On Cooking an Egg (Properly)

Overcooked egg

A few years ago, I bought a cookbook called Kulinarya: A Guide to Philippine Cuisine (ed., Michaela Fenix, Anvil, 2008). Gorgeously photographed by Neil Oshima, Kulinarya is a distillation of the wisdom and know-how of six of the country’s top chefs: Glenda Rosales Barretto, Conrad Calalang, Margarita Forés, Myrna Segismundo, Jessie Sincioco and Claude Tayag (who also served as food stylist for the volume).

Included are recipes of such Filipino standard fare as dried beef tapa, pork barbecue, kinilaw na tanguigue, kaldereta, tinola, bulalo, pinakbet, cripsy pata, kaldereta, pan de sal, halo-halo, and an enticing assortment of ensalada, sinigang, adobo, relleno, pancit, merienda (snacks), and desserts.

In one of the essays in the introductory section, entitled “Working Towards World-Class Cuisine,” the authors state that the mission of the collaborative Kulinarya Project is “to inspire world-class preparation and presentation of Filipino food.” The aim of the recipes, according to the book, is to “define tradition, not reinvent it.”

The book emphasizes the importance of using quality ingredients—liempo with evenly distribued fat-to-meat content, lechon that uses native pigs, prawns weighing at most 50 grams, 500-gram bangus for relleno—as well as storing food at the proper temperature, serving food that is “freshly cooked and piping hot,” and making sure that the vegetables are not limp and leached of their color.

The cookbook is a joy to read and sample, except for one small but nevertheless telling detail. Nestled in the ensaladang Filipina (Filipino salad), with its mouth-watering array of steamed okra, kamote tops, and water spinach, its grilled and skin-charred eggplants, and its dressings (ranging from guisadong bagoong alamang or sautéed shrimp paste and guisadong bagoong isda or sautéed fish paste to sweet-and-sour vinaigrette and honeyed fish sauce), are slices of hardboiled eggs that bear the unmistakable, telltale signs of overcooking.

You can tell that an egg is overcooked when there is a greenish-gray ring around the yolk. The ring is basically ferrous sulfate, the product of a chemical reaction between the sulfur from the egg white and the iron from the egg yolk. While the ferrous sulfate ring is not toxic, it does affect the look and taste of the egg.

To be fair, other photographs in the book feature perfectly boiled eggs in the rellenong manok (chicken deboned and stuffed with Vienna sausage, chorizo, onions, pimiento, olives, raisins, boiled eggs, Edam or Parmesan cheese, and ground pork) and the pancit luglog (rice noodles with a sauce made of annatto oil, garlic, shrimp stock, and chicken stock, seasoned with fish sauce and pepper, and topped with kamias [bilimbi], chicharon [pork crackling], smoked fish flakes, squid rings, pork meat, scallions, and toasted garlic).

In recent years, Filipino cuisine has garnered international recognition for its rich and varied culinary tradition and its creative appropriation of ingredients and cooking techniques from different parts of the world, both East and West, North and South.

Pointing out an overcooked egg or two is not mere quibbling. A close-up of one such wedge of egg right next to the “Working Towards World-Class Cuisine” essay undermines the stated mission of promoting a “world-class cuisine.” If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a badly cooked egg does nothing to enhance our pleasure and pride in our food history and culture.

To put it bluntly, how can we trust our best cooks to “define” Filipino culinary tradition and present the best of our food culture when some (thankfully not all!) of them cannot even boil an egg properly?

This is not some freak occurrence, either. I have seen YouTube videos of professional chefs (whose names are best left unmentioned) demonstrating the art of making, say, rellenong manok for Christmas. The relleno looks delicious, except, alas, for the overcooked eggs.

This suggests either negligence or lack of oversight (should these chefs rely on assistants to do the preparation for them) or, worse, lack of basic knowledge, training, and skill. The kindest thing that can be said about the cooks who serve badly cooked eggs is that they are too lazy to maintain the minimum standards of cooking; the worst that can be said is that they simply don’t care about the people for whom they cook.

And yet, reasonable instructions for boiling eggs properly can be found in no-nonsense, workperson-like cookbooks. For example, Eleanor Laquian’s Filipino Cooking and Entertaining Here & Abroad (National Book Store, 2007; earlier editions of the book were published under the title Filipino Cooking Here & Abroad)—a favorite of OFWs because its recipes have been adapted to cooking in places where not all native ingredients such as kalamansi or patis are available—contains the following tips for hard cooked eggs:

“Place eggs in a pot, cover with cold water, bring water to a boil, immediately remove pot from heat on boiling. Keep pot covered, let stand for 20 minutes.”

Laquian even offers a contingency plan for people who let their water come to a boil without having put in the egg beforehand. She suggests lowering the egg into the water with a metal spoon “so metal absorbs the heat and eggs won’t crack from the sudden change in temperature”. The temperature should be lowered so that the water gently simmers: “Never boil eggs, they become rubbery”. For hard-cooked eggs, allow 10 minutes, for medium-cooked eggs, 3-4 minutes. If eggs are not at room temperature before they are cooked, add 2 minutes more to the cooking time.

Timing is not all. How eggs are handled immediately after cooking is equally crucial: “Never let cooked eggs stand in the hot water after cooking, this toughens the egg white and makes it difficult to peel the eggs.” Instead, rinse the eggs under cold running water, or else plunge the eggs into cold water as soon as they are cooked.

Daiso’s egg timer

In Japan, Daiso’s 100-yen shops sell egg timers which can be put into the pot along with the eggs. These timers turn pink to indicate “hard,” “medium,” and “soft” boiled egg.

Other cookbooks recommend cooking times of 10 minutes for hard, 5 minutes for medium, and 2 for soft. Perfectionists that they are, some Japanese chefs also suggest using chopsticks to gently roll the eggs in the water as the water is being heated to ensure that the yolk stays in the middle of the egg.

If we want to affirm the wonders and pleasures of Filipino cuisine to ourselves and introduce properly our cuisine to the world, we might as well start by cooking our eggs properly.

 

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End-of-Summer Blues

Among the bounty of summer produce—zucchini, eggplant, tomato, corn, all kinds of berries, peaches, cherries—I’m tempted to say that I love zucchini the most.

