Sorry for the month long hiatus of this post. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but with the holiday break, the sudden flood of work, and the time that’s passed since my last review, I got a bit lazy. Put it on my resolution list to get things over and done with.

Also, in case you missed it, I did an article for ZeroThreeTwo featuring my favorite reads from last year.

This book started out with a lot of promise.

For starters, I’d like to think that Philippine history is usually more exciting to hear about from your older relatives than the cartoons of the 90’s had us believe. I can no longer name the show – whether it was Hey Arnold! or The Adventures of Pete and Pete or Kenan and Kel escapes me, so I hope you know which one I’m talking about – but I remember learning from it that dread was the natural reaction to realizing that your parents or your grandparents were about to tell you the stories of eras bubbling with historical detail and interest, eras antiquated enough for their artifacts and colloquialisms to now be obsolete. Thankfully, I discovered that this was not true. Growing up, I was fascinated whenever the stories that were being told to me confirmed whatever came out in my textbooks. Clearer than the shows that gave me this bad impression of the historically-charged kwento is the memory of the historically-charged kwento itself – the memory of my sister and me leaning over the table as our parents narrated to us the experiences of hearing about friends and acquaintances vanishing into thin air during the Martial Law era; the memory of us listening as our grandmother related in a very matter-of-factly way how long she had to hide under a church as bombs fell over their town; the memory of what was going on when we were born, what happened when we were too young to remember anything, or for that matter, when we were not around at all – I have become so fond of these stories that if you and I have talked and you asked me about my family, I would probably break into that mode of kwento, telling you, almost word-for-word, what I heard.

Empire of Memory opens in a similar way. Despite their experience, my parents do not have any stories about the Beatles’ visit to the Philippines in 1966. So when the novel opened with narrator Al using the event as a frame for introducing himself and the beginning of his friendship with future co-writer Jun Hidalgo, I was sold. For those of you who know what happened, you know that it certainly wasn’t less-than-memorable. Neither was it comfortable for any of the major players involved in the whole shebang: the Marcos family, the public-at-large, the Beatles themselves… As much as we would have liked to give the Beatles a welcome befitting of most foreign bands nowadays, somebody screwed up and it’s hard to entertain the idea that Paul and Ringo would ever want to come back. But Al’s narration is rife with intrigue and the tension of any story preceded by the words “We were actually there.” Jun manages to infiltrate the Beatles’ hotel room, and it is more than any of us can bear. It almost feels weird knowing that the Beatles are talking to the friend of someone who is already convincingly leaving an impression on us as if he were our own new best friend. When Jun and Al come into the possession of John Lennon’s torn jacket, it is almost like coming into the possession of a holy relic, and Al treasures it, literally. At the same time, we are being told that Jun is doing this all for the affections of Al’s older sister, Delphi, and you get the impression that this book will be about them, about their adventures (or misadventures), about the height of their friendship and then turmoil, about entering their roles as agents of the Marcos era rather apathetically but breaking out of it heroically.

I will tell you upfront that this book is not about that at all.

What it about has to do largely with the sensation the book’s prologue gives you. What I mean to say is that in the future, you might find yourself wanting to tell the story of the prologue to your friends, to talk about it as if it were something real. The problem with this is precisely that you know it isn’t. Though I learned from a professor that there probably was someone hired to write the history of the Marcos era, they weren’t Jun and Al. They are to our generation unnamed or unidentified, still hidden or lost when the regime was overthrown.

The novel’s first half will look in one’s mind like a novelized version of Mike de Leon’s Bayaning 3rd World. Jun and Al, when we meet them again in the novel proper, are working for the media wing of the Marcos regime when they are given the assignment of re-writing Philippine history for the purpose of turning Marcos into the Philippine Kim Jong-Il. Well, maybe that’s a little extreme, but they more or less do it. They change details liberally by altering the names of certain personages to invent a relation to the President or Imelda, hiding journals that could mar the story as they report it, and creating entire mythologies out of thin air just to keep themselves sane. It is a scandalous plot for those who cannot see past it (i.e. not us Filipino readers) and a justifiable one for those who stand with the Marcoses. It becomes something to talk about with your Philippine studies professor, whether he or she has read the book or not, largely because it makes you skeptical of all the history you have read so far, which is also good. It essentially inspires us to become historians with integrity, even if we aren’t in the business of it. We just have to seek out the truth of our people’s stories, so that we don’t become lost in, as Gamalinda presents, the island of Akeldama, where Jun and Al concentrate their research.

The book is rife with Bibilical references, aside from the obvious Jesus allegory of the American-Filipino rock superstar Sal X. The island of Akeldama takes its name from a Biblical location. Many of the chapter titles are taken from popular Biblical passages. What am I getting at here? Post-colonialism and also self-criticism. Gamalinda seems to present the Philippine people as if they were the new Israelites, or at least, they have been deluded into thinking that they are so. Reaching the end of the novel, I got the sense that no one finds salvation, not even Sal X, who has himself crucified annually to get the attention of the American father who has forsaken him. The father never comes back for him. The story of Akeldama ends with a hint that doom is approaching. We’re also never quite sure if the Zabarte brothers will ever end the cursed cycles of violence and romantic triangles that have befallen their family. The impression I get as I think of it now is that Gamalinda is pointing out our eternal frustration with our colonial masters, how that frustration will never be sated by revenge or self-mortification, and how we in the end throw our own faults on the shoulders of our personal historical villains. This is the island of Akeldama basically. It is an island that represents some of the very worst attitudes of the Philippine people. It reflects us, but it doesn’t have to be us.

Akeldama seems to infect those who come to it. Even Jun, who spends more time over there than Al, becomes more and more apathetic about what he is doing. It takes Al to snap him out of it, and it takes Delphi, who remains totally untouched, having moved to the States, appearing only once via correspondence to snap Al out of his own trance. When Al realizes what is going on, he basically has to race against time to make sure the book never reaches the printers. I’ll tell you upfront: it does reach the printer, and it coincides with a very specific point of Philippine history. When you see it, you can make of it what you will.

All said, I am a little hesitant to recommend this book. Despite its length, it doesn’t make for light reading and the patterns that extend throughout the novel are sometimes frustratingly subtle. If you want to hear a good story about a particular time in Philippine history, go ask your elders. If you want to contextualize arguments about Philippine identity, society, and history in one fell swoop, take a chance on this book. Magulo siya.

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So I managed to squeeze in yet another book before the year went out! The way Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is written allows for you to finish it in a week’s time, provided you set aside a good number of free hours, as I did in the thick of my Christmas break. The novel’s chapters are refreshingly bite-sized, typically spanning two pages and stretching at the most to five. I say ‘refreshing’ not only because most of the novels I’ve read this year are built up by lengthy scenes that make it difficult to pause, but also because the chapters manage to be engaging in their brevity. Hence, this week I gave up a lot of time to finish this 500-plus page whopper of a book.

