CP Goes to the Philippines: Featured author Lourd Ernest H. de Veyra

interphoto_1335243333

LOURD ERNEST H. DE VEYRA by NOEL KING

Lourd Ernest H. de Veyra is a Filipino poet, musician, novelist, journalist working in radio and TV, blogger, and activist. He graduated in Journalism from University of Santo Tomas and his first volume of poetry, Subterranean Thought Parade was published by Manila’s Anvil Publications in 1998, in a dual edition book with fellow Filipino poet, Ramil Digal Gulles, whose section was called The 25th Fly. De Veyra’s second volume of poetry, Shadow Boxing in Headphones, appeared in 2001, from University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, as did his third volume, Insectissimo!, in 2011. His first novel, Super Panalo Sounds!, about a rock band and the Pinoy music scene more generally and mythically, came out in 2011 from University of Santo Tomas Publishing House. Two collections of his blogging at Spot.ph.blog have been published, both from Summit Press in Mandaluyong City, The Best of This is a Crazy Planets (2011) and This is a Crazy Planets 2 (2013). In 2014 Summit published Lourd de Veyra’s Little Book of Speeches and in the same year Anvil Press published his book on drinking and food, Espiritu.

He has won the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature, the Free Press Literary Award, and the inaugural National Commission for Culture and the Arts Writers’ Prize for Poetry. In 1999 he formed the jazz-rock band Radioactive Sago Project, which blends spoken-word poetry, bebop jazz and punk.

We are reprinting de Veyra’s poem ‘Fat Elvis in Kamias’ as the final installment of our Contrappasso Goes to the Philippines online special. And here is a gallery of book covers:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

CP Goes to the Philippines: World Publishing Today by Noel King

3705029690_7680c98fe3_b

WORLD PUBLISHING TODAY by NOEL KING

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.

“Most trends in the book industry are accompanied by countervailing ones. As the conglomerates get bigger there is a new optimism among enterprising independent houses … who believe that they can offer distinctive titles that the giants, with their concentration on the mass market, overlook.” – Nicholas Clee, “End of the Book Postponed,” Prospect Magazine 135 (June 2007).

“Sales of physical books rose in the UK for the first time since 2007, with Nielsen BookScan figures for January-November up 5.4 per cent on the previous year. Add to this the British chain Waterstone’s pulling unwanted Kindles from its shelves and Amazon opening a bricks and mortar bookshop and it did seem like the future might not be entirely digital after all. The stuff of fantasy? We will see.” – Lorien Kite, “Books of 2015,” Financial Times Weekend (28-29 November, 2015).

I

First, it’s both an honour and a pleasure to be participating in the Sixth Philippine International Literary Festival, the first to be held outside Manila, here in Davao, Mindanao. This admirable, conscious attempt to shift a little the Manila-centric literary-cultural viewpoint to include other, more distant regions of the Philippines certainly resonates with me and my presentation today.

“I come from the land down under,” Australia, with a population of 24 million, most of whom are clustered in capital cities on Australia’s coastline, or if somewhat inland, on a river. In Australia the publishing industry is concentrated in our largest city, Sydney, where I live, and in our second-largest city, Melbourne. Sydney is said to be the home of international, conglomerate publishing while Melbourne is said to have more small-independent presses (Rosenbloom, 2007). The one exception to that account of Melbourne is that Penguin Australia is located in Ringwood, an alcohol-free suburb of Melbourne.

There is a history of cultural rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne whereby Sydney, with its warmer weather, lovely beaches, its obsessive relationship with real estate and money, is regarded as some kind of aspirational L.A. whereas Melbourne – quite recently voted the “most liveable city in the world” – is regarded as more intellectual, more cultural, certainly possessed of more venues for live music. At one point this civic rivalry was cast in terms of “St Petersburg vs. Tinseltown,” and I will leave it to you to decide which designation goes where.

A few weeks ago Sydney was listed as the third most expensive city in the world to live in, coming up a couple of places from its fifth place of several years ago. Real estate prices are very, very high, as accordingly is rental accommodation, and the everyday cost of living is very expensive. All for no particular reason, beyond opportunity and avarice. Even so, a former Labor Party Prime Minister, Paul Keating, once said, “If you’re not living in Sydney, you’re camping out.”

Further afield from this Sydney-Melbourne duelling capital city duo are three other capital cities, each of which has a significant role to play in Australia’s literary-cultural life. Adelaide, South Australia, now home to South African Nobel Prize Winner, J. M. Coetzee, likes it made known that its original settlement included no convicts, unlike the rest of Australia’s white settlement origins as an English penal colony. Frequently described as a “city of parks and churches,” it boasts a longish tradition of being very cultural, with an International Writers’ Festival, a Fringe Arts Festival, a World Music festival, film festivals, and the South Australian Film Commission, which was a crucial part of Australia’s revived feature filmmaking industry in the early 1970s, producing films such as Sunday Too Far Away, Gallipoli, and Storm Boy. It also has a history of enlightened political lawmaking. It was the first Australian state to legislate against rape in marriage. And it was at the University of Adelaide that Miguel Syjuco completed the PhD that would result in his 2008 Man Asian Prize-winning novel, Ilustrado (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

6905480

Stepping further westward, across the long expanse of the Nullarbor, we reach Perth, Western Australia. Perth is a four and one half hour plane ride for those people who aren’t camping out, who are living in Sydney, and is home to celebrated Filipina Rose Hancock and also to Janet Holmes à Court. It is the home state of former Labor Party Prime Minister Bob Hawke, and the Labor Party Education Minister, John Dawkins, who introduced profound changes to Australia’s tertiary education system; home also to the late Alan Bond, disgraced businessman who spent some time in gaol and who will forever be admired by Australians for having, in 1983, wrested the America’s Cup yachting trophy from the US after it had spent 132 years in the New York Yacht Club’s possession. Those races were won to the tune of Men at Work singing “Land Down Under,” and this historic victory obliged the US to challenge – successfully, as it turned out – to regain the Cup by sailing in the waters just off Fremantle, near Perth. Fremantle is home to Fremantle Arts Centre Press, and is where one of Australia’s most commercially and critically successful writers, at a national and international level, lives – Tim Winton.

Fremantle Arts Centre Press was established in 1976 and has as its mission the publication of only those writers who are connected to W.A., either by having come from there, having once lived there, currently living there, or by having moved there to live. In the 1980s this proudly regional, small-independent press surprised itself by publishing two books that went on to sell a million copies apiece. First came A. B. Facey’s A Fortunate Life, a memoir of a hard-scrabble life in Australia in the first part of the twentieth century, published in 1981 and adapted for television in 1985, the money from which enabled FACP to build a warehouse to store their various titles. This TV adaptation came about when a local freelance film-TV worker, Ken Kelso, approached FACP to see if they would allow him to pitch the Facey book to TV people he knew. On the basis of the fact that he was a local they agreed and this encounter with Kelso proved doubly beneficial, leading not only to a goodly sum of money on the first day of principal photography but also to a meeting with a friend of Kelso’s who was struggling to complete her first book. Her name was Sally Morgan and the book this Western Australian Aboriginal artist-writer eventually finished with the help of FACP, My Place, published in 1987, became the press’s second million-copy seller.

The writer who got away from them, through no fault of their own, was Tim Winton whose first novel, An Open Swimmer, won the 1981 Vogel Book Award (for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under the age of thirty-five) which brings with it publication by an east coast press, Allen & Unwin in Sydney. Otherwise, it is quite likely that FACP would have published Winton, much as they published Elizabeth Jolley, who taught Winton briefly in some creative writing courses he took at Curtin University. And speaking of distances from margin to centre, it was always a delight throughout the 1980s and later to see Elizabeth Jolley, from a city deemed the most remote capital on earth, reviewing books in the Gotham-centric New York Times Book Review.

