Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Unfinished Reading II: Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

(In which another one joins the pile.)

I saw the book I lent an office mate ages ago on the table the moment I opened my office door. It was the start of work after four idyllic summer days. Later on that day, she welcomed me by her usual opening of my door during the break time. She thanked me for the book and declared that she wasn’t able to finish it.
“I got bored,” she said as she rested her back against the door jamb. “It’s description-packed. I could hardly keep a book open if it’s too stingy with conversations.”
That’s when the rumination started.
I have imposed a rule on myself that a book should not be read for more than a month no matter how Herculean the combination of my tasks was. But it’s been almost a month since I marked this book as “currently reading” and I’m still not done. Of course I’m not blaming the book for my inability to abide by my self-imposed rule. The story was interesting although it deals with family drama, which I’m not really fond of. But the title was promising enough to fill me with hope for a treatment. And besides, I’ve read The Master Butcher Singing Club and liked it.
Love Medicine is about two Indian families – the Kashpaws and the Lamartines, whose lives were tangled with one another. The novel is divided into chapters featuring a character, utilizing the first person narration most of the time. It makes use of a multiple narrative which was a style similar to that of Trudy Krishner’s Uncommon Faith.
The grip of the story takes time to tighten. It is a slow progression from the description of a Kashpaw woman, June, and her homecoming-turned-exodus with a white man to her mysterious death. From then the setting shifts from the past to the current and back, introducing the people who mourned for her and the person who doesn’t know her real place in his life. And then the people around her family – their life, their secrets, their connections.
It is a creatively complicated ensemble of thoughts – the history of complex family relationships as well as a race and a nation unfolding slowly, secrets being revealed as the fullness of one character after another takes place. At one point it will make you cry and then it will shock you. It offers an emotional roller coaster that will both make you want to slap the book shut at times and never stop reading at others.
Perhaps that was it. I couldn’t take another depressing family story. And so with a heavy heart, ninety-four unread pages and a hope to revive my old reading self, I wrote the date and time I decided to stop flipping and moved on with an art fiction.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Mentor’s Musing: On Teaching Writing II

(In which I once again had to listen to her evaluation.)

