What history forgets, literature will surely remember. And literature, unlike history, is unforgiving.
I was probably one of those who first acquired a copy of Rogelio Braga’s novel "Colon" last year. The novel's distribution then was limited: in Manila, it was being sold by few independent bookshops and I was told that you can buy it directly from university students who clandestinely sell the novel to add to their meager school allowance. I got my copy from an employee who was selling the novel here in the office. She was, as I learned later, the only "bookstore" in Cotabato City where you can purchase Braga’s novel.
I was a bit jittery the first time I held my copy. Its reputation as a dark, melancholic, and sardonic novel preceded the actual reading of the book. What made me more interested in Braga’s debut novel was its subject matter: Mindanao, Martial Law, Marcos, Manili Massacre, and the Bangsamoro struggle. This was not the first time I encountered Braga’s work and I had a faint idea then on the politics of the novel. Three of his plays were performed by the UP Repertory Company in 2014 here in Cotabato City through the invitation of ARMM’s Regional Human Rights Commission. Braga perhaps is the only Filipino playwright who can write the history of my people and our struggle with sensitivity and with an informed grace to critically examine the Moro and Filipino relations and then interrogates the excesses and excuses of both the Bangsamoro struggle and Filipino nationalism in his works.
Braga’s plays were unapologetic, discerning, and dark. "Colon," his first novel, never failed to deliver.
The novel opens with Blesilda, the narrator of the story. Braga chose a character that everyone can relate: a middle-aged, career driven, a single woman working as an executive in a business process outsourcing company in Makati. The novel’s strategy to lure the reader was apparent at the first chapters of the book: you will be introduced to characters that were so familiar to us, real places and establishments in Manila that you’ve probably visited several times in your life, the use of conversational Filipino language that will not alienate non-Tagalog speakers like me as the novel is conscious of its target readers, and the parade of several assumptions and stereotypes of Filipinos on Moros and on the Mindanao conflict.
Blesilda, the beguiling and detached narrator, will guide you as you enter the world of "Colon". As soon as the first death appears in the novel, the story will lead you slowly and seamlessly to places as far as Carmen in North Cotabato although most of the parts of the novel were set at the heart of Cebu City, to people familiar and unknown, historical events that either blotted out from our school textbooks but familiar only to Moro freedom fighters, your Moro grandparents, or old and waning former MNLF combatants.
The novel will paint a world that will either discomfort or challenge you as a reader. But "Colon," cunningly written and structured, will never let you abandon the reading once you got in and return from where you started.
“Wala tayong ibang magagawa kundi ang tumakas dahil Filipino sila. Pero ikaw, isa kang Moro. Mag-iingat ka sa mga Filipino” is the novel’s point of departure before plunging into an abyss of endless escape, perpetual struggles, recurring questions that were left unanswered, and conflicts that collapsed time and spaces as a narrative.
At the middle of the book I stopped, I rested. As a Moro reading Braga’s novel, a pause for serious discernment was a necessity before you proceed to the next chapter. How can you handle a graphic description of the 1971 Manili Massacre as if it was lifted straight from a survivor’s mouth? Of the novel’s unapologetic narration of an Ilaga member’s ritual of dismembering their victim’s bodies as war booty and as a badge of courage for killing several Muslims? And at the middle of "Colon," a character will ask the most fundamental question that only Filipinos are privileged can ask to themselves at least once in their lifetime as they stand at close range to the narratives of the Bangsamoro Struggle: "Ang tagal ko nang Filipino, propesor, pero walang nagsabi sa akin na may dugo ng mga Moro sa aking mga kamay. Walang umaamin. Walang humihingi ng tawad."
This novel I realized then was not written consciously thinking of Moro readers. The novel was courageously appealing to the conscience of Filipinos who are incognizant of the plight of the Bangsamoro people, its narratives negotiating for spaces of dialogues without imposition, and for ears who are willing to listen. "Colon" is perhaps a Bangsamoro novel accidentally penned by a Filipino writer.
What separate Braga’s works from other films, plays, and stories about the conflicts in Mindanao was the constant sheer to always elevate the Bangsamoro narrative to a serious political discourse that begs for an engagement. It was admirable how the novel interrogated Moro identity politics by integrating it into the story and of how the complicated Moro-Filipino relations can summed up in one "hugot" sentence on possessive love: “Ang trahedya ng pag-ibig ay kung sakaling makamtam mo na ang iniibig, hindi mo na alam kung ano ang gagawin mo sa kanya na nasa iyong mga kamay, at ayaw mo naman siyang pakawalan dahil hindi mo na makita ang pagkakaiba ng lumaya at umibig…At inaakala mo na ang nakaraan at bukas niya ay hawak mo sa iyong mga palad—at ganoon din siya sa iyo. Na ikaw, ikaw palagi ang nasa kanyang nakaraan.”
"Colon" is a necessary read for younger Moros and Filipinos who would like to have a glimpse of the untold stories of the decades-old conflicts in Mindanao, stories that were relentless reframed to accommodate the long silenced narratives of Moros to enter the consciousness of the Filipino reading public. How the novel was cleverly ended exploring and locating Islam’s sabr—patience—within the context of the Bangsamoro Struggle, armed or otherwise was feat for someone like Braga, an outsider writing with the sensitivity of an enlightened Moro.
Amir Mawallil is the executive director of the Office on Bangsamoro Youth Affairs of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). He is also a member of the Young Moro Professionals Network, the country's biggest organization of Muslim professionals.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.