REFLECTING: Three Filipino Women, F. Sionil José

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In the wake of my shame that I hardly know anything about Filipino authors or literature a month ago during Pluma, I decided to educate myself. There isn’t much to select from in the Filipiniana section of Fully Booked BGC – nearest book store I know – so I was lucky to get a hold on this one. 

Three Filipino Women is made up of three novellas: Cadena de Amor, Obsession, and Platinum, wherein we get to know three women from the perspective of three different men that fell in love with them. Each novella is short and sweet – the narration, the details, their dialogues… They are all insightful and striking.

You get to know these three women – Narita, Ermi, and Malu – not just as characters, but as reflections of various struggles in the Philippines during the 20th century. 

I. CADENA DE AMOR

Narita Reyes of the novella Cadena de Amor is the childhood friend and lover of the narrator Eddie Cortez, a sociologist. She’s my most hated character in the whole book, and yet she’s the one I most symphatize with. It was easy to understand her motivations as it was to be repulsed by her actions. Her character is… complex, to say the least, as the life that she lived was. 

Endowed with beauty, grace, wit, and talent, she was engaged to Lopito, the son of Senator Reyes, when they met during her high school graduation ceremony. She had always wished to escape the small town of Santa Ana and their poverty – something, I think, she hasn’t succeeded on, because of how she was still bothered by it in her later years. Her success and fame after her marriage to Lopito went awry was always not enough for her. She aimed to be a politician. She wanted to get into the Senate, and then run for President. She said that she wanted to prove it to them; those “nitwits in Assumption” – the latter being the private, all-girls school she was sent to, where she was snubbed for her humble background. She stopped at nothing to get power. She employed all the dirty tricks her “Papa”, Senator Reyes, also used – from handing out money stuffed in envelopes to murder. She used her beauty and charm unashamedly, even to Eddie himself when he dared confront her about her actions. 

She died later on. As a child, she found out she was allergic to anti-tetanus shots, and could have died then and there if Eddie’s father hadn’t administered an injection to counter her allergic reaction. While she was in Santa Ana during her campaign, however, she sustained a gash on some rusty truss. The unknowing doctor gave her an anti-tetanus shot. 

She was dead within five minutes. 

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Her character reminded me of Simoun in Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo, though they have very different aims. However, they both used their power and riches to avenge themselves. Both died, one failing at his goal; the other not quite reaching what she wanted. Both were motivated by class struggle; both paid off allies and tried their hand in dirty politics. Only Simoun was there, already part of the herd of the elite, and wished to overthrow them in the name of justice for himself and for the people. Narita, however, wanted to be part of the herd – but above them, too – just so she can prove herself. She didn’t want to be smeared by her background in poverty; didn’t like to be around it. Furthermore, it was not in her political interests.

And yet to many, she was the ideal woman and politician. She was insanely popular. She was a favorite of the masses. No one knew she was out there to serve out of self-interest first and foremost. 

They didn’t know she couldn’t care less about them.

You kind of wonder if the book is really fictional when you realize Narita Reyes – and her “Papa” too, for that matter – might as well have existed in real life. The tactics, the corruption, the self-interest, – they are all present in the Philippine government we know of today. 

‘”If it will mean victory, then cheat!” the Old Man pontificated. 

“The objective is to win,” Narita said coolly. “You cannot talk morality with opponents who are immoral. You cannot tell the truth to people who will not accept that truth.”‘

I believe Eddie loved Narita of Santa Ana, not the Narita of the Malacañang, or Narita of Assumption, or of the magazines. At her wake, he gazed upon her and remembered the girl whom he had played with in the rain, and the cadena de amor blooming by her house. The flowers had wilted over time, but he knew, that once the rain began, it would bloom again. 

The honesty and innocence she once had was lost to power and politics. But in Narita Reyes’ death, the Narita of Santa Ana came back to life. 

II. OBSESSION

Ermi of the novella Obsession is the most mysterious, and at first, for me, the most controversial. She was, after all, a prostitute. 

