Thursday, June 14, 2007

from the abecedary

d = deanie

My mother claims that I wrote my first play in second grade. Since she is my mother, I must hold her words with suspicion, always asking if what she says is true or if, like all mothers, what she says is motivated by a surplus of love and pride. People tend to exaggerate when offspring is involved, and truth becomes malleable. Parents look to their children as extensions of their own lives, like annexes and wings added to an old house. There is no other home, that’s the lesson repeatedly but gently inculcated into your soul, as ubiquitous as the smells of childhood.

When I try to think back to second grade, to see if my memory holds any recollection of actually writing a play, these are what I remember: a little boy in his grade school uniform, polo short and khaki shorts; a wheeled stroller for his schoolbag; an electric pair of scissors in the form of Snoopy, that beagle with the most fertile imagination; the library with its low, low shelves; and the chapel of St. Benilde at De La Salle University along Taft Avenue in Manila, simultaneously dark and colorful, its stained glass straining the bright sunlight into subdued hues. I don’t remember any names or faces, any teachers or classmates or bus drivers. And certainly no act of writing a play.

“Are you calling me a liar?” my mother asks, firing the first salvo in a question-and-answer that held the usual potential of swiftly escalating into full-blown combat. She’s tall and ageless, still in command of her beauty queen looks, despite all the illnesses that plague her. “I can remember better than you. You were just a kid.”

“I don’t remember anything,” I say, trying to keep my composure, though, as usual, I feel my control slipping. As I grew to adulthood, I realized that I was superb handling other people, falling into easy dialogue exchanges. But with my mother, I was always at the edge of losing it. Already I felt my temper rising. “Besides, it’s my life.”

“Your life?” my mother asks, slowly standing up with pained dignity. “Your life?”

“Well,” I begin. “That’s not how I meant it.”

“And just who paid for your education? Who sacrificed to send you to the best, the most expensive school? Who paid for your books, your uniform, your meal tickets, your school supplies? Who worked night and day to raise funds for your newspaper drives, your yearbook, all those terrible little papers you’d bring home requesting for money, donations, funding—as if we had it all to spare? Who worried about you? Who looked after you? Who fed you, clothed you, bought you books and toys—”

“Okay, okay,” I interrupt her litany, raising my hands in the air, signaling my surrender. It is a war that I cannot possibly win, unless I use the same tactics with my own daughter when I’m feeling old, unappreciated and feisty.

“I did,” she sniffs, tearful and imperious. “It was my life that made your life. Do not forget that.”
“Ma! All I’m saying is that I don’t remember writing a play when I was in Grade Two.”

“Well, I do,” she says, turning away from me. “And I can prove it. Imagine! Calling his own mother a liar.”

She returns moments later, holding an old photograph the size of a large index card. Before she shows it to me, I sense her checking to see if I’m contrite. Amused by the never-ending parent-child game we play, I feign abasement and humbly ask for her evidence.

“It’s your class picture when you were second grade, at De La Salle,” she says, and flips the picture over before I register more than a blur of small smiling faces. “Look at the back. That’s your handwriting.”

It was. Written in my curly childish penmanship was a scene, brief but chockfull of dialogue, featuring Captain Deanie, a spaceship captain returning from his sojourn in deep space. It was simple and garish and trite and wonderful beyond words.

And of course my mother cannot resist a final jab towards her flawless victory. “See, I was right. You should listen to your mother more often. I know what I’m talking about.”

I look up towards her, torn between my rediscovered sense of wonder and exasperation, searching frantically for a comeback, a witty retort to the woman who always manages to subdue me in conversation. But she’s not quite finished.

“I always knew you were a writer.”

s = significance

One of the most frustrating aspects of being a Filipino writer (and blogger) is the unspoken edict to be nationalistic. This is reflected in many ways—as a bias against writing in English (why use the language of the oppressor?), selection of setting (why set your story outside of the Philippines?), choice of subject matter (why write of anyone but Filipinos; why write of any place other than your country?), need for socio-political relevance (what is the value of writing that does not show injustice, inequality, suffering, poverty and the plight of the masses?), and significance (why waste time and energy on something that does not promote societal betterment?).

I'm just tired of it.

I write in English because I can express myself better. I do not buy into the argument that writing in a "foreign" language is somehow selling out. English is not foreign to me, is not foreign to millions of Filipinos. And Rizal wrote in Spanish. You do not measure nationalism by the language you speak, write or think in. It is a matter of the heart, of belief, of intellect.

I set some stories outside of the Philippines because the world and all its wonders interest me. There is nothing fundamentally wrong in setting a story in a castle in Denmark, a lagoon in India or a farm in Kansas. Choice of setting does not make an author love his country any less. Besides, there are worlds beyond the real world, created lands of make-believe that cartwheel in splendor and magic. I am a citizen of the Philippines, but my allegiance is to the World—words and worlds share porous boundaries.

I write about different people, not just Filipinos. What matters is character, the moods and modes of thought and action, the inner workings of their secret hearts. Nationality, like religion, gender or race, is not as important as the person underneath all the labels. To write only about Filipinos is as distasteful to me as a white writer writing only about whites. Let us write about people instead.

I write about love and loss, about hope and despair, about magic and reality. It is not my responsibility to write about social injustice, to cry for the political prisoners languishing in jails, to expose the horrors of the corrupt government, to generate sympathy for comfort women, to depict the marginalization of women—though in my early leftist college days, I did all that—publishing stories about all those things in a voice that wasn't my own, that left me with beautiful stories bristling with technique but bereft of authorial truth. There are many things to write about. Let me choose the stories I'd like to tell. Let me speak the truth I know, the truth that matters to me.

And as for significance, well, while words do have the potential to change the world, they do not do so with each and every outing. Some stories, the quiet, little ones, offer a moment of epiphany. Some proffer a smile of recognition. Others hold up a mirror and point out something so transparent as an observation of the human condition. Some entertain—through adventurous romps, battles and clever twists—while some make you cry. It is the reader and not the author who creates significance.

The nature of stories is this: change comes in infinite sizes. The success of a story is not measured in how it changes the world but in how, for the duration of the reading experience and perhaps beyond, it affects the reader.

That is what makes it significant.

Excerpted from Writing: A Blog Abecedary By Dean Francis Alfar
First published in Our Own Voice

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