Saturday, May 26, 2018


WELL, I kept my teeth.

If I were mathematically inclined, I would figure out the exact rate at which I shed hair, sleep, pacifist outlook, everything except teeth and extra pounds these past weeks that I have been counting words, pages, and references, which in graduate studies, translate to tokens for passage in a realm for which claustrophobia seems like an insect’s affectionate nuzzle.

On the day I submitted the final sheaf of papers, I walked out of the campus and hit three bookstores with only one thing in mind: read anything without a footnote or a citation in the APA format.

Readers who remember Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale of Rappaccini’s daughter, a maiden raised on poison, know how the conceit ends: I bought more of the poison perhaps to test how much more I could take.

“The Devil in the Philippines” is not about contemporary strongmen. It is a translation of Isabelo de los Reyes’s “Ang Diablo sa Filipinas Ayon sa Nasasabi sa mga Casulatan Luma sa Kastila,” first serialized in 1886 in a Manila newspaper and then published in his first book, written when Isabelo was 23 years old.

In 2014, Anvil Publishing Inc. published “The Devil” to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of a “great Filipino and human being, ” according to Benedict Anderson, who, with Carlos Sardiña Galache and Ramon Guillermo, translated and annotated this edition.

Our heroes are all calcified. Yet, in “The Devil,” I re-view Don Belong, the “Father of Philippine Folklore Studies,” as a hero deserving of his own cult even though his writing was deflected away from himself and focused on subjects he thought Filipinos should be passionate about: prehistory that was not framed by the lens of colonizers; the essential narrative of the local and peripheral, which must not be equated with and be obliterated by the dominant discourse dictated by the Manila-centric; and most importantly, the lore of our ancestors that Spanish missionaries and our “educated” biases have downgraded as “superstitions”.

In spite of but also because of footnotes that run for a page or more, “The Devil” engrosses because of Don Belong’s tale of two men trying to get their hands on a magical book in a dead man’s renowned library, as well as the academic spadework and, heretically yes, the fun uniting the fellowship of, as described by Anderson, “three Filipinos, one Spaniard, one Indonesian, two Americans, and one happy old Irishman” solving the labyrinth to get to the nub of Don Belong’s tale of “demonio, demonito, and Diablo”.

As Don Belong recounts, God came with the conquistadores. So did the Devil.

Happily or unhappily for us, the Diablo has not yet decamped from our happy isles.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 27, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Color of silence

I SAT in a room with other graduate students being briefed about an exam we will be taking next month in a computer laboratory.

Frequently, the unasked is often more important than the initial salvo of questions fired. As it turned out, the most interesting question was asked before the meeting wrapped up.

It wasn’t even a question. A young man across me made a request: Can lab technicians be requested not to wash up while the exam was ongoing?

The graduate studies head replied he would make a note of it. My seatmate murmured that she blanked out when everyone’s laptop keys started exploding around her while she was still reading the exam instructions.

Having first typed my reports with the family’s humongous Underwood, I find the click-clacking of keys comforting. “Banging away” has a literary, not a sexual, allusion for me.

Used to a newsroom’s incessant sounds—phones ringing, TV blaring news, writers reading to themselves a draft—I find the academe’s preference for silence redolent of its ivory tower repute.

According to the Internet, Frederick Rothwell and Cloudesley Shovell Henry Brereton cautioned in their 1911 book, “H. L. Bergson’s Laughter,” that scholars must take time to listen to the barbarians: “Each member (of society) must be ever attentive to his social surroundings—he must avoid shutting himself up in his own peculiar character as a philosopher in his ivory tower.”

I was working in our college library, crammed but as silent as a place full of students making final term requirements can be, when a young man in the next table started wailing.

Some of us looked up. I thought his laptop crashed; he missed a deadline. The fellow walked out and entered the toilet, where he yelled even louder. He returned to his table, pale but more composed. Later, I learned that his friend broke up with him over the phone.

No way to sidestep disaster when it comes in pairs: dumped while writing a final paper. Silence, however, must still be observed.

White noise “can lull us to sleep by drowning out any background noise,” Meghan Neal wrote in a Feb. 16, 2016 article “The Atlantic” published about “The many colors of sound”.

Audio engineers, who decode the soundscape, say that when we hear all the frequencies audible to humans, the “sonic stew” is strangely soothing.

What we prize in academe—silence—also has a color. Representing a “spectral density of roughly zero power at every frequency,” silence is the opposite of “all frequencies at once” or white noise.

Writes Neal: “black is the color of silence.”