The narrator, Rolando Cruz, is a historian – and a pimp. After a failed marriage, he frequented Camarin, a restaurant/bar and call girl place owned by his lesbian friend, Didi. Ermi was introduced to him double the price per hour with her virginity costing ten thousand pesos. Roly was surprised to see her elegance, and a little put-off by her directness. She asserted that she wasn’t going to give anyone any information about her: not her address, number, nor family name. Eventually, the last one was revealed – she was Ermi Rojo – when Roly managed to save three thousand pesos to take her out for a day. 

Roly was the one who found her a taker for the ten thousand pesos: a “Great Man” from another country, who also acquired Ermi a house in Forbes Park. While they were in Luneta for their date, Roly felt as if Ermi should now get out of the business, given that she was already successful. He wanted to “save” her from its clutches. Ermi responded by laughing bitterly at him, calling him pompous and every bit as “immoral” as she was: he had sold himself as much as she sold her body. 

I have to admit that I felt the same way Roly did, especially when he fell in love with her and found out about her dreams of putting up a restaurant of her own. He bought her cookbooks and stood by her side. Though he desired her, he did not dare give in, not even when they shared the same bed. It was his own way of separating himself from the many men that had been with her; his own way of showing her genuine love.

Her restaurant soon became successful, and I sympathized with Roly when he was frustrated that she would not give up in the business of prostitution after everything he had done. As long as she could make money out of it, she said, she would continue. 

Roly avoided her for a long time before she stormed to his house and yelled at him for looking down on her, breaking down when she embraced him and he told her he didn’t have three thousand pesos. After Ermi fainted and they eventually had things resolved, they settled into a new relationship that crumbled in the long run. Ermi allowed him to drive her to her house, and stayed with him most nights, but she was still in business. He no longer felt the inclination to persuade her to leave. He accepted her for who she was, but he doubted her sincerity with him. His candor about his feelings about it and her sensitivity contributed to the breakdown of their relationship. 

Soon, she contacted him once again. He was finally let in her house. There, she apologized, crying as she told him she loved him, and that she was to marry Andrew Meadows – a man that Roly himself introduced to her. She was to be a loving wife and mother in the United States. 

“Perhaps, this is what love has always been, whether it is for a woman or for a cause – the readiness to give and not ask for anything in return, the unquestioning willingness to lose everything, even if that loss is something as precious as life itself.”

I thought of Ermi as a character as controversial. I thought of her as obscene. Prostitution in itself was. But as I read the novella, I realized how wrong I was. 

Rolando Cruz in Obsession writes that the revulsion we feel in seeing what was done in the privacy of our bedrooms was not a matter of morality but a matter of taste. It’s true. There’s nothing remotely evil about sex, nothing really close to immoral – but it is an aesthetic nuisance.

I remember Narita, then, and her upbringing in poverty, and Eddie’s thoughts that it was more of a matter of aesthetics that she didn’t want to be around it after. I still think she’s horridly self-absorbed, but it does drive Roly’s point home.

It says a lot about our mindsets. It says a lot for how I considered Ermi, and how Roly, did, too. He perceived her to be of affluent upbringing, saw the elegance in which she moved and spoke, and yet her line of work didn’t “match” with the rest of what could be construed from her. 

Considering that Roly was a pimp, and working in advertising, catering to foreign clients and providing them information about taxes and loopholes… He has sold not just himself, not just other people, but his country, too. 

It is too much of a discomfort to consider if I’ve done the same thing, or if I would have to, just like Roly did, because he needed to feed himself.

‘”You condemn me, you look down on me. I am dirt to you. But what wrong have I done, Roly? Have I ever stolen from anyone like those big people whom you know and serve? It is them you should hate and fight – and they are everywhere, robbing the people, self-righteous, honored in the newspapers. I have -“‘

III. PLATINUM

The woman of this novella is the one I loved the most. 