There are so many ways to cook it: diced and lightly fried with minced garlic in olive oil; grated and melted into a vegetable stew; cut lengthwise, dipped in egg and flour, pan-fried, and presented grandly as zucchini steaks. They’re all delicious, the zucchini always keeping its hint of sweetness, its texture meltingly soft and tender.

A terrific preparation, but perhaps the most labor-intensive, is zucchini fritters. Zucchini is grated, salted, and the water pressed out. The grated vegetable is then mixed with minced garlic, eggs, and flour. Sometimes I add a Filipino flourish—dried shrimp. Known as hibe in Tagalog, dried shrimp is available in Chinese and Korean markets in New York. I soak half a cup in hot water, chop it roughly, and add the soft pink mass to the batter. It makes a huge difference in taste and texture to the fritter, the dried shrimp adding a rich mouth-filling umami. It also adds a sporadic crunch to the fritter because the shrimp shells and heads, while in tiny fragments because chopped, still have a residual hardness. Sometimes I do the Italian version of the fritter and add grated parmesan.

I drop spoonfuls of the batter to a hot frying pan slicked with oil and fry one side to a golden brown, turn it, and fry the other side. Once they’re cooked, we eat them dipped in vinegar when it’s the Filipino version or with a squeeze of lemon when it’s the Italian version. The first time I prepared and cooked zucchini fritters a few years ago, the taste and texture of the first bite—the crispness of the grated and fried vegetable, the salinity of the hibe, the bracing acidity of the vinegar—evoked in me a cascade of memories.

It’s my grandmother’s ukoy that I remembered. I have a specific memory too: arriving at her house in the barrio, going into the kitchen where she sat on a bench, an enameled tin basin in front of her filled with an orange batter that she mixed by hand. It’s orange because she used grated squash for her ukoy. When I did a quick internet search, most ukoy recipes are made with bean sprouts or just dried shrimp. A trendy Filipino restaurant in the city offers ukoy made with shredded carrots and cabbage as an appetizer—I have to say this doesn’t sound very appetizing at all.

Zucchini is not native in the Philippines, although I heard it’s now widely available there. I first learned about it in high school when I read a book by a man who was bullied by neighborhood boys because his mother gave their mothers zucchini from her garden and they were constantly forced to eat the vegetable. It has a reputation for being easy to grow and is supposedly profligate in blooming in farms and backyard gardens. This has been true every summer. Last summer, produce was breathtakingly plentiful and cheap. All varieties of eggplants, zucchini and yellow summer squash, peaches, and tomatoes were constantly abundant in stores and always discounted. This summer, for one reason or another (climate change? water shortages? backlash from the overproduction last summer? Donald Trump?), seasonal produce is not as abundant and not as cheap.

There’s something melancholic in the site of produce bins with tiny hills of zucchini and squash when last summer there were heaping mountains of them. Even corn is not as abundant this summer.

Or maybe I’m just feeling the melancholy of the end of summer. It’s not really a shortage. They’re always available and I buy them even when they’re not discounted—they’re still better and cheaper in the summer anyway. The season is almost over, but I have many excellent food memories—a luscious fried eggplant in July, a cold peach I ate standing in front of an open refrigerator, a sublime golden tomato in a salad last week, strawberries and cream, sweet corn, and plums that I eat while thinking of William Carlos Williams’s poem “This Is Just to Say”—which makes the plums taste infinitely better.

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Spammed

Last week, I cooked Spam. I opened the can, slid the rectangular cube of pink meat out, sliced it into thin slabs, and fried them lightly. I served the slices with white rice and some leftover braised lentils.

The last time I had Spam was a few months ago, in a ramen joint in the city, when one of the kids ordered an appetizer of Spam musubi, the Hawaiian roll of rice and Spam wrapped in nori. Before that, the last time was probably five or six years ago. I never cook it because, well, I try to minimize the eating of processed food. But that night in the ramen joint, when I bit into the soft, salty slice, I felt a jolt of recognition, as if, after many years, I met an old friend by accident.

It was, of course, tasty; that one bite had that orchestra of taste and mouthfeel—of a yielding but mouth-filling tenderness, of porky fat, of salt, of a thrum of sweetness—that only highly-processed foods can deliver. It was also achingly familiar. As a child in the Philippines, I ate Spam when my mom served it to us as a rare treat. We ate it the way we ate tapa or tocino or longganisa, with rice and eggs. As a young adult, I had it occasionally when I went out with one friend who loved to have it as a bar snack when we drank beer.

About a month ago, when I was cleaning out the pantry, I saw two cans of Spam at the back of the cabinet, behind a sack of rice and a liter of olive oil. I had forgotten they were there and I looked at them with wonder. I’m writing this even as I’m embarrassed by it. I’ve had these two cans of Spam for a few years, bought, along with a few gallons of water and some crackers, on a dark winter afternoon when a blizzard bore down on the city and panicky residents had cleaned out the nearby supermarket of food items to stock.

I decided, with really an absurd and inordinate amount of thinking and conflicting emotions, to cook one of the cans of Spam. I wanted it. I wanted a big porky bite of it, not the small measly taste of it I had with the Spam musubi. I wanted to eat it with white rice and a fried egg, maybe with ketchup. I wanted to eat it and feel that sense of familiarity again, that sense of going back in time.

But I kept forgetting or, when I remembered, I had something else prepared already. Many times, I couldn’t bring myself to cook it and serve it to my kids. On their website, the company boasts that Classic Spam only has six ingredients—pork with ham, salt, water, potato starch, sugar, and sodium nitrite.

It’s clear what the company is implying with this information. Michael Pollan, the influential food and nutrition writer, capped the number of ingredients of acceptable processed foods at five, and those five should be ingredients one can easily pronounce, preferably monosyllabic ones.

Classic Spam has a respectable six (“pork with ham” sounds suspicious, but never mind that), all of them easy to pronounce, with the only non-food-sounding one the sodium nitrite. But even that is familiar—problematic and controversial in its own way, but familiar.

From the website, we also learn that flavors have proliferated and that there are now fifteen varieties of them. One of them is tocino, created by the company to express their appreciation for the Philippines. The Philippines, in fact, is one of the countries so devoted to Spam that it has its own website (spam-ph.com).