A sixty minute plane ride north of Sydney is Brisbane, capital of Queensland, and home to an important Australian press, the University of Queensland Press, which began in 1948. For many years UQP was lucky to have on its books two highly-regarded, strong-selling authors: Brisbane-born Lebanese Christian David Malouf and Melbourne-born Peter Carey. Carey used to spend time in Byron Bay, writing very successful commercial jingles for Australian television, so perhaps it was Byron Bay’s proximity to Brisbane that saw him fetch up at that press. Certainly, when he took himself elsewhere, to Balmain in Sydney, then to New York, and found other publishing outlets, UQP’s bottom line dropped dramatically, a minor version of the fluctuations experienced by London’s Bloomsbury Press in a non-Harry Potter year.

In the 1970s and 1980s, I taught at universities in Brisbane and Perth and got to know a little of the cultural-political life in each place. When it first opened in the late 1970s, Griffith University in Brisbane had an artists-in-residence scheme which saw Australian writers spend some time on the campus. Two such writers-in-residence were Steve Spears – at that time enjoying international success with his play, The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin – and Helen Garner – whose novel Monkeygrip (which was adapted into an Australian film) brought her a cultural prominence she has maintained for several decades with an output of fiction and non-fiction works. The arts section of the Sydney Morning Herald of March 2, 2016, announced that Garner had received a Yale University Windham-Campbell Prize of US $150,000 “in recognition of her non-fiction writing.”

In Perth one can still buy postcards that depict only the vast landscape of Western Australia and indicate all space east of W.A. as “unknown territory.” And W.A. and Queensland share some similarities, at least in the way they are regarded by Sydney and Melbourne as wilder, more cowboy, frontier environments than the trio of genteel states that separates them: South Australia, Victoria, N.S.W. For example, Queensland has a political history of folksy right-wing rural populism roughly analogous to the career of Huey Long in 1930s Louisiana when he was regarded, until his assassination, as a serious possibility for a tilt at the White House. Long was immortalised as Willy Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s great novel, All the King’s Men. As it happens, the favourite book of Brian Burke, disgraced politician and former Labor Premier of Western Australia, was a biography of Huey Long, so you can appreciate that the broad comparison between W.A. and Queensland and the American Deep South has some purchase. For a few years, in his early time as Premier, Burke’s manipulation of the media to convey, very successfully, his Labor party’s policies and programs made him the envy of east coast Labor Party politicians like Neville Wran, Labor Party Premier of NSW, and Paul Keating.

I’m well aware that no Filipino needs to be advised about the ways of political corruption, connivance, and compromise. Suffice to say that you are geographically proximal to Malaysia, the nation said to have perfected the first instances of credit card fraud. But as you ponder how best to establish important cultural infrastructural works in your country, from Manila to all your regional capitals and beyond, you might like to file away a remark from Huey Long, a line which so far as I recall, did not make it into Penn Warren’s novel, nor did it appear in either of the film versions: “We got graft, but we got roads. The other states, they just got graft.”

II

All I mean by this lengthy preamble is to impress upon you the fact that all Australians are well aware of what one of our historians, Geoffrey Blainey, once called “the tyranny of distance” – and that phrase describes the internal distances within our “wide brown land,” coast to shining coast, as much as it does Australia’s physical distance from its initial northern hemisphere coloniser, England (Blainey’s original point), and its later soft-power coloniser, the US, with whom we share various trade and military alliances.

For the remainder of my talk I will hurry through some features of the international publishing scene as it seems to me to be configured at the moment. I speak here as a non-expert but rather as someone who has, over the last twenty years, interviewed a number of publishers in Australia, London and the US, trying to determine how a series of small-independent presses whose books I liked, managed to survive and thrive in an industry that increasingly conducted itself in a Hollywood, conglomeratised fashion. When I was doing my interviews, probing the idea of “cultures of independence,” I used an analogy that works well up to a point: a comparison of mainstream presses and smaller-independent presses along the lines of contrasting mainstream Hollywood films, blockbusters, to smaller-independent films.

By the 1990s US trade publishing had been completely Hollywoodised. Eighty per cent of book profits came from twenty per cent of the books published. Imagine a Dickensian spread sheet along the lines of “Annual income, one pound, annual expenditure one pound and sixpence, result misery,” as we consider the fact that most films and books don’t make money. In the 1990s, as the chains – like Barnes & Noble – edged towards “superstore” status, it cost $10,000 a month to have your book displayed in the front window of the store, hoping to attract the literary gazes of passers-by. It also cost $10,000 a month to have one’s book placed within an oh-so-casually-and-carefully-disordered array of books placed in the bin just inside the store as one entered (see Lauren J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalists). The somewhat dismaying term for this act of purchasing publicity was “co-op,” a short hand term for “Co-operative advertising dollars.” Terminology aside, these strategies seemed to me very close to Hollywood’s practice of buying saturation TV ads to build what they ridiculously called “pre-awareness” of the blockbuster film about to be released.

André Schiffrin’s memoirs, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (2001) and Words and Money (2010), both published by Verso, and Jason Epstein’s The Book Business (2001) from Norton, reveal how, for quite a long time, US trade publishing functioned in a manner that seems to me very close to the model of the mature Hollywood studio system as it operated from the 1930s until the late 1950s and early 1960s. The so called Classical Hollywood studio system practised cross-subsidisation on films such that the profits on a Rin Tin Tin movie would allow the studio to make a historical drama with Bette Davis.

For much of the publishing lives of Schiffrin and Epstein, bestsellers and fastsellers by authors whose names not many of us now remember permitted a trade press to publish a big ‘L’ literary writer who would sell in vastly fewer numbers but who would be an excellent advertisement for the press’s commitment to ambitious, challenging literary writing. Think of an author like William Gaddis in the several decades of, and between, The Recognitions in 1955 and JR twenty years later.

In his pamphlet A Life With Books, Julian Barnes extols the printed book over the e-book, while acknowledging the economic lure of the latter, using the instance of his own most recent novel which was five pounds or so cheaper as an e-book. Barnes recalls a period from the late 1960s to the late 1970s when he was an avid book collector and frequenter of second-hand bookshops and storehouses with job-lots of used books, a time very different from contemporary circumstances with “the ferociously fast turnaround that modern central management imposes,” an insistence that creates a context in which “the average shelf-life of a new hardback novel – assuming it can reach a shelf in the first place –is four months.”

When those publishing conglomerates alluded to above arrived, so did an army of bean counters working out precisely how many copies of front, middle, and back-list titles were being purchased. The patrician, gentlemanly, amateur days of trade publishing were swept aside and when BookScan arrived in January 2001, to do to the book business what SoundScan had done to the record industry back in March 1991, it really was game over for earlier understandings of mainstream trade publishing.

III

US artist-essayist-writer-publisher Russell Chatham lived just outside Livingston, Montana, for almost forty years, having left California in the 1970s when it became too expensive, heading up to Montana to visit his friend Thomas McGuane. In the early 1990s Chatham founded Clark City Press, initially simply to keep in print some of his own books but soon enough he started publishing works by some of his writer friends in Montana, like Jim Harrison and James Crumley. Chatham’s press had very high-end production values and after a while found itself deeply in debt. Rather than go bankrupt or offer one cent in the dollar to his creditors Chatham interrupted Clark City’s publishing side for several years as he slowly sold enough of his backlist to pay off his creditors, and then started publishing books again.

