An attempt to make sense of things in a random universe, one Friday at a time.

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Location: Philippines

Leaving my footsteps for you to find and follow, my love.

22 February 2006

Tick, tock

I withdraw from blogging for a while to work on my short story draft that should be in by March 6. I've been thinking of doing this story for months, but now that i actually have to do it, I'm at a standstill. How to choose images, symbols, words, themes, out of the dense and throbbing mass in one's mind? It's never a done deal. Things keep changing shape, and I never know what I'm looking at. I read a page out of a book and see a mirror. I write a sentence and find luminosity. The air bristles with strings. If I don't look at a chair, it ceases to be a chair. The universe is made of paper that can easily burn, yet it has not caught fire in four hundred billion years.

This is what writing does. It keeps me constantly on the verge of something, and always in the present. Even the past is never past, and the future is a tapestry woven long ago by women who cry at the loom.

16 February 2006

Lost ground

I will never be able to write seriously in the Bikol language. I tried, five years ago, and came up with three poems, already published, one of them even anthologized (see Kasama sa Paroy). And then there was nothing more. I have used up my entire Bikol vocabulary in roughly sixty short lines.

I did try again a couple of years ago, with a short story, but nothing had come out of it. Not only did I not have the vocabulary for it, but the images and scenes and details I kept seeing in my mind were in English, and after struggling for some time with the translations, I threw up my hands and gave up. I wasn’t writing in Bikol; I was translating myself into writing in Bikol. I kept crossing between two languages like the poor farmer who had to take a fox, a chicken, and a sack of grain in a boat across a river one by one, and in the process, only succeeded in distorting the Bikol language into what it was not. I fell off the boat and almost drowned. Bikol deserves better than a writer who could not make a distinction between one river bank and the other, much less swim in its verbose richness without drowning.

I grew up in a barrio deep in the heart of Camarines Sur, in the Partido area, where the Bikol was old and deep and rich with double meanings and multi-layered metaphors. I never read in Bikol, but the spoken Bikol that wafted around me when I was in a crowd was fascinating. It was brisk, loud, and had an intonation distinct to residents of the area. The best speakers of Bikol were the older common folk. To punctuate the sentences or stress certain words, they would raise their voices, already rendered gravelly by decades of smoking, several notches higher upon the last syllable of the word, and would sometimes clack broken, tobacco-colored teeth after a sibilant to express either indignation or awe. My own elders, however, spoke a different kind of Bikol. Their voices were louder but somehow their tones were softer, their consonants blended smoothly into the vowels – b’s would sometimes sound like m’s and sh’s would sound like th’s -- a habit borne out of a Spanish ancestry. Their vocabulary was also a bit different, and our houses would reverberate with words like periodico, calzeten, descalzo, empieza, este, saludar, bien, porque, otra vez, cuidado, dormido, comedo, sentences like vamos a comer, de donde a vienes, que hora es, vaya con dios, quiero mas, and interjections like dios mio, madre mia, jesus maria y jose (not susmaryosep). This kind of Bikol was uttered in rich and robust tones that sounded so smooth to the ears, and they were spoken by tall, large-boned people with sandy-colored hair and pale, freckled skin, the women in brocade dresses and the men in their daily wear -- impeccably-pressed khaki outfits and leather shoes with matching belts and a hat, like in this photograph of my great-grandfather, Sebastian Moll. Its sound and effect was quite the opposite of the rougher Bikol of the smaller, darker, barefoot and unperfumed farmers, which is a Bikol seemingly rife with hard and abrupt consonants. Yet both kinds of spoken Bikol held a magic for me that had grown to the level of myth.

Strangely enough, I never thought about the possibility of writing in Bikol. My earliest attempts at writing were in English, and I upped and left Bicolandia, literally dropped the life that I used to have, and transferred to Metro Manila to study and practice writing in English together with people who write in English. It felt like the most natural thing for me to do, and the only thing that remained for me to do. It was not that the Bikol language was not in my heart. I just felt that my relationship with the language was too deep and ancient to ever be deconstructed, not like my relationship with English, which is a language I can deconstruct and rework and reinvent all I want, bending it to the rules that I want, taking it wherever I want. Perhaps it was a kind of fear. After all, Bikol is the language of my forefathers, of my childhood, and of my earliest instincts, now bathed in the color sepia, and these things are sacrosanct. And like all things sacrosanct, the language and all that it entails has embedded itself into my soul so perfectly, so impeccably, so dogmatically, that it has disappeared into the deep and murky waters of my being, never to surface again.

