Coming Soon: “Interpreting Rizal”

Ateneo de Manila University Press’ Bughaw imprint series will publish this small, back-to-back collection of my two essays on Rizal. The essays have been updated and expanded to incorporate new findings and recent scholarship.

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Recs #2

Finally, the response we’ve been waiting for–Ta-Nehisi Coates, in incandescent prose, responds to Kanye West. Addressing the current issue, he also writes about Michael Jackson and about himself: “I want to tell you a story about the time, still ongoing as of this writing, when I almost lost my mind.”

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Recs #1

Here’s the second paragraph on the first page of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West: “It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class–in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding–but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.”

The novel is cited by the New York Times as one of the five best novels of 2017. It’s terrific. His earlier novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, is a great read, too.

And the great Rebecca Solnit, on the myth of a “real” America, is, as always, spot on.

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Salvaging

One of the pleasures of reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)—set in a dystopian present and future where selected women are conscripted to serve as incubating machines for the ruling class of Commanders in charge of the totalitarian, fundamentalist-religious, patriarchal government of the Republic of Gilead—is coming across the term “salvaging,” a word that Atwood acknowledges is borrowed from Philippine terminology.

There is a horrific scene in the novel in which the women attend a district-level “Salvaging, for women only.” In this ritual of state-endorsed and -engineered lynching, a clutch of women participates in killing—literally beating to death and tearing apart with their own hands—a Guardian who may have actually been a member of the resistance movement but who is accused by the state, without due process, of having committed rape.

Salvaging is commonplace in the Republic of Gilead, and the citizens are often not told what crimes people have been condemned to death and executed for. Some of the bodies of the condemned are put on public display for the edification of the citizens of Gilead.

The literal meaning of “salvage” (its Latin root word, salvare, means “to save”) is to rescue or recover something—usually a ship or its cargo or a piece of property—from danger.

But in the context of the Philippine experience of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s to the early to mid-1980s, the word evolved into one of the most notorious Orwellian doublespeak of the so-called Bagong Lipunan (New Society), one of the slogans of which was “Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan” (For the progress of the nation, discipline is needed). Remaking Filipinos into disciplined citizens masked the reality of violence and destruction inflicted upon dissidents and ordinary people by the authoritarian state and its agents of law enforcement.

In Filipino parlance, “to salvage” is a perverse inversion of the original meaning of the word. “Salvaging” is not about saving something from destruction; it is about delivering someone to destruction.

It is about the systematic decision and action, usually on the part of the very state that is supposed to protect its citizens and ensure their welfare, to engage in summary executions of its own people, turning a living, breathing human being from someone into some thing: a corpse, an inanimate matter from which all life and sense, mind and history, have been ruthlessly expunged.

Not only does salvage mean the process of reducing the living to the dead. It signifies as well the violence that enables that process. The salvaged is usually killed after the torturers and executioners extract information or force “confessions” from the victim. More often than not, prior to execution, the victims have been subjected to mental, physical, and sexual torture.

In fact, torture comes with its own perversions of language, as innocuous-sounding words like “water cure,” “telephone,” “wet submarine” and “dry submarine” are bandied about casually in interrogation chambers as code names for the following acts of cruelty: pouring water down a victim’s throat until the victim feels s/he is about to burst; electrocuting a victim’s extremities and private parts by manually cranking a field telephone; dunking the victim’s head into a toilet bowl (sometimes filled with shit); and suffocating a person using a plastic bag.

Worse, the bodies of the salvaged victims are made to perform more work after their deaths. Salvaged bodies are meant for display—they are usually dumped along public roads or in places where they can be easily stumbled upon and viewed by passersby or gathering crowds. They are meant to serve as a warning and a lesson to others of what happens when people dare to raise their voices or lift their fists against the government.

If you think this is a thing of the past that survives only in fiction, think again.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, which has already claimed more than 20,000 lives, doesn’t even pretend to be extra-judicial killings, but are fully state-sanctioned, state-sponsored executions.

The killing of children in anti-drug operations is dismissed by the president as “collateral damage” (yet another euphemism, but of American vintage). It is not unusual to come upon a body by the road, bearing a handmade cardboard sign that, adding insult to injury, ventriloquizes the dead by putting words in the person’s mouth. The sign says “I am a pusher,” but all we have is the judge-jury-executioner’s word for this, the dead being in no position to defend himself or herself.