Clark City’s debt had been incurred in part by overly optimistic claims for potential sales from sales representatives and by what Chatham called “very irresponsible buying” from the big chains, safe in the knowledge that they would be protected financially courtesy of a practice developed by Alfred A. Knopf in the Depression era of the 1930s which allowed impoverished bookstores to acquire stock with no initial upfront financial outlay, on the understanding that they would sell whatever number of books they could, and return those not sold. When this practice became industry-standard Knopf is alleged to have said, “This is insane. I call it, gone yesterday, here today.” (Chatham, 2005). (As an aside, having just finished Mia Alvar’s wonderful collection of stories, I’m very confident that the ghost of Mr Knopf will rest easy as In the Country generates very healthy sales, or “moves a lot of units,” as later locutions might put it). Hearing Russ Chatham’s reference to the hyper-optimism of his sales reps caused me to think of an excruciating scene in the Maysles Brothers great documentary, Salesman, where one of the bible salesmen stands up at a group meeting and announces how much better he will do in the coming year, how many more sales he will make. It truly is a cinematic version of the Conradian “fascination of the abomination.”

At a talk he gave in Missoula at the 2005 Montana Book Fair, Chatham provided his gloss on the Knopf “gone yesterday, here today” adage: “So you have 8,000 orders and you send out 8,000 books and you think, wow, we got it, and then a year later, 7, 999 of them come back and you’re done.”

By way of contrast England had a Net Book Agreement in place for almost one hundred years from the 1890s to 1995, and across that historical period also resisted any notion of a “sale or return” deal for booksellers. This “made for cautious ordering by bookshop managers,” as John Sutherland puts it in his little book, Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction. Since 1995 the English and U.S. systems have become very similar, as the following remarks made in 2007 by Francois Von Hurter make clear:

It’s the only business in the world where a sale isn’t a sale. You’re paying the author, let’s say, or the translator, 5,000 in advance, you’re doing this and that, and a year later your book comes out, then three months later it’s in the store, and then two years later half of the books come back, and you kind of think, who’s financing all of this? A Martian would say, you guys are nuts, and if you really look at the cash immobilised, you end up realising it’s a silly business model, but you have to do it out of love. You know what you know, and occasionally you might be lucky with a blockbuster, but it’s a work of love, it’s not a work in which you make your fortune. The only good publishing business model is that of scientific journals. There, people subscribe to very expensive journals, you don’t pay the authors anything, everyone wants to get in Nature or Science. So it’s the opposite of us. The publisher gets the money in advance from subscribers, and has source material at zero cost. That’s how those guys get rich. Michael Heseltine, he’s in that business.

IV

I will now move in a leisurely manner toward my conclusion by saying why I think the codex book will survive during the era of the e-book and the i-book, and why examples of very impressive literary work will continue to come from marginal, eccentric, unanticipated-by-the-majors areas.

First, the arrival of the e-book and the threat it posed to the codex form seems to have abated. 2014 figures report that hard-copy book sales are on the rise. The tech-head excitement that greeted the 2007 moment of Japanese cell-phone novels (keitai shousetsu) – novels composed in that medium to be read in that medium – was followed by the information that when those cell-phone fictions were published in conventional book form they accounted for 50% of Japan’s best-selling titles. And many here would remember that Stephen King’s e-book venture failed because people chose to pirate it rather than pay him the one dollar he was requesting.

So it is not self-evidently the case that a new publication medium necessarily obliterates an older medium, and writer-publisher Peter Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail press in London is sceptical about drawing too close a comparison between what has gone on with music downloads and what might happen in the book industry. In 2006, Ayrton said:

I think people in publishing are quite lucky because a book isn’t like a CD, where people will just download a couple of tracks. The concept of a CD is almost alien to my kids and their friends, they just want a couple of tracks! I can’t see people who are into books just reading a couple of chapters. They’ll want to read the whole book. So I don’t think we have to worry about the Ipodisation of reading. I think e-books will develop slowly but it will be best sellers and classics. So if you are publishing Jane Austen you might be in trouble, but I don’t think it will be the latest book by Gary Indiana or Lynne Tillman, because the kind of people who are into those books want to be able to put them into their bag or their backpack, they want to hold them, fold them, read them in bed.

The following are some relatively recent examples of critically-commercially successful books that have come from unpredicted, unanticipated spaces.

Paul Harding’s novel Tinkers won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize after having initially been published by Bellevue Press, a small press associated with New York’s oldest public hospital, attached to NYU’s Department of Medicine (this hospital is mentioned in one of the stories in In the Country). Harding’s next book, Enon (2014), was sold to Random House and here we might remember that Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain was published in 1997 by a small press (Atlantic Monthly Press), won the National Book Award in the year Don DeLillo’s Underworld was up for that award, was adapted into a big budget Hollywood film, and sold 3 million copies. After this independent success Frazier’s second book, Thirteen Moons, went to auction based on a one-page outline and fetched $8.25 million from Random House, and $3 million for the movie rights from Scott Rudin. Did we mention earlier some of the consequences of the Hollywoodisation of US trade publishing?

A second instance of eccentric publishing success concerns Melbourne-based Greek-Australian gay writer Christos Tsiolkas who published his fourth novel, The Slap, which was adapted very successfully to Australian television. The book sold 300,000 copies in Australia, where a best-seller is 30,000 copies but no UK buyer wanted the book. So Tsiolkas’s friend, the multi-talented gay Irish writer Colm Tóibín, published The Slap in his boutique press, Tuskar Rock, set up by Tóibín, his friend Peter Strauss, and Hannah Westland in 2011, and now housed with Profile books alongside Serpent’s Tail Press. Tuskar Rock had published “collectors’ editions” of some novels – Tim Winton’s Breath, 350 copies at $850.00 a pop – and Tóibín had said that Tuskar Rock was trying to tap “into the same phenomenon as people listening to vinyl records” in a digital age. At the time Tóibín said Tuskar Rock did not expect to make a lot of money from Tsiolkas’s novel: “Let’s just say that we don’t think we’ll make much money, but it’s not about losing lots of money either.” The Slap went on to sell 1.2 million copies and win the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize, at which point the larger London presses that earlier had knocked the book back, came looking to secure it, wondering how they had missed it in the first place. They had also missed another Tuskar Rock success story, Don Patterson’s volume of poetry, Rain, which sold very well. This is not quite of the order of picking J. K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript out of a waste paper basket but it is a nice example of why small, marginal, alternative publishing spaces continue to be important contributors to international literary-cultural life.

Third, a few days ago I read in The Guardian that a first-time book, The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley, was first published by Tartarus, a small Yorkshire Press in a print run of 300 copies. After that it moved to a larger press, John Murray, and went on to win the 2015 Costa Award for First Novel.

These few examples encourage me to believe that small print runs, small-independent presses, small bookstores – that fragile coalition that constitutes such a valuable culture of independence – will continue to exert a positive cultural influence around the world. In respect of small bookstores, think of how one of your diasporic own, Jessica Hagedorn, honed her poetry-writing skills by hanging out in San Francisco’s City Lights bookshop, the book enterprise begun by Lawrence Ferlinghetti that sits a hundred yards or so up a slight street incline from Francis Coppola’s pizza/pasta restaurant that stocks Coppola wines. The restaurant is the street level part of a beautiful, old, triangulated building whose upstairs rooms once housed people like Wim Wenders when he and Coppola were making Hammett (1982) for an early iteration of Coppola’s Zoetrope film company, which, you would be aware, publishes Zoetrope: All Story. In the issue of All Story “designed” (they prefer that word to “edited”) by Wim Wenders, one finds a wonderful story from Vietnamese-Australian writer Nam Le, “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” that was later included in his best-selling, prize-winning collection, The Boat. Readers who long have been awaiting a second collection or a novel from Nam Le have been delayed by his having discovered a way to make $200,000 a year from casino gambling and since that money would be tax-free it is the equivalent of an annual income of $400,000. Why teach at Harvard?