First she evaluated the test I made. Today, Mileah criticized the textbook we’re using in our reading and writing class. Since she passed the level test last week, we are now on a new book. And because she will only be staying for a month, we found the idea of using the fourth book in Our-Previous-Book series impractical due to its length. So instead, we decided to use the third in Our-New-Book series.
The book unfolds with a chapter on description. I thought, and she greed, that since it combines reading, comprehension and vocabulary, grammar and specific writing skills, the book is cool. The first reading selection was about a famous Indian landmark. Then a list of vocabulary from the reading, arranged according to parts of speech, then a fill-in-the-blanks activity wherein the students are supposed to choose the answer from the list. On the page that follows were a set of pictures that appeared to be a step-by-step tour guide of the Indian landmark, which I made her answer as an assignment, by the way. This was when she started evaluating.
“Mmmm . . . I think . . . this exercise is not good,” she began.
“What do you mean? It’s boring?”
“Uhmm”, she hesitated, “I know it will . . . make me understand this place but . . . I just look at the story again to answer it. I think it’s unnecessary,” she uttered in between her signature air-sucking motion.
“Well, it’s good that you know what that’s for. But since the lesson is about describing a place, this activity was made to widen your imagination – so you can imagine the inner structure of the landmark. And besides, not all students are comfortable imagining through text alone. That’s why there’s a picture there,” I explained.
Mileah just nodded and we went on to the grammar activities in the book that were comprised of adjective and preposition exercises as well as sentence construction activities executed by utilizing the aforementioned parts of speech. Here was where another section of her thoughts came in.
“But this is easy,” she said.
“Then that’s good,” I remarked, trying my best not to sound sarcastic.
“But I just have to copy from the story and make sentences using the adjectives,” she complained.
“Who says you should just copy from the text? The activity asks you to create sentences – grammatically correct sentences, by using the adjectives. But that doesn’t mean you should be contented in using the exact lines from the article or using basic sentences.”
“Mmmm. . . Okay,” she conceded, or so I thought.
Because when we reached the writing part, where she was supposed to choose to write one out of five topics and read the writing pattern on the next page, she once again bluntly accused the pages of being unnecessary.
“This is same as Korean. I know how to write. Why it says how to write?” she asked.
“Well, this is a reading and writing class,” I answered matter-of-factly. I looked again at the text arranged in numerical order. Think of a place that you want to describe. . . It must . . . have meaning to you. . . Create a sketch . . . Make a list of adjectives . . . Decide on a theme or sense that you want to create . . . Start drafting. . . What’s wrong with these?
“Yes, but it is just like Korean. I want to learn English. I already know this. You know? I passed university. I made essay in university.” Then she motioned her hand in a gesture to show how long the essay was. “But this is just English, not Korean. If I learn this, I feel I don’t learn English. Only writing,” she said as she was flipping the pages from beginning to the end and back.
I breathed in. this is going to be one tough explanation.
“Okay – “
“I think Our-Previous-Book 3 is better,” Mileah said. I held up my hands.
“Okay. But you have to understand first what a level test is for. The reason why did a level test is to check if you understood Our-Previous-Book 3. And you did. Congratulations.
In Our-Previous-Book 3, I allowed you to write essays at your convenience. But being able to write using basic sentences is no longer what we are aiming in this book. It has a lot of exercises from different language skills and questions that are asking you to create more complicated or sensible answers. If we left the fundamentals, there is no other way but to go to a higher lesson.”
She nodded, still flipping the pages.
“Writing has universal rules. We write using the same elements, only different languages, and therefore different grammatical structure. But we basically use the same writing pattern – we think, we picture, we decide. And for every kind of essay, there’s a different pattern.
The patterns there weren’t made to make you appear stupid. In fact, they are guides so you can make more sophisticated writings. You know the basics – introduction, body, conclusion, topic sentence, supporting sentences, general statement, thesis statement, the list goes on. But the question is no longer about your ability to use them in a beginner’s way. You have got to improve your style. That is what the book wants from you – a better writing style.”
Again, she nodded, her eyes fixed on the book and her fingers busy flipping.
“And about you not learning English. What do you think are you learning then?”
“Ahmm, anyway . . . I think you don’t understand my saying . . . but . . . hmmm. . . ”
Oh no! So I don’t understand at all?
Maybe I really don’t. I don’t understand why the book is unnecessary. All she has to do was to read and understand how to write effectively. And do it. Without an overload of accusatory questions or remarks. Writing is doing. Learning is, too.
She silently flipped the pages until there’s no more leaf to flip. I looked at the clock and told her we still have five minutes before the class ends and that she can do her thing. She fumbled her notebook and began writing.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Candles by Danton Remoto

(In which an old adage is unquestionably applicable.)


In the height of the conflict between the state and the church in the Philippines, Filipinos tend to reevaluate their foundation of beliefs and its limitations. The thematic structure of Danton Remoto’s Candles was vast enough to stretch from the moral to the religious obligation of people. Its structure was all at once informative, inspirational and speculative.

Candles melt
the hard darkness
inside the church.
Smoke thinner
than thread quivers
to the Mother of Perpetual Help.
Candles are symbolic of the religious piety of the Filipinos. They were of various significances – from shedding light to contrast darkness, to a manifestation of glory and an offering of prayers and wishes. The religious local color suggested by the images of the Mother of Perpetual Help was symbolic of the Spanish heritage and its deep place in the culture of the Filipinos. The image painted by the first stanza was clear and sure to reach the conscious recollection of any one from our Oriental archipelago. The smoke created by numerous candles in the church asking for the benevolence of the Holy Mother whose assistance runs from eternity unto eternity was part of any churchgoer’s memory. It was vivid enough to provide an image of candles burning as well as people kneeling and murmurs of ardent prayers in the air.

May the Holy Mother Smell
a father's shirt
beaded with debts,
lines skull-deep
on a mother's forehead,
children with violated dreams---
Remoto’s sensitivity to details and simplicity of poetic structure was manifested and actually highlighted by the poem’s second stanza. Here he presents a family in dire need of help. And it is of no question that the help they need was the one to pull them out from the impoverished state they are currently in. It is a desperate and moving image – parents so helpless and children even more so. The inspirational factor was drawn to the family’s strong sense of religion and faith. But there is where the speculation also comes in. The personification of the wooden image of the Mother of Perpetual Help as shown by the hope that she smells the heavy scent of labor in the father’s shirt and see the deep furrows in the mother’s forehead was somehow blasphemous. It was as if the tone was somewhere between authentic hope and mockery. It is no longer new that the religious piety of Filipinos and their strong inclination to leave things to the hands of the Almighty or to the intermediary characters as identified by the long chronicles of the Catholic religion was one source of criticism for our people.

