Me, Mike and Manny circa 1966

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Reigning Queens and Kings of Story

for NVM Gonzalez, in gratitude

On this two-hour ferry from Batangas to Mindoro, a breeze blows about us and the not-so-hot sun shifts in time with the sea.  More than one hundred passengers are tucked in different pockets of this vessel—high on the deck, around the railings and hidden in air-conditioned spaces below.  Twelve passengers from the NVM Gonzalez Centennial Writing Workshop ride this boat in search of a good story.  Some of the writers are from the United States.  One is living and teaching in Hong Kong, but he too is originally from the Northwest.  One writer lives in the Bay Area and at 86, is on her way to her hometown in Calapan.  Several of the writers are graduates from the University of the Philippines.  One young woman studies opera, but her mother was a student of the writer NVM Gonzales and so she is taking this course, in honor of the late Philippine national treasure.  I have been invited to teach the workshop and have traveled from my home in Miami.

            “Let me give you some context,” Michael Gonzalez tells us when we first board.  “Thirty years ago, you would have been riding with pigs and cows.  Thirty years ago, this would have been a twelve hour ride.”  Michael runs the workshop once every two years at one of the universities where his father taught. This year it is the University of the Philippines. Now we are going to NVM’s Mindoro, where Michael also grew up.

            Our van is parked on the deck below, along with other buses and cars.  The writers scatter among the passengers.  Someone drinks a three-in-one. It’s a packet of instant coffee that has the powdered milk and sugar mixed in.  It tastes more like hot cocoa than coffee.  The NVM writers are a jolly group and no matter where they sit, I can hear them making chica chica, laughing loudly, charming one another.

This workshop is only a week long and there is much to do.  How will we find the time to talk about race, culture, class and write our stories too?  I am more concerned with generating work than workshopping it.  You can always workshop your stories later.  First you must find them.  First you must write them.

I have asked my charges to interview their families and discover a secret they have never known.  I have asked them to read articles by Gloria Anzuldua (who talks of the spiritual practice of writing stories) and RoxanneGay (who questions white writers like Kathryn Stocket, who conjure up ill-conceived stories of magical negroes) and my own essay that talks about integrating Tagalog dialog within the English text.  I have asked them to meditate on EdwidgeDanticat’s “Prayer for the Dying” and sing a song to our ancestors (in karaoke and a capella and at grand pianos we find along the way). 

           I lean on a railing and watch the sea, bluer and greener than anything I could have imagined.  In the distance, palm trees poke up from tropical mountainscapes, and coffee-colored beaches invite us to wade in the sea.  
M.G. from Oak Park, Illinois, tells me the story of her story, a novel that reaches back through our history to the pre-colonial Spanish, to the Babaylan of the islands, when women were men’s equals, when healers were also community leaders and stories had the power to save lives.  She has made offerings to the ancestors.  She has asked them for their stories. She has been silent and she has been taking in all the elements of story—researching, reading and listening. 

Later, I will sit in the air-conditioned hull of this ferry, on torn leather seats lined in theater fashion before a huge flat screen TV.  I will watch a Tagalog movie as I listen to Penelope tell me about her great uncle’s adventures with novelist Jose Rizal.  Her story takes place all over Vienna, Spain, and Germany and is born of her great uncle’s diaries.  Lisa will talk about the way she landed in the Philippines in search of her family in Cebu.  And still, later on, Claire will read me a story of a native woman, barren and frantic, because she has lost her fertility amulet somewhere in the middle of a tropical rain forest.

I am thinking of this journey we are taking on planes and ferries and diesel-fueled vans as a pilgrimage.  And while we focus on how to write a scene, how to develop authentic characters, and how to write a tight sentence, we also travel back to our ancestral landscape to find our stories.

Chris is a tall Fil-Am.  He has many ancestors from around the world, including Filipino.  He is halo-halo with family who migrated from the Philippines to Hawaii.  When I go to the spa across the street from our hotel in Calapan, the lady asks me if I know the foreigner who came in earlier.  His stories are about the diasporic Asian American traveling Asia.  His characters are in search of their most authentic sexual identity.  No home.  No context.  No sense of belonging.  When you look at Chris and think about it, you can see the Filipino blood.  When you hear him talk—he is all-out American. “I only recently found out I was Filipino,” he tells me. But his stories run deep into our identity.  That people look at him and say foreigner wherever he goes is all our stories too.

When I returned to the Philippines in 1998, I found writers asking, who has a right to these stories?  These are stories of Filipinos and you are foreigners.  You might not get it right, anyway.  These are not your stories.

They’re not?

For years now, I have heard this reasoning in one form or another.  I have been told that for some Filipino writers, the act of Fil-Am writers, balikbayan, flying into NAIA on Fulbrights, and other grants, on money earned in U.S. dollars, is an act of thievery. That farmers who live on these lands till the earth and Fil-Am writers are profiting from the famer’s work.  Is this not our land too?

The direct translation of balikbayan is return (to the) country.  The Philippine Bureau of Immigration defines the Balikbayan in three ways:  1.) A Filipino citizen who has been continuously out of the Philippines for at least one year; 2.) A Filipino overseas worker; 3.) A former Filipino citizen and his family who had been naturalized in a foreign country and come or return to the Philippines.  In other words, people of Philippine ancestry like Chris, and M.G. and Penelope, and me.  It is a term that refers to the great writers N.V.M. Gonzalez and Bienvenido Santos, writers who have lived in the United States and return to their native land. It means your ancestors are from these islands.  Ang dugo ninyo ay puro Pilipino.  You are an extension of the farmers plowing the fields, planting the rice, healing the sick, fighting the war.  Your story is your great uncle, is our lola and lolo, is your mom and dad.  You fit in differently than the natives.  You speak Tagalog and Visyan and Ilocano with an American accent.  But this is your heritage and these are your stories. 

So we fish for stories on motor driven bangka with bamboo arms that stretch like wings of the great Philippine eagle.  We gaze at clouds shifting in the sky, and memorize the way light turns from yellow to deep red.  We sway in rhythm to the palm trees leaning to the wind.  We follow the dapple of light on ocean currents.  We wade into clear waters and run our hands across smooth flat pebbles.  These are our stories. 


Once in Calapan, our hosts invite us to their home for a dinner and a welcome ritual called a Putong.  The wives of city officials and dignitaries are dressed in beautiful pink and white dresses.  The twelve of us—men and women—Filipino and Filipino American—sit on plastic chairs.  There is a moon out.  The women sing to us.  They dance before us.  They spin in circles and pull a crown of flowers out of nowhere.  They dance their way to the row of plastic thrones where we are seated.  They crown each and every one of us.  “You are a queen,” says the woman in my ear as she places the ring of flowers on my head.  I hear the other ladies crowning my students and colleagues.  I hear them whispering in their ears too, “You are a king.”  And “You are a queen.”  They end the ritual by showering us with flower petals.
This is where the ferry has brought us—to these thrones, on this night, with a beautiful breeze kissing us and a song in the air.  We are kings and queens for a night.  We are welcomed.  We are part of the community.

          Four days later, on the ferry’s return to Batangas I will thank our ancestors for this great honor, for this ritual of belonging.  I will take my crown of flowers with its wilted petals and brown leaves and I will make an offering to the sea.  I will make my own ritual of thanksgiving.  I will call the ancestors and send a blessing to my family everywhere.  You will not find this ritual in books or local traditions.  It is authentically mine.

The day will be sunlit and windy.  The ocean tide will break into wide white waves and my flowers, like a kite with a trail of falling petals will rise with the wind, then tumble clumsy and awkward into the sea.