V

Speaking very much as an outsider it seems to me that three clear publishing opportunities exist either for a university press or a trade press in the Philippines. Each is based on an existing overseas format that simply needs to be modified to suit the Philippine situation. The British Film Institute’s series of small, 96 page books devoted to films deemed classics and/or modern classics was devised by Edward Buscombe in 1992 with a view initially to having the books connect with an archival film restoration project then being undertaken by the BFI of 365 films deemed classics of world cinema.

early_cinema_bundle

BFI Film Classics

The BFI classics volumes were written by novelists like Salman Rushdie and Alberto Manguel, journalists, TV presenters (Melvyn Bragg), film critics and film academics, and were pitched at that famously nebulous entity, the “non-specialist but educated, interested reader.” Eventually Buscombe thought that when, across the course of a year, a screening of the 365 restored films would see the history of cinema flow in front of spectators’ eyes on London’s South Bank, many copies of the supporting volumes would be sold. It was an idea that was quickly ripped off by other countries that duly produced series called ‘Australian Film Classics,’ ‘Canadian Film Classics,’ and ‘Hong Kong Cinema Classics.’ It also generated a range of other iterations of the small format film analyses of a single film. In the ‘Deep Focus’ series published by Soft Skull Press (which includes books on Heathers and Death Wish), Jonathan Lethem writes about John Carpenter’s They Live, while Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver publishes its ‘Queer Film Classics’ with books on Death in Venice, Strangers on a Train, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Cult cinema is targeted by Wallflower Press’s ‘Cultographies’ series which includes books on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Donnie Darko, Blade Runner. A ‘Pop Classics’ series from ECW Press has a book on Showgirls, while Auteur Publisher’s ‘Devil’s Advocates’ series has titles on Witchfinder General, Suspiria, Carrie and many others, and a ‘Controversies’ series from Palgrave Macmillan has books on Straw Dogs and Basic Instinct, among others.

The BFI later expanded its original format to publish analyses of celebrated UK and overseas television series (Edge of Darkness, Boys from the Blackstuff, Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

Why not adopt this format here to generate a series of similarly packaged volumes devoted to Philippine cinema? And why not unashamedly define the reach of the series to include films made here by, say, US filmmakers as well as your own acts of filmmaking? For your first volume, contract an appropriate Filipino writer to write on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. You would be aware that this film already is the subject of some film classics series (it was the first volume in Bloomsbury Press’s excellent but short-lived series), along with coverage in studies of Coppola and Zoetrope. Eleanor Coppola’s diary of her husband’s film shoot, Notes, became the documentary Hearts of Darkness, which could be addressed in your putative volume as well. Once published, this volume automatically connects your fledgling series with international film publications and film courses whose libraries certainly would order copies of this distinctively national take on a modern classic, and would link with the fan base that follows writing on certain cult films and television series (UK examples would be Dr Who and The Avengers).

You could also commission a volume on Weng Weng’s pint-sized James Bond activities, as in For Your Height Only (1980: Dir: Eddie Nicart), currently available on DVD in the UK and US, and that volume could also address the documentary made by Australian Andrew Leavold, The Search for Weng Weng (2015). And why not include a volume or two on some of the Roger Corman films shot in the Philippines?

Another small format series could imitate the 33 and 1/3 series – initially published by Continuum Press and now published by Bloomsbury Press – in which a small volume is devoted to an iconic or cult pop album (Pet Sounds, Let it Be, Highway Sixty-One Revisited, Exile on Main Street, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society) and once you started publishing your Filipino versions of these, they could circulate within the Philippines wherever music and cultural studies courses were taught and obviously would attract interest from overseas fans, musicologists and music teachers. Maybe Freddie Aguilar’s “Anak” could be the opening volume.

And there seems no reason a university or trade press in the Philippines shouldn’t publish a version of U.S. Random House’s Crown Journeys series of little books that have a writer talk about a town or a locale. Sometimes the writer is strongly associated with a city or a neighbourhood – Kinky Friedman writes about Austin, Texas, Ishmael Reed writes about Oakland, Chuck Palahniuk writes about Portland – while on other occasions a prominent writer will write about a locale that means something to them: so former head of the Iowa Writing School and author of Stop-Time, Frank Conroy writes about walking around Nantucket, and Michael Cunningham (The Hours) writes about Provincetown. In Australia we have “borrowed” this idea by having local writers write about our capital cities. As yet, we have not ventured into the “neighbourhood” level of the Crown Series, but it surely cannot be too long before some press asks Tim Winton to take a walk around Fremantle and commit it to paper. Why not ask ‘Butch’ Dalisay to write a similar volume on Romblon and why not approach an appropriate local writer to do a volume on the city in which we now find ourselves, Davao?

One final suggestion. Even allowing for what I sense is a very strong Philippine tradition of privileging high literary forms, poetry, the literary novel, serious historical non-fiction, the fact that you also have a strong tradition of comix – comics or graphic novels – and of late have started to produce very strong contributions to international crime and noir fiction, makes me think you should organise a special Philippine section of the next available Bouchercon crime fiction conference. Bouchercon 2016 takes place in New Orleans from September 15th to the 18th, and in 2017, it occurs in Toronto from October 12-15th. In 2018 it travels to St Petersburg from September 13th to 16th, and in 2019 returns to the US, to Dallas, from October 31st to November 3rd. In 2020 it shifts to Sacramento from October 15th-18th.

Bouchercon delivers you a huge, ready-made audience, much like the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs, so it would be easy to work out suitable representatives from here in the Philippines and from Filipinos living and working overseas, and you would be guaranteed to make a splash as the latest new thing. As you all well know, literary festivals and film festivals are endlessly in search of the new entity, the new hot thing to showcase. There is no reason for the Philippines, with its great range of writers, graphic novelists, filmmakers and musicians, not to benefit from that.

Works Cited

Julian Barnes, A Life With Books (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012)

Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia’s History (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1966)

Russell Chatham, “Gone Yesterday, Here Today”: Presentation on Clark City Press, Montana Festival of the Book, Missoula, 23 September, 2005 (unpublished paper)

Nicholas Clee, “End of the Book Postponed,” Prospect Magazine 135 (June 2007): 72-74.

Frank Conroy, Stop-Time (New York: Viking, 1967)

Michael Cunningham, The Hours (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)

Jose Dalisay Jr., Soledad’s Sister (Manila: Anvil Publishing, 2008)

Jason Epstein, The Book Business (New York: Norton, 2001)

A.B. Facey, A Fortunate Life (Fremantle, W.A.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1981)

William Gaddis, The Recognitions (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955)

William Gaddis, JR (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975))

Helen Garner, Monkeygrip (Melbourne: McPhee-Gribble, 1977)

Paul Harding, Tinkers (New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2001)

Noel King, “’I Can’t Go on, I’ll Go On’: Interview with Ray Coffey of Fremantle Arts Centre Press” Westerly, 51 (November 2006): 31-54.

Noel King, “’Independent, Emerging, and Satisfying’: Interview with Publisher Henry Rosenbloom of Scribe Press, Melbourne,” Metro 152 (2007): 154-158.

Noel King, ‘’The Main Thing We Book Publishers have Going for us is the books themselves: An Interview with Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press, Islington, London 12 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 3 (Autumn 2007): 104-119.