Worse still are the lawmakers and members of the public—the ones who like to boast about how “The Philippines is the only Christian country in Asia”—who roar their approval and support of the president. Are they any better than the women of Gilead who enact the Bacchae-like ritual of disemboweling a human scapegoat?

As for Commander(-in-Chief) Duterte, here is a drug addict and self-confessed killer, a law-flouting bully so thin-skinned that he declares his intention to withdraw the Philippines from the International Criminal Court for daring to investigate his human-rights violations; deports a 71-year-old Australian nun for joining protest rallies critical of his government; and jails his critics on all sorts of fabricated charges and legal technicalities.

Not surprisingly for a macho-man who thrives on retailing misogynistic jokes, Duterte is especially vicious toward women (Leni Robredo, Leila de Lima, Conchita Carpio-Morales, Maria Lourdes Sereno, the editors of Rappler) who have more guts, brains, and, yes, cojones than he can ever summon up, no matter how many Viagra pills he takes.

If Sereno now faces impeachment for, among other charges, failing to disclose her assets, Duterte’s own failure to list investments worth 100 million pesos in his own SALN ought to come under closer scrutiny as well.

Otherwise, Duterte risks being called out for the kind of hypocrisy that is so endemic among the ruling class in Atwood’s fictional Gilead, where the commanders exempt themselves from the rules they enforce on everyone else.

Welcome to the Republic of Gilead, Philippine edition.

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Things

Some of the clutter in the house

I need to buy new things for the house. I need to buy new curtains, new bed sheets, a large skillet, something (framed art? fabric? decorative mirror?) to cover unsightly patched-on holes on the wall, made when the insulation was replaced a few years ago.

I should’ve bought this hole-covering something when the holes were made and patched. But what happens to me is this: a purchase of any kind brings about full-blown existential drama, with meaning and purpose and identity scrutinized, analyzed, and questioned. Do I really need framed art? If so, what kind? Why this one and not that one? And do I really need new bed sheets? Is it a need or a want? If I just want new bed sheets, why? Shouldn’t I be paring down things in the house instead of adding to them?

Almost always, it is a want instead of a need. We are, after all, using bed sheets – I’m not making my family loll around on naked beds like a pack of wild dogs (which, now that I think about it, suddenly seems appealing). Our sheets, however, have permanent stains, discolorations, and, to my tired eyes, a general look of dullness. They’ve been in regular use for five years, but the sheets are fine and sturdy, with not a single tear or hole or even fraying edge. Still soft and comfortable, they’re insanely good quality sheets – 800-thread-count long-staple Egyptian cotton bought on sale at Macy’s. Even the cheap Martha Stewart sheets I bought from Target, much older at twelve years, are holding up well.

So here’s the dilemma – and it’s a dilemma that I know I’m only able to experience because of my privileges as a member of the middle-class with some disposable income: I don’t like the bed sheets anymore. In Marie Kondo’s celebrated phrase, they don’t “spark joy” and perhaps I should replace them.

But joy, I’m finding out, is a tricky emotion. I have other things similar to the bed sheets – they’re old, shabby, totally un-chic: a pair of sneakers that I’m surprised to realize, when the ground felt harder than usual as I walked, that I’ve been using every single day for six years; a blue down jacket that I’ve been wearing every single day this winter (and the last one, and the winter before the last one); a leather handbag so beaten up that the lining has separated and is now held together with three safety pins, its weathered condition way past the “character” that leather handbags are supposed to acquire and is now merely frayed, grimy, and old.

These things don’t spark joy; most of the time, they don’t even make me feel or look good. I feel, and probably look, disheveled when I use them. Yet they convey meanings and memories to me that seem more important than joy and my bruised vanity: the ongoing project of my life, the places I’ve been to, the young person I used to be, activities with my children when they were younger, this house when we just moved in, the passing of seasons, the worthy attempt to minimize one’s possessions, the Buddhist practice of detachment, a curiosity as to how long exactly (eight years? ten years?) I can keep using these things, a small contribution to preventing the Pacific Ocean garbage patch from growing bigger.

Like most of the privileged middle-class of the world, I have too many things. Full disclosure: I actually have four pairs of sneakers, but two are only used at the gym and one is a pair of canvas ones that I only use in the summer.

Like many, I have anxiety about having too many things and I find myself in a perpetual state of cleaning, purging, organizing. Marie Kondo doesn’t recommend this, proposing instead one marathon phase of discarding old and unloved possessions, after which, ideally, one enjoys the nirvana of a clean, minimalist, and organized house.

