CP Goes to the Philippines: Jose Dalisay and the Marcos Period

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JOSE DALISAY AND THE MARCOS PERIOD by NOEL KING

At the Sixth Philippine International Literary Festival held in Davao on November 20-21, 2015, the first time the festival had been held outside Manila, one of the central themes was “writing in place/creating your space.” That theme recalled a comment made by Jose Dalisay Jr. in his introduction to a reprint of his 1992 second collection of short stories, Sarcophagus and Other Stories (Manila: University of the Philippines, 1996):

When I came out with my first book of stories (Oldtimer and Other Stories) seven years ago, I wrote that I was searching for a “style” – some distinguishing flourish to make the stories mine as if they were at risk of being someone else’s but for this elected word or that moulded phrase.

Since then, I think I’ve come around to see that it isn’t so much “style” one chases after, but a sense of place, or, more acutely, a sense of home: that point in the story where author and sympathetic reader recognize, with astonishment and pain, a sudden familiarity. It may seem an odd thing to say of a book that spans, in its locales, several countries and ages, but it is, after all, the only thing to say, the only thing to go for.

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In my Contrappasso interview with Dalisay, he alluded to his imprisonment under the Marcos regime’s Martial Law in Manila in the early 1970s:

I entered university in 1970, and very quickly got involved in the student activist movement, which was both anti-Marcos, anti-dictatorship, and also to some extent Marxist. For all these reasons I got imprisoned in 1973 for a little over seven months, and yes, that experience formed the basis for my first novel that was published in 1992, almost twenty years later. My experience is shared by many others of my generation, coming out of that Martial Law period.

Dalisay attended and gave a presentation at the 2015 Davao festival, which had on display a new edition of his book about that period, Killing Time in a Warm Place. Also attending the Davao conference was New York based Mia Alvar whose much-praised debut collection of stories, In the Country, included the titular long short story addressing this same period of recent Philippine history.

Some indication of the immediate poetic agit-prop reaction to the end of this repressive Marcos period is contained in the “Editors’ Preface” to Versus: Philippine Protest Poetry, 1983- 1986, which explains:

These poems are of a political season, the thirty crucial months between the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. on 21 August 1983 and the inauguration of his widow, Corazon, as President of the Philippines on 25 February 1986. The collection begins with poems in praise of Aquino, the slain political leader whose blood on the airport tarmac was seed of a new political faith. His assassination unified not only the people of the opposition but the entire people in opposition, for we had become a nation grown weary of an authoritarian regime, though our anger had been inchoate until that fateful Sunday.

Later in that introduction they add:

There was a lot to write about, for in this period, too, were highlighted themes and events that, while previously spoken of only in whispers, were now the subject of open popular conversation. The war in the countryside was one rich lode; the deaths of friends who had gone up to the hills were now open to elegy and that meant Filipinos on both sides. The foibles of the Marcoses were subject of satire, the Great Stone Face of Mr Marcos in La Union pilloried with as much venom as Mrs Marcos’s infrastructure project.

F. H. Batacan was unable to attend the festival but the November issue of Cebu Airlines’ inflight magazine featured an interview with her on the occasion of New York’s Soho Press’s publication of a much expanded edition of her 2002 novella, Smaller and Smaller Circles. At one point in the interview Batacan is asked, “If you could urge the President of the Philippines to read one book, what would it be?” She replies, “It would probably be Some Are Smarter than Others by Ricardo Manapat. The minutiae of his investigation of the Marcos plunder drives home the point that there is very little the powerful can hide from history.” Another excellent book on the Marcos period is by James Hamilton-Patterson, now resident in Austria but who for several decades spent at least six months of the year in the Philippines. His book is America’s Boy: The Marcoses and the Philippines.

In the coming days Contrappasso will publish both the introduction to, and an extended extract from, the new edition of ‘Butch’ Dalisay’s Killing Time in a Warm Place. The novel provides a haunting vision of the era:

Sometimes they use ice. They lug a block of it into the room–a block the size that trucks used to deliver around the neighborhood stores before the invention of tube-pressed chunks in plastic bags–and let it lie there, while in another room the blindfold is applied. Clothes are stripped off, and–despite the crying and the whimpering or, in those instances that evoke both bafflement and challenge in the torturer, the hot outrage that spews out of battered mouths–he or she is walked into the room with the block of ice, and without the slightest notion of what is coming next, he or she is kept standing, is talked to, is prodded between the legs, for an hour or so until the knees give in to exhaustion and the chill from the back of the room, and then, having caught the shiver that betrays the body, they cluck sympathetically and shake their heads at each other and one of them, perhaps the chief himself, will snap his fingers and say next to him or her something like “Santiago, what terrible hosts we are, look how tired this person is, get a chair somewhere–yes, that one will do.” Then he or she is seated on the ice, is made to lie on it, for fifteen minutes, or an hour, however long it takes for the ice or the person to melt.

 

 

Texts Cited.

Mia Alvar, In the Country (New York: Knopf, 2015

F. H. Batacan, Smaller and Smaller Circles (New York: Soho Press, 2015)

Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr., Killing Time in a Warm Place New Edition (Manila: Anvil Press, 2015)

Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr., Sarcophagus and Other Stories (Manila: University of the Philippines, 1996)

Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr., Oldtimer and Other Stories (Asphodel Books, 1984)

James Hamilton-Patterson, America’s Boy: The Marcoses and the Philippines (London: Granta, 1998).

Ricardo Manapat. Some are Smarter than Others: The Marcos’ Crony Capitalism (Alethia Publishers, 1991)

Alfrredo Navarro Salanga and Esther M. Pacheco, ed., Versus: Philippine Protest Poetry, 1983- 1986 (Quezon City, Metro Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1986).

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1986), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.

 

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CP Goes to the Philippines: Featured author Jose Dalisay

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Jose Daliday is an English professor and director of the Institute of Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines. He is the author of more than twenty books, including novels, story collections, plays, and essays; a recipient of the National Book Award from the Manila Critics Circle; and was named by the Cultural Center of the Philippines Centennial Honors List as one of the top 100 most accomplished and influential Filipino artists of the past century.

In the coming days we will be publishing a series of pieces about and by Dalisay. But first, a quick flashback to Dalisay’s first appearance in Contrappasso. Noel King caught up with Dalisay at the Pan Pacific Manila on 19 August 2013 for an interview which was published in our sixth issue and is online here:

MUCH OF MY OWN FICTIONAL WORK HAS DEALT WITH LOW LIFE:
An Interview with Jose Dalisay

CP Goes to the Philippines: Featured author F. H. Batacan

F. H. “ICHI” BATACAN was born in Manila and graduated from the University of the Philippines with a BA in communications and an MA in art history. After ten years of working in the Philippine intelligence community, she turned to broadcast journalism. Smaller and Smaller Circles, her first novel, won the prestigious Philippine National Book Award and is widely regarded as the first Philippine crime novel. It has been recently republished in an expanded edition by Soho Press in the USA.

Noel King’s extensive 2014 interview with Batacan (and her agent, the writer Andrea Pasion-Flores) appeared in Contrappasso #8 and is online HERE.

 

CP Goes to the Philippines: Featured author R. Zamora Linmark

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R. ZAMORA LINMARK was born in Manila. He is the author of the poetry collections Prime Time Apparitions (Hanging Loose Press, 2005) and The Evolution of a Sigh (Hanging Loose Press, 2008) and the novels Rolling the R’s (Kaya Press, 1995) and Leche (Coffee House Press, 2011). His next poetry collection, Pop Verite, is forthcoming from Hanging Loose Press. He also recently completed a third novel titled These Books Belong to Ken Z. He has been a Distinguished Visiting Professor in Creative Writing at the Universities of Miami and Hawaii.

Linmark has been a regular contributor to Contrappasso. Some of his poems were reprinted in our special issue Writers at the Movies (2015). Here Linmark  introduces and reads his poem A Letter to Claire Danes from a Fan in Manila:

Two other poems appeared in Writers at the Movies:

After Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind

Twelve Short Takes on Montgomery Clift

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Linmark’s short story ‘Dear Jesus’ appeared in Contrappasso #6 (2014). It begins:

Dear Jesus:

My worst nightmare is about to come true. Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor approved the same-sex marriage legislation bill. 20 to 4. And now it’s up to the House of Representatives to kill the bill. But what if they, too, flew over the cuckoo’s nest? That’s why I’m flying there tomorrow. I’m going to withdraw whatever money I have left in my checking account, take the first flight to Honolulu and give these loonies a piece of my mind. That’s right. Hold on, Jesus, I’m now on the line with a Hawaiian Airlines ticketing agent from, of all places, Philippines. Dear Lord, Honolulu is only half hour away by plane from here and I have to call someone in the Philippines to book it…. Just got off the phone. They’re charging me four arms and six thousand legs as if I’m Imelda Marcos. What a rip off. And they don’t offer Senior Citizen discount. So much for Aloha Spirit… Calm down, Marie, calm down… Screw it. I’m willing to overlook the astronomical cost of this ticket due to the gravity of the matter. Otherwise, I’d tell them too to go choke on my monthly SS! I’d rather go hungry for the next couple days than allow this bill to be passed. I don’t care if I have to testify three, four, five thousand times. I won’t stop until these so-called progressive legislators wake up and realize that they’re doing more harm than good. This is not in the best interest of the peoples of Hawaii. I know it. The majority knows it. Come tomorrow, they will know who Marie Machado is and what she stands for.