Noel King, “A bridge between all these literatures that we love: Interview with Francois von Hurter, Bitter Lemon Press, London 10 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 1-2 (Summer 2007): 62-80.

Lorien Kite, “Books of 2015,” Financial Times Weekend (28-29 November, 2015): 1-2. Also available at:

Malcolm Knox, “The Interview: Colm Toibin,” Sydney Morning Herald (May 15, 2010).

Nam Le, The Boat: Stories (New York: Knopf, 2008)

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

Sally Morgan, My Place (Fremantle, W.A.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1987)

Robert Penn Warren, All The King’s Men (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1946)

Andre Schiffrin, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way we Read (London: Verso, 2001)

Andre Schiffrin, Words and Money (London: Verso, 2010)

Steve Spears, The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin (Sydney: Currency Methuen Press, 1977)

John Sutherland, Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2007).

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap (Tuskar Rock, 2010)

Wim Wenders, Zoetrope All-Story 10, 2 (Summer 2006)

[Header image: ‘Book’ by Sam @Flickr republished unmodified under this CC Licence.]

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

zamora linmark

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

***

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.

*

 Dear Jesus:

I have two mommies. Am I greedy?

Alexander Rosales, 3rd grade, Kapalama Elementary.

*

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: Manila Noir (a review)

MANILA: A WOMAN OF MYSTERY, A FEMME FATALE

by NOEL KING

 16057198

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)]

*

mmccs-noel_king_jpg

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.

from issue #8: ‘Love in Mini Stops’ by Andrea Pasion-Flores

lv

LOVE IN MINI STOPS by ANDREA PASION-FLORES

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.

Pia and I work for a call center and I used to be the one who lived on steamed or fried dim sum with her. We both have degrees from “reputable universities,” as the ad in the papers required, with Pia having the distinct advantage of a couple of semesters towards an MA in comparative literature. But degrees from reputable universities, even with units towards an MA, don’t guarantee people high-paying salaries in places like banks and multinational corporations—except in BPOs, like the one we work for, where units towards an MA actually impressed the manager, who thought Pia would naturally speak English well, which was probably why I was hired too. Who else would she have her flawless conversations in English with?

But really, it’s Pia who is the epitome of call center excellence. She very quickly perfected the friendly, impersonal tone that placates irate callers in New York—the worst of them with their hurried speech and their demanding-to-speak-to-the-supervisor tones. She counters with her I-understand-your-concerns or I-know-how-you-feel said in a melodious voice. To sound convincing, Pia speaks slowly, with an envied twang that remembers that a U has an “uh” sound and not the “ooh” of Filipino. And that, for Pia, was a lot considering she has never been to the US.

I was a June bride and, unlike the seasons in the West where June brides walk down aisles of flowers in garden weddings, I married during the monsoon. No garden wedding for me, just the one where the groom anxiously waited at the end of a church aisle, his inability to smile giving the impression that he was forced by circumstance to be where he stood. Unlike Pia, I believed in fairytale endings even if I did have a child growing inside of me that negated my happy ending and forced me to marry in a month of bad weather. At twenty-five, old enough but not quite ready to be a bride, I said the dreaded till-death-do-us-part vows. I do wonder, sometimes, if the words had not been heard through the din of rain drumming on the galvanized iron sheets of the church’s roof, do they count?

That was four years ago when, despite my misgivings, marriage and everything I thought it stood for beyond the white dress, the walking down the aisle, family crying in the pews, overshadowed all the doubts I had. With a love-conquers-all attitude eager to overcome the vastness of infinity that could not have been comprehended in a single moment, I clung to the stubborn belief that my new husband and I could weather everything till death do us part. Of course, we didn’t succeed. At least, I consoled myself, it was a slow parting; after about a year of mutual torture, he didn’t bother to come home at all.

But I’m fine. I tell myself that I can raise my son on my own, that I am strong, that I’m an I-don’t-need-a-man-to-define-me kind of girl, and so what if I do dial his number and hang up before his phone rings? And I still remember things like our anniversary, June 9. We chose the number nine because nine is a lucky number, the largest single-digit Arabic number, lucky because of love potion number nine. Many people thought I was lucky when Jason became my husband. The guy was a catch. He was tall and good looking, fairly well off with a condominium unit he was paying for, and a car to his name. He seemed decent, the kind of guy I hoped wouldn’t let a girl he got pregnant go it alone in the world. And, for a while at least I thought I had it made: I got the guy.

I’m two years younger than Pia, but I do feel older and wiser, capable of counseling her on matters such as falling in love in bad weather. Of course she doesn’t listen. I don’t blame her. I wouldn’t listen if I were in her shoes. Thus, despite my warnings and in the pouring rain, Pia fell in love over an order of fried siomai and a large Coke in a convenience store, a thirty-five-peso meal. I forgot to ask her if Sean had at least paid for her dim sum that day she thought he was the one but it would have been tragic had he not, so I didn’t ask.

All she said was that she noticed when he strode into the Ministop. She was standing in line to pay for her food as he made a beeline for the beverage refrigerators at the back before stopping by the siopao steamer to help himself to an asado pao. She knew it was an asado pao because that was the only variety that was ready that afternoon; the others, though already in the machine, were fresh from the freezer and still frozen. There were two cashiers open that day because it was relatively busy, and there were a few people who went inside to shelter from the rain, milling about the aisles of snacks, petite-sized toiletries, and magazines. He happened to line up at the other cashier and their elbows grazed each other. She doesn’t know if that was intentional on his part, but it was the moment she looked up and their eyes met. She looked away quickly only to look back up again, noticing that he had large brown eyes and thick bushy eyebrows and that he had not looked away.

“Nice weather we’re having.” He had a deep masculine voice, strong and in control, and it made her heart flutter. She noticed how thick his neck was, like it was straining out of his collar, fighting with a button and the knot of his tie that was begging to be loosened.

“The best,” she said. Then they were at the counter, where candies, chocolate bars and bananas fought for space with cigarette lighters and condoms. They didn’t leave right away because the rain was pouring in sheets and someone had wondered, she can’t remember who, whether work would be called off that day. So they stayed.

There is a smell that permeates every store, every single one within walking distance from our office. Some people are unable to place it, but those who frequent a Ministop would know that it’s the stink of used oil, of cooking balled up meats that might’ve qualified as street food except they’re not in the open polluted air of the city. The odor seeps into walls, suits, shirts, bags and even into a person’s skin so that there really is no denying having come from a Ministop. Like a tryst in a drive-in motel room that reeks of the smell of forbidden sex that can’t be hidden beneath swipes of Zonrox bleach or sprays of Lysol, the Ministop smell can’t be disguised with spritzes of Nenuco, which Pia keeps in her Louis Vuitton Speedy 30, an irrational purchase to be sure but it’s iconic, she assured me. I guess it complements her woman-of-the-world façade and the I-can-handle-casual-sex attitude, a persona she seems to be trying hard to perfect. It’s there and can’t be denied. I knew from the odor of used cooking oil when Pia had been downstairs on a break with Sean—just like when a fruity-floral smell accompanied her, it meant she had showered in her apartment with him.

When I used to come home somewhat regularly at 5:00 or 6:00 AM, I used to wonder if the excuses I made to my parents of having worked the night shift could cover the hours I spent with Jason in Pasig’s motel area. The eyes of the motel employees never meeting mine, speaking in whispers only to Jason of the room choices we had for a three-hour tryst, or a twelve-hour overnight special. I thought then that I could mask my guilt with dabs of cologne, or pretenses of being too tired to stay awake for breakfast. But then again, it doesn’t matter now because I have a four-year-old boy named JJ, after his father, a “junior.”