But I’m suspicious of such a process and I know it’s not going to work in my house. What seems more doable is dostadning or Swedish death cleaning, the latest decluttering trend. The phrase means what it says: cleaning in preparation for your death. It seems like a morbid version of all the decluttering methods from Martha Stewart to Marie Kondo, but it’s appealing because, in the words of a Swede who was interviewed by The Guardian, “it is very, very rational and unsentimental.” People who have gone through the process – and many people in their thirties and forties have done it: we don’t know when death will come for us, after all – report feelings of freedom and relief.

So I’ve been going through my things and donating or discarding items like unused clothes, old journals, books and art materials. I’m realizing that (despite the four sneakers!) I don’t have a lot of personal possessions.

My house is filled with things, but they’re things that are communal, utilitarian, and used every day by and for the family – pots and pans, tables and chairs, clocks, lamps, towels, and, yes, bed sheets. I have an adequate number of these things, but I’m always tempted to buy more than necessary: there’s always a shiny new thing out there, there’s always a sale, there’s always a want.

And there’s one big category of items that survive every purge of household clutter I’ve done through the years – my kids’ toys. I have a fantasy of creating a sculpture out of them, one of those conceptual art pieces. I will glue them all together – the plastic dinosaurs, the thousands of Lego pieces, rubber balls and plastic balls and magnetic metal balls, pricey battery-operated ones that chime and beep and play music, cheap plastic animals and games, big cars and small cars, board games, rainbow loom bands, plastic dolls and cloth dolls, stuffed animals, and on and on and on.

I will probably never do this sculpture, but the sliver of possibility that I will, when the children have left and I have time on my hands – the nightmarish monstrosity of such a towering heap of plastic, the bittersweet wonder of remembering how small my children were a long time ago – makes me hold on to them.

Our things tell the story of our lives. Our things are that important. On the other hand – please, enough of this – I just want new bed sheets.

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Rappler License Revoked

So now the SEC has revoked Rappler’s license because of Rappler’s alleged violation of the regulations concerning PDRs and ownership of mass media companies. With all the confusion surrounding the issue of what constitutes “foreign” ownership, Oscar Franklin Tan’s essay calling for the use of clearer legal terminology to untangle the issue should be heeded. There’s nothing a macho-man like Duterte hates more than having his Macoy-aping windbag rhetoric, flawed logic, and murderous policies exposed by the knowledgeable, intelligent, and brave women of the dream team running Rappler. This “sorority blog” has far more brains, courage, and integrity than most people, including the Chief Executive of our country. It’s an honor and point of pride for me to have worked with my sisters (and brothers) at Rappler.

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A Day in Granada

A view of the Alhambra from the Albayzín

Two years ago, at around this time of the year, we visited Spain. We spent our first full day in the country in Granada, the famous storied city in the southern province of Andalucía.

And Granada is famous because of the Alhambra, the complex of fortress, gardens, fountains, reflecting pools, and palaces built by the Moorish princes at the height of their power in Andalucía in the Middle Ages.

I have kaleidoscopic images of our visit that afternoon: the tall cypresses forming an allèe towards one of the palaces; the perfect cube and starry domed ceiling of the throne room; the courtyard of the lions, the marble snowy white and the gurgling water of the fountains musical;

Stucco in one of the palace rooms

wall after wall and ceiling after ceiling embellished with exquisitely intricate stucco or mosaic tiles or both, in delicate creamy shades or in vivid blues, reds, and golds; and, before leaving one of the palaces, a shadowed hallway with large windows overlooking the Albayzín, the historic quarter of the town, its whitewashed buildings clinging on the opposite hill, blasted by the afternoon sun.

When evening fell, we exited and walked along a quiet path bordered by the high wall of the fortress. It was a beautiful winter evening, and the sky was a dark sapphire. Street lamps were lit. We exited from that narrow path into another path and, after some more walking, into Plaza Nueva with its midweek crowds, traffic, benches, fountains, and, in front of it, an imposing courthouse.

We found a traditional tapas bar nearby and had braised oxtail, eggplant with tomatoes, an array of different kinds of jamón and chorizo, a carafe of a thick, inky local wine. We left the restaurant in high spirits, adrenalized by the good food, and returned to Plaza Nueva where we found a churrería from which we ordered the last churros they had for the night.