Bikol writer Zaldy Manrique once told me that perhaps my sensibility was naturally in English. Perhaps it’s true, since I even dream in English most of the time. Award-winning Bikol writer Frank Penones said I should not be bothered with issues of language as it is not really the writer who chooses her language but the language that chooses the writer. Perhaps this is true, too, since I don’t feel as if I have any more choice in the matter. In an attempt to make sense of this, I could just say that the Bikol language has lived on in my writings as their psyche, in the form of Bikol metaphors, symbols, legends, and myths, but even in this indirect form, I cannot grapple with the nitty-gritties of taking them apart and making conclusions from there.

Yes, it is fear. I have no power over this fear, as I have no power over the Bikol language. I have taken Bikol with me all this time, but only as a remnant of my origins, a reminder of my birthright, a faint and dying throbbing of what I can never handle. Now I am no more a Bicolana than Exie Abola is a non-Atenean, non-English-speaking Muslim. I have left a vast, deep, fearsome richness behind in order to freely roam another language that I can have power over. I am a prodigal Bicolana, a wayward daughter of Bikol. I am not ready to go back. I might never go back.

14 February 2006

Through a pen, darkly

And I, watcher, am, for a moment, still.

07 February 2006

Back, but not quite the same

I’ve always been a voracious reader. As a sickly child growing up in the barrio, I found comfort and escape in the books that I found around the house. I read everything I could put my hands on, including the sheets of tabloid that our dried fish came wrapped in. My nose was always in a book. I was generally well during summer, and so summer afternoons while I was in grade school were spent upon a sturdy branch of a sterile mango tree we had near the house, with cushions for my back and behind, and an Agatha Christie novel. And when it was time for merienda, our maid would just bring me food in a saucer. I would not leave that tree branch till sunset, when the darkness and the mosquitoes would drive me back into the house.

I long for that lost time when I can read purely for enjoyment. Now when I read anything, it is always with a notebook in front of me, pen in hand, making copious notes, tabbing books with multi-colored transparent post-its. There is always, always that cloud of judment hanging over my head, forcing me to pronounce my verdict on certain works, writing about them after I’m done reading them, constantly pondering over how they affect my own writing. And as if these aren't enough, I also learned to take Rica Bolipata-Santos' habit of asking myself whether I can also write like the person I just last read.

Of course it's exhausting.

But perhaps that is how it is when one writes. One simply has to read, and there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. There is reading, and there is judgment of what has been read, and then there is the writing, a result of all the reading.

Thus, this list. This is a relatively eclectic mix, all foreign. (I’m way behind in my Philippine literature readings. It’s shameful.)

For the stories, I had to open the anthologies that I have and look at the table of contents. For the novels, these are the ones I remember for the way they struck me, for the story, the technique, the emotion, the fine and polished crafting even if their purpose is to appear crude, among others, and the fact that I still remember them now merits their being on the list. However, I purposely did not include the classic novels in this list, because they will number more than ten, and they are already a moot point, anyway, being classics, and therefore, always loveable in their own right.

The non-fiction list is also an eclectic mix, more eclectic than the novels. I read all kinds. But for the non-fictions, I based my choices on the depth of the material that was put in the book, and the artful and easily understandable way the ideas were presented, even those highly technical ones.

My Favorite Stories:
1. Donald Barthelme – "The Balloon"
2. Woody Allen – "The Kugelmass Episode"
3. George S. Kaufman – "If Men Played Cards as Women Do"
4. Charlotte Perkins Gilman – "The Yellow Wallpaper"
5. Ray Bradbury – "A Sound of Thunder"
6. Mary Gordon – "A Writing Lesson"
7. Ellen Gilchrist – "Music"
8. Art Buchwald – "Saving Paper"
9. Dan Greenburg – "How to be a Jewish Mother"
10. Judith Claire Mitchell – "A Man of Few Words"

My Super-Duper Favorite Short Story Of All Time: "Giving Birth" by Margaret Atwood (It rendered me speechless.)

My Favorite Novels:
1. Laura Esquivel - Like Water For Chocolate
2. Evan S. Connell – Mrs. Bridge
3. Maureen Moore – The Illumination of Alice Mallory
4. Sue Kaufman – Diary of a Mad Housewife
5. Tom Robbins – Skinny Legs and All
6. Jane Hamilton – The Book of Ruth
7. Ellen Gilchrist – Sarah Conley
8. Eduardo Mendoza – The Year of the Flood
9. Alice Kaplan – French Lessons
10. Carol Shields - Unless

My Super-Duper Favorite Novel Of All Time: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Ah, intensity!)