Malu of the novella Platinum is introduced submitting an article about faith healing to a patronizing professor. The narrator, who was there to submit an article on the economic imperatives of nationalism, wanted to get to know her more. His real name isn’t known, but Malu gives him a nickname: Teng-ga, meaning lead, that could have easily been “Tanga” or stupid. He gave Malu the nickname Plat, for Platinum, because he felt that she thought of herself as somebody special, though she was plain. The nicknames stemmed from their many arguments. As it turns out, Malu isn’t just concerned with the supernatural – she was also a political activist, which he constantly criticized. 

She, after all, lived in an expensive Makati village, but rallied about various social inequities. It came to the point that he managed to send her to a farm in Bataan, instructing his Uncle there to give her the knowledge of how life is in the depressed parts of the country first-hand. She went with her friends and came back, darker and tired and recounting stories of struggle and hard work, but he notes that she looked more radiant than before.

They still argued after, and it was Malu’s turn to bring him to the slums after he said that the poor only lacked initiative. She was attached to a family there, especially to a boy named Charlie. She showed him their circumstances; the sorry construction in which they lived. She told him then, that she was only at ease when she was helping people. 

It was in a motel that they merely laid for hours and talked. It was then that Malu talked of them living together and finding out if they were compatible. She had teased him earlier on when he wanted to come to her house to do the “traditional” way of courting and meeting the parents, and she shocked him now. But in the end, that was what they did. 

Malu convinced him of spirits and faith healing, after her father attested that he saw shadows after Malu prayed for his sight. 

She brought him along to a session with the spiritistas in Navotas. It was then that he first feared for her; a feeling that would gradually increase as time went by. Already, he saw her less and less. She was almost shot when she ran to Charlie, who lay dead after he dared cross the line to speak to the police in a rally. 

When he presented an engagement ring to her, she told him she had to give it back and that she loved him in one breath. She explained that there was a cause she had to devote herself to. But in the end, he still insisted: after she was gone for two months, she came back to reveal that the rest of her friends were shot dead in Quezon, while she was raped. Though they were engaged, they lied to their parents about their marriage.

His fear for her life escalated, and he wanted to “domesticate” her for her own safety. She told him he could go out every Saturday and she every Sunday, but he was too haunted by guilt to pursue it actively. Instead, he watched her go on Sundays, coming back accompanied by either a man or a woman. When she had a miscarriage later on, just before the Martial Law was put into effect, she disappeared. 

Four years later, she called him. When they met, her looking slimmer and darker, the truth was laid out: she had not given up the cause; that all of her Sundays were spent for it. She had a bullet wound in her right thigh. She requested not to go to the apartment for both of their protection but he insisted that she needed a doctor. They arrived at the apartment. The moment she stepped out, he cried for the armed men waiting not to shoot as she was wounded. 

They shot her to death.

“Her voice was resonant, and her Tagalog was beautiful and frightening and I feared for her, for she said, ‘Dear God, Your poor and Your weak – Who will help them? When You said you gave us not peace but the sword,  where now is the sword that we may bring justice to Your people?'”

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It was the purity of love that made this novella the most heartbreaking. Malu’s love for the people and her country, and Teng-ga’s and Malu’s love for each other persisted despite differences, and against all odds. 

In Platinum, Malu says that she was a superficial rich girl, knowing nothing but clothes and parties, until her teacher took their class to PGH. She was shocked at her own privilege and how she had wasted it away. She all but screamed at Teng-ga defending the people she fought for; the people she soon laid her life down to. When criticized that she knew nothing of the poor people, she was more than happy to be provided with the first-hand experience. 

Even though they criticized one another so frequently, Malu and Teng-ga were deeply in love with another – the four years that they had not spoken and yet returned to each other with the same affections stands as proof. It was with Malu that Teng-ga’s thoughts on love and marriage came crashing down: he wanted her at home not because it was proper, as he thought before, but to save her life. He agreed to live with her despite not being married, as long as they were both with each other and happy. When she confessed that she was raped in Quezon, that she no longer had her virginity to offer him as a bride, he told her nothing had changed. At the end, before her death, he vowed to her that he will go wherever she did, despite their previous political differences.

