Saturday, March 25, 2017

Fellowship of the bookcases

SIX of us gathered around a couple of tables.

Meet our fellowship. Cheking is the preternatural idealist. Farseeing, he is donating journalism books to the Cebu City Public Library (CCPL).

Three of us teach. I assume the others presume teachers know libraries the way priests in confessionals are intimate with every bared soul’s warp and stain.

Newsroom colleagues, Kent is yang to Cherry’s yin. In the duality of interconnectedness, yang is light. Kent will design the shelves to hold the books after the fellowship makes up its mind.

Until this miracle comes about, it is Cherry’s task to guide us out of the dark of confusion. In another life before editing, Cherry must have been a wartime general.

Stratagems should be Cherry Ann’s third name. Her three-page email summarizing shelving options for the Cebu Journalism and Journalists (CJJ) Books Project shames my skills in planning, writing, and housekeeping:

“The distance of the short beige cabinets from the tall gray cabinet on the left is 17 inches, and from the brown wooden cabinet on the right is 10-1/4 inches. This means if we put short cabinets that are wider than the cabinets now sitting there, these short cabinets may occupy a total width of up to 100 inches only.”

Other members in the fellowship include CCPL librarian Mrs. Rosario Chua. According to Cherry’s lean, no-word-no-nail-wasted Mar. 18 report, Mrs. Chua “nixed” the idea of purchasing bookcases with glass doors.

Open cabinets expose the books to air, she advised. Don’t let molds move in.

I have donated books to libraries and not once have I thought of the space that will hold them. A sentimentalist, I imagined the books would fly off the shelves and become bedtime companions or storytime staples.

So this old heart skipped several beats when I read Cherry’s report and saw the pictures of the library “abandoned” when the SunStar editorial team moved offices.

I remember when editors grudgingly walked away from their monitors to open and pore over the library’s dictionaries and maps. Dust made one editor sneeze her head off; she checked anyway.

Will journalists in the future ask a librarian for vertical files? Will a librarian still be around to be asked?

Like a good general who discards sentiment for tactics, Cherry suggested recycling the cabinets, for which she had to “step over some dead roaches” to measure.

As of this writing, our fellowship is mulling how to classify the books.

In an age when a smartphone holds hundreds of titles and scanning has displaced reading, this odd company heeds an ancient nesting instinct to provide for arguably the best human invention: books.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s March 26, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Into the light

THE “SATURDAY Special” was dinner fare my sister and I, growing up, memorized. The night before Sunday marketing, our household always ran out of food.

The quick and cheap solution to Saturday dinner was scrambled eggs and chorizo. The latter—ground meat stuffed into small balls tied from a coil of pork intestine—mesmerized and repelled.

Frying split the skin, releasing an oozing trail of pink-colored fat. When I saw my first salvaged victim, dumped outside a factory on the way to school, Saturday Special immediately came to mind.

It was hard to see the body, hogtied and bloated in decomposition, had been a person.

A similar problem afflicts the characters in F. H. Batacan’s “Smaller and Smaller Circles”. First released as a novella, the 2015 novel is set in 1997, when the bodies of young boys are found in Payatas.

As invisible as the alluded tautology—dumped in the mother of all dumps—is the possibility of a pattern behind the killings.

To prove or disprove this would require gathering and studying the evidence. This involves not just resources but the will to prioritize the investigation.

In Batacan’s corrupt and cynical Manila, the problem is: everyone sees but no one cares when the poorest of the poor die.

As metaphors, dumpsites have few rivals. Until a landslide of trash in Payatas killed more than 200 scavengers and left 300 missing in 2010, few Filipinos pondered how trash dumped heedlessly grew into a mountain.

Today, Payatas, Smokey Mountain in Tondo, and Inayawan in Cebu City not just overshadow the barangays where they are located. They have become “poverty porn symbols,” beloved of filmmakers and politicians.

The expression, “payat sa taas,” means the top soil is not fertile for planting crops. The new tillers of these forsaken places, scavengers know that only digging deep will bring to light the trash that can be sold for the day’s meal.

“To dig” is the key to salvation in “Smaller and Smaller Circles”. Reject blindness, expressed by a police official’s denial: “there are no serial killers in the Philippines… We’re too Catholic, too God-fearing, too fearful of scandal”.

To dig is also to peel away the pretensions of power. After a cleric defends the confidentiality surrounding Church investigations of priests accused of sexual abuse, a law enforcement official counters, “Is… (the) credibility (of the Church) built on what people don’t know, rather than what they do know?”

Just before gazing at another body found in Payatas, a priest prays: “Please, God, let the face remind me this used to be a human being.”

If we heed the disquiet, these times call for us to dig.