The novel follows on one hand, Marie-Laure, a French girl who early on in her life loses her vision and is taught by her father, a locksmith who works at the French Museum of Natural History, to navigate the cities they live in using scale models which her father builds. On the other hand, we also follow Werner, a German boy who is fascinated by the inner workings of the radio and is given the opportunity to use his skills in service of the Nazi army. Both of them are enamored by the things that they cannot see: Marie-Laure learns from the brief time she spends growing up in the halls of the Museum that “to really touch something… is to love it” (30) while Werner and his sister Jutta grow up hooked on a science and music program aimed at children that Werner manages to pick up while modifying his first salvaged radio. They have no idea that their paths will cross, as all novels are wont to do with their respective characters, in the walled city of Saint-Malo, which, like Dresden, is doomed to be decimated in the process of its liberation. Though the city has been mostly restored in the present day, it’s largely implied that the Saint-Malo that the reader becomes deeply acquainted with is not the Saint-Malo that still stands along the coast of France. Saint-Malo, following its destruction, becomes one other thing that we can no longer see, but still fall in love with, years and miles away.

The novel reminded me very much of Markus Zusak’s classic The Book Thief in the way it developed Marie-Laure and Werner. Both children are certainly precocious. Marie-Laure possesses a degree of cunning that evenly matches Liesel Meminger’s own. Werner’s anxieties toward the cause he is forced to serve easily brought back Zusak’s Rudy in my memory. The two enjoy brief moments of intimacy that are cut short by the hand of fate, and especially in Zusak’s book, Death plays a role that transcends his narration of the story. However, where Doerr’s novel departs from Zusak’s is also where the real magic takes place; whereas most of Zusak’s novel shows Liesel and Rudy growing up together and having their effect on each other from years of friendship, Doerr builds up the anticipation of Marie-Laure’s meeting with Werner during the siege of Saint-Malo, which, once more details to their backstories are revealed, appears to the reader more and more serendipitous and yet poignant as one gets past it. It becomes easy to appreciate the novel when one realizes that its true action is set in motion at the very beginning, which is the first night of Saint-Malo’s bombing, rather than at the chronological beginning when Marie-Laure’s childhood memories are recalled and Werner considers the harsh environment of the mining town in which he and his sister live. The latter is the beginning of a long set-up that takes up most of the book, but never loses its effectiveness, as the novel jumps back and forth between the events leading up to the bombing and the siege itself. The novel does this because while the chapters that chronicle the siege are, I feel, more essential to what it is all about (the encounter between the two lead characters), the circumstances reinforce the emotional gravitas of this moment and reverberate when the novel moves past the siege into the moments after. The chapters that follow the siege tend to reveal certain details prematurely, such that the set-up becomes a process of back-tracking, of filling in the blanks to the story. Nonetheless, when those details are revisited in the set-up chapters, they recall in one’s mind what is to happen when Saint-Malo is liberated.

At the same time, the novel is a meditation on human choices and how one overcomes circumstances that at first glance seem more powerful than the one who experiences them. Marie-Laure’s father comes into the possession of a fabled gem, which supposedly brings bad luck to those around it but long life to those who possess it. Its presence in the story is subtle, vaguely hinted at but never explicitly suggested as being the root of all the evils that the story has to throw at the main characters. When Marie-Laure realizes that the gem has started taking effect in her life, she comes to fear that she will never be able to overcome it or undo the damage it has caused to her loved ones. At the same time, Werner experiences an existential crisis when he becomes aware of his own capacity to rebel against a national cause and popular behavior. While he survives the bitter experience of training to become a Nazi soldier through the privileges that his skill set grants him, he realizes that those closest to him have suffered at great costs. He must then make the choice to protect them or die. The stakes behind this choice, one shall find, are the exact same stakes that permeate the encounter at the heart of the novel. And though Marie-Laure may not realize it because the time she spends with Werner is so brief, there was a great struggle that occurred in one man’s heart, which she couldn’t see, but perhaps could have known, if only they had spent more time together.

From there, we come back to what the novel is all about: things that we cannot see, but are there. The novel exposes to us the mechanisms of life the way one might present the mechanisms behind a magic trick. One performs the trick and astounds the audience. But whereas the revelation of a magic trick’s inner workings disillusion the audience, the revelation of life’s inner workings moves the audience to wonder, to delight in what is always there for all of us.

That’s it for 2014! I’ll be doing my next post on ZeroThreeTwo, which is my list of my five favorite reads of the past year. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of your holidays. Happy new year!

The first volume of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet is probably a novel that young Filipinos will find themselves comfortable reading if they want to learn more about their neighbors in the Southeast Asian region. My mentor Dr. Dumol pointed out that the novel bears a remarkable resemblance to the first of the two novels by our national hero Jose Rizal, which is apparent even on the book’s back summary, which includes (describing the protagonist): “The son of a noble Javanese, he moves easily among the Dutch and their ideas and language but is prevented from enjoying their rights.” He is not the only one. The girl who figures prominently in this novel is an Indonesian Maria Clara, oblivious to the goings-on around her but the infallible object of many affections. Even her parentage is considered controversial by the community at large. While Elias is not as easily recognizable here, and neither is Sisa, This Earth of Mankind should still stand out as a counterpart to Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere because their similarities transcend the novels’ superficial details and connect thematically instead.

For starters, Toer’s novel deals largely with the meaning that arises from the experience of lost causes. This is not to say that the cause of this novel should be considered lost (neither should we say that of the Noli‘s); the main characters of Toer’s novel recognize the threat posed to them by forces that only appear stronger because of their deep ties to colonial authority. Though defeat seems inevitable, they struggle anyway, and by the end, they emerge not so much unscathed but alive nonetheless and in possession of greater motivation and deeper meaning in their lives. In the middle of the novel, the protagonist-narrator Minke witnesses an argument between his friend the Frenchman Jean Marais and his landlord Mr. Telinga, who had previously been Marais’ superior officer when they fought for the Netherlands Indies army against pockets of resistance across Indonesia. Their argument centers on the ends of war, which Telinga argues is merely the victory of the stronger side. Marais however suggests:

“… there has never been a war conducted for its own sake. There are many peoples who go to war who have no desire to be victor. They go to war and die in thousands… because there is something they want to defend, something more important than death, life, or defeat and victory.” (224)

Minke brushes them off, having had gone to them in the first place in search of an answer to an unrelated question. At this point, he (and perhaps the reader) has no idea of that argument’s later significance in his own life. As the novel progresses, he experiences hope and despair in alternating doses. Towards the latter half, he learns to take control of his emotions, knowing very well that he is becoming more and more responsible for the fates of others. At the very least, Minke may have walked away from all this with an inkling of the significance of his friend’s argument to the nationalist movements which Minke shall fuel with his writing, pointing out the social stratification and the disadvantages posed by being non-European. Inasmuch as the novel is a coming-of-age story for Minke, it is more strongly a story about recognizing social responsibility, especially given the talents and privileges one comes to possess.

