Saturday, August 27, 2016

Parsing Cebuano

“TOKHANG o toksil?”

Freshly minted from the jargon of politics and media, these two words show how extrajudicial killing (EJK) has come a long way.

The “Philippine Law Journal” carries an article discussing the dispute over the definition of EJK. Should the term refer only to state-sponsored acts? What about the killing and enforced disappearances carried out by others besides the police and the military?

But it is these two words in Cebuano that measure how EJK has traversed from a technicality to reality, from Marcos to Duterte, from the vigilantism in Davao to the culture of impunity threatening to take over the country.

“Tokhang” is a contraction and fusion of two words. In Cebuano, “toktok” means to knock; “hangyo” is to plead.

National media translate these words into “katok” and “pakiusap”. However, there is no catchy equivalent for “Tokhang” in Filipino, primarily because it is the official name of the Duterte administration’s anti-illegal drugs campaign, also known as the “War on Drugs”.

According to a MindaNews article, Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Ronald de la Rosa first “hatched” Oplan Tokhang when he was the police director of Davao from 2011 to 2013.

Countless Oplans have been hatched and passed without catching the public’s attention. Even Oplan Sagittarius is obscured in the infamy surrounding Martial Law.

Why would “tokhang” pass so fluidly and seamlessly from officialspeak to plain speech? Is it because the bodies of users, pushers, couriers, and other drug suspects have spilled from news photographs and footages into our streets and backyards?

Is it because the sweep of Duterte’s War on Drugs deprives the poor of their life and the right to clear their names, the very same class that ironically turns up in many presidential speeches and promises for change?

Or because “tokhang,” like social cancer, comes with an even more vile twin: “toksil”? According to the same June 3 MindaNews article, De la Rosa already foresaw the pincer strategy behind Tokhang before he implemented the nationwide campaign on June 30.

“We (knock and) appeal to you to stop. If you do not stop, we will stop you.”

It was not unexpected then to overhear during a Vhire ride two women, who were chatting in Filipino, fluidly switch to the Cebuano words when discussing the fate of a missing neighbor.

They speculated that if their neighbor did not listen to the knock-and-appeal “tokhang,” his fate had surely been decided by “toksil” (meaning knock-and-shoot; “pusil” in Cebuano means to fire a gun).

Porous and malleable, language is vulnerable, specially when barbarians are waiting outside the gates. Catching sight of my dragonfly pendant, Professor Lilia Tio, my colleague at the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu, taught me its Cebuano name: “alindanaw”. An award-winning writer, Lily teaches Cebuano writing and Sugbuanon literature.

More than grammatical usage, Lily instills an appreciation of the beauty and expressiveness of Cebuano. She pointed out the “alindanaw” is often mistaken for “alindahaw,” meaning a drizzle.

From Justiniana Catubig Tagayong, my yaya, I learned the uncommon Cebuano names for common garden creatures: “anunugba” (moth), “kaba-kaba” (butterfly), and “higop-higop” (small yellow butterfly).

My wish is for other Filipinos to discover there is more to Cebuano than tokhang and toksil.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the August 28, 2016 issue of Sun.Star Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The rescue

SURROUNDED by a phalanx of reporters and recorders, Presidential Assistant Michael Dino presented an unenviable sight before and after the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC) quarterly meeting.

But during the Aug. 18 meeting of the CCPC, where he was a guest, the Visayas alter ego of President Rodrigo Duterte mentioned a detail that made me curious.

He said that even before he has moved into his office at the Malacañang sa Sugbu, “half a sack” of letters is already awaiting.

I turned this fact over and over in my mind, wondering if I ever would receive such a bounty in my lifetime. When my boys—a husband and two sons—were younger, they wrote me letters, often with a drawing or two.

And then text and email came, followed by Hangouts and Facetime.

Also kept as keepsakes are the yellowed notes that a class presented me during one birthday. Now yellow and curling in a paper box covered with news articles, my students’ letters linger longer than the chocolate cake we shared.

