Remarks delivered on the book launch of Eileen Tabios' PAGPAG: The Dictator's Aftermath in the Diaspora (Paloma Press, 2020)
Congratulations Eileen Tabios, and to the publisher, Aileen Cassinetto, thank you for inviting me to share some insights to this important event.
Forgive me if I begin with words from a book published in 1960. The topic is entirely different, but the imagery seems appropriate.
At noon in the desert a panting lizard
waited for history, its elbows tense,
watching the curve of a particular road
as if something might happen.
It was looking at something farther off
than people could see, an important scene
acted in stone for little selves
at the flute end of consequences.
There was just a continent without much on it
under a sky that never cared less.
Ready for a change, the elbows waited.
The hands gripped hard on the desert.
It's a poem by William E. Stafford, and though the title is At the Bomb Testing Site, it seems to describe our particular setting. Despite the oceans separating the listeners to this event, we are all, I suspect, dancing a tango forward and back and forward again through what Arundhati Roy called a portal.
The terrain in which we sway back and advance is interesting. We are surrounded by ruins, surrounded by our conceits, "at the flute end of consequences" but "under a sky that never cared less."
Many of us in this event are fortunate, in a sense, because we have access to literature that helps us move through the long squalid night. Some serve as torches, others as maps, and others as fireflies that constantly remind us of the acts of grace we have managed to bring with us in this, our anxious journey, and to help us make sense of the rubble we are leaving behind.
Facing multiple crisis, we feel lost in the turbulence of voices demanding fealty to this or that tribe, yet in our searching we are also found.
In her poem, Last known residence published in 1997 in the book Blood Sacrifice, Luisa Igloria tells us to "linger awhile/ in this imagined country of your heart,/ where sometimes you must admit what you/ know of me now is more than a cup could forget/ about fullness."
We are reminded why the poet was recently chosen poet laureate of Virginia. In the same poem Igloria asks us to pause in the face of a raging pandemic:
This is a lesson in distance.
Everything else is mere autobiography, waiting to be rewritten;
a string leading back to a place
that asks what it has become,
because it could not possibly
be the same.
ertainly we are in a different place today, and the book to be released to the public gives us a glimpse of not only of where we came up short, but also why today too many lessons are learned the hard way. In one of Pagpag's pieces, Eileen Tabios points in the story A Ghost Haunting to one of several reasons why many are wrestling with a deep sense of unarticulated anomie.
"The optimism in my memory is a taste of rust, jarring against what I observed the country had become. The optimism is an ache that will not go away. It is a ghost haunting."
She is describing the Philippines but it can just as well be the United States. Or Brazil. Or India. Think of the fireflies reminding us of the rubble of institutions crumbling from the combined force of neglect and official venality.
Pagpag has plenty more insights to the dissonance we are confronting today.
In The Man in a White Suit, Tabios speaks "of Rome burning"and how she "would marvel at how the same sun rose and set on all the places where humanity marked their presence in such a variety of ways. And I would consider once more whether man’s history blinded the sun, or whether God had known to create it blind at the beginning of time."
In protracted acts of violence, pain is punished with forgetting. A sky painted with the palette of a bruise will remind us of trauma but sometimes deprive us of the redeeming balm of understanding, the temptation to move on and hit the reboot button so great we seem eager to discard any anchoring notion of origin, which diminishes our sense of agency.
Tabios keeps to her roots in conversations held throughout Pagpag, cleaving to "A nation with a history of dying for ideals, for respect, for honor... the country of my birth."
And yet. And yet. Throughout the book is the sigh that acts like the silent 'g' in lasagna. And yet.
"The difference between pity and regret is simple," Tabios tells us. "Pity is pity, as untranslatable as poetry; it also can arise inexplicably, be birthed by the most random of circumstances as diverse as pitying someone for being an accountant to pitying a species facing extinction to pitying a shoreline disappearing under the inexorable approach of a sea. Regret, however, is a proactive reaction: a response caused first by an act made or undone by the person feeling the emotion."