Curiously, Minke becomes aware of the prejudices that permeate Indonesian society when his own erroneous prejudices are exposed. Minke’s preconceived notions of the concubine Nyai Ontosoroh and her daughter Annelies are immediately shattered in the first few chapters. Once again, Marais serves as Minke’s guide in this matter when he tells him: “An educated person must learn to act justly, beginning, first of all, with his thoughts, then later in his deeds” (56). Unlike the earlier quote, this piece of advice more explicitly recurs in Minke’s narration, underlining his awareness that, if he wants to emerge as good as his European peers, the refinement of his thinking must trump his most immediate emotions. Throughout the novel, we often see Minke succeed in keeping this resolve, and to us in a post-colonial setting, it is abundantly clear that he does turn out morally better than the Dutch who control the lives of his loved ones as if they were less than human. Minke falls a step short of finishing his studies abroad, much like the Filipino ilustrado, but Toer also makes it apparent that the quality of education in colonial Indonesia allowed for Minke to equal his peers without having to leave.

Naturally, the Dutch colonial presence is not presented by Toer as an absolute evil and he does note the merits of seedling globalism as a result of their coming. Echoing Rizal’s sentiments of the Spanish colonial government, Toer has it that Minke desires not so much a complete separation between the Netherlands and Indonesia but instead reform of the colonial government. It is easy to see how much European education has exerted influence on Minke for the better, and time after time, Minke uses that education to elevate Indonesian national identity. Minke marvels at the advancement of technology and welcomes its capacity for cultural exchange. He also weeps when one of the assistant resident’s daughters expresses her hope that he should become a leader among his people in the cultural sphere rather than the political. This motivates his courage to write against what injustices do exist in their society as it is and call for reform.

Young Indonesians who come to know Toer’s and Rizal’s novels have a lot to talk about with young Filipinos who know the same. I do not want to sound too idealistic by saying that it would be already a dream to have the Minkes of the 21st century shaking hands with the Ibarras of the same age. After all, it is already happening. It is a matter now of planning and execution, and then, greatness.

It is unlikely that I shall finish any more novels before the end of the year, especially given that the three other books I’ve brought home with me are rather thick. The next post on the blog will dwell on my favorite reads of 2014, as well as something of a manifesto for the blog and the direction I’d like to take it in with regard to these reviews. Stay tuned!

A part of me wishes that Ifemelu’s first blog was real, that I could find Raceteenth on WordPress, just to get a healthy, regular dose of the exciting, witty commentaries that scare off any remaining hope that if you move to America, good things will come to you. After writing the previous sentence, I looked up The Small Redemptions of Lagos and discovered that Adichie herself has crafted in Ifemelu’s persona, making the blog something of a mini-sequel to Adichie’s critically-acclaimed novel without having to sacrifice the original tone and character of the blog as it appeared in the book. This is great and already I anticipate the next installment on my feed. However, to be frank, I would have preferred to read all of Ifemelu’s blog posts on a proper blog than in the book, where they only served to chop the narrative up and lose my attention in the plot. (Let this post be an invitation to consider the novel for itself first, disregarding the blog posts as supplementary material.) Taking this complaint further, I feel like this is my main qualm with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel (the first of hers that I’ve read): most of the novel’s parts seem out-of-place. She spends so much time on building up the circumstances that when we reach the present, there is hardly any space left to resolve the things that got me hooked on the book in the first place.

We first meet Ifemelu on the verge of the next great change in her life, the imminent move back to her home country of Nigeria after studying and working for several years in the United States. It is immediately clear to the reader, as is typical in most diaspora novels, that the Ifemelu returning to Lagos has been affected by the sort of people she finds herself surrounded by in America. As a result, she becomes conscious of her becoming an American (or Americanah, as her friends back home often say in jest) despite her efforts to resist cultural assimilation. When we step into Ifemelu’s past, we witness her attempts to assert her natural Nigerian accent, comment on the assimilation of other black people to American society, and assess each of her relationships the context of the one great love of her life, Obinze, with whom she has long since broken off. Since the dissolution of her their relationship, Obinze has remained in Ifemelu’s mind and heart so strongly that it is the knowledge that he has settled down with someone else in Nigeria that haunts her and even cause her to reconsider going home. It is one desire strongly tugging against another: she must face him (and the brand new Nigeria) or drown in an alien world that will forever mark her alien as well.

Many of the present day plot threads are fun to read through. Ifemelu’s experience at the braiding parlor, which frames her flashbacks, is mostly what I expected the book to be like. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I feel that Ifemelu’s contrast with Aisha, who spends an entire afternoon working on Ifemelu’s hair, could have framed the whole novel. Though while I grant that the novel intends to be about Obinze just as much as it is about Ifemelu, which is why the novel spends its latter third bringing the two back together, I want to point out that the book makes it easy to forget this. Just as I was settling into the story of Obinze’s time as an undocumented immigrant in England, I turned the page and found myself back in Ifemelu’s extended flashback. At the same time, many plot threads begin and are left unresolved; I got the sense that the novel never goes in the direction I want, and so I felt a bit cheated. Does the disillusioned Ifemelu ever remember her promise to help out Aisha, having failed to disillusion her? You never see it. Even Ifemelu’s final interactions with her nephew Dike when he visits Lagos, which supposedly resolves his psychological problems, felt rushed. I would have liked to see him discover Lagos and his parentage a little more, and then I would have liked to see him confront his mother Aunty Uju about it, or at least to tie up that end by letting us know what happens to them in the end. You never find out. And then Ifemelu’s epic novel-spanning romance with Obinze? Well, obviously that gets resolved. But I get the sense that the decisions the characters make in the novel’s final pages are miscalculated, Obinze in particular. The real repercussions of his actions are left ambiguous to the reader. You never learn the consequences.

My gut feel is that the hype surrounding this book stems from its relative newness and significance. Its two central themes are undoubtedly cultural differences and the various types of racism that permeate a culture that has historically triumphed racism but has yet to fully eradicate it. Yet, what makes it relevant is that it situates these themes in the post-9/11 America that evolves into the Obama-led America. It suggests that while America has come a long way from the rampant racism that has plagued most of American history (to the point of collectively selecting a leader who is described in the book as having been the result of the intersection of many cultures), one need only rely on social media to see that many immigrants still feel unwelcome in America and that some of the hostility comes, surprisingly, from people of the same racial ancestry. What I liked about this point is that it seemed like something you could say of all diaspora who find themselves in America, not just African; in Philippine Literature for instance, I recognized this as the concern being raised in Bienvenido N. Santos’s What the hell for you left your heart in San Francisco. Perhaps where Americanah takes the next step is to present the ways in which foreign culture subverts one’s effort to keep cultural identity intact. At some point in the novel, Ifemelu notes that it was when she came to America from Nigeria for the first time that she came black, a statement that when carefully reflected upon requires no further explanation. It brings to mind that Americanah is in some way a coming-into story, but a very specific type that does not so much mark Ifemelu’s growth into adulthood but her permanent change into the Americanah, who finds herself looked down upon by those who have adopted the American identity wholeheartedly and yet subconsciously looks down upon those who have never really left home, even when they are already there.