Letters, of course, have different flavors. Mr. Dino implied that some of the letters may be divulging more names that may end up in a narcolist.

As a child, I woke up every morning to my late father’s favorite radio commentators reading aloud letters demanding official action. These were sent by “concerned citizens”.

The current War on Drugs and the lengthening “Kill List” stain the civic letter-writing of old with a repute that puts it more in league with medieval plots, wily whispers, and Judas kisses.

More than political vagaries, technology accounts for the dramatic decline of letters. Reading the missives drafted by students for news sources, I am appalled at times to discover how the curtness, informality and self-entitlement of instant messaging and Tweets have turned the letter into a Frankenstein creation of mismatched intentions and expression.

So Education Secretary Leonor Briones’s decision to continue the “Salamat Po (Thank You) Letter Writing Project” on its fourth year should be celebrated by all those who believe there is more to communication than composing and reading “Wer U :-)”.

The Department of Education (DepEd) and the Philippine Postal Corp. (Philpost) will award P50,000 to a student who mails at any post office a handwritten letter to any person he or she is grateful to.

Written in Filipino or English and using the proper format, every letter sent locally entitles the student to a raffle coupon. If sent abroad, the letter writer receives two raffle tickets.

Prizes of P10,000 will be given to students, as well as to their teachers and schools, in the semi-grand draw on Mar. 15, 2017. The grand winner will be announced on April 2017, also the Philpost anniversary.

I would have preferred that the contest involves reading and selecting the winning letters. Other stakeholders have to take up the slack to get more than the luck of the draw to restore the lost art of writing letters.

For instance, will newsrooms recognize the most unforgettable letters written by the public? Do editors still print a letter that’s handwritten? Who has the patience to untangle penmanship?

Letter-writing, penmanship—what else is for the rescue?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s August 21, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Beyond pages

WHAT do you call the second or the third copy of a book you lend or give to friends?

And how do you call those books that first mushroom and then tower beside your bed?

Do you organize your bookshelf by author, title or genre? Or just by a book’s peculiar hold on your book-mad self?

I took away questions when I left the Presents & Such Café & Tea Room one Friday evening. I walked back to the university, retraced my steps, and somehow ended home without minding the weekend traffic for once.

Even as I sit to compose this piece, the questions still niggle: what do you call the books you first read as a child, lose in the interstices of a life, and then remember while looking through a window misted by a late afternoon drizzle?

Is the feeling the same for books you come back for in a store and never meet again?

How do you describe the daze with which you wander around for days after the last page is turned?

Or the bizarre conditions that afflict readers dealing with the last page. Some must first read the last page. Others are torn between rushing to the end and slowing down to delay the moment of emerging from the spell and returning to life beyond the pages.

Books weave a spell. We agreed that afternoon in the café and tea room along Gorordo Ave.

Eileen and I discussed syllabi. Loy juggled, from answering messages about her coming book launch to ruminating how the zucchini’s confusion about its identity makes it ideal for her ratatouille.

By the time Frankie opened up about her plan to set up a public reading nook in Bantayan, books, past and present, had long been sitting with us and steering the conversation.

Loy remembered when the arrival of a book was so rare, it had to become collective property. She and her siblings and cousins passed a book around until that novel’s characters became an intersecting circle of invisible friends.

Regularly taking a bus to the city, Loy noticed the owner’s son often rode as well. That he was tall, lean and dashing did not escape her attention.

Neither did his books. She found not just a way to get him to lend her, a complete stranger, the new titles but also to wait until her circle of family and neighbors had finished the novels.

Till now, Loy still has the habit of walking inside her kitchen to bring out some titles from her collection.

Eileen calls these books the “keepers,” such as the mint and illustrated copy of Gene Stratton Porter’s “A Girl of the Limberlost,” discovered when Loy was a girl and seen again in a secondhand bookstore.