One can enjoy the flavor and revel in the kitschiness of Spam. Spam is retro, trendy, and, most importantly, humble. The ramen joint where we ate the Spam musubi, for example, boasts of such carefully made food as pork broth simmered for ten hours, of hand-pulled noodles, of artisanal miso flown in from Japan. But they have Spam musubi because they’re also eclectic and democratic. The trendy Filipino restaurant we ate at a year or so ago had Spam fries in their menu. And Dale Talde, a well-known Filipino-American chef with restaurants in New York and other states, shares a recipe for spam and kimchi fried rice. It’s particularly popular in Hawaii, Guam, Japan, and the Philippines, supposedly because the Americans brought them during and after the second world war. If you look at the global map on the company website, you’ll see that the product is available in all of north America and all of Asia and Australia. It’s in the UK, but not in the rest of Europe. It cannot, I guess, really compete with prosciutto.

Spam slices, braised lentils, and a thumbs up from the kid

So last week, after weeks of waiting and pondering, I finally cooked Spam. We had leftover rice and braised lentils. If we were better, saner people, we would have just those two. But I cooked the Spam and presented it at the table. It was a Filipino meal not just because Filipinos love Spam, but also because the braised lentils and Spam slices somehow mirrored the Filipino dish of ginisang munggo and chicharron. I tried to explain it to the family, but they didn’t really care—they were just surprised and elated that, after five years, I cooked Spam again.

At the dinner table, I ate one slice and, in the kitchen after the meal, furtively nibbled at another one. I wish I can say that I’ve had my fill of the damned thing, but I can’t. I ate it, it was good, I wouldn’t mind having more. I read a long time ago about the actress Jennifer Aniston and how she would buy a bag of Doritos, eat a single chip, then throw the rest of the bag away. The anecdote pisses me off in the way that anecdotes of other people’s discipline and self-restraint piss me off.

If true, anyway, what Aniston does is highly unnatural (also bizarre and annoying, but I think I already said that). These foods, unfortunately enough, are engineered to make us consume more of them. The bliss point of processed food—that perfect balance of salt, sugar, fat, and mouthfeel—is the focus of attention of millions of dollars of industry research; of the collective intelligence of thousands of scientists, statisticians, and marketers; of the ambitions of ivy league-trained CEOs who have to answer to their shareholders.

In a 2013 article in the New York Times Magazine entitled “The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food,” the journalist Michael Moss described what goes into the making of processed food. “Frito-Lay had a formidable research complex near Dallas, where nearly 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians conducted research that cost up to $30 million a year, and the science corps focused intense amounts of resources on questions of crunch, mouth feel and aroma for each of these items. Their tools included a $40,000 device that simulated a chewing mouth to test and perfect the chips, discovering things like the perfect break point: people like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch.”

Spam, compared to the other processed foods, is even more problematic. It’s not even that it’s an unnatural and engineered food and that it’s unhealthy, it’s that its production is implicated in such problems as the ethics (or lack thereof) and environmental impact of the mass production of animals for human consumption, the use and abuse of undocumented workers, the countless instances of animal and human cruelty that have been reported inside factories.

In a Mother Jones report in 2011, the writer described the truth behind the innocuous pink cube inside the Spam can: “Every hour, more than 1,300 severed pork heads go sliding along the belt. Workers slice off the ears, clip the snouts, chisel the cheek meat. They scoop out the eyes, carve out the tongue, and scrape the palate meat from the roofs of mouths. Because, famously, all parts of a pig are edible (‘everything but the squeal,’ wisdom goes), nothing is wasted. A woman … would carve meat off the back of each head before letting the denuded skull slide down the conveyor and through an opening in a plexiglass shield.”

The truth behind the cheap price is that, on a regular day, almost twenty thousand animals are processed in a single factory, about five million a year, with workers forced to keep up with the unrelenting pace of the rather grisly work, despite illnesses, injuries, or any other expression of human frailty.

Dear reader, I apologize. I intended this piece to be much shorter, much simpler. I meant it to be a cute little essay, a rueful admission of a craving that many would understand and relate to. It was supposed to be the blog equivalent of a dish of Spam fries offered in a trendy restaurant—self-aware, ironic, playful.

I guess it’s appropriate that I bought the two cans of Spam as preparation for a natural disaster. With its preservatives (I bought my two cans years ago and it’s going to last until 2019) and problematic provenance, Spam seems the perfect food for a dystopian future that will involve rising sea levels, deadly mosquitoes, perhaps a zombie apocalypse.

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Always Roaming with a Hungry Heart

I don’t really read poetry. Even before, as an English teacher, poetry was my least favorite genre. There were a few poems that I liked and that I returned to again and again, but even then (and even now), I felt (and feel) a self-consciousness about liking them. I remember being haunted by certain lines from a handful of poets—Auden, Keats, maybe Edna St. Vincent Millay.

A long time ago, I even made a shirt printed with lines from “Ulysses” and gave it as a gift to a friend. After giving it, however, I felt weird and awkward. (Tennyson? On a t-shirt? Really?) It wasn’t that I printed lines of poetry on a t-shirt, it’s just that it was Tennyson. Shouldn’t I have picked somebody more obscure, more contemporary, more difficult? Somebody … cooler.

But I was never interested enough to seek new ones or to understand the difficult writers. I liked “Ulysses.” Until now, I like it. Some teachers of poetry say that you should like what you like, that what’s important is to read poetry. Kind of like wine experts who say, preempting those who hem and haw about wanting to drink wine but say that they don’t know anything about it, that you should drink what you want to drink—pair a malbec with salmon, for god’s sake, if that’s what you have and that’s what you like.

Recently, I’ve been getting hits of poetry in the least likely places—in the subway, in the newspaper, and, of all places, in my Twitter feed. I guess it’s exactly because they’re in these forms of media that they’re accessible, easy to appreciate. I find that I like them. I like them especially when I encounter them unexpectedly, as if—exactly!—I’m given a malbec that is excellent with my fish.

It started in 2012 when the MTA started displaying posters with poems and interesting graphics in subway cars in a campaign called Poetry in Motion. I found many that were arresting because of the graphics—a winged horse and carriage against stars on a cerulean background, the constellations golden against aquamarine, a setting sun in between brick apartment buildings—but I didn’t like many of the poems. Except for one.