Screenshot from In the Mood for Love (2000), dir. Wong Kar Wai. Thanks to Nicole for helping me pick this photo out! 🙂

The most effective way to test a bridegroom’s resolve (to finally, after so many years of watching and wishing and waiting, leave the careless playtime of childhood behind and know with exact experience that you have become an adult) is to bring an old love to the bachelor party. Though Andy learned this firsthand on the eve of his own marriage, it was at the same time one of the bigger secrets he kept in his life. Even in his older years, he thought that the whole incident was best kept between himself and the girl and no one else, and he committed to this, hoping that the girl had done the same on her end as well. He often hoped that the incident would sink into the depth of obscure memories where all childish things eventually end up. Someday, the memory would be forgotten or at least, half-remembered.

From time to time he found himself closing his tired eyes as he sat by the pool, blocking out the sound of his grandchildren running around him or cannonballing into the water, their laughs fading into the grand noise of, as one of his favorite books precisely captured it, “adults pretending to be children pretending to be adults.” He remembered seeing behind his closed eyes the glimmering of orbs of all sorts of colors. On the night of his bachelor party, he was tracing his vision over the shoulders of his groomsmen, no longer minding them or their petty arguments on the history of ideas. They were not interested in going out. They would not last the night. Andy scanned the faces all around the bar, anticipating one whose sustained occupation in his thoughts made her face clearer and clearer. He was hoping that if she just happened to be there, there was a chance that he might relive an even older memory. His eyes stopped as he looked across the pool. It was fortuitous. She was sitting on one of the lounge chairs alone, looking around as well as if she were waiting for someone. She looked exactly as he remembered, exactly as he had been picturing her in his mind. It was uncanny. He held his breath, forced back a smile, and stood up.

And he opened his eyes because he felt his arms shaking, and there were his grandchildren, asking him to join them. He would smile, decline, and tease them, which satisfied him. He longed to close his eyes again. He could never make them imagine the noise that he imagined and still remembered, so that it felt like he was hearing it there and then. He was imagining that the noise of parties that burst muffled from nearby. They were as old as he was. And even when there were parties at the hotel, it came to him no different from the way it sounded when he first heard it as a child. Whenever he heard a party, especially a marriage party, he realized that it was impossible to forget, that what happened that night was forever tied to him.

Andy had seen a number of weddings pass through the hotel in the days leading up to his own. Along the Cebuano coastline, there were dozens of neighboring resorts, and Andy knew from experience that his could not have possibly been the only one hosting nuptial celebrations. The beaches of Cebu were popular for that kind of thing. He personally knew two of the married couples that week, and he paid them visits to extend his congratulations, even to offer a gift from the hotel. As he shook hands or spied the couple entering the hotel having been wed, he paid attention to how the grooms looked, a strange pattern emerging. The grooms receded in age, beginning with a sexagenarian who was thrilled to be coupled with a short brown woman almost half his age and ending with a clean-faced man just a year or two younger than Andy, eyes gleaming with the promise of new life, new beginnings. This last groom was one of the two that Andy knew, one of his juniors from high school. They did not know each other that well, considering that Andy was not a very social student in those days. He attributed this to differences in taste, Andy usually being satisfied with what many of his peers considered a quiet night. In point of this fact, Andy was aware that the young groom’s bachelor party was spent at one of the popular dance-clubs on the other island. Though he had never entered it, Andy had been very familiar with the place. Several times the club had been redesigned or renovated with fancier, curvier architecture, and was slapped with a new name with each facelift. There seemed to be a need to make the club sound like it was more and more the seat of comfort when to Andy it was really anything but that. From then until now, the dance-clubs were where most of the kids went because most of the kids liked going there and they all liked being seen by each other. There was no room for any talking or any sense of real intimacy. Still, Andy shook the man’s hand, exchanged smiles and compliments, and wished them all good luck.

Now that that party was well underway, he started to head back to his room, his mind reeling in the nostalgic familiarity of walking past well-dressed men and their dates, and he remembered a certain night that he lived through as a young man. He was himself dressed up, but not for any wedding. That night, it occurred to him to dress up for himself. He was celebrating his solitude, he recalled. A solitude that would be broken that same night. He stopped in his tracks. He realized that familiar as the evening felt, this night ought to be different. It was the night of his bachelor party. He headed in the direction of the rooms to track down his groomsmen. They were planted in their respective rooms, and whether they had any surprise plans, Andy really had no impression or inkling. It seemed to him that their plan was to simply remain there. He asked them if they wanted to step out of their rooms, hoping to have a drink, even if just there at the hotel bar. Andy’s groomsmen were selected from his bunch in college, a group that was not particularly used to drinking as an activity but used to talking of things that did not involve other people’s business. Andy had had quite enough of that in his pre-college days. The times he spent with them he welcomed, and perhaps that was how he considered them his best men. They each had a beer, beginning to joke about the state of the evening’s affairs and then veering away to talk of theory.

Is it still alive or is it already dead? One of them asked in relation to Schrödinger’s cat.

Perhaps it is a matter of semantics, another suggested. It is alive, but we consider it to be dead, therefore it is indeed both.

But you are suggesting that only theoretically. Making its death a condition in the mind removes the paradoxical quality of the experiment. It must be dead – really dead as it is really alive – or else the experiment is settled…

            If we cannot find an answer, what is the point of posing the question in the first place?

And that was the exact moment he saw her.

The door to Andy’s room yawned open. He stood in the doorway, eyes not quite ready to call it a night yet. He flipped on the light switch and found that he was no longer alone, that he could see

I.

two teenagers already inside, the boy – a younger shadow of Andy himself – in a dinner jacket and the girl (what was it? Her name. What was her name again) – who had been attending a wedding that night – in a dress, standing by the shelf across the door. The girl was unusually talkative.

“I have this friend who went to Germany recently for her older cousin’s wedding. She said that couples who want to get married over there have to go through this thing to bring about luck for the future. It’s nothing at all like a bachelor party. I mean, you can still have a bachelor party, but if you want, you can also do the porcelain breaking thing. Anyway, they get together with all this porcelain and one night, in front of everybody, they just smash all the porcelain and then they clean it up together and I think she was saying that the porcelain is usually porcelain that the guests bring, so they’re bringing all kinds of porcelain, like jars and vases… Don’t they sometimes make toilet bowls and bathroom sinks out of porcelain? … What are you thinking about?”

“This isn’t weird, right?” Andy asked, walking into the room, pulling his jacket off. “I mean, it’s a nice room, even though it feels kinda seedy…” He felt guilty saying this. His aunt owned the hotel, and she was very welcoming to the idea of Andy pitching his tent up there. He had been staying in that room a lot lately. His parents had been going out-of-town regularly now that their business was earning a reputation; negotiations had begun on franchising the establishment up north. He had been given the same room to stay in since he first came over. It was a convenient distance from all the other hotel amenities.