And what binds both feelings is the inability to reproduce hope, since the emotions conjured often fall short of empathy.
We speak of martial law and the tyrannical rule of Marcos as if these were bygone eras. I see instead Oregon and Caloocan, Los Angeles and Manila. The depth of pain and the legacy of depravity has caused and will cause many to flail in desperate attempts to parry unrelenting blows. But without an abiding sense of the past, conncetions are lost and even those considered today as woke may, without memory, fall asleep again.
As we mourn the passing of an era that has given so little to the many who toil away unrecognized, and as we mourn the passing of ordinary humans who rose above in answer to their people's calling, we must take time as well to celebrate lives that produced second, third, fourth, fifth ranks of courage. The future is rarely how we imagine it, and uncertainty is something we must embrace, because it means the bad guys have not won yet.
We certainly won't be the last to hold the line and neither will the kids of today be the final front.
Tabios describes the feeling that many might harbor sporadically as we confront the monster that have been let loose in our variegated lands.
"Armchair Participant. Monday Morning Quarterback. That’s me. I once read somewhere that only in our childhood do we create our gods. By simply dozing on the sidelines, failing to file a single protest against Ferdinand Marcos as his regime decimated the landscape of my birthland, I failed to protect my childhood gods."
It is a welcome appraisal. Yet the injury to our sense of community -- our sense of nationhood and a future driven by working class agency and autonomy rather than spectatorship -- should not be confined alone to recent dark chapters. This is actually where a large part of the roots of forgetting reside. It is no longer commentary only on Pagpag, but on forces that should act as purveyors of memory, but which are regrettably afflicted with the same reliance on rote learning and unexamined doctrines that pass on what Harry Cleaver called "exercises in necromancy in which one or another long-dead spirit is summoned from the grave to direct the battles of the present."
To be blamed is rigidity in the Philippine Left and a perverse kind of colonial thinking that has meticulously studied and debated the lives of Zhou En Lai and Mao Tse Tung, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, Castro and Che. But the birthdays and dates of deaths, much less the incredible revolutionary lives, of our own heroes go by unmarked and without celebration: Apolonia Catra, the only named woman officer in Pres. Macario Sakay's command. Teresa Magbanua. Julian Montalan. Remedios Gomez-Paraiso, or Kumander Liwayway. Pedro Abad Santos. Jose Abad Santos. Claro Mayo Recto. No gathering to this day is organized by the Left to commemorate the birth or death of Oriang de Jesus.
And we wonder why too few remember Lean Alejandro, who fought to bring down the tyranny of Ferdinand Marcos but who was murdered a year after the fall of the dictatorship, supposedly under the sway of the restored democratic order. Or why still too few are aware of the life of Gloria Capitan, who fought to bring down the reign of fossil fuels as her contribution to the fight against dangerous climate change and who was assassinated in 2016 -- the first recorded extra-judicial killing under the Duterte government.
We are dealing with the debris of forgetting today, which continues to create the unbearable weight of loneliness, increasingly divorced as we are from the torments of our nation because are unable to deal with the anguish and hopes of our past. It's high time we build societies where kindness and joy are the ultimate metrics of success and where life, as Barbara Kingsolver once described it, stands on the fact that children are no longer destroyers nor the destroyed.
Gore Vidal once wrote it might have been Chaplin's M. Verdoux who said "when it comes to calibrating liability for murder, it is all ultimately a matter of scale". Intriguing and true, but we need to develop a counter proposal, where we define the past and present not through trauma alone but by the measure of grace, tolerance, and accountability society can enjoy, three elements we will need desperately to see us through rougher, far more difficult days ahead as the climate crisis brings about even worse impacts and the most vile behavior among would be leaders.
To survive and thrive in the near future, we will need everyone. And we will need to revisit the past constantly, not as a bludgeon to smash our enemies with but as a constant companion in our effort to distill meaning in our fleeting lives. Because everything will count and because the written word will always -- always -- be our strongest and most reliable ally.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.