There is a kind of vanity to naming a child after a parent, I know. But I had another motive for agreeing to this arrangement. It’s as if the act of naming him after his father would compel the dad to make a commitment to the child, to the relationship. A child, after all, becomes more than the I-dos, more than the ceremony, more than the eternity symbolized by the ring. Sometimes, as in my case, it is the reason for being a couple after all, for a marriage. But even if that is argued as a flimsy excuse, then the naming of a child after the parent should be another reason to commit. Isn’t it an acknowledgment of paternity? The clichéd promise of continuity?

I had JJ in December, the real wedding season in the Philippines when the weather is cooler, the streets are lit with festivity, and people are filled with the hope of eternity. The cool dawn air is chilly enough for a light sweater and, if I wake up early, I can see my breath form a cool fleeting mist in the air, and I can pretend to be in the places the calls I process come from: Washington, New Jersey, New York, or California.

Pia’s dad lives in Los Anjeh-leez, Cal-fornya. When taking a call, we’re supposed to speak English with an American twang so that customers don’t suspect that their calls are taken by someone in a third world country. But they know. I hear it in the disdainful tone they use when they enunciate every syllable. If they didn’t like sending the call center business our way, they should just opt to hire the cheap labor found within their shores, like Pia’s dad for example. He left the country as a tourist and could not return to the Philippines unless he was ready to leave the US forever, armed, as was his promise to Pia, with enough money to live comfortably in Laguna where he had a plot of land to turn into a thriving business. But that was eight years ago. And, even if he worked as a supervisor at Home Depot, where he put his talent for carpentry and furniture-making to some use, there seemed to be little hope that he could turn an hourly rate into wealth to convert idle family land into a living, especially since, being an illegal, he wasn’t supposed to be working in the first place.

I know that, for a while, Pia had hoped her dad would get his green card and petition for her so that she could go to America and leave her dead-end love life behind; at least, that was how I thought her relationship with Sean was. But that was just my opinion because, according to Pia, it wasn’t like that, and Sean wasn’t like Jason. That would shut me up.

At first her dad’s calls were filled with promises of bringing her over. When that plan didn’t seem possible, it became the promise of returning home with enough money for everyone to live a comfortable life. Now, even that line seemed hollow. These days, when it comes to the topic of her dad, Pia just says she doesn’t care if he doesn’t come back as long as he sends her some money, which he does, albeit erratically: three hundred dollars this month, two hundred when he’s a bit hard up, like when his rent, car, and credit card payments are due, which is all the time. Once, however, she received five hundred dollars for her birthday, brought over by an aunt on holiday. And that seemed to make up for everything, while the money lasted—all of three weeks. It doesn’t matter I guess because, before long, our earnings were more than what Pia’s dad was sending.

Her mom apparently had long known that her dad had abandoned them. So she had taken up with another man, whom I thought had the decency to tell her up front that he had a wife and two kids he was never leaving. But then again Pia’s mom wasn’t exactly single, so that worked out, unlike Pia’s guy Sean, who was non-committal, who just had a lot of “Soon, I promise,” or “I am leaving her as soon as the kids are okay.” I would look at Pia with my you-know-better-than-that look but she would just look at me as if to say who was I to give advice? End of argument.

Sean’s wife was a salesperson in a company that sold everything from makeup to dishwashing soap, so was always traveling. According to Pia, it didn’t feel so wrong when the wife wasn’t in town. Sean would show up at her studio unit on Sapphire Street, a couple of blocks from Emerald, with a bottle of wine, a box of garlic and herb boursin and a loaf of French bread. And when he did that, Pia said it felt a little like being in a restaurant where they had real tablecloths with cushioned layers under the toppers so that the dishes and the wine glasses wouldn’t make offending clinks when the waiters set them on the table—and not a cold, quick snack in a Styrofoam box laid out on a printed paper menu on a laminated table. Sometimes he also brought jars of moisturizing cream that were the new products of his wife’s company, and that seemed to make things feel special.

Sean wasn’t like the guys at work, Pia said. He held the car door open instead of just lifting the automatic locks. He reached out for her hand across the table, rubbed her knee in the movie house, said he admired her independence and, well, maybe her legs, too. Jason actually told me that, that he liked my legs during one of those motel trips, during the part when he should’ve said I love you. But I might have equated it to mean the same thing so I believed him, the way Pia might have been convinced of Sean’s feelings for her by the moisturizing creams he brought her, though she shouldn’t have counted those because he got them for free, from his wife.

I didn’t have it that bad, Pia always liked to remind me. At least Jason still gave money for some of JJ’s necessities, even if it was only when I’d ask, of course. Never voluntarily. I would have to text him something like, “Need stff 4 JJ, cn u dep 3k in my acct?” He responds at least, even if they were digital grunts, like a “k,” or a “nxt wk.” It was enough. Well, not really, but if that’s this millennium’s idea of fatherhood, I’d best take what I can. This didn’t happen often enough to be called real support, but it did happen now and then. No complaints about how much he had to deposit, I only needed to ask and he would give it, as if to say, “Here’s the money, take it, and be gone.” At least he doesn’t complain, and if he doesn’t complain, it seemed incumbent upon me to do the same. Jason never visits, never asks about his child, never asks about anything, period. It’s just as well.

I know I should have reminded myself not to be too invested that day I told Jason I needed to meet him to get money from him personally because the need was urgent. I didn’t know what I was thinking. Maybe I thought there might still be a spark I could rekindle so that we might find our way back together instead of just ongoing messages about depositing the money in my account. Tomorrow night, if he didn’t mind. Ortigas area, I said, suggesting Florabel’s at the Podium where the food was a bit pricey but not that expensive. If Jason wasn’t going to foot the bill, I could whip out my Mastercard and think about the money later.

I wore a camel-colored jersey dress with a V-neck to show a little cleavage, making sure I do not look too desperate. The dress was ruched at the hem, and I paired it with black strappy shoes and a red clutch. I thought I looked sexy in a way that wasn’t trying too hard. It was a dress that was suitable for work, too, looking like I just threw it on in a rush and not like I tried on five dresses before I settled on it.

I was five minutes late for our seven o’clock. He was thirty minutes late, striding in in blue jeans and a blue T-shirt that had the insignia of San Miguel beer, Crocs shoes, looking, for all intents and purposes, like he just came from a car wash.

“Sorry, I’m late,” he said as he sat down, signaling the waiter for the menu. “Had to pass by Honda to have my car checked. What’s good here?”

“They have Angus beef burgers, steaks…” I answered, trying to calm the nervousness in my voice. The waiter stood silently, patiently waiting to take our orders.

“What are you getting?” He said, his eyes scanning the menu, his voice calm.

“I’m having the grilled lapu-lapu.” The waiter scribbled quickly. At 475 pesos, the dish was medium-priced and would not break my budget, I thought.

“I think I’ll have the foie gras burger,” he said. I looked quickly at how much the burger costs and noted that it was P780. With drinks, our meal would cost around P2,000 if we skipped dessert.

“Anything to drink?” the waiter asked.

“Just water for me,” I replied.

“A regular Coke, please,” Jason replied, folding the menu and pushing it towards the waiter.

I must say that I didn’t know what I wanted to happen, only that I wanted something to. So I asked him about his job, his family, and even his car. He grunted his answers and kept things politely moving along.

