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

Poems of a Half-finished Heaven, with Tomas Tranströmer

Book Reviews, Poetry

I remember reading Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things mystified by the poet he returns to over and over again: I turn to him when I wish to come as close as possible to what cannot be said. 

“Two truths approach each other. One comes from within, one comes from without–and where they meet you have the chance to catch a look at yourself.”
— 
Preludes, Tomas Tranströmer

In the compilation Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986 edited by Robert Haas, I dove right into his poetry as if getting to know a new lover.

It was a slow process as I read unfamiliar details of unfamiliar landscapes, unlike how I read poems by Rilke or Vuong. Reading their poems in the first few pages alone had me falling right into their depths. Their poems magnified their character.

Reading Tranströmer on the other hand was a lot like roaming vast and empty fields, until you chance upon a small house in the clearing — obscure but undeniably reassuring.

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I read each line and each poem dutifully, slowly getting used to his rhythm. But it wasn’t until I got to The Half-Finished Heaven was I finally able to understand why Teju turned to him.

It is in the small details of life, the tiniest gestures that we can draw the most essential. I loved how he was able to weave natural elements in ways that begets a deeper consciousness of our humanity, as he did in Stones (photo above) and in Late May (photo below). In poem after poem, Tomas made this evident.

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In his poem How the Late Autumn Night Novel Begins, he writes about wandering in a forest late at night, marveling at its peculiar beauty: “Next morning I see a sizzling golden-brown branch. A crawling stack of roots. Stones with faces. The forest is full of abandoned monsters which I love.”

Reading his poems was also at times a spiritual experience. Lulled by imagery and a deep appreciation for life around him, I was reminded of the little things that make for a fruitful life.

He was also melancholic in some, eliciting the kind of tenderness evident with Vuong’s poetry. In Answers to Letters, I could almost imagine the poet poring over what he had in his hands and both reminisce and resign himself to the ether.

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Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986 is a great introduction to Tomas’s work and I have so much gratitude for the translators and the editors who made the compilation possible.

It’s enough to compel me to delve deeper into his body of work.

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book

Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986
Edited by Robert Haas
April 9, 2000
Ecco (208 pages)

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!

To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.

– James Baldwin

I was at the Green Apple Bookstore in San Francisco a few days when an older white man approached me. He said that he loved my hair; I said thanks and ran off to the poetry section upstairs. I’ve been on the hunt for Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry after reading Teju Cole’s latest book of essays, eager to turn to a new poet’s work for light.

The pursuit was successful. As I was heading downstairs to pay for my copy, the same man approached me and started asking some questions. He was past my hair, and went straight for it: Are you Filipino? What do you think of the new president? He’s dangerous, no?

These days, the spotlight from international media has been on Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’s newly elected president. He came to power after winning a landslide victory, eluding all national scandals alluded to his “colorful” character. He won on the pretext of a hard-line crime fighter, after “cleaning up” Davao when he was a mayor of the province.

Three months into his presidency:

3,313 total number of persons killed in #WarOnDrugs
since July 1

1,185 drug personalities killed in police operations,
as of September 21

2,128 victims of extrajudicial or vigilante-style killings,
as of September 18

(Source: IN NUMBERS: The Philippines’ ‘war on drugs’)

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The numbers are alarming at a glance. In the name of fighting crime and cracking down on a vicious drug trade, human lives become mere statistics. Duterte was solemn in keeping his word, but we didn’t anticipate the toll it would take on the population’s number and psyche.

While criminals have long been the subject of salvagings by the police, the rate by which drug users and pushers are killed today, either in police operations or vigilante killings, are unprecedented in Philippine anti-crime history.

Nowadays we have that ubiquitous cardboard saying “Drug pusher, huwag tularan.” Like the activists during Arroyo’s time, suspected drug users and dealers are subject to public vilification through “Oplan Tokhang.” They are forced into surrendering and admitting guilt on the basis of a nebulous list drawn up by the police and barangay officials. In fact, many of those who surrendered have succumbed to vigilante killings. Police say the killings are part of the drug syndicates’ effort to cleanse its ranks.

– Teddy Casiño

On one end, citizens fed up with the corruption and crime rampant in the country have turned a blind eye to the extrajudicial killings that have reached over two thousand. My aunt, like many supporters (and non-supporters alike) of Duterte think of the killings as a necessary evil, as instant restitution to pain and fear.

On the other end, there are NGOs and human rights groups who are speaking out against the inhumanity of the culture Duterte has propagated, of the feckless violence he has allowed to run rampant.

Talk of these killings started while I was reading Teju’s Known and Strange Things. I came across an essay that seemed to me as if he was describing the situation in the Philippines. In “Perplexed… Perplexed,” he wrote:

Lynching is common in Nigeria. Extrajudicial killing is often the fate of those accused of kidnapping and armed robbery, but also of those suspected of minor crimes like pickpocketing.

– Teju Cole

He spoke of “jungle justice” — a term he used to describe mob violence-turned-justice because “the mob is a form of utopia. Justice arrives now, to right what has far too long been wrong with the world.”

I couldn’t help but make comparisons to the killings happening in my homeland. The killings have also been reported to be used as a means to get away with other crimes, and outrage among the population has been insignificant.

In a move deemed to challenge the President’s anti-crime and anti-drug agenda, the Secretary of the Department of Justice called for a committee hearing on the extrajudicial killings. The televised committee hearings have become the butt of everyone’s joke, with ratings higher than prime time soap operas. Worse, the secretary herself was ousted in the committee because members didn’t think that she was able to do her job effectively as the chair (not to mention that she’s also being implicated).

In a piece penned by Teddy Casiño, a former Congressman from a progressive alliance in the Philippines, he writes that:

What makes today’s EJKs particularly complicated is that the victims are considered undesirable members of society. Unlike activists or revolutionaries, drug addicts and pushers have no redeeming quality. These are not idealists being killed for exercising their constitutional rights or addressing legitimate social grievances. Druggies, for most people, are the scum of the earth that should be wiped out from existence.

– Teddy Casiño

He delivers a hard truth. What is also apparent is that the victims of these extrajudicial killings belong to the lowest economic class of the country. Beyond the hearings, the aggressive administration’s agenda and the proliferation of even more drug syndicate crimes, what is not being addressed are the root problems of Philippine society. For many poor Filipinos, resorting to drug peddling and petty crimes are the only means for their survival. While I do not condone committing crimes nor slinging drugs for food and other physiological needs, there is a vastly bigger and more complicated picture of the country’s social and economic reality.

I don’t think the fight is really the government going after criminals — ultimately, it’s a war of classes, waged by the ruling elite against the poor which it uses, manipulates and makes profit off of.

In human life, economics precedes politics or culture.

– Park Geun-hye

Jungle Justice: A Look into the Philippines’s #WarOnDrugs

Sunday Spotlight