But no matter how much love or devotion you dedicate to a person, or to a cause, the circumstances you are under will still damn you to hell. The circumstances in this country is still doing so, generation after generation of idealists turned weary cynics, leaving the system the way it is. Corrupted. Bloodied. Hopeless for the poor. Hopeless for the ones who try for a change. 

But hey, Teng-ga and Malu’s father agreed on education solving most of the injustice Malu was fighting against, not demonstrations or guns. It was something that Malu didn’t acknowledge.

Malu had her ideals and love kill her as much as the system had.

ALL IN ALL, the women of this novella represented the different characterizations of the Filipina, and the struggles that the country faces. It was more than three stories of men falling in love with them, and the heartbreak and agony of losing them to their own dug grave or a more promising future (in the case of Ermi). It dealt with how we face these struggles upon us; struggles that are timeless; the ones of class and humanity and the government. 

It was a riveting, painful read. It hurt to know their troubles; hurt to know the same ones still exist to this day. It opens your eyes to the truth, and the truth hurts, as always. 

I loved the way it was written. It was formal, and blunt. It didn’t waste time with flowery descriptions or poetic analogies, but there was beauty in the way you could actually see the story unfold right before your eyes, down to the last detail that F. Sionil José provides. 

It is an amazing creation, and also left a great impact. I had always leaned more towards the YA genre and Western novels, but this books has me fascinated with what more I can find from my own roots.

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brand new eyes

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People aren’t books, I’ve learned. You can’t bookmark your favorite pieces to return to whenever you’re feeling lonely; when the nights get too cold and youneed something familiar to keep you warm,you can’t reopen their spines and wear out their pages and call that obsession love. – Pavana पवन

Guilt. That’s the first thing I feel whenever I read that passage, saved in my phone for me to pore over again and again. 

I treat people like books. I’m there to crack them open and learn every word, and to revel in my favorite passages right after. I bookmark pages, and use pens and highlighters on the sentences that appeal to me the most.

I pretty much just ignore the parts that I don’t like. They don’t matter, not that much. I reread my favorite books sometimes, and skip over the conflict and the heartbreak to the happily-ever-afters and happiness. 

It was only when I reversed the situation in my head that I became aware of how backwards that was; how harmful – to love people only for their good sides; only for their parts that are in your favor or of use to you.

You can easily become disillusioned as to who they really are. 

You tolerate their bad sides, and you either become a push-over, or put them under the impression that what they’re experiencing is love, instead of the cherry-picking that it actually is.

You love a person wholly, with acceptance and compromise. 

This is why you can’t take two types of people seriously: the ones who profess their love for you after a short time, and the ones who do after a long one. Odds are that the former’s only seen the best you could offer, with no idea of what’s actually under your cover. The latter, meanwhile, could just be returning to their favorite passages about you to reread on a cold night. 

I’m guilty of being both. And, God, there is so much more to learn; so much that the people I’ve loved should have deserved.

REFLECTING: Surgeons Do Not Cry

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Surgeons Do Not Cry is a book that focuses on the author’s experiences as he takes on the journey as a doctor in the Philippines. The book starts with Ting Tiongco’s decision to enter the school that leads him to UP-PGH, and ends with his decision to leave – and everything he’s learned in between.

Continue reading

Blended

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Tell me, Laslo, what kind of man can take something so dark and gloomy and fuse it with light? A genius of an artist! To be able to blend two opposite natures and come up with something greater than both of its parts requires genius.

– Eating Fire and Drinking Water, Arlene J. Chai

Although the character was referring to the music that was playing in that scene and at his future murder, let’s take it out of that context for a minute. The ability to take something dark and fuse it with light is fascinating, but I cannot say it specifically requires genius. In our actions, and in our vision, it more of requires focus.