Displayed under a painting of one of those familiar New York apartment buildings, “The Good Life” by Tracy K. Smith gave me pause the first time I encountered it in the subway. I loved its metaphor for money as “a mysterious lover / Who went out to buy milk and never / Came back.” I loved its nakedness about food and hunger and satiety, the resonance of its images of living hungrily on “coffee and bread,” of dining on “roast chicken and wine” on paydays. Standing in a crowded subway and reading the poem, so compact and so direct, I felt as if a space had opened up around me, a strange stillness in the lurching car.

The New York Times publishes poems weekly in its Sunday magazine and in T, its occasional style supplement. Most of these poems are the cryptic, difficult kinds though, the ones I don’t like. Every now and then, they would have a spread with several poems about a certain theme. Again in 2012, they published poems about the end of the world because, as the editors said in the introduction, the world was about to end—at least according to some versions of the Mayan calendar. There were six poems in the spread and I liked them all, but one in particular stood out for me. “Going Down” by Maxine Kung is about, of all things, climate change, an unpoetic topic if ever there was one. But it describes the inundation that’s coming with hypnotic lyricism and ends with these haunting lines: “Despite outcries of pure angst / dikes won’t save the playing field / so blow a kiss to this drowned world. / The gods have spoken: yield.”

Finally, a few weeks ago, my Twitter feed began filling up with tweets about Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones.” The poem became popular last year when Waxwing published it. It went viral after the Orlando shootings and after the November election, has been endorsed by celebrities and recited by Meryl Streep, has been translated into Spanish, French, Hindi, and Korean. Last April, it was featured in an episode of the TV show Madam Secretary, which was why it exploded in popularity on Twitter once again.

An exploration of the darkness in the world, it’s particularly meaningful for mothers. It reminds me of the time when my older daughter was around eight or nine and she would hug herself and tell me, her voice filled with joy, “I love myself, Mommy!” It is, of course, a normal thing for kids to love themselves and the world. And yet, when my child showed that abundance of joy about being in the world, I felt such gladness, such relief. My younger daughter shows the same sturdy happiness. I congratulate myself on this, that I am able to, in Smith’s indelible words, “sell them the world.” As my two kids grow up and their love for the world is tempered by hard (but, thank god, still not that hard) realities I cannot (should not?) protect them from, I feel more and more like the realtor in the poem. I try to convince my kids, “This place could be beautiful, / right? You could make this place beautiful.”

After I found her poem, I promptly began following Smith. The other day she tweeted a question to her followers, “Poems that bring you joy? Make you glad to be alive?” This resulted in a thread with poem recommendations like, among many others, “Advice to Myself” by Louise Erdrich, “What the Living Do” by Marie Howe, and “Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon.

These poems can be described as joyful, but it’s equally accurate to describe them as mournful, even dirge-like. (Someone suggested Keats’s “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be” and no one objected.) But I guess that’s the essence of poetry, right? That it can condense complexity and express contradictions, that it can call the world a shithole, as Maggie Smith did, and you read it, again and again, with wonder and astonishment, slayed by the language.

Hey, look at me, making pronouncements about poetry!

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56 Years a Slave

The posthumous publication of Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino-American journalist Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave” has provoked much discussion and some controversy. Many readers were moved by the plight of Lola Eudocia Tomas Pulido, who was eighteen years old in 1943 when the author’s grandfather “gave” her to the author’s mother as a “gift” and who worked for the author’s family for fifty-six years.

Tizon provided harrowing details of how Lola Eudocia was subject to frequent scolding, forced to work long hours well beyond physical exhaustion and sleep amid piles of laundry, beaten in place of the author’s mother when the author’s mother misbehaved, promised but never actually given an “allowance.”

The essay also recounted Tizon’s own efforts to make amends: standing up to his mother in defense of Lola Eudocia; bringing Lola to live with him in her old age and helping her obtain U.S. citizenship; giving Lola $200 a week to send to relatives, and later paying her airfare to visit relatives back in the Philippines; taking her on family vacations; and bringing her ashes back to her birthplace.

The internet being what it is, Tizon’s article has generated its share of commentaries both thoughtful and thoughtless, knee-jerk and nuanced. While some were quick to condemn Tizon for not doing enough, and sooner, to redress fifty years of suffering and exploitation (a point that should get one thinking in turn of how long the United States and its people have taken, and are still taking, to redress the trauma and long-term immeasurable human cost of slavery), a number of commentators have called for better historical and cultural understanding of slavery and the utusan/kasambahay/katulong system in the Philippines that made such suffering and exploitation possible in the first place.

The conversation has not been confined to one among Americans (including, of course, Filipino Americans, many of whom have learned about the situations of “maids” from their grand/parents or from their own visits to the Philippines), but has reached across the Pacific and the world to encompass middle- and upper-class Filipinos living in the Philippines and other parts of the world.

I say “middle- and upper-class Filipinos” because, so far, we have yet to see mainstream media solicit and present the reactions and opinions of actual katulong/kasambahay back home. In the case of Overseas Filipino Workers (numbering some 2.4 million in 2015, 51% of them female, and more than half of female workers being classified as “laborers and unskilled workers,” a category that includes domestic helpers [more about “unskilled” later]), it is also difficult to track the discussion among them because: 1) they are not likely to have the time to browse, let alone post comments in, English-language media; and 2) the internet discussion has been mainly in English (and there is no translation of the article into Filipino and other Philippine languages).

In short, it’s important to ask who is part of this discussion and who is not.

Moreover, reading through the comments, one can’t help wondering at what is missing or, more important, what is silenced or erased when people—particularly those who identify as Filipino by nationality or by heritage—attempt to explain the context of slavery and the utusan system in the Philippines.

The most obvious context here is that household work in general is devalued and for that reason poorly remunerated. Economists do not factor unpaid “household production” or “own-production”—the work done by and within a family for its own use (cooking, cleaning, child care, etc.)—in their statistics. There are now calls among some economists to come up with a way to measure household production, but the challenges of measuring the “quality” of such production remain.

In the Philippines, the labor (both muscle and emotion) needed for household production is sub-contracted by families (including some poor ones) to their katulong. Even when paid housework is included in national statistics (a country’s GDP, for instance), it is still viewed as “unimportant” and classified as “unskilled,” as though the quality of caring for home and children (the future generation, the human resources) doesn’t count for much.