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 20, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, May 13, 2018


THE MYTH is that in universities, God is dead. While it is true that Karl Marx’s recent 200th birthday was celebrated by some zealots as if it were the Second Coming, the pews in our usually empty church found a number of bench warmers.

Though a seat of learning, the university’s end-of-term final exams and requirements always put a spike on “permutations” of the spirit.

I see more of us at church, remorseful for denying deadlines or seeking at least a postponement.

Certainly, God is not dead. He is just rubbing elbows with lesser gods.

Towering above my university quarters is an ancient mango tree. On certain nights, while a classmate and I go over our theory papers, a mango fruit falls nearby, exploding the quiet of our street.

T. and I immediately stop talking. She continues her walk home and I pass through the gate. Mangoes fall all the time. Yet, I am not willing to disregard a fruit aimed and hurled by a spirit like the “mangmangkik,” perhaps driven to irritation by so much foreign-influenced theorizing.

The tree-worshipping ancient Ilocanos sought permission from the “mangmangkik,” the “anito (secondary god)” residing in trees, by chanting “Bari-bari, don’t be disturbed, my friend”.

The “katatao-an” or “sangkabagi” is the “anito” of space. Living in trees, the invisible “katatao-an” travel at night on huge boats called barangays that “fly through air like aerostatic globes,” according to Isabelo Florentino de los Reyes, writer of the Propaganda Movement.

In 1890, the acknowledged Father of Philippine Folklore Studies included a chapter on Ilocano myths in his writing of the prehistory of Ilocos.

According to the English translation by Maria Elinora Peralta-Imson of “History of Ilocos” (UP Press, 2014), de los Reyes, by recording local mythology, rescued its effacement at the hands of Spanish missionaries who dismissed native religion as the “superstition” of the unlettered Indio.

The Ilocano’s “bari-bari” has no equivalent in Spanish or English. But it resonates in the Cebuano expression of “tabi, tabi” I mutter when walking in the dark and anxious not to trespass on the space of unseen others. I heed the explosive sound of a fruit suddenly falling nearby and go inside the dwelling, not waiting to hear something hiss in the dark, “sst-sst” or “kwek-kwek”.

I shutter the windows when reading late or studying at dawn. I don’t want to attract a wandering “sangkabagi,” who “appear at midnight at the windows or the holes of the houses of their chosen few from where they awaken them with a barely perceptible voice,” wrote de Los Reyes.

Writing 128 years ago, de los Reyes helps me understand my Filipino soul, once deciphered only through the foreign and the alien.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 13, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, May 05, 2018

“Still enough”

ON Mar. 3, World Press Freedom Day, I realised how the world is still split between the information haves and have-nots.

At the 2018 Philippine Journalism Research Conference conducted by the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman Journalism Department, I listened to journalists discuss how practitioners, by returning again and again to “good journalism,” sustain “the fight” for “democracy” and against “disinformation”.

In the afternoon, I joined other judges as students from private and public universities presented their academic news analyses, academic journalism studies, special projects, and investigative reports.

Like the media professionals, these young communication researchers tackled issues created by the excess of information and the resulting cultural tumult.

Yet, one encounter reminded me that the other side of today’s information traffic is silence.

I had trawled online, as well as searched the database of the university’s library system. No copy of this book was available. So when I ran into my graduate professor, who has an extensive library of e-books, I asked if she had a copy of “Silences”.

Who wrote it? my teacher asked. I forgot; I had to look in my phone’s memo to remember: Tillie Olsen.

More are familiar with Virginia Woolf, who speculated that if Shakespeare had a sister, she might have passed away without writing a single word because she was a woman of her time.

In 1929, Woolf wrote that the women passing away in silence “live” on “in you and me and in many women who are not here tonight because they are washing the dishes or putting the children to sleep.”

In the 1930s, Olsen needed more than “a room of one’s own,” the metaphor used by Woolf to describe the “full freedom and courage (needed) to write what is in our minds”.

She was a mother of four. She organized workers and was jailed. She lived in the margins, waiting after her children slept or using bus rides to read, make notes, or copy passages from books she could not afford to buy.

“Almost no mothers—almost no part-time, part-self persons—have created enduring literatures,” Olsen wrote in “Silences” (1978), the “unnatural” silences that are about the “unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being”.

Yet, despite a thin body of works, Olsen lives on in other writers drawing on her words. I would like to think it is Olsen speaking through the mother ironing the clothes of her teenage daughter in her short story, “I Stand Here Ironing”: “So all that is in her will not bloom… There is still enough to live by… Only help her to know… that she is more than this dress, helpless before the iron.”

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 6, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”