They had bumped into each other as she was walking out of the reception hall, hoping to escape the noise. She was headed toward the swimming pool. It was funny that Andy had happened to meet her on his way back to his room, and he explained the circumstances of his staying there, which led him to invite her up. They had met before when Andy had volunteered for a play that her school was staging. She may or may not have been aware that Andy had developed quite a crush on her then, and it made him nervous to find her there in his hotel. He was bent on impressing her and that night was just the latest in a series of efforts. She immediately texted her parents to let them know that she had come across a friend with whom she wanted to catch up. Though she did not specify who the friend was, she did indicate that the friend would be taking her home.

Andy walked up to her. “What do you think?”

She didn’t seem to be listening. Something had caught her on eye on the shelf hanging across the door. It was a statuette of a man standing behind a woman, his arms gently pressing her belly. She looked at the expressions of the man and the woman, trying to tell how they felt while locked in the eternal embrace. They appeared to be sleeping. She put the statuette back on the shelf horizontally to see if this was true.

“Really?” she picked up the statuette again, holding up on its side to Andy, rotating it slowly to make its lewdness less elusive. He was standing in front of her now. “No kidding. This doesn’t look seedy to me at all. What is this? Porcelain.”

“Well, just because some funny-looking statue has tickled your fancy doesn’t mean—”

It slipped through her fingers and he remembered it crashing slowly, as if it had frozen before it could come apart completely.

*

Andy was shaken out of memory’s grasp once he heard the crash. He looked around and the teenagers were no longer with him. He was suddenly nervous. What had he done? He was no longer a teenager, but there was something about what he was doing that felt so young, so full of wild carelessness. But he was not planning to sleep with her or kiss her or take her when she was not looking. He had only come to the room to get his car keys.

Andy’s car slowly traversed the winding road that went up the hill. The way was poorly lit and every now and then Andy had to be mindful when a truck suddenly leapt out from a blind corner. Nonetheless, he was thrilled. He had always wanted to do this because he was very fond of going up the hill as a child, and he had always hoped that he could share the majesty of that view with someone. Naturally he wanted to go with his fiancée, Eliza, if she weren’t so busy trying to make sure that things came through for the wedding. Their original wedding planner had dropped out a month before the wedding once she found out that her mother was dying of cancer in the United States. Andy and Eliza agreed that they would harbor no hard feelings toward her, but it seemed that Andy had forgotten to bless himself infallible as well. As she took the reins over her own wedding, Eliza seemed to dump her frustration day-after-day upon Andy, who, as much as he wanted to get back to work, had forced himself to accommodate her. He was well aware after all that if he didn’t bear this small cross, he was not off to a good start as her future husband. Attempting to engage himself into a supportive role, he offered to split the work with her, so that she would have less to worry about. Much to his surprise, this set off another bomb in her mind, and she refused to speak to him for a week, though she eventually apologized. Eliza noted that it was indeed very unusual behavior on her part and rather immature. As a future wife, she wasn’t off to a good start either. Since then, she had confided her rants to him less frequently, perhaps to compensate for the one week.

On the week of the wedding, Andy seemed completely mystified as to what Eliza was up to. When the week began, he asked once again if there was anything he could do to alleviate the stress. Her answer was simple and obvious: “Just be there on time.” After that, he had seen so little of her that week that it was almost as if she had flown back home. She was really just running back and forth all the time between places. It was practically a miracle that Andy had the car to himself that night.

“Did you hear that?” Andy asked, referring to the buzz that was coming from inside the otherwise silent car.

The girl leaned forward and opened the glove compartment, where a phone was violently buzzing. It almost fell out onto the floor, but she caught it and managed to read the name. It was Jamie, Eliza’s maid-of-honor.

“It’s Eliza’s phone,” Andy said, reaching out for it. He took the phone and explained to Jamie that Eliza had left her phone in the car. She then proceeded to tell him to tell Eliza about some situation with the cake, that it had collapsed while they were putting it together or something. Andy told her that they just had to relax and try to put it back together as best as they could. In the meantime, they were to make use of the smaller cake because at least that one was finished and okay. The upside to it, he told her, was that no one was going to know what the cake was supposed to look like anyway. Jamie answered okay, but she didn’t sound very sure of herself, and hung up.

When he put the phone down, Andy sighed and remarked that the two cakes would have killed him in college, both financially and physically. It astounded him now that he could afford to actually have two cakes served at his wedding now that he no longer relied on the false income of youth.

“At my wedding, we had a cake made entirely out of macaroons,” she answered. It was good that they were approaching a stoplight when she said that.

“When did you get married?”

“A year before my husband died.”

“Jesus.”

“You didn’t know?”

“I had no clue. I’m sorry. I haven’t seen you in a long time.”

“Well, looks like they were wrong about gossip spreading fast.”

They were quiet for a moment.

“He was already dying when we got engaged,” she added.

They reached the top of the hill, where they came across a flipped-over funnel-shaped structure that turned out to be a small cemetery. They stared out over the city, a view which had rarely changed since their childhood, and then they drove out. Nobody said anything. Suddenly, the view was not at all interesting. Many of the places they had grown up around were still there. The hotel on the hillside, whose ownership and brand had changed hands during their lifetime. The Mormon temple standing on the lot behind Andy’s old school. The tower on Osmeña Boulevard, where you could pay to walk over glass on the top floor. The two of them walked away from the ledge over the hill, as if walking away disappointedly from a window display. Nothing new, one supposes.

II.

Shards bring luck. That’s what it’s all about, my friend said. The word itself means something like ‘to make a lot of noise in the evening’ or better yet ‘the evening of noise.’”

“Will you help me clean this up?”

She completely disregarded him, and leaned down so that her face was close to his. “Let’s go see a movie.”

“I hope they don’t charge us extra for this.”

“Nah. Actually, this feels like a pretty swanky hotel. I bet celebrities come here all the time. They probably always come and go breaking things around the room. Who knows? Maybe it wasn’t even porcelain.”

“Well, whether it’s porcelain or not, it’s still broken and it’s still theirs and it’s still their prerogative to char—what are you doing?”

“Keeping one.”

“Why?”

“I already told you. Shards bring luck.”

Andy said nothing to this.

“What’s curious about the whole thing is that even when the porcelain is still whole, they still call it a shard. It’s just as much a shard as all the little ones.” She smiled. “As far as we’re concerned, we just made them a hundred tiny statues!”

Andy didn’t find this joke particularly funny. He continued to sweep up the pieces of statuette. An arm here. A lip and cheek there. He thought about putting it back together then and there if only he had some glue.

“And besides,” she went on, “Your aunt owns the place, doesn’t she?”

“Yes, she does. But that doesn’t mean I can just go on and rip the entire hotel to shreds. This place has a reputation, and it’s practically the family business.” He sighed. “Who knows? Maybe I’m going to run this place one day, maybe even get married around here, too.” He sounded very certain about this.

