on my Instax. I’m missing a lot of the photos too, and I pray to all the gods that they’re just hiding in bags or notebooks somewhere, not lost.

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Since this trip was our first back as a family after migrating to the U.S. in 2004, it was life-changing. We went to different places, famous landmarks, touristy areas and old spots we used to go to when my sisters and I were younger.

And as I always tend to do every time I feel vulnerable, I started thinking of folks who have stirred me with their words.

In Balucuc, close to my hometown Apalit, we had lunch in the middle of rice fields on a Sunday. I thought of Tomas Tranströmer’s book of poems Preludes.

 Two truths approach each other. One comes from the inside, the other from outside, and where they meet we have a chance to catch sight of ourselves.

— Tomas Tranströmer

I come from a family of farmers, on my father’s side. I remember some days when I’d come home from school with the front of our house turning into a makeshift rice-drying areas, with men raking in newly harvested rice, gently back and forth. I thought of my grandfather.

Our house too looked different. I thought of Teju Cole quoting Marcel Proust, in Known and Strange Things.

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Proust in a letter, “We think we no longer love the dead because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.” Objects, sometimes more powerfully than faces, remind us of what was and no longer is.

-Teju Cole

Teju resonated with me so much, in so many different times. How funny that you can convey a feeling in several ways, whether that’s in Tagalog or German.

The German word for homesickness is “heimweh.” Legend has it that Swiss mercenaries from the fifteenth century onward, dispersed throughout Europe to fight foreign wars, were hardy soldiers susceptible to few weaknesses. But they missed home with a deranging intensity, longing for the high elecution of their cantons, their clear lakes, their protective peaks. This feeling they called, in their Swiss German, heimweh.

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J’ai besoin de beaucoup de tendress. (I need a great deal of tenderness)

I wrote in a journal, just as I remember Susan Sontag doing in As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh. I was with her when she said that “the ultimate fantasy is the recovery of the irrecoverable past.” Seeing my friends brought all the feelings, as well as a deep well of gratitude for these connections.

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In Baguio, my sisters and I thought of summer vacations when we would indulge in strawberries (the only time we could), go on a boat at the lake, look at our parents at a different light amidst the fog.

Secretly we are all looking for ways to continue our childhoods — the hurt, the pain, the love, the fear, the shame.

— Susan Sontag

img_4684In Boracay, I took photos for posterity more than anything else. Once again, lines from a favorite:

Photography is inescapably a memorial art. It selects, out of the flow of time, a moment to be preserved, with the moments before and after falling away like sheer cliffs.

–Teju Cole

And of course, if there’s one person I should quote when it comes to the art of traveling, it’s Alain de Botton.

A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is the desire to hold on to it: to possess it and give it weight in our lives. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.’

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I’m still floating, at times dreamily, thinking of home. I guess I’ll never really be able to anchor myself where my feet are planted, because once you know where you’re supposed to be, you don’t stop until you get there.

Postcards from the Philippines

Sunday Spotlight

The Secret of a Feeling, On Loving Permissively with Susan Sontag

Book Reviews

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9/23/64 New York

Inspiratory emphasis

Inhale > lower (flatten diaphragm) > suppress sensation — pelvic, i.e. sexual

Therefore secret of a feeling is learning to breathe out

Right after reading Susan Sontag’s As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh, I was met with an army of questions: am I looking at my thoughts, words and actions in a way that merits a deeper consciousness? How do I make use of what I see, hear and feel to contribute to a sensibility that not only benefits myself?

Most of the questions were existential, possibly aftereffects of having been immersed in Sontag’s mind 500+ pages deep for over a week. After reading the first compilation of her journals and notebooks in Reborn, I knew I had to read the rest.

I’ve always been fascinated with the lives of writers and artists, at times more than their actual work, and this book is no exception — an intimate portrayal of Sontag.

Reading her journals at first was like a stumbling upon every film aficionado + literary lover’s dream: scattered throughout are lists of films and titles of books, in full abundance.

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Movies seen since Aug. 11 (1964)

The Crowd (King Vidor) – Cinemathéque
Bande à Part (Jean-Luc Godard) – Gaumont Rive Gauche
Une Femme est une Femme (Godard) – Cina
La Grande Muraille (Japanese?) – Normandie
Maciste Contre Le Cyclope (Italian?) – Coné Gobelins
[The French director Georges] Franju’s first feature, The Keepers [La Tête contre les murs] about insane asylum – horrible, stupid, vicious director
Parallel to Les Yeux sans visage [Franju’s next film]