Then there is the oft-repeated remark that since Eudocia Pulido was called “Lola” (Filipino term for grandmother), this meant that she was considered “part of the family.” This so-called explanation is actually a non-explanation, since it says nothing about the exploitation that happens within families. The cultural practice among Filipinos of calling their kasambahay “lola” in no way mitigates, let alone justifies, the exploitation of Lola Eudocia. Generations of feminists have detailed the abuse and exploitation that can be found in the most intimate, private sphere of the family, in the relationships between spouses, between parents and children, between heads of households and dependents.

In a posthumously published commentary called “Strange Hierarchies” (Philippine Studies: Historiographical and Ethnographic Viewpoints vol. 64, issue 1, 2016), the scholar Benedict Anderson argued that “maids are an interesting site to study the cross-effects of class inequality and intra-gender inequality.” He trenchantly observed that Southeast Asian middle-class children often “learn the ropes” of inequality from—and practice being “unequalizers” on—their own “yayas” (a Binisaya term that originally means “aunt” but is now synonymous with kasambahay who care for children).

In his comments, Vince Rafael rightly points out that Filipino “slavery” has its own specific history and system of social arrangements and relations. (Slavery in different forms, as well as other forms of indentured, conscripted, and unremunerated labor, exist in many regions of the world across centuries.) Rafael examines how the concepts of mutuality, reciprocity, utang na loob (a concept more complex than simple “debt of gratitude”), awa (pity), and hiya (shame) underpin the historical system of slavery in the Philippines, and inform present-day relations between katulong and their so-called “amo.”

The thing about these so-called “Filipino values” is that they work in a double-edged way: as much as they are often the only means by which the oppressed are able to assert their agency and human dignity against their oppressors (as Vince eloquently shows), the language of reciprocity has also functioned historically to mask and enable the power dynamics of inequality and subordination.

In fact, one of the thorny issues in the agrarian and tenancy disputes of the past century in the Philippines has been tenants and sharecroppers’ resentment of the way the landlords, who already benefit from a rigged system that keeps their tenants and workers perpetually indebted to them, still expect or demand personal services from them–services ranging from cutting firewood to repairing houses and, worse, offering their children as household servants–for free.

This is why the issue of wages has been an important component of the political struggles of workers around the world, as wages set some limits on how much mutual obligations people—particularly those in power vis-à-vis the powerless—can exact from each other.

Another running thread of the internet commentary on the Tizon article is the unconscious paternalism exhibited by some commentators who claim that one is doing a good thing–the right thing, even a favor–by giving the poor food and shelter in exchange for having them do house work for very little pay, or no pay. The middle classes, behaving just like the landlords (and, if you want to think farther afield, slave-owners and colonizers), like to invoke this brand of self-congratulatory paternalism when they say that they “take care” of their servants even as they relentlessly exploit them.

There are, it must be said, examples of good employers who do their best to ensure the welfare of their servants. But a comment such as this one–“i feel like many filipinos don’t have so much so i wouldn’t be surprised if some took people in as help…even when they weren’t paid, feels like a way for them to take care of each other”—does not help clarify things. Its vague talk of mutual help runs the danger of shading off into the patronizing rhetoric of hiring-maids-as-a-favor-to-the poor, because both beg the question of who is making more use of whom. After all, the cost of providing food and shelter is far less than having someone be at one’s beck and call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Just for comparison, let’s look at contemporary Japan, where servants were commonplace until the end of World War II. Nowadays, the cost of hiring a professional nanny to take care of one’s child is about 2000 Japanese yen an hour, plus transport and other expenses. If you multiply this by eight hours, that’s already 16,000 yen for one day’s work–and the nanny cannot be asked to do any other housework (for cleaning, you have to ask another company to provide that labor, and you’ll also be charged per hour). A stay-in nanny who works eight hours a day, seven days a week for a month will cost you 480,000 yen. Compare this to the median family income in Japan, which is about seven million yen a year, or around 583,000 yen a month. Which is to say that Japanese middle-classes cannot afford live-in nannies or even hourly-pay nannies. Companies like Duskin are hiring Filipino workers and paying them the equivalent of USD 1500 or 66,000 pesos a month to do house-cleaning for Duskin clients. Their pay is roughly comparable to the minimum hourly wages in Japan. (Compare this to the 2500 Philippine pesos that the Kasambahay Law mandates for domestic helpers in Metro Manila as against 9000 pesos per month for non-agricultural labor in the National Capital Region.)

The “culture” of the utusan system is deeply connected to politics, economics, and institutions. Alex Tizon is right to use the term “slave” because, in the twentieth century, if someone doesn’t get paid for doing work that she ought to get paid for (regardless of whether she consents to an unpaid arrangement or not), then she is a slave by our twentieth-century definition. It is possible to speak of a wife, a widow, a sister, a grandmother, an aunt, or a daughter (and their male counterparts) as working like a slave, even when the work they do is considered part of their “familial” obligation.

The point is that we are no longer talking about sixteenth-century or even nineteenth-century slavery. The national liberation struggles, the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements, the workers’ movements, the feminist and other social and political movements from all over the world since then have helped create a world where what happened to Lola Eudocia and the oppression of so many other people all over the world can no longer be condoned, and what is needed is not just understanding and individual initiatives to redress the situation–laudable as Alex Tizon’s efforts to make amends to Lola Eudocia had been–but larger systemic and structural changes such as better enforcement of laws and regulations and better protection of the vulnerable and the poor.

What exactly are the politics and economics of the utusan question and why is the utusan system so pernicous and long-lasting, despite the progress in our political and social values? What are the specific problems and challenges that we middle-class Filipinos need to grapple with?

