Sunday, October 28, 2018

Beyond scandal

A FEW days ago, I cut two sprigs of bamboo from the grove in the garden, and stuck these in a bottle of water. This morning, the buds remain tightly rolled except instead of morning dew clinging to the spray, which now have a yellowish cast, there are three flies.

Strange fruits. The immobile globules drawing sustenance from the bamboo remind me of life coursing, unseen but resisting, in the stems that I will have to throw out in a day or two.

It is the morning I wake from my friend’s recounting of her rape by a fellow writer decades ago. Women’s advocates hail the reporting of rape, harassment, and other forms of sexual violence. More victims are coming out into the open; more are naming the nameless.

Have we finally succeeded in putting the survivors of sexual violence into the scope of visibility so we can no longer ignore and must do something about this crime?

Or are they just an exhibit, of which we, too, are part?

Remembering those drunken flies feasting on the dying bamboo, I wonder if journalism only normalizes sexual violence. The Oct. 24 sacking of the Philippine National Police Academy director over recent allegations of sexual abuse involving students and teachers may be framed as justice.

Is the latest sex scandal one because someone exposed the crime? Or because the crime involved mentors and students in an institution that trains future enforcers of rule and order?

Isn’t it more than a scandal to imagine how they will cope with the rest of their lives, those two plebes punished into performing oral sex on each other while watched by upperclassmen?

What about other lives cut by sexual violence that will never come out on newsprint or as soundbites? What about the certainty that those police trainees were not the only nor the last to be abused?

When a male friend recounted how, to enter college, he and four other young men stripped naked for examination in a common room, his feeling of debasement focused on the tip of the ruler with which he and the others were probed in all orifices.

The sexual orientations of the examiners did not even matter; the power that could normalize the personally abnormal by linking this with the socially desirable—abasement for education—marked him all these years.

Recounting the decades-old history with the male writer who raped her and the female writer who helped him carry this out, my friend said: “(The abuse) never leaves you. It is always there. This sharp memory. I still know his smell, his skin, his penis. I will not unknow it.”

Feeling a trespasser for “waking” these memories, I apologized. Her reply: “They are not memories. Write me well.”

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStarCebu’s October 28, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 20, 2018


THE MEMORIES came unbidden, released by a line I read for class.

The first took place when I was a teenager. For an X-ray requirement, I was removing my shirt and bra inside a government facility when the male technician suddenly returned to the room.

It was my first time. I was not given a lab gown. My father explained that during the procedure, no one would be allowed in the room except for the technician and I. X-rays were painless.

My father was right. It was over very quickly: the technician stood in front of me, snatched the shirt I was covering myself with, and took the X-ray.

I don’t remember if the technician was old or young, fat or thin. Some details remain sharp, though. I could not steady my fingers to refasten my bra even though the man stepped out as soon as the X-ray was taken. The room was chilly yet I burned, burned inside when the man looked down my chest.

We went home after the hospital. My father talked about something. We did not talk about what happened. After all, what can happen while one’s X-rays are taken?

Decades later, my son and I were going home after his grade school classes. When the van for hire stopped in front of our home, it was just my son, an elderly couple who lived in our village, and I who were left.

My son and I had to pass the husband, who was seated nearest the door. The avuncular fellow tilted his legs and helped my son down the van’s steps.

The man kept chatting with his wife, seated in front of us, when I followed with my bags and my son’s schoolbag. I felt his hands hold the seat of my pants and squeeze.

I dropped one of the bags in my hurry to get out of the van. Our neighbor did not look at me when he pulled the door shut and the van drove away.

Did it happen? I asked myself many times after the second incident. Today, more than a decade later, I can answer definitely. There are impressions that create a memory with the solidity beyond denial. The spread-out fingers covering and squeezing my buttocks are as real as the eyes that scoured my adolescent breasts, never even seen by my parents.

Why did I not call out the abuse? I never asked this question until a few days ago, when I read, stopped, and picked up reading again Sara Ahmed’s “Living a Feminist Life”. Ahmed summoned the memories with the line used by women in self-flagellation: “if something happens, you have failed to prevent it”.

In a roundabout way, I found my answers: I was afraid my father would blame me. I was afraid I imagined the abuse. I was afraid of being vulnerable. I was afraid.

I am no longer afraid. This is my answer to the girl left in the X-ray room and the woman holding the bags. I am not afraid.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s October 21, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What sky brings

IT must be the angles of those legs, drawn as if by a child whose hand could not yet steady a crayon.

After I saw the Little Egrets recently flocking on the campus grounds, I now take a jeepney seat facing the grasslands across the University of the Philippines (UP) Press bookstore.