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I’ve read this summer: [Arnold Bennett,] The Old Wives’ Tale; {Thomas Hardy} The Mayor of Casterbridge; Gerhardi, Resurrection; Blaise Cendrars, Moravagine; Sheridan la Fanu, Carmilla; [Guy] de Maupassant, The Horla; [Jane Austen] Pride and Prejudice; H.-H. Ewers, L’apprenti Sorcier; Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men; Gérard Genette, Figures; [Giorgio] de Chirico, Hebdomeros; [Diderot], Rameau’s Nephew, La Religieuse

Along with books she’s read or wants to read, Sontag also had an intricate way of linking literature and art with political theories. In an entry dated back in 1964:

Marxism a position vis-a-vis culture

–[Theodor] Adorno, Philosophy of New Music
[Arnold] Schoenberg = progress
[Igor] Stravinsky = fascism (whom A. identifies with just one period, the neo-classical)

[In the margin:] NB parallels [between] Stravinsky + [Pablo] Picasso — raiding the past [in their] different styles — no commitment to progress

–[Georg] Lukács
[Thomas] Mann= realism = sense of history = Marxism
[Franz] Kafka = allegory = dehistoricization = fascism

Her lists are tireless, repositories of information for every voracious reader. Naturally, her journals also depict her political growth as an American woman in a time when much of governments around the world were dealing with communism and burgeoning U.S. imperialism.

November Reads: Karan Mahajan, Paul Beatty, Rabih Alameddine, Tomas Tranströmer & More

Sunday Spotlight

New month, new reads.

My book list is looking good and I’m giddy with excitement. For the next few weeks, I’ll be plowing through a few titles, hurling myself in various worlds and literary texts and I cannot wait. So much so that I had to put Fernando Pessoa’s book The Book of Disquiet down because a third into Soares’s observations of downtown Lisbon, I realized reading it was meant for another time.

I started Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs and I can see why the book was shortlisted for the 2016 National Book Award for fiction (ceremony & awarding is on November 16!). Along with Mahajan’s book, I’m ecstatic about the following books I’ve chosen to immerse myself in this month.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout recently snagged the Man Booker Prize for fiction making him the first American to win in the category. Here’s an interview with Beatty from the Guernica on the book that “follows a black narrator who reinstates segregation on public transit, becomes the proud owner of a slave, and verbally thunderclaps Justice Clarence Thomas.”

Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History: A Novel is also on the list, and I started following him after reading and writing about his previous book An Unnecessary Woman. I got a chance to see him in person at a reading in San Francisco, where he talked about the necessity of remembering, of how easy it is to forget. His newest book “follows Yemeni-born poet Jacob as he revisits the events of his life, from his maternal upbringing in an Egyptian whorehouse to his adolescence under the aegis of his wealthy father and his life as a gay Arab man in San Francisco at the height of AIDS.”

After reading the first compilation of her journals and notebooks in Reborn, I knew I had to get As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh by Susan Sontag who is easily becoming a favorite. I was moved by her writing on love and queerness and by the critical ways she sought to understand the world — I couldn’t help but ask for more.

The next few titles are ones that I’ll be reading sporadically, in no particular order as I would the previous ones. Tomas Tranströmer’s Selected Poems, Alain de Botton’s Art as Therapy and the latest issue of Kinfolk magazine on Home are all supplements to this month as shorter days and longer nights abound.

What’s on your list this month? Do share in the comments below!

The Sagacity of Susan Sontag: On Love, Queerness & Writing

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

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Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts–like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.

Nothing is the same after reading Susan Sontag. Her diaries and journals to be exact, as I have yet to read any of her books or essays. It all makes sense now — Teju Cole’s ephemeral praise of the writer, Maria Popova’s (of Brain Pickings) inspiring tributes.

There are a number of affinities that I feel like I share with Sontag — desolation around marriage/relationships (well, mine is evolving, but you get the point), living in simultaneous awe and bewilderment in the Bay Area, embarking on a slightly self-effacing trip to Puerto Rico. In two distant entries, I felt a trickle of bemusement as she wrote about meeting Filipino poet José Garcia Villa (known then as the “Pope of Greenwich”), a fondness as she wrote about reading Bataan and Corregidor.

I have profound devotion to a few writers (Baldwin, Moraga) and poets (Finney, Finney) and this may be premature, but Sontag is getting to that list. She affirms what I love most about writers: the multiple ways their work transcend time and space and reach readers like me.

I got a used copy of  Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 at Green Apple Books and the rest is history.

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I don’t give a damn for anyone’s aggregation of facts, except in that it be a reflection [of] basic sensitivity which I do demand…I intend to do everything…to have one way of evaluating experience–does it cause me pleasure or pain, and I shall be very cautious about rejecting the painful–I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly…everything matters! The only thing I resign is the power to resign, to retreat: the acceptance of sameness and the intellect. I am alive…I am beautiful…what else is there?