Marie Machado, Hana, Maui.

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 Dear Jesus:

I have two mommies. Am I greedy?

Alexander Rosales, 3rd grade, Kapalama Elementary.

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Dear Jesus:

Did I wake up in the wrong state? Is today Halloween, October 31, 2013? It is, right? All this talk of gay marriage makes me want to puke. That’s what I want to do right now. Puke the bowl of kim chi chigae I ate last night all over the grounds of State Capitol. This Senate Bill 1 makes me sick to the bone. I should call in sick. But I can’t afford to miss a day’s worth of work. I already got written up twice for being late. But this is more important than ushering losers to their seats or telling them to get their toe jams off the seats or picking up their trash or shining the flashlight on their faces to shut their snoring up. If that fat cow Shawna fires me, so be it. I’ll miss the free movies and fifty percent off of popcorn and hot dogs. Fuck it. This is not the only job in the world. There are a thousand more out there I can get fired from. My sick call is legit. It’s an act of sacrifice, me as the lamb willing to sacrifice his bread and butter just for you, Jesus, because I love and believe in you. All I ask is that you help me write the most convincing testimony, because I’d hate to make a fool of myself in public, especially since Olelo cable TV is live-streaming the entire hearing.

Charles Kwon, McCully.

[TO READ THE REST OF THIS STORY, CLICK HERE]

CP Goes to the Philippines: Featured author Andrea Pasion-Flores

ANDREA PASION-FLORES was born in Manila. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines where she received her degrees in Journalism, Law, and her MA in Creative Writing. Her fiction has appeared in the Philippine Graphic, Philippines Free Press, the UP Institute of Creative Writing’s Likhaan and Silliman University’s Sands and Coral journals. Her story collection For Love and Kisses was published by UST Publishing House, Manila, in 2014.

Contrappasso was delighted to publish Pasion-Flores’ short story ‘Love in Mini-Stops’ in our eighth issue in 2015. It begins:

SHE FELL IN LOVE WITH HIM during the monsoon season when she went out to get a bite from a Ministop store.

Even if the rains battered the glass walls of our 21st floor office, even if the winds sang a howling protest against the wisdom of their insistence to huddle under a black golf umbrella, they still went out for short orders of pork siomai, asado pao, and fried dumplings, crossing the street even if the umbrella could only keep their inner halves dry. In a storm, puddles aren’t really puddles but streams of water overflowing from the gutters to be leapt over with gingerly grace. Pia kept her hand tucked under the arm of her man as she skipped over streams on their way to, what one officemate referred to with snickering glee, their “dim sum delights.”

During monsoon weather in Manila, the skies turn a brackish grey and the southwest winds blowing from the Pacific turn potted palmeras, trees that are not quite trees, irregularly dotting the center island of Emerald Avenue, into fluttering fronds, like hands desperately calming the beating heart of a nervous bride. The Philippines is the only country in the world with no divorce, thus the words “till death do us part” sound ever so permanent. But at thirty-one, Pia was still unmarried though she was dating a man who was. Sean, the guy, was a stockbroker and a consultant for a holding company a couple of floors above ours. He was in his late forties with, I would guess, a couple of kids. But Pia doesn’t like talking about that…..

Read the whole story here:

LOVE IN MINI-STOPS by ANDREA PASION-FLORES

CP Goes to the Philippines: Books Beyond Borders by Noel King

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This text is based on a presentation given by Noel King at the Sixth International Philippine Literature Conference held in Davao, Mindanao, on September 20-21, 2015. This version includes some material added after that presentation.

I

We gather here in Davao as APEC takes place in Manila, as everybody whose airplane travel here was disrupted is aware. Australia’s new Liberal Party Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has mentioned the 70th anniversary of Australian-Philippine connection that takes place in 2016, celebrating the opening in 1946 in Canberra, our nation’s capital, of the first Philippine Embassy in Australia. P.M. Turnbull also mentioned the fact that Australian and Philippine soldiers fought together against the Japanese in WW2.

Elsewhere I find that Australia is seventh on the list of countries that Filipinos opt for when going abroad to live and work, and we are only 15,000 people off the number 6 country, Japan. Your initial coloniser, Spain, is 11th on the list. Of course the US, with almost 3 million Filipinos resident, comfortably outranks all other countries as your choice of a place to go in the event of leaving your country.

So think of this presentation as a short description of the delights and difficulties that attach to an Australian’s attempt to track down writing from the Philippines.

My interest in Filipino poetry, fiction and non-fiction has developed only in the last few years. Since I don’t read or speak Tagalog, and nor do I know any of the 175 other languages-dialects that are spoken in the Philippines, I have been pursuing Philippine writing in English, accepting any and every piece of advice that came my way. Initially this involved my becoming aware of a range of US, UK and Australian writing set in the Philippines, and it is a distinguished body of work. It includes James Crumley’s first novel, One to Count Cadence (Random House, 1969) and Charles Willeford’s Something about a Soldier (Random House, 1986), his memoir of his time at Clark Military Base during WW2.

Highly regarded Australian writer Robert Drewe’s novel, A Cry in the Jungle Bar (Collins, 1979) is set here and around the time of writing that book Drewe described the Philippines’ history as “400 years of Spanish Catholicism and 50 years of Hollywood.” A friend in Kuala Lumpur alerted me to Alexander Garland’s The Tesseract (Penguin, 1999) and a colleague at Macquarie University put me onto Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu (Bloomsbury, 1988) where I found his Bruce Springsteen-titled chapter on the Philippines, “Born in the USA.” John Irving’s most recent novel, Avenue of Mysteries (Simon and Schuster, 2015) is set in the Philippines.

Other suggestions came from an old friend with whom I had done some university teaching in Brisbane in the late 1970s. Historian Michael Counihan is very knowledgeable about a great many things, from south-east Asian history, to all kinds of fiction, music and media. He has a particular interest in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines. He alerted me to Cambodian Space Project’s music, told me about the late Robert Bingham’s great novel set in Cambodia, Lightning on the Sun (Doubleday, 2000), and urged me to read P.F. Kluge’s Biggest Elvis (Viking 1996), set in the Philippines. A year later I was able to return the favour by sending him a copy of Lourd Ernest H. de Veyra’s poem, “Fat Elvis in Kamias,” from Insectissimo!, published in 2011 by University of Santo Tomas Press.

Mick also worded me up on Australian writer William Marshall’s two “Manila Bay” crime novels, Manila Bay (Secker & Warburg, 1986) and Whisper (Viking, 1988), English writer James Hamilton-Paterson’s novel, Ghosts of Manila (Jonathan Cape, 1994) and his non-fiction work, America’s Boy: The Marcoses and the Philippines (Granta, 1998). It was odd to find the Marcos book dedicated to two Londoners, Mark Cousins and Parveen Adams, known distantly to me from Cousins’ having been invited as a visiting scholar to Griffith University in its early days and Parveen Adams having been associated with a UK feminist journal of which I once had a complete run, m/f.

Under my own research steam I chased down Timothy Mo’s Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard (Paddleless Press, 1995) with its astonishingly vulgar and hilarious nine page opening sex scene involving a very young Filipina prostitute and a grotesque, overbearing, elderly German professor. The professor has the teenage Filipina sex worker crouched over his torso, facing away from him, buttocks to his face, and the time duration involved in this act of crouching and the difficulties it entails are part of this galvanising opening. The professor is working away in the young woman’s anal area and soon a pile of shit descends on him, leading to his character’s analysis of the faecal make-up, an in-situ ontology of the turd. This analysis takes a while and other sexual acts are also performed on him before he takes the young woman into the bathroom where he has an array of instruments that will clean out her anal passage while also – as he well knows but she, being a novice at this particular sub-region of sex work activity, doesn’t – occasioning a further exciting descent of excrement onto the professorial torso. Around this time masturbatory acts occur and the professor ejaculates. This opening sequence proved too much for conventional publishing houses and Mo was obliged to self-publish. I also acquired Mo’s Renegade or Halo 2 (1999), with its epigraph from José Rizal. This book too was published from Mo’s London-based Paddleless Press.

So I had this group of names and titles but the many authorial names so well known to Filipinos weren’t known to me until I began searching out Mick’s references more thoroughly and until I read, and wrote a review of, the collection Manila Noir (Akashic, 2013) and instantly set about seeking out other works from its contributors.

As I searched more widely for Filipino writing in English, I ascertained that works by F. Sionil José, Jessica Hagedorn, Sabina Murray, Lysley Tenorio, and Gina Apostol were easy to locate, as were R. Zamora Linmark’s two novels, Rolling the Rs (Kaya Press, 1995) and Leche (Coffee House Press, 2011), and his wonderful poetry – Prime Time Apparitions (2005) and The Evolution of a Sigh (2008), both from New York’s Hanging Loose Press. Once this radial literary skip-trace had begun, my bookshelves started filling up a newly discovered special section devoted to Filipino poets, novelists, and non-fiction writers writing in English. Some Filipino music and DVDs also found their way into this emerging collection.