In the four years I’ve studied here, this was the first I’ve seen the Egretta garzetta congregate like starched white pillowcases blown helter-skelter off a line.

A full-time student, I spend the bulk of my days in the library. If someone pulled out the sky and replaced it with tarpaulin, I may not even notice.

A knapsack holding my laptop and books is my only incentive to take note of the sky. Walking once under heavily dripping trees, I looked up and wondered whether I should unfurl an umbrella when I spotted a flash of yellow in the dense green-black gloom of the canopy.

That was my first sight of Oriolus chinensis in the stand leading to the National Institute for Science and Mathematics Education Department (Nismed) of UP Diliman.

The Black-naped Oriole is the Antulihaw to Visayans and the Kilyawan to Tagalogs.

Amado C. Bajarias Jr. in his “A Field Guide to Flight” quotes a proverb, “Wisdom begins… when one puts the right name to a thing.” Published by the Ateneo de Manila University in 2016, his book is subtitled “Identifying Birds on Three School Grounds”.

Bajarias, with lush illustrations from Oscar M. Figuracion Jr., guides even the amateur birdwatcher to the movement of the winged warblers and “skulkers” around three campuses: Ateneo de Manila University and Miriam College, both in the Loyola Heights District; and the UP campus in the Diliman district.

He considers as “the more (sic) important birding area” the UP Diliman, with its 493 hectares of grasslands, stands of acacia and fruit trees (with its insects, staple in bird diets), “even an agricultural field and a wetland”. Only the state university is also accessible to the public.

Known as Talabong in Visayan and Tagak in Tagalog, the Little Egret is one of the 29 families considered as “winter visitors,” according to the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines as cited by Bajarias. The Little Egret is a solitary forager but not shy, a fortunate adaptation because the grasslands the Talabong favor is along a busy route for Ikot jeepneys and cars.

Once slaughtered by milliners for the Aigrettes, the elegant plumes they sport during mating rituals, foraging Little Egrets remind me of ascetics bent over their prayer beads or academics drowsing over their books.

When the birds take wing, I see why they are God’s creatures: I catch a glimpse of the sky, the everlasting.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s October 14, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Happy endings

I WENT into a secondhand bookstore to get my mother a magazine of pictures showing the lovely frocks of actors attending a recent ball, but left it with a book about a barn of old, useless animals.

I was sidetracked by this personage encountered on the first page: “He was the color of old metal, broad-faced with thick whiskers and dark lines that ran from his nose to his forehead and down his back and sides. His coat was rumpled and slack, for all he was big. His paws were black, his tail was thick and ringed with black circles. It swelled out at the end like a fox’s brush. When he stood or sat, he rocked slightly from side to side like a punch-drunk fighter. He was stiff and walked low to the ground. His left ear hung down like a loose flap. He wasn’t old, but he looked beaten up.”

So I met Whittington, Alan Armstrong’s protagonist in the eponymous novel for young readers.

A “book for kids” is a misleading genre. True, there is a barn full of animals, all outtalking the humans.

From the standpoint of animals, a farm is hell on earth. One’s place in a barn is secured by the usefulness of either one’s existence or death: a horse must work and fowls mean either eggs or meat.

When two old racehorses are about to be sold as horsemeat, Bernie converted a tobacco shed that no longer held tobacco so he could keep the horses because he “just liked (horses)”.

So the shed becomes a sanctuary for Blackie, a lame hen who froze in the snow; Havey, a stray who turns out to be a “biter;” Whittington, thrown out by the parents of his master when he goes away to college; and other written-off pets.

Too many people like pets when they are novel and cute; for the pet, though, the connection is for life. As Aramis, the old gelding, explains to Whittington, “We’re helping Bernie raise his grandkids.”

The grandson Ben, a non-reader, is helped by his sister Abby every day at the barn. Lady, the barn matriarch, privately thinks ducks and other animals “had gotten along without reading,” but still organizes all the animals to support the children during the long, anxious reading lessons.

Rewarding Ben and Abby are the storytelling breaks by Whittington. This fanged and furred Scheherazade narrates how his nameless ancestor improves the fortunes of Dick Whittington, whose legendary struggles inspire Ben not to give up despite the bullying in school.

In “The Arabian Nights,” Scheherazade saves her life by telling stories. In “Whittington,” the redemptive power of stories starts with but goes beyond reading.

When Lady falls sick, Ben revives her with a story about herself: “Ben told about her encouraging his reading. ‘She taught me about taking charge of myself’.”

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s October 7, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”