He ate fast but not too fast for me to think he couldn’t stand to be with me another second, which was probably why, in the middle of his sentence talking about his boss, I swallowed my lemon-buttery fish heavily seasoned with my pride and the fear of rejection that had me frazzled during the whole meal, and dared to stretch out my hand to cover his, lying brown and non-committal against the white linen. He stopped in mid-sentence and looked at me, first with a puzzled expression on his face, then something similar to a smile.

“So, you need some cash for JJ again?”

“Let’s not talk about that,” I said, hoping I conveyed in my voice and with the fingers gently rubbing the back of his hand that I wanted to communicate more than just through text messages. He must have gotten the message because he took my insistent hand, held it and leaned forward to say gently, almost like a promise, that we should get out of here.

I grabbed my purse to reach for my wallet. But he waived it away just like the old days and called the waiter for the check. When that was dispensed with, he grabbed my hand and, like kids who couldn’t get to the playground fast enough, we headed for his car. He drove towards the motel area in Pasig, picking one of the places we had gone to in the past.

It was awkward at first, like kissing for the first time. Then it was like a drink after walking the sidewalks of the city during a particularly hot and humid afternoon. It was frenzied and desperate and over quickly. We were both on the bed staring up at our images in the ceiling’s tacky mirror, where I could see our bodies separated by a foot of space I was wondering how to bridge. The blanket was up to his waist. I turned on my side to look at his face, his disheveled hair, his thick eyebrows, his nose in profile. His phone sounded: a message. He reached over to the side table to take it and started texting back a reply.

“Who is it?” I asked. I reached over to trace his face with my finger.

“My girlfriend, Linda.” It was probably the truth because the reply came fast and without hesitation. He looked at me sideways, like he realized his mistake. I laid on my back and stared at the ceiling telling myself not to make an embarrassment of myself by starting to cry. And I am your wife, I wanted to yell but didn’t.

“I’d like to go home now,” I said. I stood up, throwing the blanket behind me, looking around for my clothes, trying to put them on as fast as I found them. He got up, too, looking for the words to erase the awkwardness.

“Hey,” he said, as if trying to begin an explanation. “It’s not like we’re still together, right?” He was right. Before bringing me home, he stopped by an ATM machine. Then he dropped me off in front of my building.

“Umm, here’s the money for JJ,” he said, handing me a wad of 1,000-peso bills. I had the mind to refuse it, really. I know now it would have made me feel better if I did and made him feel worse, I’m sure. But I took the money and stuffed it in my bag and got off the car without counting it. He gave me 20,000 pesos in all, which wasn’t much, but it was much, much more than the usual. At least, I tried to console myself, he said the name of his child, which means, even if he was with someone else, that there might be that chance that he would come back for his son. Right?

Once I was in a store with JJ, buying a pair of rubber shoes when Jason came in with a girl. She wasn’t pretty, that much my own low self-esteem acknowledged as a fact. She also looked older than he did, which would mean she was older than I was. He was talking, distracted, and didn’t seem to have seen us before it was too late not to be noticed. It took him a few seconds to feel that I was staring at him. He looked at me and, for a moment, we stared at each other before his mouth hardened. He saw the child marching around the store trying out his new shoes. He feigned this look, as if assessing whether the salesperson had time to assist him, given the number of customers. Then, acting as if he saw that there were two too many, he steered his lady friend out the door. And that was the last time I saw Jason. I now always buy JJ’s shoes from that shop, hoping to bump into Jason again. It never happened. Unlike me, he seemed to consider the encounter a mistake never to be repeated, like the mistake of agreeing to see me that one time.

Then it came one day in the mail, a notice to answer a petition for the declaration of nullity of a marriage—mine. The law office where I brought the document was on the 28th floor of Winston Tower on Emerald Avenue. The air was thick with the smell of cigarettes. The glass walls met in a corner that pointed to Manila Bay in the smoggy horizon, the bright sun descending into the gray-blue waters in the distance created swathes of red and orange. Good thing Jason filed the petition in Mandaluyong, the lawyer said. Mandaluyong had judges who still granted annulments as a matter of course, he said, and everything would be okay if I just followed the path of least resistance—which was not to contest it.

An annulment, I came to learn, is the Philippine equivalent of a divorce. It can only be applied when one spouse (or both!) is declared “psychologically incapacitated,” nice legal mumbo-jumbo to mean the person is crazy. Of course the lawyer qualified this, saying that the “incapacity” may have shown up during the marriage even if a person seemed perfectly normal before the wedding. He explained that incapacity is essentially the inability to perform the duties of a spouse—give respect, support and love—which is a disease, apparently, a medical condition that is incurable. Thus, the lawyer said, his voice now slightly booming in the office, there was the necessity of an annulment. Having been fooled into a marriage with a spouse incapable of fulfilling these duties was an important factor—as if Jason had been duped into thinking that I was the kind of person he could spend the rest of his life with, and somewhere along the way towards this happy-ever-after I had failed him. Or vice versa, depending on who was willing to be the fall guy. This incapacity, the lawyer’s voice seemed to grow louder in anticipation of an enumeration of incapacities, could be seen in how the spouse may have acted like a mama’s boy or how he refused to support his child or if he used drugs or was an alcoholic or other signs of immaturity slash incapacity I might be able to think of. Choose your own adventure.

I was silent for a moment, wondering if I was about to ask an intelligent question: How about if he just didn’t come home one day? Isn’t that a manifestation of Jason’s psychological incapacity to perform the duties of a spouse?

“Well, not really,” the lawyer said, somewhat disappointed. He grabbed a pack of cigarettes on the table, making a show of pulling one out and reaching for the lighter, but he thought better of it and didn’t light up. “That’s just abandonment,” he told me, “and the legal remedy for that is just legal separation.” Being left alone holding the proverbial bag, in this case the wailing child, meant only that—being left alone. There must be something more than being abandoned, the lawyer insisted, like “a manifestation that something was wrong with him psychologically.”

“Wasn’t leaving enough?”

“No. You don’t want that.”

“I don’t?” Legal separation, the lawyer explained, his voice with its condescending tone, sounded more and more like a call I was processing, didn’t allow either of us to remarry. And marrying again, he presumed, was the option I most wanted. I must have nodded at this point, thinking to myself that, to the world, Jason must have had all his marbles intact when he decided to leave. In any case, the lawyer droned, having lost interest in the particulars of my case since Jason was the one filing for an annulment, not contesting might be the smarter thing to do.

“Let him pay for it,” the lawyer declared smugly. “You’re young. You will find someone again.” He seemed to consider that statement to be the best advice he had given the entire duration of our one-hour conversation. Getting married a second time, he said, unable to emphasize it enough, was something to consider after all.

Thus, even if I was raising our child, even if I wasn’t the one who left, even if I thought myself up to the challenge of being able to give respect, support and love, I resigned myself to the fact that I was the psychologically-incapacitated spouse because Jason was paying for the annulment. Going by the petition, my being a spoiled brat, overly-dependent, and scheming (having used our child to secure a marriage with him, not to mention how I deviously continue to use our child to extort money from him) all pointed to the fact that I was not okay in the head. Of course, this incapacity showed itself in telltale signs like my propensity to lie and my domineering behavior and of course, unfortunately for him, all this became apparent only after we were married. This said, he could not have known of my mental state before that rainy day in June. Worse, continued his complaint, I had become an unreasonable person, making demands on him for luxuries his meager salary couldn’t sustain.

“It’s not so bad,” Pia told me over her cappuccino at Figaro’s after browsing the 12-page document. “Says here he is willing to support your child, right? So, just let go, move on.”

I am all for moving on. So I kept an open mind as best I could while Pia changed the subject to talk about her dad. “He’s getting married.”