Coincidentally, around this same time, I had become involved with Contrappasso (Italian for ‘counter-punch’), a literary journal edited by two Australian academics in their early 30s, Theodore Ell and Matthew Asprey Gear. As I discovered more about Filipino writing I started making short trips to the Philippines, initially only to Manila, but then making it a policy to tack on side trips to other places (Dumaguete, Bohol, Cebu, Iloilo, Bacolod) in order to widen my superficial knowledge of the country. And when I was lucky enough to meet some local writers who kindly agreed to sit in front of and speak into an old cassette tape recorder for interviews – Butch Dalisay, Ichi Batacan and Andrea Pasion-Flores, Rosie Cruz Lucero – my researches started to consolidate in a way that had me hooked. Butch mentioned that he hadn’t seen a cassette recorder of that vintage for some time, and on a subsequent trip to Manila, as Ichi and Andrea said their last words into it, the machine collapsed. But those interviews were duly transcribed, speech turned into writing, and sent back to the interviewee for whatever corrections, deletions, additions he or she wanted to make. They eventually appeared in Contrappasso and on the Contrappasso website, which also ran a short story from Andrea Pasion-Flores, and poems from Zack Linmark.

It was during this period of reading myself into some kind of very basic knowledge of Filipino literature in English that I co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso with Matthew Asprey Gear. One was on Noir (sufficiently broadly defined to include fiction, poetry, photography, non-fiction) and another was on Writers at the Movies, which concentrated on what various novelists, filmmakers and poets had said about particular movies they loved, and the cinemas in which they first encountered them. The issue also included more conventional forms of critical writing about films. Some wonderful Filipino content found its way into those two issues. Meanwhile, Matthew, on a trip to Miami to see the writer, Lester Goran, adventitiously encountered Zack Linmark and commissioned material from him for Contrappasso. So, a combination of utter serendipity there, and dogged pursuit here, saw more Filipino material come forward in that journal.

As I slowly built up my collection of Filipino writing in English, using the research skills acquired from a career as an academic, skills which actually aren’t so very distant from those possessed by any true fan of some species of writing, theatre, film, music, sports, I soon found that if the books were available from amazon.co.uk, amazon.com, or abebooks.com (which Amazon now owns), they were readily acquired, as indicated earlier. But if they had to come from the Philippines it was quite another story. Then they became quite expensive. As we all know, the cost of a book on abebooks.com is directly related to its rarity. I already possessed a copy of Jose Dalisay’s Soledad’s Sister – purchased from Solidaridad bookshop, along with a few other novels, stories and poetry during a week in Manila when a typhoon turned my stay into a kind of Key Largo moment, except that I was able to toddle from my very nice hotel to Solidaridad bookshop, a nearby Robinson’s Mall, a Spanish-Filipino restaurant, and a Cowboy Grill, so it was really a great time, just with lots of rain.

A month or so before coming to this festival I checked on abebooks.com to see how much Soledad’s Sister cost, and there were two entries, now both gone. One offered a copy in “good” condition (on that abebooks.com range of ‘acceptable,’ ‘good,’ ‘very good’, and ‘fine’) which would have cost $425.00 for purchase and postage. Or I could have opted for a ‘very good’ copy to come my way from Miami at a cost of $620.32 for purchase and postage. But of course I already had a copy purchased in person in Manila for an extremely reasonable outlay, just as I had been amazingly lucky to pick up a copy of Ichi Batacan’s original novella version of Smaller and Smaller Circles for $25.00 or so when the few copies online were going for $300.00 or more. I bought Ichi’s book from a somewhat chaotically organised bookshop in Sydney called Gould’s Bookshop, in Newtown, near Sydney University. It was run by Bob Gould, an old leftie-libertarian-anarchist, Trotskyist-pacifist, until his death in 2011, and now continues to be run by others who maintain those eccentricities of filing and shelving.

It occurred to me to go directly to some Filipino publishers to purchase books, specifically the university presses that had published some of the fiction I was chasing – University of Santo Tomas Press, and the University of Philippines Press – and have the books posted directly from Manila to Sydney. I discovered that these university presses had e-books (but I was chasing codex), used B-pay and accepted bank cheques, but did not have their own credit card facilities. I went to my local bank in North Sydney and asked, as it happens, a Filipina bank teller, how much a bank cheque made out in Filipino pesos would cost. That cost was $35.00, and since the Charlson Ong book I was chasing cost about $30.00 and postage was to be $25.00, the book suddenly had an all-up cost of $85.00 and that was starting to look like a financial bridge too far.

But it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. I noticed that the Charlson Ong book was available in the US from a bookseller who did not post outside the US, while postage within the US was quite cheap. It’s not for nothing that I spent some years teaching cultural studies students about Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, concentrating on how his ideas of “poaching” had been taken up by various studies of popular culture, from my former Curtin University colleague John Fiske’s work to Henry Jenkins’ writing. Since I had several friends working at universities in the US, I realised I could have the book sent to them and they could use their institutional postage to post it on down to me, and suddenly the book was once again available at a very reasonable price. “Poaching” always makes me think of Jean Renoir’s La règle du jeu, and the whole idea of the poacher-lord-of-the-manor relation is a bit off in some ways, a touch of the Bakhtinian idea of carnival as a “licensed blow-off,” as Terry Eagleton once characterised it. But there was no gainsaying the substantial saving in cost to the overseas book purchaser.

So I say to you, it shouldn’t have to be done this way. Why should all US-and-UK-published Filipino writers be so easy for overseas readers to access and yet, when it comes to any attempt to move a Filipino book in English from within the Philippines directly to an eager overseas buyer, difficulties arise and price-point costing kicks in, in a lose-lose way for writer and reader?

II

We live in a time of print-on-demand publishing and there is now an established practice (from crime fiction reprints in the UK and USA, to New York Review Books, to Text in Australia) of recirculating older, lapsed books accompanied by introductions from prominent, contemporary or more recent writers who use this introduction in part to say why this distant text is, in their view, worth revisiting, worth reading now. Why not adopt this practice here?

A nice example of this came about when Charles Portis’s True Grit was reprinted in 2005, by Bloomsbury in the UK and Overlook Press in the US, with an Introduction by Donna Tartt. Her introduction had earlier been an essay in the Canadian literary magazine, Brick. And when a tie-in version of True Grit came out to piggy back on the considerable commercial success of the Coen Brothers adaptation of the book, the lovely Donna Tartt essay was retained. Quite recently Denis Johnson has written an introduction for the NYRB reprint of Leonard Gardner’s only novel, Fat City, saying how much he learned from it, and Barry Gifford has written an introduction for the NYRB revival of Elliot Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel. This last is a nice closing of a long circle because Gifford had been keen to re-publish Chaze’s novel in his Black Lizard series but when that series was sold on to a larger publisher they had no interest in issuing that title.

In 1972 Matthew J. Bruccoli persuaded Southern Illinois University Press to republish a series of books under the banner of “Lost American Fiction”. The first title was Edith Summers Kelley’s Weeds and Bruccoli explains that the reception of that book “encouraged Southern Illinois University Press to mount a series that would republish obscure or unavailable works of fiction that merit a new audience.” By the time the series was wound up in 1979 twenty-nine titles had appeared over seven years in hard cover from SIUP and in paperback from Popular Library, the co-operating publisher. After the first fourteen titles had appeared, Bruccoli explained that these titles were not the result of “one editor’s judgement” but rather, “five were recommended by friends, our co-operating publisher, colleagues, even strangers who wrote enthusiastically about the series.” The only firm rule that applied was that the book “must have been originally published before World War II.” Apart from that books were measured against notions of “literary merit”, and whether the work illuminated “the literary or social history of its time.” One other sought-after quality was “’life’: does the work live? – does it have a life of its own? – does it present human nature convincingly?”

Each book was accompanied by an Afterword by a critic, academic, or writer. Carroll and Garrett Graham’s Queer People, a novel about Hollywood initially published in 1930, was reissued with an Afterword by Budd Schulberg, no doubt on the basis of his having written What Makes Sammy Run? Another title in the series was James Ross’s They Don’t Dance Much, first published in 1940 and the only novel written by the journalist. The Afterword to that book was written by George V. Higgins, no doubt on the basis of his fame as lawyer-turned-writer with The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a book that revolutionised US crime writing. The dust jacket for the issue published in Bruccoli’s series had some quotations from James Ross, one in which he said, “When I began writing this book late in 1939, I had no outline and no real plot in mind except maybe unconsciously some variation on the one Chaucer used in ‘The Pardoner’s Tale.’ There was nothing aside from a fairly clear idea of the characters, Jack, Smut, and the Fishers and Astor Legrand. I had known them all, at least in a casual way. One of them was murdered but, so far as I know, none of them was ever convicted of anything more than a misdemeanour.” The inside back flap quotes Ross as saying, “in a statement written for this new edition of his novel”:

The book was written as the Depression was ending and as the stage was setting itself and the characters assembling for the presentation of World War II. Since then, this region of the South has lost much of its rural flavour. The roadhouses have long since disappeared. Human greed and the evils it generates haven’t. Some reviewers said the novel was ‘Southern Gothic,’ suggesting a piece of fiction dealing in fantastic occurrences in an overdrawn setting. My memory is that my aim merely was to show it the way it was and leave it to the reader to reach his own conclusions as to the point of it, if there was any, or draw his own moral if he needed one.