She has another copy you can borrow from her. The books shelved in the café belong to a second category. Loy doesn’t mind if, after lingering over apple pie and coffee, a customer brings a volume home.

Ei, though, cannot find a specific name for these extra copies. Yet, while keepers effortlessly hold our heart and imagination within their pages, the ones we give away often have the strongest spell.

After Frankie parted with her heirloom collection of “National Geographic” magazines, given by an aunt who stirred her love for reading, to start a reading nook for mothers at the daycare center, she overheard a woman whisper in awe to a companion as they scanned the photographs in this classic publication about explorations: Who knew such worlds existed?

Reading brings us inward but also releases and liberates. Now, how do you call that?

( 09173226131)

* First published in the August 14, 2016 issue of Sun.Star Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Cardboard justice

THE CORPSE had clean feet.

The body was deposited beside a highway that would soon be crawling with motorists getting away for the weekend to Tagaytay and Batangas, favorite watering holes for Manila’s middle class and affluent.

On a weekend, the site would have been risky for an execution or a disposal. There are nearby malls, arcades, and the restaurants and excursion sites of Tagaytay and the beaches of Batangas.

But late Thursday evening or Friday dawn? A few meters from a university and situated beside an open clearing, the spot is located along a stretch of road that is unlighted and uninhabited.

The body wore denim pants and a white shirt. Any onlooker could see the packaging tape winding around the head, the hands tied behind the back, and the ankles.

All during the ride to Metro Manila, I wondered if the theft of the shoes was an afterthought of the crime. A man’s life was negligible; his shoes were not.

“Bloody PH drug war catches eye of int’l media” was the title of a Philippine Daily Inquirer page-one story on Aug. 6.

After I searched “death toll in PH,” Google turned up 1.7 million references in 0.61 seconds. The first page of the Google search contained only two references to the Typhoon Haiyan casualties; all the rest were about the body count of President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs.

The extrajudicial killings have been condemned by the Church, media, and human rights organizations, here and overseas.

“Will the human rights people still be noisy when their rights or their loved ones’ lives are violated?” That’s the reaction of Boni, a taxi driver in Lapu-Lapu City who voted for Duterte primarily because of his tough stance on drugs. He said only Duterte is capable of taking on the rich and powerful who are preying on the common people.

Yet, there is a pronounced class slant in the profile of victims falling in the War on Drugs. In photo after photo, the victims shot down in the streets or abandoned in gutters, dumps and grassy lots seemingly come from the lower socio-economic brackets.

The news photos show not just the cocooned faces and the blood bath but also the dead men’s feet in slippers. If bare, the soles are dirty, as these would be if the men had earned their living, shod only in slippers, out on the streets or had just run for their lives.

While drug financiers and narco-politicians are paraded in news conferences or given a presidential face-to-face castigation, the men sharing their crime but not their status end up as statistics. According to another Inquirer report, Oplan Tokhang was not carried out in a gated village after the homeowners’ president certified in writing that no resident was engaged in drugs.

Jennelyn Olayres, widow of a slain drug user, protested against this form of cardboard justice. In an Aug. 1 Inquirer report, she asked President Duterte to look into the deaths of those “judged by a cardboard”.

Beside the body of her partner and many other victims of extrajudicial killings were pieces of cardboard, labelling the body as a “drug pusher” or repeating a moral: “Don’t do drugs”.

To the homeless, discarded grocery boxes have infinite use, whether as a sleeping mat, temporary roof or kindling. Thanks to the War on Drugs, we have another use for cardboard.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s August 1, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

My complicated weekends

IT pays to read a newspaper.

I subscribe to one national daily. I borrow my mother’s two local dailies. My son and I subscribe to one international daily.

All these papers complicate my life. Only someone of my age will spend part of her weekends, holed up with old newspapers. When the husband and I are in coffee shops, I notice that while everyone is engrossed with everyone else, we are rolling our eyes at newspaper grammatical slip-ups.

I have to thank newspaper howlers, though, for making me appreciate lapsus calami more than lapsus linguae. The former is a slip of the pen while the latter, a slip of the tongue.