( 09173226131)

*First published in the March 19, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column of Sun.Star Cebu, “Matamata”

Saturday, March 11, 2017

No small miracle

I WISH there were more Jesuits like Father Gus Saenz.

First, he has a bookshelf I wouldn’t mind spending endless detention hours with: Asterix comics, glossy art books, and “DNA in the Courtroom” (although to be honest, I prefer “CSI” reruns: more Hollywood than science).

He has democratic, even “reprobate” taste in music: Gregorian chants and rock music, which he plays very loud while cutting up bodies.

When fellow priest and protégé Jeremy Lucero complains about R. E. M. blasting into their ears during an autopsy, Father Gus defends the rock band whose greatest hit is “Losing My Religion”: “Don’t knock it. It’s the closest either of us will ever get to sex.”

F. H. Batacan’s creation of a character with a complex inner and outer life is a good enough reason to rush to the nearest bookstore for “Smaller and Smaller Circles” before the copies disappear altogether.

The plain truth is that in this country, books written by Filipinos rarely share the gilded reprinting destinies of foreign bestsellers like the Harry Potter series and “Fifty Shades of Grey”.

According to Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo in her University of the Philippines (UP) Press book, “Over a Cup of Ginger Tea: Conversations on the Literary Narratives of Filipino Women,” the first printing of English-language books written by Filipinos usually runs only to 1,000 copies.

It’s no small miracle that “Smaller and Smaller Circles” was reprinted four times since it was first published as a novella by the UP Press in 2002. The slim book became an underground favorite. Total number of copies reprinted by 2006: 6,000.

By then, the novella gathered the critics’ nods: the Grand Prize for the Novel in English at the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in 1999; the Philippine National Book Award from the Manila Critics’ Circle in 2002; and the Madrigal Gonzalez Best First Book Award in 2003.

 The copy I recently bought from a local bookstore is from the 2015 printing by independent New York publisher Soho Crime of “Smaller and Smaller Circles,” the novel.

For three years, its author rewrote and expanded the novella from the original 155 pages into the novel’s 357 pages.

The author is Maria Felisa H. Batacan, who worked for 10 years with the Philippine intelligence community, before going into broadcast journalism and crime and mystery fiction writing. She was a fellow at the 1996 Silliman University National Writers Workshop.

Marketing a book through its cover, blurbs neatly summarize the F. H. Batacan behind “Smaller and Smaller Circles”. But blurbs cannot justly capture what makes this novel about a serial killer in 1997 resound to this day. (To be continued)

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s March 12, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Summer mysteries

CATCHING sight of the modest starbursts of yellow in our water apple tree, I realized that summer is here.

The tiny flowers with many stamens promise that the bell-shaped fruits will soon be out. I grew up thinking that the fruits saturated in pink verging on the red were the juiciest and sweetest.

The tree in our small garden, though, yields only the greenish white bells of the parent tree from which it was marcotted. Their pale jade wakes a memory of sourness, only to be dispelled when the first bite brings a watering, overflowing tart sweetness.

Like children and water apples, summers change. Of all the occupations I held, I stayed longest with teaching perhaps because it left me summers to enjoy.

Two months of freedom from school and routine challenged my sister and I to think of ways to rush sunrise into sunset. Long after we tired of eating, playing, quarrelling, and watching TV, the day was still far from over.

So I read. When I was finished with the books at home, I reread those I liked.

Then I got tired even with the ones I liked. So I wrote.

I discovered empty sheets in old notebooks, and converted these spaces into an impatient, furious confessional. Some stories I rewrote and reread to myself.

School interrupted. But there was always summer to look forward to.

Now, whenever I see summer’s flowers—white stars dotting the water apple tree, the dirty yellow carpet shed by trees growing on the wayside, orange flames engulfing fire trees—I think of the mysteries of reading and writing.

As a consequence of the shift to the August to May international academic calendar, the midyear term has affected summer.

Yet, it may take time for the rationale of improved competitiveness brought about by synchronization with the global community to seep in and transform summer, which, in this country, embraces not just climate but also culture and consciousness.

Recently, I saw on my table a story handwritten and illustrated on a ruled yellow sheet of paper. Its author is Athea, 9.

She loves to plant herbs with her two younger brothers. When she discovered how much herbs fetch in markets, she made up her mind to grow and sell them.

Athea and her brothers have mixed cement, sand, and water to help the carpenters building their home. She has also made up her mind to become an architect.

In a haste to grow up, Athea makes time to read Geronimo Stilton. She can only focus on her tablet for half an hour. Then she gets restless and looks for a sheet of paper and pencil.

Her tale of two friends and their floating pumpkin came from one such interval in Athea’s crammed, full life. And for her, summer—a lifetime of summers—has yet to begin.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s March 5, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”