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Otto Penzler’s New York-based Mysterious Press – in its digital manifestation – recently reissued They Don’t Dance Much with an introduction by the wonderful Daniel Woodrell, which opens: “So, we are sitting in a greasy spoon, a tavern, a living room, talking about books we love that didn’t catch a break, hard-luck books of such obstinate appeal that, though they died early, just won’t stay dead. There are canonized books most of us know too well and yawn when we speak of them one more time, but far, far better are the little known literary wonders we’ve come across at flea markets, garage sales, up in grandma’s attic,” books that can now be urged “upon our friends” in order to “catch them by surprise, propose a new name for a seat at the table.” Woodrell’s next remark justifies the whole idea of any series that republishes a lost or forgotten work accompanied by a testament from a contemporary writer: “Since sometime in the 1970s the book I most often brought up first, almost always to complete silence, was They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross. I only read the book because the covert avant-gardist George V. Higgins vouched for it as both literature and a good time. Higgins was quickly proved right, and only became more right as each page was turned.” Higgins ended his piece on the enduring importance of Ross’s book by saying:

James Ross was a writer out of his season. That was too bad for him, and until this novel was retrieved from the neglect of almost twenty-five years, too bad for us too. He wrote with a fine disregard for what was popular, courageously, and his editors printed what he wrote, with equal courage, and nobody noticed. He advanced the craft of fiction as far as it could be advanced when he was writing, and no one was paying attention. Very few at least. Life’s hard, life’s very hard. It’s harder without luck

But that, of course, was what he was telling us.

Woodrell has a beautiful characterisation of Ross’s writing: “Ross writes in classically laconic, wised-up American prose. His voice suits then and now, and will carry well tomorrow.”

III

A legendary US publishing instance of this strategy of “reintroducing” older books, happened in 1984 when Gary Fisketjon and Jay McInerney were involved in Fisketjon’s idea of “Vintage Contemporaries,” a paperback imprint from Random House whose initial seven titles, five men and two women, included Raymond Carver’s Cathedral (McInerney had taken a creative writing course with Carver), James Crumley’s Dancing Bear, and McInerney’s first novel, Bright Lights, Big City. Understandably, McInerney was reluctant to appear first in paperback, preferring a hardback first edition as was usual at that time. He received hard cover publication in the UK but agreed to go in the US with his friend’s instinct as part of the paperback “Vintage Contemporaries.” His book immediately sold 300,000 copies and McInerney’s reputation was made.

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NYRB Classics

Of late we have seen how books in the US and UK published thirty to fifty years ago are being reissued by presses like New York Review Books and attracting rave reviews and strong sales. John Williams’ Stoner is a case in point. A book which first appeared in 1965 has had an amazing international success and not because addled 1960s types were buying the book on title alone, nor because Tom Hanks was rumoured to have loved the book and optioned it. Little bookshops all over the English speaking world were putting it out with their staff endorsements – that rather twee practise of having short, hand-written endorsements extolling the book in question. Stoner is now being brought out in a special 50th anniversary edition, yet another indication of the increasing overlaps these days of trade-chain-superstore bookshops and small-indie bookstores.

In her book Reluctant Capitalists, Laura J. Miller notes that one response to the chain’s bookstore-malling of America was independent bookstores seeking to differentiate themselves by describing “the bookstore as not simply a place in which to purchase books, but as a community centre that provides meaningful services and enjoyable diversions.” This strategy was then so utterly recuperated by the chains that by the mid-1990s their bookstores had become places to have coffee, hear author readings, attend book launchings and signings, and meet with a reading group. And when one hears the ugly news that Borders Bookshops were anti-union, as Powell’s Books in Oregon is now (together with its policy of buying up any local competition), the comfortable thought of “Chain bad and Indie good” is somewhat compromised.

Miller points out that in the 1970s in areas like the Bay Area of San Francisco the generation involved in bookselling had come out of the anti-war movements of the 1960s and the pacifist movements of the 1950s. As one of her interviewees puts it, “Bookselling is one of those professions where you could go and work because you were not of the system.” But in our neo-liberal times this history has become just that, history. In the US alone one can list the names of wonderful small bookshops from New York to San Francisco and L.A, that no longer exist: Posmans near Washington Square and NYU campus, A Clean Well-Lighted Place in central San Francisco, Midnight Special in Santa Monica.

IV

To some extent the tactic of repackaging an old text for a new readership is a book publisher’s equivalent of the frenzied DVD moment which saw the publication of all kinds of special editions, and anniversaries (10, 20, 25 years since a film’s first appearance), director’s cuts (which could mean variously that a French director who had had no interference when originally making his film had now decided to make it one hour longer – Betty Blue – while other director’s cuts might shorten the film, as was the case with Peter Weir and The Cars that Ate Paris). With dead directors cuts it could refer to reinserting some deleted scenes from Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, giving the film a new opening which places the following narrative in a quite different context, or it might be a rediscovered memo (published in Film Quarterly) in which Orson Welles indicates where he would have made changes to the Albert Zugsmith-produced version of Touch of Evil, and with historical work from Jonathan Rosenbaum and new editing work from Walter Murch, a restored print does the international festival circuit and arthouse rounds. Something of that practice accompanied the publication of the late Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, its controversial appearance being mired in various scandals around Lee’s allegedly having been swindled out of copyright, not being totally on top of things as she went about her daily routine of heading off to a club to play slot machines – a mild extravagance in a resolutely frugal lifestyle – and come home for an evening meal.

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In September 2015 Serpent’s Tail press received rave reviews in The Guardian and The Weekend Financial Times on the occasion of having republished Montanan novelist David Gates’s Jernigan, a book first published in 1991 (It’s almost a twenty-fifth anniversary, so keep an eye out in 2016). Serpent’s Tail had a strong tradition of reissuing old titles. Its Midnight Classics series republished books by Horace McCoy and David Goodis, and also republished some books that had a kind of cult status or cult-film tie-in status, as with Newton Thornburgh’s Cutter and Bone which became the much admired film maudit, Cutter’s Way, from Ivan Passer. The film has a (much deserved) great critical reputation but initially it was released under the novel’s title, died a death, was re-released as Cutter’s Way and still didn’t make money, despite wonderful performances and fine directing. In its Serpent’s Tail edition Thornburgh’s novel has an introduction by George Pelecanos, saying how much he admires the book. Serpent’s Tail had published the first few crime novels from Pelecanos and of course he later gained an even larger audience by way of his involvement with the production of and writing for the hugely (correctly) lauded TV series, The Wire.

One quite recent Australian example of this publishing practice of reviving titles to try to engage a new reading public occurred in Melbourne with Text press, run by Michael Heyward. Text began regularly reprinting vanished or forgotten Australian fiction from the 1960s and 1970s. For example, they reissued all of Randolph Stow’s novels with introductions from contemporary Australian writers.

In the case of Elizabeth Harrower, Text has succeeded not only in republishing forgotten novels and short stories by an Australian author but has also managed to bring back into the literary limelight a female writer who had abandoned the writing life decades ago and had refused to publish a completed novel. That Salinger-like act of non-publication signalled Harrower’s departure from Australian literary culture. Then, in the wake of Text’s reissuing of her novels, Harrower suddenly agreed to permit publication of the long withheld text In Certain Circles. Furthermore, in November 2015, on the weekend that I was flying to the Philippines, Harrower was due to be “in conversation with Michael Heyward,” in an event taking place at Mosman Public Library, a good address on Sydney’s salubrious northern shore.

I came to the Philippines a little earlier than the dates set aside for this conference, initially into Iloilo to get over jet lag in (for me) a new city, and then came on to Davao a few days before the days for this festival, to get the lie of the land, acquaint myself a bit with this city.

As I usually do when flying anywhere I had a quick scan of the inflight magazine (in this case Cebu Air), and was delighted to find an interview with Ichi Batacan on the occasion of the U.S. publication of an extended version of her 1999 novella, Smaller and Smaller Circles in hard cover and soft cover by Soho Press in New York. At a certain point in the interview Ichi was asked the usual question – I say this is “usual” because I always ask it! – of which (in her case) Filipino writers she admired. Among her list of names – some of whom are attending this conference – she mentioned her deep admiration for Kerima Polotan’s novel, The Hand of the Enemy, which had won the 1961 Stonehill Award for Best Filipino Novel in English. As a rough rule of thumb, I think one should always trust the recommendations of writers whose work one likes, and so, after trawling abebooks.com, a copy of that book will be waiting for me back in Sydney on my return at a cost of about $130.00 for purchase and postage. In the same interview Ichi also mentioned a book about the Marcos years, Ricardo Manapat’s Some Are Smarter than Others, and that too is now on its way to my bookshelf.

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Perhaps some enterprising Philippine press could embark on a project of reprinting lost or lapsed works of Filipino literature along the lines of the Vintage Contemporaries and New York Review Books lists? Why not reprint The Hand of an Enemy with a new Introduction from Ichi Batacan? Over the next two days why not approach Butch Dalisay, Mia Alvar and all the other writers’ names you know so much more readily than I, and ask them a simple question: “Which currently out of print piece of Philippine literature would you like to usher back into print and renewed circulation by way of your Introduction?”

And when this book is published, could the presses in question please have credit card facilities in place to facilitate purchases from eager overseas readers?

V

I now ask your indulgence as I conclude by suggesting a very large project to embark upon, one requiring several levels of government and industry assistance, and in this case the “books beyond borders” refers to the Philippines alone, as I realise was the major intention of the title of your festival.

If it is the case – as I have been told – that the Philippines has a very weak national library system, even at University level, why not try to reverse that fact? Any project that seeks to increase the possibility of literate and literary encounters in a country with 175 or so distinctive languages-dialects could begin by initiating a strong, ongoing local-community library system. Beyond the fact that such a project necessarily would involve the employment of architects, builders, the training of appropriate librarians, it would also allow you to tailor the library holdings in each centre to include, in multiple copies, what you regard as the appropriate set of national Filipino texts in Tagalog, English, etc, while also including the main texts in those languages-dialects specific to the region in question. You would take the standard contemporary definition of “text” to mean works of Filipino poetry, drama, fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, comix, DVDs, sonic-radio works plus whatever newspapers, journals, magazines, and games are deemed important and/or controversial works.