On reflecting on the state of the world, we cannot say that it is just good or bad, but we more or less see it divided into two equal parts. We don’t exactly see it as a mixture of both, even though it is exactly that. So as a result – but maybe this is just me – there is comparison between our share of light and dark; of the disappointments and the satisfactions that we get. And whatever we think we’ve experienced is greater than the other, we set it as how our existence is and will be: either more satisfactions than disappointments, or more disappointments than satisfactions. Having either of the two as a mindset can be disruptive. You think everything is supposed to be going smoothly but hit rock bottom several times, and it’s harsher than it should be. You think everything is supposed to go wrong for you and anything that goes right is undermined.

There are many more situations that come to mind, but let’s skip those and just think how it’s better off to accept that there will be good days and bad days. Things could go wrong at times and right at others. You could lose today and win tomorrow. Change is constant. It could be always be for the better or for the worse, but it won’t stick on being either for long. When it’s for the better, then it’s up to you to be content, or strive for more. When it’s for the worse – fuse it with light. Make shortcomings the reason for determination. Make the misery you hear, see or even feel yourself push you to be compassionate and appreciative of what you have and the days filled with joy. Make the sadness in your chest art on canvas or on paper or on strings and piano keys. Make a quote from a character that murders taken out of context a basis for motivation. Fuse everything dark with light – in vision and in deeds.

Quote

“Do you realize the limits of our understanding? Mathematically, we can describe two things interacting, like two planets in space. Three things interacting – three planets in space – well, that becomes a problem. Four or five things interacting, we can’t really do it. And inside the cell, there’s one hundred thousand things interacting. You have to throw up your hands. It’s so complex – how is it even possible life happens at all? Some people think the answer is that living forms organize themselves. Life creates its own order the way crystallization creates order. Some people think life crystallizes itself into being, and that’s how the complexity is managed.
Because, if you didn’t know any physical chemistry, you could look at a crystal and ask all the same questions. You’d see those beautiful spars, those perfect geometric facets, and you could ask, what’s controlling this process? How does the crystal end up so perfectly formed – and looking so much like the other crystals? But it turns out a crystal is just the way molecular forces arrange themselves in solid form. To ask a lot of questions about crystal means you don’t understand the processes that led to its creation. So maybe living forms are a kind of crystallization. Maybe life just happens. “

– MICHAEL CRICHTON, The Lost World

A Reaction: Go Set a Watchman’s Existence… and Atticus Finch.

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I just read this article last night. Apparently, To Kill a Mockingbird was born after Harper Lee’s editor became interested in the flashbacks that were in Go Set a Watchman. There, Scout is referred to as Jean Louise Finch, 26 years of age and in a relationship with a man named Henry Clinton, and is going back to Maycomb from New York to visit her father.

And there, Atticus Finch turns from the wise 50-year-old lawyer to a 72-year-old racist. His lines in the book were filled with hate speech, and Scout – I’ll probably never quit calling her that – is in the same situation of confusion and disillusionment I’m feeling. I’m sure I’m not the only one, but I’ve ranted to family and friends and so far all of them reminded me he was just fictional.

Maybe there lies the problem: I’ve made him real and sanctified him in the process. I feel like I’ve been betrayed by my own parent. Atticus, ever since fourth grade, has been my role model. He’s the reason I turned to wanting to study to Law; to do the same thing he did for Tom Robinson. I even memorized his speech to use in an oratorical contest. And if I ever had kids, I’d want to be the parent that he was.

How could such a transition happen, though? I mean, it could be that Atticus stood for justice because he knew Tom Robinson did nothing wrong. It never meant that he wasn’t a racist. The book could be further about empathy; to be compassionate to everybody, even those with bigoted views. It could be about growing up once more, and realizing the truth about justice. Or maybe it’s about the fact that Atticus Finch was moral in the way he didn’t let his views cloud his judgment on what was right. I’ll never know until I read the book, reread Mockingbird, and just lie down making the connections (and probably marvel at Harper Lee’s talent again.)

… I’m still hung up on Atticus Finch. Agh.

(Go Set A Watchman is going to be published on Tuesday though!!!)