“Well,” she then said, bending down across him and picking up one of the larger arm pieces. “If that’s your plan, I should help you clean up then.”

*

They had returned to the hotel swimming pool. Instead of staying at home, Eliza had decided that it was for the best that she and Andy stay at the hotel closest to the church so that it would be faster for them to move back and forth. Andy’s house was on the other island, roughly thirty minutes away. Yet for some reason, Andy had gotten wind from his mother that Eliza was staying over at their house tonight. He hadn’t a single clue why she would even do that. Whether she was expecting Andy to come back or not, he really wasn’t sure. He wasn’t planning on going back. It was too late for anyone to be awake, Andy included, so there was not very much risk of them being seen together. He was giving her a summary of what had gone by for him since the last time they had seen each other. Particular topics of interest to her were what he had done after he graduated, what sort of work he was doing, and how he met Eliza. He was not so keen on telling her, partly because he was afraid that he would fall asleep telling his own stories. And besides, having to drive back and forth between the bar and the hotel had tired him enough already. Eventually, he would have to drive her home too.

“Now I want to go see a movie,” he finally said.

She laughed, but said nothing. Now was probably a good time to get that beer. He stood up and said that he would look for the bar. Coming back, he held two bottles of San Miguel Light, and noticed that her eyes were open a little wider now and her body had tensed up. He immediately asked her, “What’s wrong?”

“Just keep your eyes on me, okay?” she said hastily. “Sit down. Put the beers on the table.”

“What’s going on?”

“Do you see the table on the other side of the pool? That fat white guy in the Hawaiian shirt? Look quickly, but don’t stare. I think he may be looking at us too.”

Andy afforded himself a quick glance, and noted that there was indeed a large man sitting at one of the tables on the other side of the pool and he was indeed wearing a Hawaiian shirt. But he wasn’t looking at them.

“What about him?”

“I’m going to pick up my beer and walk to the car. In five minutes, you will fol—”

“Wait, before we do anything, do you mind explaining to me why you want to get away from th—”

“Don’t gesture at him!” she whispered. “He’s only going to know we’ve been looking at him. Just get in the car and let’s get out of here.”

“Uh…” he thought for a moment about all that was happening. He looked again at the fat man, who was minding his own beer. “Okay, okay. Go ahead. I’ll follow you.”

“Okay,” she said, standing up. “I’m sorry for this.” And then she slapped him right across the face and strutted back to the parking lot. Andy looked across the pool in disbelief. The fat white man failed to notice anything.

III.

“Let’s just lie down for a while,” she said.

The bed was comfortable.

He had an idea of what was going to happen next. The time was ripe for him to say something. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he didn’t want to suggest anything. He didn’t want to overstep any boundaries or ruin everything. Everything was perfect now.

“Do you ever think of what life’s going to be like five, ten years down the road?” she asked, looking at the ceiling.

Andy turned his head to look at her, but she didn’t notice. He fixed his gaze on the ceiling as well. He answered: “Yeah, all the time.”

“But I don’t mean what we’re going to be like in the future, but everything else. The world around us. Like, what if five years from now somebody discovers the technology for flying cars and then ten years from now, that shit is patented? And then whenever you go to Tops to look at the city, you’ll see all these things in the sky?”

“Or like what buildings are there and what buildings are gone.”

“Yeah, exactly! Like, how do we even know this hotel will still be here five years from now? I mean, to us, it’s a hotel, it’s a place, but really it’s just a building and there’s probably a great, unstoppable force that’ll come in and take it down. I’ll feel terrible about that. This is a beautiful hotel over a beautiful spot. I don’t want it to ever change.”

“Don’t get me started on dance-clubs.”

“Right, right. I mean, those clubs come and go, and they’ll always be the same even though the names change.”

“You don’t find that boring?”

“I do! It’s just that what you’ve just said makes a lot of sense to me now. They’re always there, but they’ll always be boring because they’re always there. It’s like saying that what makes something exciting is that threat of… destruction, I guess.”

“Well, consider your world five years ago. What’s different between then and now?”

“A lot of things, probably. But back then, I probably didn’t notice what would go and what would stay. I mean, five years ago, I was just a kid.”

“We still kind of are.”

“… Yeah, that’s true! But, you get what I mean right?”

*

When they got in the car, they didn’t talk about the slap or the fat white guy or why she was scared of him or where they were going next. She just made Andy drive and drive. Every now and then, she would point out something that inspired her nostalgia. She seemed content with just telling him these stories, not even expecting him to answer. He was unsure why she was doing this. After all, he had grown up here too. Why was she talking as if she were a tour guide?

When they had reached the main island again, she started giving him directions without telling him where she wanted to go. It took Andy a while to figure out where they were going, and he sighed to himself, realizing that perhaps the night was at an end. Eventually, they were deep in an informal suburban area when she told him to stop. Across the street was a one-story house encircled by a garden. No light came from the house. Weeds had overtaken the front lawn and had even peeked over into the driveway. The gate was ajar. She told him that this was where she lived when she was growing up. No one had been living in it for years now. They stared at it for some time before she decided to open her door and get out. Andy followed after her without asking anything. They stepped through the gate and shone light through the windows to make sure that there was nobody inside. She stopped particularly at one window, and tried to look deeply inside. They tried the door and went through it. They carried their beers with them the whole time this was happening.

In the room, she sat on a dusty old bedframe and sipped from her beer. There was no mattress and no other chair in the room. All the room had was the frame.

The long silence went on between her and Andy, and she waited for Andy to sit down next to her. Then she said: “After we moved out of here, I started dreaming about the day when I’d buy it back, and I’d live here with my family and raise my kids in here. I kind of hoped to marry someone rich, or someone who was willing to live in this place as much as I did. And I’ve been looking for a long time.”

“You couldn’t do that with your husband?”

“Hm?”

Andy regretted the question for a moment, and turned back: “But there’s still time for that, you know. For moving back.”

“No, there isn’t… Someone bought the lot last month. The lot, but not the house. They don’t want the house around here.”

They sat in silence for a long time.

IV.

They lay in silence for a long time.

There were many things he wanted to say to her. In retrospect, he could have told her what he should have, and that would have made everything different. In fact, he thought about it and wondered if they would have done anything about it if he told her. But he was equally aware that it could have ruined the night, if she didn’t feel the same way. No, all he really wanted was for the night to go on forever and ever. Even when he knew that it wouldn’t, unless he said something about it.

So instead, they lay in silence until sunrise, until it was time for him to take her home.

*

Andy carried her back to the car. She had fallen asleep on his shoulder, buzzed by the beer and exhausted by staying awake. As he fastened her seatbelt over her, she muttered the words: “Take me home…” and he answered her that he would, even though he knew that she couldn’t hear him. When she had fallen asleep, he thought he heard her whisper, “We have to clean it up.” He wasn’t sure if she had actually said that. He closed the door on her, and stared at the house once again. He entered it one last time.