Your project would be to specify a considerable body of work to be made available to all library users. In Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (University of Chicago Press, 2012) Andrew Piper says that libraries in the US are “emerging as important actors within civic life. We have rediscovered just how important those pockets of reading are to transitive properties of urban experience.” You could run with the slogan, “Library is Coming/Library is Here,” and if you imitate the great English tradition of the public library, you would be doing so at a moment in history when countries like England and Australia are destroying this great tradition, applying moronic neo-liberal attitudes to a wonderful, democratic institution. Zadie Smith’s 2012 essay “The North West London Blues,” relates a story of the running down of the library system in contemporary London and Alan Bennett’s essay, “Baffled at a Bookcase,” describes with a devastating, sad accuracy, how libraries in the UK have been changed into “valuable marketing opportunities,” rather than continuing to provide the opportunities for poorer people to have ready access to books, learning and entertainment for a low cost.

Since you have yet to create your version of a national Library system with strong regional, municipal holdings and strengthened University library resources, it should take several decades before you try to dismantle whatever excellent system you have put in place to suit the distinctive needs of your Philippine population. Long before it occurs to you to destroy this system, hundreds of thousands of young and older Filipino readers, listeners and viewers will have benefited from its existence. For you can’t simply say, “Filipinos don’t read much” if you haven’t given a vastly poor populace the opportunity to access at no cost a strong lending-library collection. Of course the texts selected might well be more often sonic or audio-visual than poetry, novel, non-fiction, drama, but it wouldn’t all be in that direction.

The great upside to this library-building campaign, aside from the immediate and continuing employment opportunities it would provide, is that you could practise a back-to-the-future moment in which you ignore the debased, deracinated, ruined remnants of Anglo-Australia’s once-great public library system and build a wonderfully distinctive Filipino system that acknowledges the centre-margin issues that inform so much of your discussions of reading and publishing in the Philippines.

And the absolutely wonderful final feature of this imagined project is that the phrase “neo-liberal” would appear only as a book title in your non-fiction section.

Thank you for your time and patience.

 

Works Cited

F. H. Batacan, Smaller and Smaller Circles (New York: Soho Press, 2015)

F. H. Batacan, Smaller and Smaller Circles (Manila: University of the Philippines Press, 2005)

Alan Bennett, “Baffled at a Bookcase,” London Review of Books 33, 15 (28 July, 2011): 3-7.

Robert Bingham, Lightning on the Sun (New York: Doubleday, 2000)

James Crumley, One to Count Cadence (New York: Random House, 1969)

Robert Drewe, A Cry in the Jungle Bar (Sydney: Collins, 1979)

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life trans. Steven F. Rendall (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984)

Alexander Garland, The Tesseract (London: Penguin, 1999)

John Irving, Avenue of Mysteries (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015)

Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu (London: Bloomsbury, 1988)

P.F. Kluge, Biggest Elvis (New York: Viking 1996)

Laura J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalist: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Andrew Piper, Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (University of Chicago Press, 2012)

Ricardo Manapat, Some Are Smarter Than Others: The History of the Marcos’ Crony Capitalism (New York: Aletheia Press, 1991)

William Marshall, Manila Bay (London: Secker & Warburg, 1986)

William Marshall, Whisper (New York: Viking, 1988)

James Hamilton-Paterson, Ghosts of Manila (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994)

James Hamilton-Paterson, America’s Boy: The Marcoses and the Philippines (Cambridge: Granta, 1998).

Kerima Polotan, The Hand of the Enemy (Manila: Regal Books/Erewhon Bookshop Distribution, 1962)

Zadie Smith, “The North West London Blues,” (2012), New York Review of Books (June 2nd, 2012), available at: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2012/06/02/north-west-london-blues/

Lourd Ernest H. de Veyra, Insectissimo! (Manila: University of Santo Tomas Press, 2011).

Charles Willeford, Something about a Soldier (New York: Random House, 1986)

Carroll and Garrett Graham, Queer People (1930) (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976)

James Ross, They Don’t Dance Much (New York: Mysterious Press/Open Road/Integrated Media, 2013)

James Ross, They Don’t Dance Much (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Press, 1975)

James Ross, They Don’t Dance Much (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1940)

Budd Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run? (New York: Random House, 1941)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1886), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.

[Header image ‘Books’ by Flavio Ensiki @ Flickr, reproduced under this CC licence, unaltered.]

CP Goes to the Philippines: Mia Alvar’s In the Country (review)

BRINGING IN THE EVIDENCE by NOEL KING

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Mia Alvar, In the Country (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015). 347pp.

“I actually didn’t know I was writing a book about class and labor until almost every review described it that way.” – Mia Alvar quoted in Sophie Nguyen’s Conversation with Mia Alvar ‘00 in Harvard Magazine (7th August, 2015)

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Reading through this hugely impressive debut collection of stories set variously in the Philippines, Bahrain, and the USA, I found myself recalling a moment in the mid-1960s, from my early teens in Newcastle, NSW, Australia, when my mother was driving me to a Saturday morning football game in our 1950 F.J. Holden. The car had come with my stepfather, a carpenter-joiner whom my mother had married in 1961 after raising two boys as a single, widowed, working mum over a period of eight years.

For whatever reason, aged twelve or so, I had suddenly become strongly aware of class difference and social status while living a very happy, working class life, safe, carefree, sporty. I said to my mother that morning that since we were a bit early there was no need to drop me exactly at the sports oval (where much newer cars would be dropping off my teammates), just somewhere nearby would be fine. Of course she wouldn’t hear of that and drove me precisely where I needed to be.

A few years later we acquired a second-hand 1964 Holden E.H. Hydramatic, a much more impressive vehicle, and from then on I was very happy to be dropped off anywhere in our car. Years later the F.J. Holden would become a collectors’ car (as would the E.H. in a later period) but that retro-fetish moment had yet to arrive and the F.J. was just a very old car.

In the Country caused me to wonder, at what age do these debilitating class and status attitudes set in? Alvar’s stories explore, in superb prose, sundry awkward emotional moments of embarrassment and evasion, difficult issues concerning social class, the value and dignity of one’s occupation – whatever form of work is entailed – and one’s sense of self, with legitimate senses of pride and achievement coming up against overweening delusional pride and misconceptions of self. The stories probe questions of honour, respect and filial duty and the precise circumstances under which a person’s presumed constant attitude of obligation to family might reasonably be expected to be normative, and under what circumstances it might be withdrawn.

The stories are totally accomplished at all levels, from the micro ‘level of the sentence,’ as practitioners and some literary critics like to phrase it, and at the more macro level of narrative through-line, deft complications of plotting, gradual revelations of back-story, astute temporal shifts, all concerning an array of utterly engaging characters from all social levels. Alvar’s stories show her to be a perfect deployer of what Roland Barthes once called “le petit fait vrai,” the small, emblematic, quotidian detail that results in what we used to call “the realistic-effect” (to prove that we knew writing was a representational system composed of various codes and conventions that had various ways of luring us in to a fictional world.) As they bring to life their varied characters and locales, the stories also recall the great phrase Jean-Luc Godard once used to describe what he felt was the obligation of film, whether fictional or documentary, an act of “bringing in the evidence.”

Among the wonderful array of characters and narrators on offer in In the Country are: a US white Wonder Bread model visiting the Philippines for a photography shoot, recalling her time with a half Filipino fellow model flatmate who has died; male overseas Filipino workers in Bahrain; a prominent political Filipino figure working in the US as a public service official. In every story sharp dialogue exchanges see confrontations played out and invidious truths told, but equally often we encounter a character’s private, unstated thoughts, reproaches, observations. Accusations are held back out of a given character’s sense of family loyalty and remembered rules of “bienséance.” In these cases, the reader becomes the only person privy to a character’s capacity for self-control, and ability to grudgingly bite the tongue in order to allow a social milieu’s traditional protocols of respect, deference, and politeness to be upheld. In these instances devastating moments of critique and revelation are not uttered to another character who monumentally deserves a serve for delusional, self-obsessed behaviour. In “The Virgin of Monte Ramon,” the mother self-presents as a Filipino version of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, or perhaps the Maggie Smith character in Gosford Park, that familiar image of someone who has known better, more wealthy, fêted, beautiful days, and has absolutely no interest in cutting her cloth to suit her current straitened economic circumstances. In this story, the heart-breaking revelation of the real circumstances that caused the condition of the wheelchair-confined young male narrator, the tragic, distant, historical event that has blighted this family and which underpins the grotesque daily household façade, comes from the long-suffering, selfless G.P. Dr Delacruz who, for decades, has tried to help this household and its occupants. All his young life our narrator has recognised that “it was not so easy to name my status. How should I explain the fine house, and the servants who were sometimes paid in bowls or jewels to maintain it?” Of Dr Delacruz, he says, “I felt sure that he knew the truth but was too gallant to expose my mother.”

Into this lonely boy’s compromised life comes an angel named Annelise, the daughter whose mother, also named Annelise, has been doing domestic work in his house. The Annelise family comes from a nearby ravine shantytown, which has no electricity. Young Annelise saves the young lad from his loneliness and provides him with a vision of how to survive in the face of everyday jokes about his crippled body. She also surprises him and all their classmates by not bowing to Sister Carol’s chastising of her for her classroom behaviour: “I’d never heard a child speak to adults with such boldness, or stand almost with pride while being disciplined.” This image of a strong, young female whose courage and eloquence seem way beyond her years, is reported to us by this more demure, infinitely less self-assertive male friend. And, come story’s end, their friendship endures.