The tears
of a country
that seems to have run
out of candles to burn.
In the second stanza, Remoto started with a picture of a family in dire need of sacred assistance. In the final stanza he painted an even bigger picture of a nation relying on the power of the mediation of the Holy Mother of Perpetual Help. By zooming out, he showed the vast impact of religion to the lives of Filipinos. By saying that people seem to run out of candles to light for the purpose of offering so their prayers would be heard, the poem somehow shows that the general population was in a state of destitution to actually resort to divine providence. Here, not only was the people’s religious orientation brought into light, but also the role of the government in addressing the needs of its people. The poem was perhaps supposed to be a call for actions both on the side of the poor parents and of the government – a call for more diligence and hard work for the former and a higher sense of responsibility for the latter. Faith in one’s religion was deeply ingrained to be challenged. And there’s nothing wrong with keeping the faith. But faith without action is meaningless.

A Character Analysis of Belle and her Husband in Francisco Arcellana’s Divide by Two

(In which partitions are clarified.)


Theirs is apparently not a happy marriage, Belle and her husband’s. The bitterness within the context of their living together must be something almost akin to the relationship of Badoy and Agueda in Nick Joaquin’s May Day Eve for Belle and her husband live together but seem to inhabit different worlds apart from the home they share and the community in which they live. Inside themselves, a complex array of thoughts and emotions stir, torturing them all and complicating all their lives. Divide by Two by Francisco Arcellana is not just a peep into a moment of a married couple – it is a trickily structured short story, an artistic execution of the Iceberg Theory.
The story utilizes only one proper noun to address one of the important characters – Belle. But the story revolves around Belle, her husband and their couple neighbors. For better understanding and for clearer analysis, alphanumeric variables are used to stand for the other husband (X) and for his wife (Y). The focus is on Belle’s husband, the narrator of the story. By zeroing in on how he narrates the story, one takes a closer view of what really happens in their home, and what his real relationship with his wife is. Also, by understanding what he feels and thinks, one understands the meaning behind the title and the symbolisms manifested in the literary work.
The story is eighty percent dialogue consisting of mostly repetitive structure as regards to how Belle’s husband relates the story – I said, Belle said. Apparently, it wasn’t written to show who said what. The repetition gave itself away and that it wasn’t geared neither toward information nor clarification. Instead, it is to signify separation. They were two different beings, not united. Not one. Another example took place when he went to his room to get some clothes.

“He carried the blocks in the baggage compartment of their car. It took him all three trips. He had three boys with him to help.” I shook my shirt in the cooling air and walked in my room. “And I know where he got those blocks, too. There is a construction going on right now at engineering school. They have a pile of adobe blocks there as high as the Cheops. You can’t miss it. You see it from the bus line every time.”
Actually, he never referred to this room as “our room”. It was they – he and Belle – who were “divided by two.” (Casper, 1962)
Apparently, he isn’t paying attention to what Belle was saying. He keeps on asking her to repeat. His body feels exhausted and whatever Belle was saying doesn’t interest him as much as the sound of the piano music which Wife Y was playing did. In almost every movement or his change of loci, his sense of the house is marked by how clear he heard the piano music, The Turkish March from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11.

“Yes, I know,” I said. I walked into the window and stood there, looking over at their cottage. The piano music from the cottage came strong and clear. . . In my room, the strains of piano music didn’t reach sustainedly. . . I fumbled in the dark feeling with my fingers. In the darkness in the closet the strains of the piano came steadily, strong and clear.
“She is no Turk but she keeps playing the Turkish March,” Belle said.
Even his awareness of Belle is magnified by the piano music, or the lack of it.

I wondered why now the words kept ringing clear to me. Then I felt and sensed that the piano had been stilled. Suddenly the night was silent, suddenly the air was still.
But what Belle was trying to bring into his consciousness might have been of critical importance. The story jumpstarted abruptly, introducing the situation without further ado, a sign that the problem was of considerable intensity. Yet he took it as something close to hokum, if anything at all. When the piano music stops, he turned on his music player.