If it is a question of housework, most Filipino middle-class families can save up for a washing machine, and assign the chores of cooking and cleaning among themselves (husbands and children included, not exempted). But the factors that account for the persistence and longevity of the maid system are deeply political and economic, and involve a series of institutional problems. Here are just a few of them:

  1. the erosion of the standards of the Philippine public school system: as recent as the postwar era, the public school was of sufficient high quality that people were proud to go to public school. The great historian Resil Mojares, for example, talks about his pride in being a public school student (as opposed to private school) in one of his essays in House of Memory. Washington Sycip and Kerima Polotan, two prominent Filipinos, went to public schools. The point about public schools is that they would have been within walking distance of the houses in a district. But the erosion through inadequate funding and bureaucratic corruption of the public school system has given rise to the middle-class preference to send their children to private schools, and because private schools are often located at a distance from their homes, they have to rely on maids to ferry their kids to and from school, or keep house for them as they ferry their own children back and forth.
  2. concerns (real and imagined) about law and order: while most children of working-class families have no choice but to walk or commute to school by themselves, most middle-class parents worry about the safety of their kids, fearing that the kids will be robbed, molested, or kidnapped. Some middle-class children are so coddled by their parents that they have never taken a bus or a jeepney in their lives. (We haven’t begun talking about how cocooning children from the world outside their airconditioned car windows and middle-class homes engenders a narrow, blinkered view of that world.)
  3. the repeated failures of industrial policy: had the country’s elites been able to formulate and implement better industrial policies, the employment opportunities that would have opened up for women in factories, offices, and other better-paid workplaces would have encouraged more women to take jobs other than household service. Middle-class families often worry about the precariousness of their finances because they know the wages they themselves earn are not enough for them to pay their DHs well.
  4. the lack of support system for childcare: there are kindergartens, but only for those who can afford them, and there are not many government-subsidized and employer-provided childcare facilities that will allow working mothers to entrust their small children to adequately compensated, professional caregivers.
  5. the failure of imagination and mindset: while there are enlightened men who are willing to share the housework with their spouses, the onus is still on the women to do the bulk of the housework. Worse, because the middle- and upper-classes are already so dependent on their maids, they tend to breed in their own children a similar “señorito/a” complex that views housework as something only maids–other people–do. This kind of mentality explains the cluelessness of those who, having gone abroad or migrated to First World countries, complain about having to do the housework themselves and wax nostalgic about having katulong back home to make their beds for them (as Anderson mentioned in his essay). It also explains the annoying predilection of middle- and upper-class matrons to complain about the “laziness,” “slowness,” “untrainability,” and “untrustworthiness” of their maids (an NHK documentary shown in Japan actually recorded one such conversation involving one of the Philippines’ elite families–had this documentary been shown in the Philippines, it would have ignited a firestorm of controversy). If the work done by the maids are not up to the standards of the matrons, why don’t the matrons do the housework themselves?

What “My Family’s Slave” has done is to bring up a subject that is often left unsaid and left unthought and unexamined, a subject that, far from being just a problem of Philippine poverty and corruption and lack of state capacity “out there”, implicates all of us who have ever had yayas bring us up and keep house for us.  We have to render ourselves accountable for–and live with the guilt and consequences of–all the things we have allowed to happen and all the things we could and should have done but failed, for whatever reason, to do.

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Call for Papers: International Conference in Honor of Prof. Resil B. Mojares

Bridging Worlds, Illumining the Archive: An International

Conference in Honor of Professor Resil B. Mojares

Organized jointly by

Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Perspectives

School of Social Sciences, Loyola Schools

Ateneo de Manila University

and

Southeast Asian Studies

Center for Southeast Asian Studies

Kyoto University

To be held in Quezon City, Philippines

30–31 July 2018

 

CALL FOR PAPERS

In a prolific career spanning five decades, Resil B. Mojares has produced a remarkable body of work that combines meticulous research, incisive analysis, and elegant, lyrical writing.

An exemplary home-grown and -educated activist, intellectual, institution-builder, and man of letters, Mojares has made important, often pioneering, contributions to diverse fields and subjects, ranging from Philippine literature (Origins and Rise of the Filipino Novel: A Generic Study of the Novel until 1940; [co-ed.] the two-volume Sugilanong Sugboanon), architecture (Casa Gorordo in Cebu: Urban Residence in a Philippine Province, 1860–1920), theater and social history (Theater in Society, Society in Theater: Social History of a Cebuano Village, 1840–1940), to intellectual history (Brains of the Nation: Pedro Paterno, T. H. Pardo de Tavera, Isabelo de los Reyes, and the Production of Modern Knowledge), biography (Vicente Sotto: Maverick Senator; The Man Who Would be President: Serging Osmeña and Philippine Politics; Aboitiz: Family and Firm in the Philippines), history and politics (The War Against the Americans: Resistance and Collaboration in Cebu, 1899–1906; [co-ed.] From Marcos to Aquino: Local Perspectives on the Political Transition in the Philippines).

Apart from book-length works, Mojares has also produced occasional essays (collected in House of Memory; Waiting for Mariang Makiling: Essays in Philippine Cultural History; Isabelo’s Archive; The Resil Mojares Reader; and Interrogations in Philippine Cultural History) that have done much to illuminate “what is obscure, hidden, and marginal” in a plurilingual, pluricultural Philippines. His works blur “the boundaries between academic and literary writing,” while simultaneously building on, and questioning, the “idea and performance of the archive—capacious, diverse, makeshift, open-ended, and polymorphic, and one ‘national’ in its motive and ambition” (Mojares, “Writing the Archive,” Manila Review Issue 5, Sept. 2014).

The perspectives Mojares brings to his study of Philippine history, politics, society, culture, and the arts are methodologically eclectic and capable of moving effortlessly between and across local, national, regional (subnational and supranational), and transnational scales.

This international conference celebrates the life, career, and writings of Resil B. Mojares. It aims not only to assess Professor Mojares’s influence, but also to engage with the ideas, issues, and contexts brought up by his writings on and across various fields of inquiry.

Scholars and academics with papers and panels related, but not limited, to the following topics are invited to participate in this conference:

  1. Historiography and the Archive: Issues and Debates
  2. Precolonial, Colonial, Imperial, and Postcolonial Histories
  3. Biography
  4. Intellectuals, Intellectual Histories, and Philippine Studies
  5. Philippine Languages and Literatures
  6. Philippine Architecture, Theater, and the Arts
  7. Nation-Making, Nationness, and Nationalism
  8. Politics, Politicians, and State Building
  9. Social Histories
  10. “What is Obscure, Hidden, and Marginal” in Philippine History and Current Affairs
  11. Local and Regional Histories
  12. Cultural Studies
  13. The Philippines in Asia and the World

Selected papers that pass the refereeing process will be included in a special issue of Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, the quarterly published by the Ateneo de Manila University since 1953. Articles in this journal are indexed and abstracted in several global databases such as Historical Abstracts, Project MUSE, JSTOR, Scopus, and Thomson Reuters Emerging Sources. Other publications may also be planned.