 

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Mia Alvar. Photo by Michael Lionstar

If in some of these stories it is the reader alone who learns the true shape of diegetic events by eavesdropping on the heroically repressed, exasperated thoughts and musings of thoroughly honourable, hardworking souls, happily, on other occasions these same Filipino rules of politesse are challenged forcefully, often by feisty young women who have no time whatsoever for unearned expectations of the continuance of inter-generational power relations, familial or non-familial, nor for the domineering, even abusive, expectation that an institutional arrangement (as in the classroom teaching situation alluded to above) should always prevail on its own terms. History has taught this younger generation that there is nothing to be gained from continuing obeisance, as this remark from “Shadow Families” indicates: “Our mothers’ sad, hard lives had taught us just how much a man’s good looks and silky voice were worth.”

“Legends of the White Lady” tells the story of two flatmate friends and models, alluded to earlier, who travel from New York to Manila on a job. The Manila setting allows all kinds of conversations working from the white female US model’s perspective that presumes anyone living in Manila would jump at the chance to blow that town and go Stateside, only to find these unthinking first-world expectations contradicted at almost every point.

Each of Alvar’s stories establishes some sort of dialogue – muted or explicit – between the Philippines and an overseas setting (Bahrain, US). Where is the right place to be? If you go to the US, as so many university educated Filipinos have done on various US scholarships (Fulbrights, etc), what is your relation to the politics and culture of the land you have left? “Old Girl” presents a portrait of a supportive, indulgent, clear-eyed wife of a Filipino public servant who has been given a job in the US, far from the political uncertainties of the Philippines. While they and their children clearly benefit from the privilege and safety of this first-world posting, a conversation with the home country remains, stated and unstated, about the thought of return, a wondering whether any authentic Filipino cultural-political life could be lived outside one’s country of origin. For much of the story the husband is training to run a marathon at an age when he shouldn’t be running anywhere and eventually he is diverted from this self-imposed grand-standing desire, but not before all the family has been drawn into this vanity, prompting the wonderful wife to muse, “She’s thinking how a marathon is like a marriage: the long haul, the ups and downs, the tests of endurance and faith, the humbling, undiscovered country.”

Among the other stories we have a terrific, sad scrutiny of a Filipino male’s situation working in Bahrain, a man whose sexual drive and slightly reckless way of being in the world is always threatening his safety anywhere, but certainly in a country which has strict rules about such matters. “Esmeralda” is a beautiful story, told in second-person against the tragedy that was 9/11. It outlines a brief encounter, an equal exchange of erotic, emotional, intellectual simpatico-ness achieved in an unequal context where a Filipino cleaning woman is working in the Twin Tower offices of a businessman whose wife is dying of cancer. The two find a brief and profound tenderness together. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City was told in second-person and I suspect McInerney got that idea from the start of Don DeLillo’s Running Dog as much as from any then-contemporary beer commercial. McInerney reviewed some of DeLillo’s early novels, up to the publication of White Noise and so he would have been drawn to the opening sentences of Running Dog: “You won’t find ordinary people here. Not after dark, on these streets, under the ancient warehouse canopies. Of course you know this. This is the point. It’s why you’re here, obviously.”

The title story of In the Country visits one of the major topics and challenges of contemporary Philippine writing, the era of the Marcos regime, martial law, student protests, arrests, imprisonments, deaths. Alvar’s story focuses on the question of the extent to which one can always oppose all things tyrannical and draconian, continuing to act on the lifetime-held, second-nature convictions of a male investigative journalist when such political activism could put one’s wife and child at risk. It was precisely this political-investigative-journalist persona that initially attracted the young female Communications student, leading to their living together and having a butterball son, and later a daughter, together. Alvar’s perfectly orchestrated temporal shifts back and forward move the reader around different years (1986, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985) from this defining moment in Philippine political history and across this couple’s long relationship until an absolutely devastating conclusion is handed down.

New York writer Jane DeLynn once said the way she worked her way into a new novel was by experimenting with phrases and word clusters until she eventually found “sentences that can lead me someplace.” In Mia Alvar’s collection of stories we encounter beautiful sentences that have enabled this writer to range across a compelling array of locales pertaining to Filipino experience as overseas workers, as diasporically displaced, as economic migrants/émigrés, and as Filipinos who did not leave, who stayed on, stayed at home. With these sentences Alvar has found, abundantly, a way to take her readers to some very confronting psycho-geographical places, unflinchingly presenting the myriad difficulties – personal, social-political, sexual, economic – of life in these locales.

French historian Michel de Certeau once used the phrase, “arts de faire,” which carried the two meanings of an art or craft of making-creating, and also an art of getting by/making do. It is as if Mia Alvar has created a fictional universe in which those two meanings occupy the centre of the everyday lives of her characters. But the final miracle of this collection is that, while always respecting the realities of these oftentimes hard, sad, troubled lives and their social contexts, the author does not allow the last word be one of despair and miserablism. Instead we encounter an array of beguiling, admirable characters who have found ways of surviving and prevailing.

This compelling debut so fully displays the writer’s remarkable talents for all aspects of storytelling that readers of In the Country will really be hanging out for Alvar’s next collection of stories or her first novel.

See also: Noelani Piters, The Rumpus Interview with Mia Alvar, The Rumpus (July 29th, 2015)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1886), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.

 

CP Goes to the Philippines: Manila Noir (a review)

MANILA: A WOMAN OF MYSTERY, A FEMME FATALE

by NOEL KING

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Manila Noir ed. Jessica Hagedorn (New York: Akashic Books, 2013)

WHILE THINKING about what to mention in this review it occurred to me to contact Akashic Books much as, a few years ago, I had contacted a number of small-independent presses in Australia, the UK and the US (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Scribe, Serpent’s Tail, Bitter Lemon, Steerforth Press, Dennis McMillan Publications) to try to get a sense of how they managed to continue, even thrive, in a much-changed world of conglomerate publishing. In the case of Akashic, their sequence of City-Suburb Noir books was a sub-series among their various other publications. Already fifty-six Noir titles had been published, with a further fifteen announced on the inside cover of Manila Noir. So far, twenty-nine US cities or places within cities (e.g. New York has Wall Street Noir, Manhattan Noir, Brooklyn Noir) were represented. Some cities or suburbs had generated two volumes (Los Angeles, DC, San Francisco) while Brooklyn had generated three volumes, perhaps because of the number of writers who live there rather than the amount of noirish activity. And so far eighteen non-US countries had figured.

So I emailed Akashic Books’ Johanna Ingalls and asked if she could provide any information on how the series was going, more specifically, what size the print-runs were, and whether any particular titles were doing better than others. Her kind response outlined aspects of Akashic’s strategy with this series:

The better selling anthologies in the series have sold to date (and continue to sell) in the range of 20,000—35,000, including Boston Noir edited by Dennis Lehane, Los Angeles Noir edited by Denise Hamilton, Brooklyn Noir edited by Tim McLoughlin, DC Noir edited by George Pelecanos. To date not one volume has lost any money which is pretty remarkable from a series of short stories published by a small, independent company. Print runs vary greatly depending on size of market and also if there are some famous authors and/or editor. The low end would be about 3,500 for a first print run, though many start out several thousand higher and we often do multiple printings—Boston Noir is in its 6th printing. We sometimes solicit editors to work on an anthology with us (i.e. we approached Dennis Lehane and asked him to edit our Boston volume as we couldn’t think of a more perfect person for the job!), but at this point, many of the editors approach us as fans of the series and with ideas for their home city/state/region. We do hope to add additional Asian and African cities.

FOR MANILA NOIR, let’s start with malls or shopping-towns, those social spaces described so superbly by Don DeLillo in White Noise (1984), locales that seem distinctly American, especially when we remember how well Minnesota’s “biggest mall in America” worked to attract Japanese tourists to come to shop, play golf, and have an entire holiday in a quite circumscribed venue. Cultural analysts see such malls as continuing the tradition of the grand nineteenth century European arcades identified by Walter Benjamin as perfect locales for the flâneur to stroll around and practise his arts of observation. It is well known that the flâneur has a direct line to the role of the detective, so perhaps we should not be surprised to find malls, crime and noir fitting together.

Former Adelaide-based sociological researcher of youth, subcultures and crime, the late Mike Presdee, coined the phrase “proletarian shopping” to characterise the way young people accessed shopping towns in Elizabeth, Adelaide, a working class suburb to which a great many English migrants (“ten pound poms”) were sent upon arrival in South Australia. In his participant-observation-Birmingham-School-of-Contemporary-Cultural-Studies-style-work, Presdee observed how unemployed youths managed to spend lengthy periods of time in these vast social spaces, occasionally being moved on by shopping centre security officers when it became apparent that they were not a demographic with the kind of discretionary income hoped for by shops in such centres. It’s one thing to deliberately construct a system of moving people up levels in such a way that they must walk past endless arrays of shops in order to reach the next escalator to take them to the next floor, it’s quite another to know what to do with people who are being so moved with no money in their pockets, who are there to be in air conditioning on a blazing hot Adelaide day, or for warmth in winter.