My Favorite Non-Fiction Books:
1. Desmond Morris – The Naked Ape
2. Bryan Appleyard – Understanding the Present
3. Margaret Atwood – Negotiating with the Dead
4. David Starkey – Six Wives
5. Robert Bly – Iron John
6. Arthur Golden – Memoirs of a Geisha
7. Richard Dawkins – The Blind Watchmaker
8. Neil Howe and Bill Strauss – 13th Gen
9. Joanne Fletcher – The Search for Nefertiti
10. Christopher Booker – The Seven Basic Plots

My Super-Duper Favorite Nonfiction Book Of All Time: The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene (It made me feel giddy, and I shall never look at life the same way again.)

The Foreign Writer That I Have Always Loved All My Life And Had Never Failed Me: John Updike

Here are foreign books I should read and already have copies of but have not yet begun reading, or have begun but have had no time to continue. Again I have limited the list to ten items, and have not listed the classics, many of which I have yet to read.

1. Joseph Heller - Catch 22
2. Ursula Hegi – Stones from the River
3. Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose
4. Carlos Fuentes – The Old Gringo
5. Judith Kossner – Looking for Mr. Goodbar
6. Norman Mailer – The Armies of the Night
7. Joyce Carey - The Horse’s Mouth, a trilogy (I have the second book)
8. Armistead Maupin - Tales of the City, a trilogy. (I’ve read the second one. How very wrong of me.)
9. Lau Shaw – Rickshaw Boy
10. Annie Proulx - That Old Ace In The Hole

A Novel That I'm Truly Looking Forward To Reading: The Company of Women by Mary Gordon

1. Karen Armstrong – A History of God
2. Francis Fukuyama – The Great Disruption
3. Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln - Holy Blood, Holy Grail
4. Allan Bullock – Hitler: A Study in Tyranny
5. Edward Gibbon – The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
6. Sebastian Wolfe (ed) - The Book of Murder
7. Irving Stone – The Agony and the Ecstacy
8. Clark E. Moustakas – Loneliness
9. Carl Sagan - The Dragons of Eden
10. Jacques Derrida – Writing and Difference

A Book That I'm Truly Looking Forward To Reading: E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis

Foreign Writers I Have Never Read But Should, Out Of Respect For Myself:
1. Isabel Allende
2. Milan Kundera
3. Gunter Grass
4. Laurie Moore
5. Jose Saramago
6. Stephen Hawking
7. Jorge Luis Borges
8. Stephen Greenblatt
9. Leo Tolstoy
10. Eduardo Galeano

And of course, the list of the not-so-great.

Books I Have Read And Feel Are Okay But Not Worth All The Hubbub:
1. Amy Tan – The Joy Luck Club (fiction)
2. Ken Wilber – The Spectrum of Consciousness (nonfiction)

Books I Have Read And Hated:
1. Walker Percy – Message in the Bottle (nonfiction)
2. John Irving - The World According to Garp (fiction)
3. Stephen King - Insomnia (fiction)
4. Harold Bloom - Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (nonfiction)

The Foreign Writer I Used To Be So Crazy About When I Was Little, But Don’t Like Anymore Now: Danielle Steele. (Please don’t laugh. Ok, do laugh. At least it’s over now.)

This is hardly a history of my entire reading life. These are just some of the things I have read – and remembered and liked – over the past three years or so. Of course I have read far more than I can remember, and I believe the memory of these have emerged from time to time in my own writings, but are barely discernible behind the veil of the years that had passed and the shifting sensibilities that had processed them.

One great thing about coming up with lists is that it helps keep things in proper perspective. However, lists are very time-sensitive. They change after every book read, and, for that matter, re-read. (As a matter of fact, I keep editing the lists in this post.) The very first version of this list was emailed to the Yahoo egroup for the CW 310 class under Dr. Butch Dalisay, during the second semester of the academic year 2004-2005. Since then, even my tastes have shifted a bit, and so have my judgement of these works. But most of the items stayed put.

I am way behind in my readings. For the past several months, more immediate concerns have relegated my readings to a dusty three-foot pile on the floor in a corner of my apartment, and in a box in the trunk of my car. But now that I have gotten back to my old routine, and to my old, cerebral, cognitive, self-contained self, I wallow among these works and find myself once more, reading, tabbing, judging. I will never be the same reader I used to be, the one who read while sitting on a tree branch on summer afternoons, but the reader I am now, the one always with a notebook and a pen, in the deep of night, battling the demands of sleep and eyestrain, slaving for a graduate degree, is not so bad either.