Submission Guidelines

Interested paper presenters are requested to submit a 250-word abstract. Panel proposals are also welcome and should include a brief description of the proposed panel as well as the abstracts of the individual papers in the panel. Proposals should include a brief note about the paper proponents.

Please submit abstracts and panel proposals by 1 October 2017. Submissions must be in Word format and include the name, institutional affiliation, email address, and bionote of the paper proponent(s).

Decisions on abstracts will be released on 31 October 2017. Presenters whose paper and/or panel proposals are accepted are requested to register by 1 February 2018, which is also the deadline for the early bird rate.

Inquiries as well as panel and paper proposals can be addressed to:

Michael D. Pante, PhD <mpante@ateneo.edu>

Associate Editor, Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints

School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University

Travel and Conference Subsidy

Participants are encouraged to seek funds for travel and conference participation from their home institutions. Paper presenters will arrange their own flight and hotel accommodations in Manila.

Registration Fee (inclusive of meals, refreshments, and conference materials)

Overseas                    Philippine-based

Participants               Participants

Early bird rate                                   US$100                      P5,000

(until 1 February 2018)

Regular rate                                       US$120                      P5,500

(2 February–30 June 2018)

Late/On-site registration                 US$140                      P6,000

(After 30 June 2018)

 

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The Open Access Movement

Peter Suber, Director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication, defines open-access (OA) literature as “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.”

He also gives the definition from the Budapest Open Access Initiative. “There are many degrees and kinds of wider and easier access to this literature. By ‘open access’ to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”

Then he gives the Bethesda and Berlin statements. “For a work to be OA, the copyright holder must consent in advance to let users ‘copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship ….’”

In its strict sense, OA refers to scholarship published in open access academic journals. It can be viewed as a segment of the bigger entity of OER or open educational resources which, according to Creative Commons, “are free and openly licensed educational materials that can be used for teaching, learning, research, and other purposes.”

The array of OERs and OA literature, at this point, is wonderfully vast. Available to us are academic resources like the MIT Open Courseware (https://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm) and the Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard (https://dash.harvard.edu/); multimedia collections like that of the New York Public Library (https://www.nypl.org/research/collections/digital-collections/public-domain) and the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/collections/); repositories from institutions like the Asian Development Bank (https://www.adb.org/publications) and governments like the U. S. (https://www.data.gov/). We can get free ebooks from Project Gutenberg (https://www.gutenberg.org/) and watch smart people give talks at TED (https://www.ted.com/talks).

There’s so much good free stuff online (Khan Academy! Coursera! Caltech Authors!—the list goes on and on) that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, perhaps even jaded by it all.

But it’s inspiring how people use these resources. I open CUNY Academic Works and look at the map and see where the downloads are coming from—Nebraska, California, and Ohio in the U.S.; Brisbane, Australia; Airai, Palau; Akershus, Norway. People are looking at papers about Italian architecture, media representations of Asian-Americans, rhetoric and violence.

I look at stories people have shared about how they have used the open access publications. There’s a nurse in an Australian aboriginal community who entertained herself in her remote location by accessing scholarship about Cormac McCarthy. There’s a high school debater in the U.S. who does her research in institutional repositories because she cannot access scholarship behind a paywall. There’s a scientist in Mexico whose investigation in climate change is aided by research shared by other scientists and offered free of charge.

In the various definitions I’ve read of OER and OA, they sound not so much a collection of resources but a movement—a vibrant, worldwide, diverse movement. It seems unstoppable, and I hope it is.

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The Literary Kontrabida

Although the rich, the powerful, and the pretentious are stock villains in Philippine literature, one would be hard pressed to count the truly memorable kontrabida on the fingers of one hand.

The reactionary Padre Damaso, in Jose Rizal’s Noli me tangere (1887), may have cuckolded his “friend” Capitan Tiago, but his deep enmity against the Ibarras is revealed in the end to be rooted in a father’s understandable fears that his daughter Maria Clara will have a hard life if she were married to a patriotic (and therefore subversive and doomed to be persecuted) Filipino.

Doña Consolacion may have had no compunction about making an ashtray of her husband’s torture victims, but even a woman in whose veins run “vinegar and gall” (as Rizal puts it) cannot completely purge herself of humanity. This self-styled “Orofea” (Europeo) is so moved by madwoman Sisa’s plaintive song that she begs Sisa to stop singing, for “those verses hurt me.”

The only out-and-out villain in the Noli is Padre Salvi (not counting the serial rapist Padre Camorra in El filibusterismo [1891]). Rizal doses him with the cardinal vices of wrath, pride, envy, and lust, with lashings of greed and hypocrisy. Affecting the airs of an emaciated saint, Salvi turns out to be a voyeur: the sight of Maria Clara bathing in the woods, her shapely arms, elegant neck and bust, and small rosy feet, is enough to arouse “strange sensations” in his “burning brain.” Salvi hatches a conspiracy to bring down Ibarra by implicating him in a fake rebellion. Rizal strongly implies that Salvi rapes Maria Clara after she enters the convent. And he’s kuriput (stingy), too, to quote Sister Rufa.

Then there’s the sinister, ironically named Colonel Amor in Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War (1988). Head of the secret police, he presides over the interrogation of martial-law detainees. Calling his lair “the romancing room,” Colonel Amor, like Padre Salvi, is a voyeur who watches the physical, mental and psychological torture through a two-way mirror. Unlike Padre Salvi, Colonel Amor leaves the actual manhandling to his men, preferring to “fuck the soul” and viewing the extraction of information from the unwilling as a form of “exquisite rape.”  Colonel Amor’s dissertation, “a distillation of so much human pain,” so horrifies the university committee that they unceremoniously graduate him without requiring him to defend his thesis and lock the manuscript away in the archive.

Charlson Ong’s An Embarrassment of Riches (2000) has Alfonso Ong, a refugee fleeing Suharto’s Indonesia who settles down in the Victoriana islands. Ong makes a fortune from logging and acquires an island that doubles as a New Age “laboratory” for sheltering the “tribal minorities” and endangered animal species as well as a Twenty-First-Century model city and special economic zone. Alfonso Ong is eventually exposed as a drug dealer who not only steals the archipelago’s election and installs a puppet, drug-addled female president, but harvests the kidneys of the minority peoples on his island for his own kidney transplant and uses prison labor supplied by the mainland Chinese to develop his island-city. The reason he reveals himself as the real father of Jeffrey, the protagonist, is that he needs his son’s kidney.