I rose from the lounging chair. I walked to the globe-traveler near the wall outlet, plugged the cord in and snapped the lid open. Belle followed me. I was playing the range disk for music when Belled leaned forward and snapped the lid shut.
Again, this scenario shows his indifference toward Belle. He doesn’t want to listen to his personal audio tracks. If he does, he could have done so even while the piano music was still on. Instead, he turns on his music player because the piano music stopped. What he might have wanted was a distraction, a reason not to listen to Belle. But Belle is quick in cutting him off from another source of distraction. And thus he is forced to listen.
Belle thinks ill of Wife Y and points out that that Wife Y must have hated her and her friendliness or Husband X’s friendliness toward her. But Belle’s husband doesn’t think it’s appropriate either.

“She doesn’t like me.” Belle said. “And she doesn’t like anyone to like me… when he gave me flowers from her garden, I don’t think she liked that.”
“Who would?” I asked. “Maybe the flowers weren’t such a good idea either.”
“He was only being friendly as I was,” Belle said.
“Oh, yes,” I said.
But again, he doesn’t want anything to do with Belle’s complaints, claiming that he doesn’t know them as much as Belle did. But Belle thinks otherwise.

“Oh, you do, too,” Belle said. “You ride with them too sometimes.”
“I did that only once,” I said. “I rode with them on the front seat. She tapped him on the thigh when she got off at Pavilion 2. That was the last time.”
“Did that bother you?” Belle asked.
“Not that in itself,” I said. “Only the demonstrativeness: as if to show that she is his and he is hers.”
This is a critical point. Readers are already aware of Belle’s friendliness toward Husband X as suggested by the flowers. But Belle’s husband somehow shows a little more room for thought as regards to the gap between him and Belle. If the “demonstrativeness” didn’t really bother him, there is no need to mention it. And then Belle criticizes Wife Y’s “demonstrativeness” in short shorts while “puttering about her garden”. To which her husband retorts that Belle herself didn’t follow rules of conduct when she went visiting the other cottages with Husband Y several times, to which Belle responds that it was just a fulfillment of neighborly duties. Then Belle points out that the other couple’s lawn is bigger than theirs. Because of this, the husband is again forced to pay attention. He looks out the window. It is eight forty-five and isn’t too dark to see the adobe markers. But what seems to appeal to his eyes are the specter-like presence of the flowers, which were already attributed to Wife Y. He reasons out that that might be so because she needed more land for her flowers. But Belle complains again, saying there is an unfair division of lawns. This time, her husband snaps and begins to insult Husband X’s intelligence.

"You mean the halves are not equal? The halves are not halves? I asked.
“What’s the matter with you?” Belle said.
“What’s the matter with him?” I asked. “Isn’t he a doctor of mathematics or something? A fine doctor of mathematics he’s turned out to be if he can’t even divide by two!”
“What’s eating you?” Belle asked.
“Maybe he should have brought a survey team with him and used a transit, a plumb line, and a pole,” I said. “Maybe he could divide by two then. Maybe he could even divide by ten.”
The husband can’t repress his annoyance anymore. And when he still won’t deal with Husband X, Belle threatens to settle the matter herself. Again, he is left with no choice but to approach Husband X, using a rather impersonal method. Using their dusty (apparently unused) typewriter, he write a note to Husband X.
AS he types the note, he can hear Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro from the other house’ radio-phonograph and he thinks “Mathematics and Mozart.” “Mozart and Mathematics.” The Turkish March and Marriage and Figaro were both Mozart’s, which were referred to as a predilection of Wife Y, and Husband X is a doctor of mathematics. Looking closely, he doesn’t seem to think of the juxtaposition of mathematics and music compatible.
Nata sends the note to the next house. By handing Husband X the note, they have passed the point of no return. When the inevitable comes, the two men decide to talk outside. There is a rather illogical state of verbal exchanges, mostly on Belle’s husband’s side. But they don’t talk much of the adobe blocks or the act of putting them there as boundaries. Instead, what takes place is an outburst of outrage coming from somewhere uncharted. And in the heat of the situation, Belle rises and declares war. And finally, it is Belle whom her husband needs to settle matters with, anyway.
It is worth noting that Belle keeps on seeing Wife Y as a nemesis while her husband always defends her. Belle’s husband didn’t seem to like Husband X but Belle keeps on defending him. It is an unfortunate situation, but it makes the distance between the husband and wife make sense. Whether it is difficult to point out which between the attraction between Belle and Husband X or the hidden desire of Belle’s husband toward Wife Y was stronger, it is of no doubt that the division of the two couple’s relationship is caused by their inability to set proper boundaries and infidelity. Divide by Two is indeed tricky, its symbolisms vast and multifaceted. However, one only needs to see how miscommunication and misunderstanding breaks human relationships to get a glimpse of what people should avoid. This, among others, could be the reason behind the story’s existence.
Casper, Leonard. (1962). Vision Indivisible. In Emerenciana Y. Arcellana (Ed.), Favorite Arcellana Stories (p. 213). UP Press. Philippines.