As he drove back to the hotel, he started to ponder on the night that had just passed—the circumstances of their meeting that night, the flight from the hotel, the conversation at her house. Whenever she spoke, his vision adjusted to the darkness of the room and he started to become aware that it wasn’t empty after all. Aside from the bedframe, there was in fact a foot stool, a broom, a shelf, and on that shelf, the statuette of the man and the woman. It looked like the exact same one, but he couldn’t be sure of it. The floor was littered with crumbs of paint that glowed when moonlight shone through the windows. Well, they were either crumbs of paint or the old chips of broken jars.

When Andy re-entered the house, he stood across the shelf with the statuette, confronting it, wondering if he should take it or not. There it sat, waiting to be broken again. She never mentioned the statuette the whole time they were there, never drew his attention to it, never gestured or pointed it out. He only noticed it when they were silent, when she had fallen asleep. And yet, she had left it there twice, both when she moved out and when she had visited that night. Why would she leave it behind? Did the statuette mean nothing to her now? In the end, he took it because he knew that it would mean nothing after all because of all the things it implied between everyone involved, it only really meant something to her. It was the memento of a memory, which she was leaving behind in an even bigger one. He decided that it was the last time something would be ruined. No superstitions, no spells or magic or tradition. Just decisions.

He thought a lot about the things that had changed over the last five years. She was not the girl that he had developed his life’s great crush on because she had been changed so much by her circumstances. Or perhaps she had not changed at all; he just barely knew her back then. She was now the end of a trajectory that had been set five years ago (or perhaps she was still in the middle of that trajectory). He wondered about the strange man across the pool, and what he must wanted from her, or if she had made the whole story up to get out of that hotel. He wondered about her house, now he realized that she was visiting it perhaps for the last time. He wondered about her husband, who he must have been and what had killed him so early. He could tell that she was sad now, sad that many things didn’t turn out well for her. She had sacrificed her expectations, and in return she was sleeping now in the passenger’s seat. Perhaps five years ago, when they had that conversation, she had no way of seeing that her life would end up this way. He didn’t even know where she lived now.

The sun was rising as he crossed over the larger bridge that connected Cebu’s two islands. The night of the bachelor party was over now and it was the day of Andy’s wedding. A large oil-tanker, bigger than any of the ships that had crossed through the island when Andy was younger, blew its horn. The skyscrapers of Mactan’s business district, the sight of which he had never really admired until now, glittered. He suddenly became conscious that this building was not actually familiar to him; it hadn’t been around at the beginning of the century, when Andy was still growing up. Moreover, many of the routes he took to get to the bridge passed by the familiar landmarks of his old life, many of them now coming to him as having changed significantly over time. Some of them were even places he had gone to with the girl sleeping next to him in the car. The old seaside mall going decrepit, having been forgotten after the completion of its much bigger, much fresher replacement. The park over the old airfield was now completely urban, no greens. Roads were much larger now. Many parts of the city now had proper sidewalks and a number of overpasses and underpasses. A bus system boasted drivers that were more professional, more polite on the road than the jeepneys that ruled the streets back then. The last of the bars and clubs of their high school days were now completely gone, and in their place, new bars and clubs and restaurants and diners had risen. In many ways, the city now resembled very much the city up north that Andy found so exciting when he lived there in his college days. Andy’s feelings were changing as well. Instead of being utterly repulsed by the idea of living there, Andy could now imagine himself settling down. He had searched outside for many years, and now having finally stopped and looked, he knew that he had reached it, home, with someone whom he knew would be just as happy to call it home too. It was not so much that he had been bored with Cebu. It just took it time to catch up with him. It was a city that fit him perfectly now, and he was not afraid to think that he fit in just as well.

Somewhere, at this hour, the girl he was about to spend the rest of his life with was waking up, as she usually did, and for the first time in an entire month, she was going to feel relaxed that everything would turn out alright. Andy knew that she harbored no fears about their marriage. Neither did he, and he was certain about this every time she suddenly appeared to him. Eliza was not the sort of person who made up expectations for herself. She was so frustrated by the ruining of expectations that she barred herself from making any. She took each day as it came. Perhaps that’s why she was so dedicated to him, so willing to give herself up. When they were still dating, he had simply taken her to this small off-the-road café that she had never heard of. They had good coffee and they talked for hours. At the end of it all, he asked if she liked the café, and she answered him, “What are we doing tomorrow?” He had realized it back then the moment she said it, and it came to him even stronger now: he had given her something to look forward to every time, whether he knew it or not. And she had done the same too. She was someone that he could talk to forever and ever.

In a few hours, he would have to wake his friends up. They would have to have brunch and start getting dressed. The wedding was supposed to happen in the middle of the afternoon, which means they had to be in the church just after lunch. When he reached the hotel, the sun was still in the middle of its rising, which meant that only the pool boys and a few maids were walking about, not minding Andy who was carrying a strange, unconscious woman back to his room. The security guards even offered to help bring her to her room in a wheelchair. He lowered her unto the bed with no fuss, and she slept soundly and peacefully as he wrote the note telling her that if she woke up while he was gone, it was because he was getting married. But then, it occurred to him that this was something that she already knew, and he would rather not remind her. He crumpled up the note, returned to the car to get the statuette, and placed it back on the shelf, wondering if she would notice. He stood at the door and looked at everything in its place almost as it was many years ago, and without really saying anything, wished her good luck for the very last time.

For all the suffering that the three (well, two really… or… three?) Cooke siblings Lowell, Fern, and Rosemary go through growing up, you can’t help but feel that none of them should really be blaming each other. That’s pretty much a given in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which was recently nominated for the Man Booker. In this way, Fowler’s novel is a prosaic Royal Tenenbaums, a story about three children who would have grown up alright if not for the royal mess started especially by their father without much regard or remorse for the repercussions. Unlike Tenenbaums however, the Senior Cooke fails to atone for his sins and emerges largely as the overarching antagonist of the novel. Ironically, he achieves this while remaining mostly absent from the novel itself; Rosemary underlines this when she makes an effort to remind us of her father’s name, which I recall being Vince, but I’m not so sure anymore. How we remember that guy is telling of who he really was more than anything else: a psychologist.

The other great difference between Fowler’s novel and Tenenbaums is that Fern, the “middle child”, is a chimpanzee, and like Rosemary, I must stress here that you’re probably already thinking that Fern isn’t part of their family at all. Actually, convincing the reader that Rosemary and Fern are sisters (and to some degree, identical twins) is probably one of the novel’s greatest strengths. As we go through Rosemary’s reflections on her college years and her struggles to remember her childhood with Fern, we are presented with an organic relationship whose moments of tension are deeply felt, especially in the novel’s final pages. I myself admit that the final scene is particularly memorable as it carries with it not only the resolution of Rosemary’s strained relationship with her sister, but her turning to Fern as a result of her strained relationships with pretty much everyone else.