As for the female kontrabida, the most memorable is arguably Leonora “Nora” Cosio, who blazes across Kerima Polotan’s short story “The Giants” and novel The Hand of the Enemy (1962).

Nora Cosio is the wife of bigwig Albert, an obscure army major who rides on the coattails of a Magsaysay-like Man of the People and lands in the all-powerful “anteroom outside the President’s sanctum” in Malacañang Palace.  She is the doyenne of an exclusive club of women married to powerful men. In “The Giants,” magazine writer Carmen Reyes’ boss Agana calls this gaggle of women “[e]xpensive, girdled monsters, waving checkbooks, taking slimnastics, slumming through Chinatown, playing mahjong, dabbling in stocks and real estate! Lovely-faced Frankensteins smelling of eau de musk! They’re ruining the country.”

These women devote themselves to luxury and to advancing their husbands’ careers.  One of Carmen Reyes’ interviewees, for example, is the loquacious wife of a general, Mrs. Borres, who machinates to secure her husband’s promotion: “There was trouble with the commission. They gave us a hard time, did you hear of it? Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer—I called up Senator Tagle’s wife and I said to her, ‘Hoy, Bebang, magprankahan tayo. I don’t like to collect old debts but Lucas must have his star, don’t you think? If not, the papers will know about the time the PC raided that house in Novaliches, you know what I mean?’ It was as simple as that.” And how does her husband reward his wife’s zeal on his behalf? With a mistress tucked away in an apartment above a grocery store.

Not so Nora. “[E]very perfumed and powdered inch of her, the quintessence of good, expensive living,” Nora is fortified by the love of a powerful husband who is able to “surround…[her] with all the by-products of that power so that she gave off an air of class.” She is frank about what she expects from her husband: “He was the campus poet and we met at the university. Can you imagine that Bert seriously thought he would make a living by it? But I changed all that for him. Sure, I said when he proposed, I liked the sonnets, but I also liked satin, and silk, I liked meat for my meals and cologne on my person, do you understand what I’m trying to say? So I gave an ultimatum, ‘All these things on one side, Bert,’ I said, ‘and your poetry on the other, and Nora Cosio the grand prize. Which will it be?”

Nora is not above pulling rank on her sorority. At a despedida party in Chinatown for a friend who is off to Hong Kong, the women talk about the scarcity of corned beef, and Nora startles an American guest by declaring that “I must get some corned beef myself—the dogs will eat nothing else.”

Nora can be smug: “I like to think that I’ve lent a distinction all my own to what I have today”. But she can also be charming, wooing Carmen with handwritten, personalized invitations to cocktails and breakfast in the Cosio mansion, with gifts of flowers, and with solicitous attention. Carmen thinks Nora “flippant and frivolous and flighty,” but finds in Albert’s poetry—and one line, in particular, “Gray shadows in the quiet sepulchre of my soul”—an appealing hint of the “thin, dreamy youth with dark, brooding eyes.”

One can always rely on the redoubtable Kerima Polotan to pop the bubble of patronizing pomposity. Carmen comes to realize that when Nora Cosio takes her up and spreads her around, “like a disease,” being “bought” by the Cosios means being owned by them, becoming “one of us” means becoming an alalay and being ordered around. Her disillusion is complete when Agana triumphantly holds up a small book where the line “Gray, gray shadows in my soul’s sepulchre” appears under another poet’s name: “Did I warn you or did I warn you? The goddam bastard couldn’t even be original!”

Emma Gorrez’s encounter with Nora Cosio proves even more disastrous. In Hand of the Enemy, the Gorrezes help the Cosios campaign for the Man of the People in their province, and after the election, are lured to Manila by the Cosios with the offer to go into business together, the Cosios putting up the capital for a printing press. Nora Cosio is predictably capricious, and refuses to infuse more money when business slows down. In their final big quarrel, Nora hurls invectives at Emma, calling her “thief,” “robber,” and “swindler” (in “Giants,” Nora refers to the Gorrezes as “patay-gutom”). An enraged Emma tears off Nora’s dress and pins the woman’s arms under the cutter of the printing press.

Polotan dissects her kontrabidas’ self-images and public personas by flashing vivid , corporeal snapshots of these people—stripped of their carapaces of titles, money, and influence–before her protagonists’ (and readers’) eyes. Carmen Reyes has a vision of the snooty, Spanish-speaking woman waiting outside Cosio’s office: “In another time, she might be in tatters, barefoot, raising a fist and screaming, Rice, Rice” (it turns out the woman wants dollars for her daughter’s abortion–“I send her to a finishing school and she ends up in bed with an Argentinian!”). A wealthy matron who at first snubs Carmen now lifts her arms to “fell…Carmen with a caress…and Carmen saw that she needed to shave.” Polotan reserves her best barb for Albert Cosio: Carmen “banished an unkind image of Cosio in the bathroom, writhing and constipated.”

Kerima Polotan herself was a larger-than-life character. Nick Joaquin wrote of Polotan that she was a “large woman with a sharp tongue and a fearful reputation. Some years ago, after she stuck fictional pins all over the images of a couple she had quarreled with, the joke in literary circles was: ‘Don’t quarrel with Kerima, or she may write about you.’” With ten children (among them the gifted fictionist Katrina P. Tuvera) and eight literary prizes (including five Palancas), Polotan has “lasted as a writer longer than any of even her male contemporaries. She is practically the only survivor of that group of writers who were young and promising during the decade after the war.”

Polotan passed away in 2011. I should say, though, that when I met her (through my friend Kimi) at the booklaunching of her reissued collection of stories and novel in 1998, she was very gracious and soft-spoken, patiently answering my stammering questions about The Hand of the Enemy with such modesty and clear-eyed forthrightness that I came away humbled and thrilled by the experience of meeting her in person after admiring her writings for many years.

It is a testament to Polotan’s formidable talent that she can transmute rage into art with seeming effortlessness. Her fecund imagination has given us the indelible kontrabida we all love to hate, Nora, whose eau de musk lingers in the mind long after she has vanished into the pages of the book.

 

This article originally appeared in Letter to Narcissus.

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