Both are actually interesting but I associate lapsus calami with the more calamitous. As one who writes, I find errors that end up in print last for at least 24 hours (the shelf life of printed news) or, if online, forever. For a slip of the tongue, one can blame the listener’s hearing, Catholic guilt or the usual suspect.

Only age can equip one for the hidden pleasures of newspaper reading.

I read the International New York Times (INYT) issues days, even months, late. The older son reads the digital version daily but I wait until I get to Manila, where the papers are delivered.

So how does it feel like to go through a box of old newspapers? As a college undergraduate studying journalism, I learned that news must be recent; anything beyond the 24-hour cycle of newspapers is fit only for history or an epitaph.

Well, like wine that gets better with age, the INYTs make me realize that if the writing is any good, it will keep well and linger better than journalism theories.

Take obituaries, for instance. I used to think that The Economist cornered the market on articles that inform the public about the passing away of a newsmaker until I discovered the INYT writes them shorter and no less distinctly.

The obituary comes from the medieval Latin verb “obit,” meaning “perished”. But a well-written obituary makes the reader realize the fullness of a life lived well.

On June 17, 2016, the INYT’s Margalit Fox wrote about the death of Gregory Rabassa at the age of 94.

When I was in college, an aunt gave me “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. This groundbreaking novel of magic realism is written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and translated by Mr. Rabassa.

In rendering the Spanish novel to English, Mr. Rabassa is credited as much as Mr. Garcia Marquez for the “cathedral of words”. The son of a Cuban who immigrated to New York, Mr. Rabassa recalled that his father spoke only Spanish “when he cut himself”.

However, the son’s love for words—Spanish, Portuguese, and English—eventually led to his first confrontation with the novel. How to translate “cien” in the title “Cien Años de Soledad”: “a hundred” or “one hundred”?

Fox writes that, “Professor Rabassa was an ardent believer in the aurality of text. To him, ‘a’ was an acoustic flyspeck, little more than a fleeting grunt. He chose the more durable ‘one’.”

While online portals open borderless worlds, I find that only traditional newspapers allow the reader to experience again and again what Fox describes unforgettably as Mr. Rabassa’s journey: “It is the translator’s lot to be afflicted with chronic, Talmudic agonizing—over sound, over sense, over meter, over meaning.”

Now you know why my weekends are complicated.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 31, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Living heritage

THE SON raised an eyebrow: You bought not just another one but two?

He was reacting to my sudden appearance at his side, with an unplanned purchase of two Abel Iloko hand towels.

Made of cotton and undyed, the small towels are made of cotton, woven by hand in the looms of Northern Luzon. I’ve collected about two dozens of them, while accompanying the husband to trips in Vigan.

Abel can be made of many materials, colors and designs. The most beautiful ones are bedcovers, blankets and table runners that deserve to be framed and admired, as works of art.

I cannot afford the prices of these heirloom pieces, which run to thousands of pesos. I wash the Abel by hand and don’t see myself doing the back-breaking washing demanded by a heavy sodden blanket as generations of finicky housewives may have done.

The hand towels, though, are a good compromise between art and utility. My old ones were sold at three pieces for P100 at Vigan’s Calle Crisologo.

When I was commuting to UP Diliman, the Abel would be grimy at the end of the day. After being hand-washed, the Abel would be back to its creamy softness. During the monsoon months, the towel converted into a cozy neck warmer.

Fast forward to a mall in Makati where, on the way to the MRT, our group strayed to check out a Christmas fair organized by the Department of Trade and Industry. The exhibitors were micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) selling holiday decors, gifts, processed food, bags, gems and accessories, and other products.

Wandering among the stalls, I reached the periphery and came upon a young woman tending a stall which displayed Abel Iloko.

In jeans and shirt, the young woman was a quiet counterpoint to the gemlike colors and tapestry of designs of the Abel. The other MSMEs were minded by salespersons.