Interestingly, much of the book’s tension relies on Rosemary’s unreliability as a focalizer-narrator, rather than her strained relationships. Though she appears to have complete control over the order of events (she begins her story in the exact middle, as it were), Rosemary is conscious of her own mind’s capacity to trick itself; time and time again, she explains psychological concepts old and new to conveniently remind you that she may not remember everything exactly as it happened. You begin to question whether or not Rosemary’s recollection of an event is faithful to its reality. Otherwise, it may be a watered-down version.

Simultaneously, crucial scenes are withheld for later dramatic effect. This was one of the things that didn’t quite work for me. Rosemary tends to make open references to these events without showing them to us. Instead of tension, the novel sparked up some confusion. I found myself going back and forth, wondering, “That happened already? How could I miss that?” Rosemary also has a tendency to ramble, to digress, which, though appropriate to her character, lost my attention sometimes. A number of background characters seem to lack relevance or are simply convenient to the plot, and Harlow, though the catalyst for Rosemary’s re-evaluation of her relationships with her siblings, is annoying as hell.

Perhaps the novel’s best parts are the Cooke family members’ confrontations with each other, both in the past and in the future. I pored through the first few parts, which presents Rosemary’s early life, struggled a bit through Rosemary’s college years, in which her family seems almost totally absent, and enthralled by the novel’s final third, which brought Rosemary back to Lowell, to her mother, and to Fern. Rosemary’s encounter with her runaway brother Lowell in her college years signals the beginning of her true empathy with Fern. It becomes apparent that while she was aware of her similarity to Fern, she was never aware of her sameness with her. The middle absence is thus fitting, meant to underline Rosemary’s sameness/twinness with Fern, her being thrust into a completely different, hostile environment than the one in which she grew up. The time Rosemary spends with her mother after college is also quietly emotional as Rosemary finally comes to terms with the truth, having obtained her mother’s journals from that early, unobtainable part of her life with Fern. Suddenly, her mother’s attempts to bring the truth to light become her own conscious act of atonement. This prompts Rosemary to fight against a world of cruelty in her own way, which puts her somewhat in the same line of work as Lowell albeit less radical. It might be said then that the family business has changed largely, still dealing in the same market but going in a different direction entirely.

Earlier today I tweeted a link to an article on The Atlantic in which Azar Nafisi, author of The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, discusses a James Baldwin quote, which she chooses as one of her favorite written passages. The quote, taken from Baldwin’s interview with Studs Terkel, Chicago, 1961, reads:

You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discovered it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.

It reminds me largely of another quote, much younger than this one, that I first heard in the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2006), which goes like this:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

I have no doubt that the former must have been the source to Bennett’s line. For the longest time, I was in the belief that Bennett had originated the idea, not yet having heard of Baldwin in high school. Nonetheless, whether Bennett was the first, Baldwin was the first, or someone else did it entirely, the general idea behind these two quotes is pretty much been the rationale for my desire to teach Literature. I don’t necessarily mean this in a formal classroom setting, but even in the general encouragement of reading among my peers.

Those of you who encounter me in school or visit me in my apartment have likely taken note of my abundance of extra-curricular readings, and, especially if we are friends, my suggestions as to which book you should pick up next. I am typically eager to lend my books, even when I have not read them yet myself, and while I have regretfully lost track of some of them, I hope that they are picked up again one day and loved by someone else. They will serve their purpose. If you have ever wondered why I have chosen Literature my life’s labor, over anything law or medicine or business or anything else, it is encapsulated in the two quotes above and the Nafisi article.

Stories have a very certain power, and Nafisi notes that the power only begins once a reader starts connecting with the book. She even suggests that the connection can even be negative; you can hate the book you’re reading, but that already proves you have a connection. In high school, I struggled through several novels before I felt a real connection with the book. One summer, I decided to pick up Golding’s The Lord of the Flies and finished it realizing that I did not like it as much as I would have wanted. I could not feel a connection with the characters, the poor young boys who transform into savages. But there was an inkling of that connection. I continued to read again and again and again through different books and places and times, and then one day, I discovered Junot Diaz. I opened the first pages of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, not really sure of what about to happen. And curiously, I found myself in one who was not myself. I felt that I could relate, at last, to a boy growing up somewhere he didn’t think was home and seeking the comforts of science-fiction and fantasy not exactly to escape, but to deal with harsh reality. I read over two days, followed this brief, wondrous life, and ended it, feeling finally that solid connection, a tugging at the heart.

Among my peers, I’ve observed a general dislike or an apathy for Literature. Some even detest the activity of reading, dismissing it as either ‘just not for them’ or ‘something that could drive them crazy.’ Indeed, the popularity of technology, multimedia, and even film adaptation as a cinematic genre (well, one might argue a watered-down genre of adaptation nowadays) hint at a turning away from the written word, whose associations with other words are meant to form the images that generate the films in our heads. Criticism on the youth today with regard to their cognitive skills can be summed up into either a lack of imagination or the presence of an imagination albeit a lazy one. I would like to think that the members of the youth who claim to detest reading have not experienced that connection yet. They have merely been made to accept reading as one in a series of requirements, tedious as many of the other subjects they detest. They have been unable to separate the idea of reading as an activity from reading as a classroom subject. Hence, when they are presented with opportunities to form a connection, they fail to do so because the concern is rather academic than personal.

Curiously, though I was able to form the connection with Diaz’s novel, as I grew older, I became more conscious that the book was not necessarily written with someone like me in mind. How did Diaz even aim for me? I realized that the miracle of Literature was that I turned out to be a lucky reader, one in a million that picked up the book and found myself forever changed. Nafisi herself points out that this is how literature brings the reader into a “republic of imagination that transcends space and time.” I am a Cebuano-Manileño post-adolescent living between both cities, and the person who best expresses me is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican professor who teaches at MIT. “That gives you a sense of hope, a sense of connection and camaraderie,” Nafisi writes. “It is one of those moments when you’re glad you’re human.”

As I grew older, I also became aware that I was not merely discovering myself in books, but that I was more importantly learning how to discover other people. Just as much as I was noting the similarities, I was noting the differences, the points where Oscar and I would not connect. I drew the line between Oscar and me, and that helped me to know him better as well. I think this is essential for writers. As Nafisi puts it: “It is so boring to constantly talk about yourself! And that is the message of fiction—you can’t talk only about yourself. You to understand and give voice to everyone, even people unlike you, even the villain—because even if you’re fighting the villain you need to understand him first.”

And as I grew older, I felt a similar connection with other books, other authors, other characters, and even other literary genres. To name a few, I felt the connection in Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, Yates’s “When You Are Old”, David Ives’ “Variations on the Death of Trotsky”, and most recently, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. Writing this essay now, I think of all the characters that have sprung from these works and inhabited my mind. They still live there, fondly interacting. Oscar looks up to Dante, and the speaker of Yates’ poem meets up with Leo Gursky and Nao Yasutani regularly for an afternoon walk. These are all fictions, but they all stand for something and they have meant something to me. One day, I hope that they can be important to my kids, or at least, they’ll be the first to open the doors for them, so they can read their own stories and then go tell me about it.

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