Writing it like this, it seems like a perfect day. It wasn’t, of course. In his book The Course of Love, Alain de Botton says that perfect happiness can only come in five-minute bursts. I’m sure there were moments during the day when one daughter had a cranky outburst, another one whined, my husband annoyed me with some absent-minded comment, and I responded with impatience and lack of grace. But even our imperfections seem fragmented, unimportant that day, included here only to present a more complete, more truthful account. Because if de Botton is correct, then that day in Granada was filled with those elusive five-minute bursts—they’re mostly the only ones I remember.

A view of the Albayzín from the Alhambra

We were in Spain for two weeks and I have many images of beautiful sights and joyful moments, like photographs in my head that I shuffle when I want to remember them: another afternoon in Granada, walking up the Albayzín and stopping at one of the numerous teterías for mint tea and pastries, the divans and pillows, purple silk curtains, and shapely gold-tinged lamps transporting us to Morocco, the tip of Africa so near, a mere bus ride from where we were, yet still a world away; another evening, this time in Córdoba, outside the monumental Mezquita after we had visited it, strolling lazily around and looking at souvenirs in the shops, the peaceful evening punctuated by a distant old-fashioned siren of a police car, so mild and unthreatening, so different from the obnoxious sirens in New York, that we looked at each other in bemusement and wonder; an afternoon visiting the magnificent Seville Cathedral, my memory of the place now a mashup of that happy afternoon and the previous afternoons years ago when I lived in the area as a young adult full of trite, but nevertheless excruciating angst.

And the food in Spain! The callos, cochinillo, jamon serrano, jamon iberico, tortilla española, pimientos de padrón, calamares, and pulpo, all washed down with glasses of tempranillo or manzanilla.

These other memories are, however, snapshots of various days. It’s only that first day in Granada that I have a memory of almost everything we did—where we went and what we had for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; the whole afternoon in the Alhambra; the walk back to town; the tapas bar; the last churros of the day. I even remember minor characters in our drama: a middle-aged white American tourist at the entrance to the Alhambra, her face stunned when she learned that all tickets for the day were sold out, that she should have reserved her tickets weeks before visiting; the young woman in a black coat, a resident of the city, upon whom I inflicted my first tentative attempts at speaking Spanish again, after many years of not speaking the language, when I asked for directions to Plaza Nueva; the tall young man standing by himself at the bar and reading a book in the midst of the cacophony of the tapas restaurant, the only other Asian besides us in the place.

Rebecca Solnit, in her book The Faraway Nearby, wondered about how we love places but also how places love us back. She says: “And distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite. The bigness of the world is redemption.”

The world is vast and there are so many places to explore. But part of me also just wants to go back, again and again, to Spain.

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Christmas Cakes 2017

A delicious sampling of this year’s Christmas cakes from Japan:

This Louange Tokyo bear emerging out of a chimney is on the cover of Daimaru Department Store’s Christmas cake catalogue this year. The bear is made of white chocolate, while the chimney is layered with white chocolate mousse fromage, rosemary-flavored feuille gelée, raspberry cream cheese, pistachio ganache crumble, and biscuit pistachio.

Ezaki Salon Prestige’s fruit cake is in the shape of a teapot with a miniature cup and saucer fashioned out of sugar paste and marzipan paste.

This Rose Madagascar from Gateau des Bois’ chef pâtissier Hayashi Masahiko is jam with framboise spread over Madagascar-sourced chocolate mousse over a chocolate sponge cake sandwiched between rose and framboise gelée and pistachio bavarois. Available from Takashimaya.

Pâtisserie Au Grenier D’Or’s starry cake rests on a sablé base, heaped with layers of  white chocolate, strawberry and blackberry gelée, cheese sablé, and mascarpone, with a final coating of white chocolate glaçage.

From Christophe Adam’s L’Éclair de Génie comes this raspberry-, marshamallow- and white chocolate-topped cake made of ladyfingers, chocolate, Bavarian cream, and strawberry syrup, with a framboise and strawberry confiture.

Star Gate Hotel’s Christmas offering features marron glacé nested in pipings of murasaki-imo or purple sweet potato atop layers of chocolate cream, sliced chestnuts, and chocolate sponge cake. This cake is part of Izumiya Supermarket’s Christmas catalogue.

The eight-fruit tarte from Flo Prestige Paris is composed of slices of mango, peach, mixed berries (strawberry, blueberry, red currant, raspberry), orange, and pink grapefruit, with custard cream and almond pastry. Available from Seven-Eleven.

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