Tuesday, October 09, 2007


[First published in The Philippine Star, October 8, 2007]

Two from the Bay Area
ZOETROPE By Juaniyo Arcellana
Monday, October 8, 2007

Jarjar Binks left for the Bay Area very possibly with one old copy of Granta, a special issue titled “Unbelievable,” that featured the death of the Princess Diana of Wales and the accompanying hyperbolic media coverage. The subtitle read, “Unlikely ends, fateful escapes, and the fascism of flowers.”

We can well imagine Jarjar leafing through the somewhat dog-eared copy of what’s been described as the paperback magazine of new writing, then looking wistfully out the window of an apartment on the rolling streets of San Francisco, we’re not sure if she has a glimpse of the bay and the almost mythic golden bridge, but with Granta there is always the sensation of the nearness of water.

So Jarjar joins a growing legion of our Filipino compatriots who have relocated to San Francisco, Oakland, and their environs, even if only for a more or less temporary basis or until visa runs out, whichever comes first or is more feasible.

Among the long-time exiles by choice is Benjamin Pimentel, who worked for National Midweek after the first EDSA revolt and the San Francisco Chronicle when he migrated to the United States, and who has lately sent a manuscript to the Ateneo de Manila University Press, his first novel Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street, published middle of this year.

That it is written in Filipino or the native Tagalog should perhaps make it all the more significant, as noted by another expatriate writer on the West Coast, Oscar Peñaranda.

Mga Gerilya tells the different stories of a group of Filipino veterans of the Pacific War who are forever waiting for the equity benefits promised to them by the US administration, with all the attendant heartaches, shifting dramas back and forth in time and to the home country and back to Powell Street, where they while away the hours engaged in small talk and good old fashioned ribbing and sentimental reminiscing of life in ’Pinas, which to most of them seems like a dream now.

Pimentel, who also wrote the biography of the late middle class revolutionary Edgar Jopson, relies mostly on dialogue to develop his characters and flesh out the plot, and the barebones functional narrative owes as much to his mentor Pete Lacaba for the lack of artifice and its political correctness, as to Lualhati Bautista in its seething potential for translation into cinema: there’s even a scene where the old-timers gather around a modest dinner of Kentucky Fried and some well-kept booze, kidding each other on which actors they would choose to play their life story.

And speaking of political correctness, the reader cannot also help but be reminded of Carlos Bulosan, particularly on the underlying theme of being a stranger in a strange land, not only in terms of the characters in the novel but also the writer himself who through his fiction must eventually face off with his own alienation.

In this wise it was a good decision for Pimentel to write his first novel in the native tongue, and so make us privy to the almost occult world of the veteran old-timer on Powell Street, which cannot just be any street on that hemisphere, and at the same time cure his own version of homesickness.

It is a bittersweet story, but throughout its disillusions and disenchantments, there still rings true the unshakable voice of a Filipino that says country is not just of the imagination, but a very real respite from homelessness.

Another writer who has been abroad longer than Pimentel or Jarjar Binks, also on the West Coast but more specifically in the Napa Valley area, is the Fil-Am Eileen Tabios, who comes out with books as if they were going out of style, then again maybe they are.

Her latest, and according to her the last in a long while, is The Light Sang as It Left Your Eyes (Marsh Hawk Press), subtitled “Our Autobiography.” And though the selections here are classified as poetry one isn’t really sure as Tabios has been known to subvert the genres almost as if it were a fetish, perhaps even deriving some  satisfaction out of our inability to place her under one label or category.

The Light Sang is a heart wrenching chronicle of the death of her father, a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of how the Tabios patriarch wastes away on a hospital bed, as well as the diffuse aftermath of regret, catharsis, self-examination, whatnot, whatever it is a poet or writer needs to come to terms with oneself and one’s past.

Indeed there are several sections that seem too personal, and make the reader feel like a voyeur or intruder, or for us to suspect that the writer is something of an exhibitionist. Maybe it is a little bit of both sides of the existential coin.

The writer makes good use of autobiography as in itself a conceit for her poetry, a construct that when left alone may soon enough crumple by the wayside like the shattered feeling of one who has just been orphaned.

Tabios’ evocations too of her hometown Baguio are both wistful and winsome, though in instances contrived like the references to Marcos and the episode of the fishheads when as children she withheld them from her kid brother, also now departed.

It however is a good sign that the writer has called time for reflection, giving us leeway to digest such prior mind benders like Secret Life of Punctuations and Dredging for Atlantis. Books never go out of style anyway, neither poetry, which might be the only verse that outlives us. To poetry then, to poetry: From bay to glimmering bay, and Jarjar reading about the dead Diana on the other side of the world.


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