Two stories in Manila Noir are set in malls, one—the terrific opening story, ‘Aviary,’ by Lysley Tenorio—is set in Greenbelt Mall in Makati, and the other—Gina Apostol’s ‘The Unintended’—is set in Ali Mall, Cubao, that mall’s name a legacy of the famous 1975 Ali-Frazier ‘Thrilla in Manila’ boxing match. In ‘Aviary’ a group of poor, disenfranchised youths go “proletarian shopping” as their way of protesting about a sign that allegedly says, “poor people and other realities” are not welcome at the mall. Dressed in their best possible clothing—black “Polo shirts and corduroys, our only good clothes, the outfits we wear to baptisms and funerals”—they roam the mall, amazed at the prices of even the least expensive items, and ask storekeepers where are the heads of headless mannequins, always being told to move on. Having “heard that an aviary once stood on the land Greenbelt now occupies,” they have brought with them dead birds found in the suburb where they live and, in one of the mall’s expensive bag shops, they “drop a dead bird into the smallest compartment of each travel bag, one by one.”

Their non-shopping continues. “We leave Louis Vuitton behind, continue through Greenbelt 4, passing stores with nonsensical names—BVLGARI, BOTTEGA, VENETTA—and others that sound like a sneeze—GUCCI, Jimmy Choo,” and having “breathed enough of the Greenbelt air,” they exit only to encounter “a domelike structure resembling the top half of a UFO.” The structure is the Greenbelt Chapel. “A place for worship between shopping.” Adventitiously encountered, it provides the perfect spot for them to leave their final mark. Under a church pew they carefully place “a segment of metal pipe wrapped with blue and red wire, with a cell-phone duct-taped to it.” The bomb is fake and will not detonate but upon discovery its effect will “have created unease here, severe emotional distress, a disturbance they will not soon forget.”

In ‘The Unintended,’ Gina Apostol runs together an exploration of “the first multilevel shopping mall in the Philippines,” a structure “that rises in tribute to Muhammad Ali’s victory” over Joe Frazier on October 1st, 1975. Two female characters engage warily with one another, Magsalin, our ostensible narrator, and Chiara, daughter of a filmmaker father who made, also in 1975, a cult film whose description runs together bits of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather films with aspects of Philippine history. The story entails parent-child relations, cinephilia, ideas of translation, but always the looming presence of the mall presides. Its first description is unflattering: “During the best of times Ali Mall is a decrepit, cramped cement block of shops hosting Rugby glue sniffers, high school truants, and depressed carnival men on break. It was built in 1976, a paean to the Thrilla in Manila, which took place directly across the street at the Araneta Coliseum in Cubao.” As a result we learn that Cubao now carries the trace of Frazier’s destroyed boxing career at the same time as it offers “the omen of Ali’s shambling shadow. Cubao heralds an incommunicable fall.” As Magsalin wanders the mall “in a daze” she notices that it is “now quite modern, practically Singaporean,” yet there is “a schizoid confabulation between the new upscale fixtures, such as the gleaming escalators and neon in the food court, which now looks like a strip club, and the ratty hair accessories wrapped in dusty plastic that seem to have been in the Cardam chain of shoe shops since they opened in 1976.” Since a central “motif of the renovated Ali Mall is a series of commissioned portraits of a boxer framed in glass at strategic points, like altars,” Magsalin seeks out all the Ali images in the mall and while recognising that “the corporate intention of co-opting the Greatest in order to shill shoes is obvious,” still, all these “reflexive signifiers, most of them tacky, are not tongue-in-cheek. They are serious gestures of veneration.”

In his most recent novel, Others of Our Kind (2013), Phoenix-based James Sallis (Drive) creates a central female character who was abducted as a child, kept in appalling circumstances by her abductor-abuser until one day she escapes into the secret spaces of a shopping mall where she lives many years as a kind of wild child. Eventually she is returned to what for her will never be “normal life,” studies successfully at university, and later proves to be a brilliant news editor at a small-town TV station. One day a cop comes calling, possessed of knowledge of her past, to ask if she will help with a case of a shockingly abused young woman they have just found. And so the story moves along and we get more information about this kind of child-kidnapping and abuse.

At the same time as he pursues this narrative line Sallis explains that the era of the “biggest mall in America” alluded to above is now past: “Malls, a long piece in today’s Washington Post makes official, are on their way out, have been so for some time, in fact… High vacancy rates, low consumer traffic, a shift toward renovation of the central city, big-box stores such as Fry’s Electronics and Walmart, all have taken their toll.”

Hundreds of malls lie “empty, gutted, abandoned.” Roofs are “ripped off, sidewalks, canals, and palm trees laid in, town houses or apartment blocks added, select malls are being reworked by developers into quirky small villages. Interestingly enough, the first American malls were intended to resemble just that.”

As depicted in Manila Noir, Manila’s malls have yet to reach this historical point; they still inhabit a time of refurbishment, expansion, of building newer, larger malls. To this extent they resemble the Bangkok malls described by Lawrence Osborne in Bangkok Days (2009), his wonderful account of many years spent in that city:

I often went wandering through the neon of Wireless Road or the electronics market at Pantip Plaza—a fine place to stroll around at night because it retains the energy of the daylight hours… the intensity of the neons stacked around several floors stung the eyes, and the words they projected meant nothing: Kensington, Epson, Zest Interactive, Hardware House. The plaza (actually a vertical mall in which the floors are stacked on top of one another) is a hip hangout for the young, who flock there at night to see and be seen…

In another mall where youth collect at night, the Siam Center—which is devoted to the cause of fashion—I noticed that the illuminated English ad panels were even more textual. It was as if the present age needed to bring certain thoughts and expressions to the surface, and that these needed to be as aphoristic as possible. Like the strange assertions that might adorn a temple or church, these were lit up like holy text, and were just as enigmatic.

In her excellent introduction to Manila Noir, editor-contributor Jessica Hagedorn describes Manila as “a woman of mystery, a femme fatale.” Lest we think this characterisation too cute or too pat, she expands on the analogy: “Sexy, complicated, and tainted by a dark and painful past, she’s not to be trusted. And why should she be? She’s been betrayed time and time again, invaded, plundered, raped, and pillaged, colonized for nearly four hundred years by Spain and fifty years by the United States, brutally occupied from 1942 to 1945 by the Japanese army, bombed and pretty much decimated by Japanese and US forces during an epic, month-long battle in 1945.” Shorter than a travel guide, and spot on.

Six of Manila Noir’s fourteen contributors are women and they provide some of the strongest pieces in this impressive collection of stories. Most of the contributors have a publishing presence beyond this collection, many have published other books or graphic novels, in some cases very many. In addition, many contributors are multiply nominated for literary awards and several are multiply awarded, so it’s a strong team assembled here. Several contributors blend meta-fictional strategies (offering alternative endings to the “same” story, shifting across different point-of-view perspectives within the “one” story) with the inherited, enabling conventions of noir, but in this case noir realised in a city beautifully described by Hagedorn as “one of the wildest cities on the planet.” Her comment finds support in some words from Manila-based novel The Tesseract by Alex Garland (author of The Beach): “Manila changed most of the people it touched… Nothing to do with coming of age or prices paid. Just the dark city.”

Mention of Garland’s novel reminds me that many Anglo-Australian readers might be familiar with some other non-Filipino fiction set in Manila, such as William Marshall’s Manila Bay (1986) and Whisper (1988), and the eminent non-fiction writer James Hamilton-Paterson’s novel Ghosts of Manila (1994). One immediate function of Manila Noir is that readers like me, who have no expertise whatever in respect of Philippine fiction, will become acquainted with a batch of indigenous (even if sometimes diasporic) Filipino writers.

Hagedorn’s contribution touches many noir bases, exploiting tropes that come with the turf of ‘Old Money’ (the story’s title) such as fallen circumstances, a bed-ridden matriarch, and the next generation with their contemporary clubs and drugs. Characters are permitted nice lines of metaphor mixed with historical summary. We are offered two endings (consistent with the ambiguity, “openness” and multiplicity exhibited elsewhere in the collection) and the final line returns us to quintessential noir terrain as rain comes.

Another female contributor, F. H. (“Ichi”) Batacan, wrote a terrific short first novel called Smaller and Smaller Circles. Published by the University of Philippines Press, it won the 1999 Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for the English novel, the National Book Award in 2002 and the Madrigal-Gonzalez Award in 2003 and is regarded as “unique in the Philippine literary scene—a Pinoy detective novel.” Purely in terms of analogy and orientation towards a national writing unfamiliar to most Australians, not at all meaning to indicate imitation, think of the start of Gorky Park plus something from Brazilian Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza in one of his “Espinosa” books plus perhaps a touch of Henning Mankell, and you’ll have some sense of how the novel lures you in. The main investigative character is compelling, a fifty-something Jesuit priest who is also a forensic pathologist (Father Augusto Saenz) who has a younger, equally engaging Jesuit priest working alongside him (thirty-seven year old Father Jeremy Lucero), as they investigate a series of deaths of young boys, each death accompanied by facial disfiguration. Batacan’s story in Manila Noir, ‘Comforter of the Afflicted,’ finds Father Saenz investigating a different type of death, and it is a delight to encounter him again. Batacan has been contracted by New York’s Soho Press to deliver an expanded version of Smaller and Smaller Circles. The manuscript is completed (the original 155 pages or so now extended by more than half) and will be published in the US in 2014. It’s nice to know that soon a wider readership will encounter these beguiling Jesuit priest-investigators.