Friday, April 8, 2011

When I See a Barong-barong by Maximo Ramos

(In which one dared to be different.)

When I See a Barong-Barong
Maximo Ramos

When I see a barong-barong neighborhood in the heart of war-torn Manila;

When I behold beside the Pasig sudden lean-tos defended against sun and rain with salvaged sheets of tin;

When I take a truck ride through Suburbia and find nipa huts clustered within the shell-punched walls of former mansions of stone –

I do not look away in shame or throw up my hands despairing for my people.

I fill my chest with the bracing breeze of this my country and say:

Though my race has been pushed around in his own land for nearly half a thousand years,

Though my people have been double-crossed again and again by foreigners,

Though my race has been pitted against themselves down the centuries;

I joy to discover that they are whole and remained unbroken in spirit;

Building them makeshift huts of nipa and salvaged tin and standing straight with heads against the stars.

The poem was written shortly after the Liberation of Manila, (March 4, 1945) when bombed areas of the city were renewed by the sprouting of sorry-looking ensemble of rags, sacks, wood and tin comprising makeshift homes for struggling, impoverished Filipinos. The striking local color embodying a large percentage of the poem was the barong-barong, or makeshift shanties. This type of housing was commonly seen along riverbanks or under the bridges, put up by “squatters”, a rather offensive term for illegal settlers. This type of image isn’t a source of aesthetic inspiration for the general population. Instead, it is considered a ground for disapproval, disgust even, for dwellers and makers of such offense to beauty.

However, the poet Maximo Ramos described the poor and struggling side of Manila without contempt or ridicule. The verisimilitude of the depiction was executed for the sake of truthful presentation and nor of mockery.

In line number three, Ramos gave a glimpse of what used to be on the ground before the barong-barong was built. On that spot used to stand a mansion of stone, whose only remnants were fragments of walls. It shows, therefore, the effects of war to property and to the once-glorified beauty of a city. It creates an image of people in ragged clothes, rummaging the pile of materials in search for some still-useful pieces of scraps with which to build their shelter. It was indeed a pitiful thing. But Ramos saw it differently.

Out of expectation brought by the obvious negative connotation of the title, readers may be struck by Ramos’ audacity in saying that there is nothing pitiful in the sorry state of the barong-barong. Instead of feeling pity, he was filled with pride. This unordinary attitude was defended by the remaining lines of the poem. To provide evidence as regards to the strength of character of Filipinos living in these houses, Ramos cited the abuses his people experienced throughout history – the slavery and injustices of the Spanish conquerors, the treachery of foreigners as proved by the treachery of America and Spain during the Mock Battle of Manila and the Benevolent Assimilation, and the and division of Filipinos with other Filipinos due to differences and religious orientation as well personal interests.

Despite all these, Ramos pointed out that Filipinos remained whole in spirit, not giving up easily on life and its bitterness. Instead, Filipinos were strong enough to stand in the midst of a crisis and start from scratch,

The poem depicts a strong sense of nationalism, showing a positive regard for one’s fellowmen during times of great depression. However, although the image portrayed by the barong-barong in this poem was a symbol of strength and honor, it is just fair to think that Ramos didn’t celebrate poverty. The poem was a post-war literature. Therefore, the respect he manifested was driven by the admiration for people to continue living despite the heavy aftermath of the war. A complete application of the poem in the modern context may prove to be inappropriate due to the difference of setting.

One of the reasons why we take our hats off to poets is that they see things in a different light. More often than not, they see beautiful things in an object that would usually be ignored by the common eye. Maximo Ramos’ When I See a Barong-Barong was a defiant piece of literature in such a way that it challenges people to look at ugly things in their country and manage to see the beauty of their race as well as to rise up from the ashes and continue living.

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