War and Turpentine

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

…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.


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.

Finding Refuge

Call to Action, Sunday Spotlight

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

– HomeWarsan Shire

This poem by Somali poet Warsan Shire was what immediately came to mind when I first started hearing about the refugee crisis in Syria. I think I’ve come to associate anything that requires a deeper sense of vulnerability with her work, from For Women Who Are Difficult to Love to Grandfather’s Hands from her poetry collection Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth

I’ve always turned to poetry and literature to make sense of what happens around me, finding solace in words more than the images I see on television. And while it can be about format of delivery, it is the way that poetry and literature can reach a level of shared humanity with its reader more than any other medium can.

Some books on the stories and experiences of refugees that I’ve read in the past are those Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Dreams of a Boy Soldier, Dave Egger’s What is the What (an account of Valentino Achak Deng’s life, of whom I was fortunate enough to meet) and more recently, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (read my review of the book here). These books talked about the lives of African and Vietnamese refugees, the plight of fleeing for safety and survival that so many Syrians are currently attempting.


There are currently 4.8 million registered Syrian refugees as of March 2016, after the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011. About 6.6 million have been displaced, and most refugees have been seeking refuge in Turkey, Lebanon and in other European nations. They are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, children fleeing the country they call home to save their lives, after the authoritarian government of Assad was toppled.

In 2015, countless headlines of boats capsizing and dead bodies of children floating ashore dominated the news. In an article from The New Yorker magazine, I read about how Ghaith, a 22-year old law student crossed ten borders — leaving behind his mother and wife — so he can start anew in Sweden and hopefully bring the rest of his family with him.


His journey to Sweden was marred with harrowing exchanges with smugglers, counterfeiters, border officials and other smugglers.

You reach a point when you become numb, I was standing there naked. I felt like I was not a human anymore.

Ghaith, after being harassed, slapped and strip-searched
by an Italian security official

Countless others like Muhammad, a school principal in Syria had to flee with his wife and six children hoping for reprieve from the bombs and missiles that rained on his village. After arriving at the Idomeni camp in Greece, Muhammad is still hoping for a brighter future along with other refugees.


Muhammad: “We escaped injustice and oppression and ended up in suffering and hardship.”

I think about women and children throughout all of this, knowing that they are the most vulnerable in these situations. I came across a piece from Refinery29 called Behind The Deadlines: Daughters of Paradise which featured the lives of several Syrian women refugees. Women and children are at the risk of exploitation and sexual harassment, prey to human trafficking.

While absorbing populations of Syrian refugees is being debated around the world, it is worth noting that the war was even more aggravated as countries like the U.S. and Russia joined the military fray.

At one time, the plight of Syrians for democracy inspired the whole world and put the Arab Spring in action. But at what cost? Whose lives are being sacrificed, whose lives are being ignored? And who is benefitting the most? The greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation has revealed that at our core, we are still a species driven by fear (see: Brexit) reliant on military aggression for solution.

Once again, I turn to Warsan.

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

#GetLit: The Power of Women’s Poetry

Muse if You Must, Poetry

For women, then, poetry is not 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.

I first read Audre Lorde’s essay Poetry is Not a Luxury a few years ago and knew at that moment: the “quality of light” she referred to was exactly what propelled me as young child to turn to poetry.

I don’t think I owned a book of poetry until I was much older. I also don’t remember the first poem I ever read. My mom said that my birthday cards to her consisted of drawings with poems, but I’m not sure if they actually were or I was just being liberal with spacing.

As soon as you’re eight years old in my old elementary school, you had the option of joining a club for extracurricular activities. I joined the school paper, The Blue Quill. It must’ve been through TBQ that my interest for poetry was nurtured, exchanging naps during siesta time with a pen and paper.