“I thought he already was.”

“He’s going to file for a divorce, marry a US citizen, get a green card and petition for me.”

I thought for a moment how seemingly simple that plan was, but I knew Pia’s dad needed a lawyer, like I did. And that lawyer might tell him that, because he’s Filipino, he should get an annulment like what I was doing so that he could marry a US citizen, as divorce applied to everybody else in the world but us. But I didn’t say that. Instead, I asked a stupid question. “Who’s the lucky girl?”

“He’s arranging something with a Suzanne, who is willing to get hitched for twenty thousand dollars up front and another twenty when he gets his green card. Then there are lawyer’s fees, expenses and all sorts of other fees.”

“How is he supposed to pay for all this?”

“Well, he asked me to help him sell our land in Laguna. Everything will be okay when he gets his green card, he promised. He’ll get a better job, a house, and all that, and he’ll be able to petition for me. As long as I stay single, he says.”

“Why do you have to stay single?”

“Because if I get married, silly, it’s as if I broke away from my parents to be on my own and I’ll have to do all this by myself. I mean it’s hard enough that I’m no longer a minor. Now that I’m an adult, the petition will take much longer.”

By which time, if it were even to happen, I thought, no one would want to marry you. But, instead of saying that, I just nodded my head and said, “Okay. And Sean?”

She shrugged her shoulders and looked at her coffee, perhaps the only clue she was willing to concede about the uncertainty of their relationship. “It doesn’t matter,” she finally said. “It’s not as if we were rushing to get married in the first place.” And she tossed her hair like she didn’t care.

“How is Sean?”

“He’s fine, I guess.” Pia shrugged. “Says it’s the time of year when he’s busy at work. He hasn’t been passing by in a while, actually.” Again, she tossed her hair, her fingers taking one end of hair to twirl.

I looked at Pia, wondering if I should probe deeper. It would be Pia’s birthday in two weeks. The other day she said she had asked Sean to get her a Louis Vuitton Neverfull GM bag. The large one described on the website was worth $900, she said with a giggle. She dropped subtle hints, like an email with a link to the website.

“That’s the spirit,” I told her. “Finally, a step above siomai!”

I told her it was as if she had given a long-time boyfriend an ultimatum: let’s take the next step or break up. Why keep at it if it seemed to be going nowhere, right?

She agreed. A LV bag might be considered this era’s equivalent of an engagement ring for relationships that do not fall within the till-death-do-us part category. She’d asked for the style that featured the trademark monogram of the brand. “It’s a classic,” she told me. “It’s like jeans or a Chanel 2.55 quilted bag.”

“Huh?”

I just didn’t get it, Pia said. “The LV will age beautifully, with the vachetta of the handles and seams developing a honey-brown patina that will make it look more beautiful over the years.”

“It reminds me of a diaper bag,” I told her back in the office when she clicked on the link to show me the bag. “And why is the name Neverfull? I can fill that up easy.” I bristled at a promise that would easily be broken.

“That’s because you’re a mom, everything is babyfied. But it’s a practical purchase,” she said. “I can put everything in it and use it every day.”

I wondered how practical it would be for Sean to bring almost forty thousand pesos in cash to the LV store in Greenbelt because he couldn’t risk his wife catching the item on his credit card bill. After which, he would have to find a way to hide his purchase from the wife and deliver it to Pia.

Two weeks later, Pia was waiting for Sean to pick her up from her apartment. For her birthday, they were going to have dinner, he said, at the Top of the Citi, a restaurant with a stunning view of the Makati skyline. It was managed by Le Soufflé and did French cuisine well. She already knew what she wanted, she told me, as she had looked up the menu online. She didn’t want to seem like she didn’t eat in proper restaurants or that all she knew of her food was spelled out on the lit menu boards of convenience stores. She would get the French onion soup, slow-cooked onions topped with a slice of baguette and smothered with Gruyere cheese. She would also order the duck confit served with the échalote sauce reduction, with blanched veggies on the side. She would suggest he get the charbroiled rack of lamb in a garlic-rosemary jus, accompanied by blanched spinach and mashed potatoes. For dessert, they would share the sugar-free chocolate decadence, drizzled with caramel sauce. The dinner would be long and intimate, and they would talk about things that matter. So she told me she had dressed up for it: a silver, sequined dress and blue high-heeled shoes with rhinestones covering the knots of delicate bows at the peep toes. She was excited and giggly, and I imagined she looked like Christmas. I was happy for her.

She had been waiting an hour before finally deciding to call me. He’s late, she said. But she tried to sound cool about it. She kept the conversation light, talking about our new supervisor who replaced the one that didn’t last six months. She tried to sound like she didn’t notice that it was way past eight, but I can imagine her nervously twirling her hair while she spoke. It was apparent that Sean was not going to come through with his promise of a Le Soufflé dinner. I wanted to tell her that it was useless to hold on to this guy who might have another girl, someone he might’ve met in another Ministop. I wanted to tell Pia to move on. Instead, I told her to hang up since he might be calling and we weren’t helping the situation in any way by holding up the phone, as if mobile phones were yet to be invented.

She might have known the futility of carrying on with the dinner, and maybe even carrying on with Sean because when Sean’s call came past the hour of nine, she was still trying to be cool and worldly like a Speedy 30.

“I’m really sorry, baby.” He said he got caught in a meeting and would be a little late. Would it be okay if they ordered in instead? He was thinking of Pizza Hut’s stuffed crust barbecue pizza. It looked really delicious on the billboard, he said, and wondered out loud if she wanted to try it with him, in bed. He playfully made his voice hoarse and sexy, in a way he knew could make Pia tingle all over. I’m not sure if she finally smartened up, or if she just looked at her sequined dress and the strappy shoes with the little rhinestones and decided that, at thirty-two, when it was almost ten in the evening, she felt a little bit tired. So she told him it was late.

“I have a surprise for you,” he insisted.

“I’m not feeling up to it,” she said.

“Another night?”

“Oh, you sound sick.”

“Yes, that’s it,” Pia said.

“Do you want me to get you something?”

“No, thanks.”

“I’ll drop off my gift at the lobby, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Happy birthday, baby. See you next week? I’ll drop by your office.” His voice sounded casual, like he had no intention of walking out of her life permanently. So she tried her best not to sound too disappointed. If someone were there watching her, she might have made a big show of saying it was nothing. But she just said okay, like everything was okay, the way people say okay when it’s really not okay.

Of course he didn’t drop by the office the week he said he would, or the week after that. It may not have been intentional, I told her, just a gradual forgetting that became a habit. This seemed to be the manner of telling that seemed most kind at the time, the way I might have wanted the truth about Jason told to me in lies because I would’ve waited just the same.

Sean, predictably, just stopped showing up. He didn’t call either, despite the many text messages she sent his way that did nothing to bolster her battered pride. After a few months, Pia and I slipped into the habit of going down for a snack together. Eventually, we stopped talking about Sean and, without having to say it, we avoided Ministop stores and found other places to spend our breaks.

But that evening when the guard knocked on the door carrying the brown paper bag with the name Louis Vuitton printed on it, I think Pia might’ve thought everything was indeed okay. And I thought so too when she called to tell me about his gift. She had carefully opened the soft dust bag that contained her new bag. The bag’s handles felt smooth and had a subtle new-leather smell. The body of the bag had the monogrammed canvas design she liked, sturdy enough to be impenetrable in the rain, and beautiful, she added, as she held it in her hands admiring the way the light reflected the hues of brown and yellow of the bag’s surface. It was a practical bag, a classic she could use forever.

*

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrea-2012smaller-size-200x300

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.