Two other contributors, Jose Dalisay and Rosario Cruz-Lucero, hold Professorial positions at the University of the Philippines, where they teach, respectively, English and Creative Writing, and Philippine Studies and Creative Writing. Dalisay’s personal-political history saw him caught up with the vicissitudes of politics in the Philippines. He was arrested and imprisoned for seven months in 1973 after participating in student politics in the early 1970s. Ferdinand Marcos imposed Martial Law from 1972 to 1981 as a tactic to protect his own rule rather than protecting the situation of his people. Many Filipinos were killed, imprisoned or sent into exile during this period.

Dalisay has published several other novels and has received many awards and nominations. For many years he wrote screenplays for various Philippine filmmakers, but especially for Lino Brocka. His second novel, Soledad’s Sister (2008), opens with a casket arriving at Manila airport, allegedly containing the body of a certain woman, one of more than six hundred overseas Filipino workers who come back to the Philippines as corpses each year. “On a cloud-curtained evening, one Saturday in August, a corpse arrived in a zinc casket in a wooden crate at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, 237 kilometres west of Paez.” Of course the woman in the casket is not the woman in question and so Walter, a suitably morose, put-upon police officer who goes methodically about his daily routines, sporadically recalling details of how his wife and child left him to go to England four or five years ago—his son was then only nine years old—is called upon to initiate routine administrative work that later will become investigative adventure. Dalisay has a sure grasp of the mechanics of noir-investigative fiction and uses it deftly to interlace aspects of Philippine reality, whether it concerns the down-side of the fact that overseas Filipino workers (overwhelmingly female) contribute tens of billions of dollars to the basket-case Philippine economy, or the crucial presence of music in Philippine culture, or the distinctiveness of regional places and spaces outside metropolitan Manila. Dalisay’s contribution to Manila Noir, ‘The Professor’s Wife,’ is a “campus story” and it too has a great opening: “Someone died in this car I’m driving. That’s why I got it so cheap.” A postgraduate I chatted with briefly at the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines, where Dalisay’s story is set, told me that Dalisay, in his capacity as Professor of Creative Writing, once set that first sentence—”Someone died in this car”—as an exercise in one of his Creative Writing classes.

Cruz-Lucero’s work combines oral history, feminism and socialist perspectives. She has done a lot of research into the history of labour, struggle and storytelling in Negros. She is soon to embark on a history of Philippine Noir. Her story in this collection draws on the Imelda Marcos period of building various kinds of “cultural projects,” one of which is Casa Manila in Intramuros, a kind of Disney-post-modern structure that offers a “replica of a nineteenth century Hispanic House” built in 1979. Tourist-visitors can see the grandeur of this house and also see shantytowns, thereby experiencing “the cross-section of Manila without the muck and stench and danger.” Cruz-Lucero’s story figures the past of plantations and exploitation, and a contemporary moment of ruined buildings or buildings altered to become offices and schools to cater to a transient population. Isabella and Elias, childhood friends, encounter one another again in this Disney world, and revisit the moment from their childhood involving the Davao Death Squad assassination of Isabella’s father, for which act Elias was a suspect.

One contributor to this volume, Sabina Murray, has an Australian connection, having been raised here and in the Philippines, although she now seems very settled in the US, like several other contributors to Manila Noir, six of whom work or hold teaching positions in San Francisco, New York, or elsewhere on the US East Coast. Murray has published several acclaimed novels since her initial novel, Slow Burn (1990) which applied some lessons from Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz to a contemporary Philippine context of wealthy young things angsting, drinking and drugging and hanging out in night clubs. Her contribution here is stylish and elusive in all the right ways.

In short, this excellent collection has something for every reader’s interest. Kajo Baldisimo has a “day job drawing storyboards for Manila’s top TV commercial directors” and he combines with Budjette Tan (“creative director by day, copywriter by night, comic book writer after midnight”) to create Trese, a fetching and feisty graphic novel heroine. Trese won the Best Graphic Literature Award at the 2009 and 2012 Philippine National book Awards and there are now five books in the series. Other Manila Noir contributions involve tender tales of transvestites, manic-edgy stories involving car crashes, long-delayed familial revenge killings, murder by eye piercing after arguments about whether someone is scamming/skimming while dealing shabu (meth). So there is plenty of Philippine Noir to go around.

[This review originally appeared in Contrappasso: Noir Issue (2013)]

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1886), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.

Online series: Contrappasso Goes to the Philippines

15090916841_4f28edd42e_o copyContrappasso has a special relationship with the literature of the Philippines through the enthusiasms of our frequent contributor and occasional guest editor Noel King. Now we welcome you to a special online series of pieces – many published here for the first time – that journey through the contemporary Filipino literary scene.

We will feature in-depth reviews of recent books, interviews with key writers, short stories and novel extracts, as well as Noel King’s presentations at the Sixth International Philippine Literature Conference held in Davao, Mindanao on September 20-21, 2015.

Stayed tuned as Contrappasso Goes to the Philippines.

EDITED BY NOEL KING & MATTHEW ASPREY GEAR

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[Header image: Pasig City by Yacine Petitprez. Image altered. Reproduced under a CC licence.]

Online only: ‘Dingoes’ by Barry Gifford

Barry Gifford’s work has previously appeared in our Noir and Writers at the Movies special issues. We now present an excerpt from Gifford’s forthcoming book, The Cuban Club, to be published in New York by Seven Stories Press / Random House in the Spring of 2017.

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DINGOES

by BARRY GIFFORD

Roy liked to ride his bike up to Indian Boundary Park to look at the dingoes. There was a little outdoor zoo with a variety of smaller animals at the northern edge of the park, among them llamas, monkeys, ostriches and a patchy-furred, old brown bear. But it was the wild dogs of Australia that interested Roy the most. The dingoes were feisty, beige- or dun-colored knee-high canines that constantly fought among themselves and bared their fangs at the zoogoers who stared at them for more than a few seconds. Roy wondered why dogs were in a zoo, even supposedly wild ones. He guessed that in Australia dingoes ran in packs across a vast desert in the western part of the continent. He’d read about Australia in his fourth grade geography book which only mentioned dingoes in passing; most of the information about fauna in Australia was about kangaroos.

“Nasty little critters, aren’t they?” a man said to Roy. “Now they’re cooped up in this hoosegow.”

Both Roy and the man were standing in front of the dingo enclosure on a cloudy day in August. Roy was nine years old and the man looked to Roy to be in his thirties or forties. Roy straddled his bicycle and watched and listened to the dingoes nip and yip at one another.

“The cage is too small for them,” Roy said. “They need to be out running around in a desert.”

The man was only slightly taller than Roy and thin with a grayish-brown mustache. He lit a cigarette then flicked the match through the bars at the dingoes.

“Wild dogs,” the man said. “In China they’d be beaten to death. They’ve got police squads over there that do nothin’ but run down stray dogs and club ’em over the head, then throw the bodies in a pile and burn ’em.”

“These dogs are from Australia,” said Roy. “They’re not domesticated.”

The man gave a little laugh with a hiccup in the middle of it. Roy had never heard anyone with a strange laugh like that before.

“Pretty fancy word you got there, kid. Domesticated. You learn that one in school?”

“Dingoes aren’t meant to be pets,” Roy said.

“Neither is that fat, scabby bear,” said the man. “He shouldn’t be in durance vile, either. These cages here are like cells in the Chateau d’If.”

“What’s that?” Roy asked.

“Prison island off the coast of Marseilles, in France. Like Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. Nobody escapes from there.”

“These animals can’t escape from here, either. You seen the Chateau Deaf? Is it for deaf criminals?”

“Nope. It’s d’If, not deaf. Name of the island is If. I read about it in The Count of Monte Cristo, a novel by Alexandre Dumas. Man named Edmond Dantes gets put away for life but after sixteen years digs a tunnel to the sea and swims away.”

“I thought you said nobody escapes from there.”

“Not in real life they don’t. The Count of Monte Cristo is a story takes place in the nineteenth century. Edmond Dantes is an innocent man and after he gets out he finds a treasure a dying inmate at the Chateau d’If told him about and changes his name to Monte Cristo before taking revenge on the three wrong customers who were responsible for having him take the fall for a crime he didn’t commit.”

The man dropped his butt then lit up another cig and again flicked his match at the dingoes.

“How come you’re not in school, kid?”

“Summer vacation.”

“I’m kind of on vacation, too.”

Roy looked at the man again: his pale blue shirt had dark brown stains on it, as did his khaki trousers. When the man turned his head Roy saw that his left ear was missing; there was only a misshapen lump of skin where an ear should have been.

Roy climbed onto his bicycle seat and started to ride away but the man took hold of the handlebars with both of his hands.

“If you’re clever,” said the man, “you won’t ever let anybody take advantage of you.”

“What’s that mean?”

“There are evil spirits haunt this earth who beguile good men and women and render them useless.”

Not only was the man missing an ear but Roy noticed the mean-looking red and blue-black scar that ran almost the entire length of his hairline.

“I’ve got to go, mister. Let go of my bike.”

The man released the handlebars, removed his cigarette from the right corner of his mouth and flicked it into the dingo cage.

As he was riding Roy remembered his grandfather telling him to listen carefully to what even crazy people said because the information might be useful later. When he got home Roy would ask him what in durance vile meant.

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barrygifford.com

Copyright © by Barry Gifford, 2015. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the author.

[Header image: Château d’If by Ralf Smallkaa @flickr. Unmodified. Reproduced under this CC licence.]