However, it adds value when the vendor has a connection to the product, specially the intangible aspects that distinguish a traditional handicraft from a factory-produced commodity.

A smile swept her face when I mentioned Abel. Their firm has its own looms. It takes an experienced weaver a month to produce the panels that go into a queen-sized bed cover.

When I touched a cream-colored sheet, she said that cotton was used for the design but polyester comprised the panel. She was also honest to admit that she did not know the names of the designs displayed in the bolts of weaving. Honest and informed: a surfeit of virtues in a person so young.

The hand towels were sold at P50 apiece. Cream-colored, the cotton rectangles had, at each end, three parallel lines in color to relieve the simplicity. If one looked closely, the Abel was not plain at all. There was a web of hexagons connected by a chain of links. Like the Vigan towels, every Abel weaver has a particular design.

It is hard to imagine that a lot of effort and artistry goes into an article used to wipe away sweat. Even harder to ponder is that Abel, priced this low (one is spared the whole-day drive to Vigan, one way), will have to compete with a thick, heavy imported hand towel made of “100% cotton made in India,” sold in supermarkets and priced thrice as much.

This is my longwinded reply to my son’s query. If we want heritage to surround us and not gather dust in museums, we must buy Filipino.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 24, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Love letters

“MARKING papers” is an inevitability if one embraces teaching as a calling. The expression may confuse some but is actually more accurate than the Filipinism we favor: “checking papers”.

In reply to an expat colleague, who commented on the uncommon number of teachers bent over their desks in the faculty room, I explained that we were “checking papers”.

When she came back to the room to refill her mug of tea, she said that the expression was quite new to her. Indeed, reviewing papers means more often pointing out slips and gaps in the work than making neat little check marks.

Generations of students have this one abiding memory of being in my class: a trail of “bloody” papers inevitably demanding to be rewritten and resubmitted for more “marking”.

The journalist who taught me how to write news in college narrated how her teacher favored a green pen for checking copy.

The tradition was to use a blue pencil since typewriter ribbons came then in only two colors: black and red. “Blue penciling” meant scribbled “love notes” an editor left on copy that should not be ignored by a “green” reporter who wanted to spend a lifetime with ink-stained fingers.

Personally, I like red pens. Nothing like the impact of red against white paper to stand as visual semaphores: Replace that verb! Are you stringing along adjectives? What’s wrong with a period? Check, spell, get it right.

The advent of computers was supposed to lessen the writer’s post-editing traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Tidy, neatly-aligned-to-the-right balloons contained the editor’s comments, insertions and deletions instead of the slashes and unreadable, unprintable comments of the blue-pencil era.

I don’t mark copy in this virtual, bloodless manner. I tell my students it’s a compliment to have this kind of close, obsessive, ferocious reading of their works. Pay attention to your reader. Listen to what she thinks. If the copy is returned to you without marks, it may be already perfect. Or it was never read at all.

This midyear, seven students chose to apprentice with print newsrooms. That’s about 10 percent of a batch whose predominant choices leaned towards corporate or development communications.

This “Magnificent 7” intrigued me. Millennials have a different way of reading and, presumably, of writing. Of all the kinds of writing, news writing for the print medium is the least expressive, the most self-effacing, the most enveloped by conventions and standards.

At least two student moaned that they would never get a story published.

That was at the start of the course. The stories told by their writer’s journal tells another thing. At the completion of 200 hours, an intern submits a compilation of their published works. I require they pass the entire printed or online page so I can see how the editor treated their article and grade them accordingly.

More telling than the editorial treatment is the student’s filing of their body of works. Some articles were filed in the folios as if the writer was in a bloody hurry, impatient with an assignment once passed, already focused on the next one and the next deadline.

Other interns file their articles, even those of a few column inches, in a scrapbook to be scanned some day with a grandchild on one’s lap, hanging on intently to the retelling of the backstory behind each article. Once upon a red pen…

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 17, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”