28 January 2011


“It’s always better to be honest,” (Eilis) said, imitating Rose when Rose found her dignity or sense of propriety challenged in any way. “I mean with everybody,” she added.
“When you’ve gone through the world like I have,” Mrs. Kehoe replied, “you’ll find that that only works some of the time.”
From Brooklyn, Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel about a reluctant Irish immigrant, Eilis Lacey, who in the early 1950s crosses the ocean and makes a new life in America.
  • I read a review on Amazon that remarked how a number of novelists sometimes fail to take control of the story that they are writing, while Tóibín has perhaps too much control. Not that the remark was a complaint; but I still wouldn’t say “too much”. If he had given the fictional version of Henry James a shag in The Master, the novel wouldn’t be what it is. Certainly it would lose some of its power.
  • Same with Brooklyn. After reading a lot about the Irish author, I came to expect the “swaggering” lesbian scene that Mr. Tóibín had promised would be included in his next novel, which is, as we now know it, Brooklyn. Well, I’m glad it wasn’t that swaggering, because the restraint present in the swimsuit dressing scene with Eilis and Miss Fortini turned out to be as beautiful as the rest of the novel, which I loved and, at the same time, found terrifying, especially if I had to picture myself as moving elsewhere, too.

24 January 2011

Cadaverous Grace

"On the whole, (Henry James) spoke as he wrote, which sometimes led him to exasperating extremes… In his zeal for clarity, his speech became utterly oblique and obscure, and, on one occasion, when referring to a dog, and wishing to avoid the actual word, he ended up defining it as “something black, something canine”. He found himself equally unable to declare that an actress was frankly ugly, and had to make do with saying that “one of the poor wantons had a certain cadaverous grace.”"
From “Henry James on a Visit” in Javier Marías’ Written Lives, which Iain Finlayson of The Times has called “an artful antidote to the ‘exhaustive and futile erudition’ of biography….”

23 January 2011


I’m not writing a novel. Do you see this chin? It’s still smooth, pathetic, and childish. It’s not exactly in what you would call a novel-y state. No novel-y beard here. Such as Dostoevsky had. Or Tolstoy. Hemingway. Or that guy Jonathan Franzen. Well, his is more a salt-and-pepperish sort of shadow, and it’s probably not uncommon for someone to mistake him for a short story writer, or a journalist.

Who else has it? The novel-y, or novelist, beard? I can think of a few more. D.H. Lawrence. Charles Dickens. Gary Shteyngart. André Aciman. Henry James, when he didn’t have to present a shaven self to high society. Feel free to add to the list. I don’t really care. Because already I feel like I’m at a disadvantage here. These men can grow facial hair faster than I can say “verisimilitude”. We Asians are so much less hairy than our Western counterparts, it’s totally unfair. So we have no choice but to stick to ceramic art, hacking, and great coconut milk recipes? So the job of achieving startling psychological acuity is exclusive to those who can face-scratch their way to it? If that’s not unfair then I don’t know what is.

It’s unfair that it will take me a year or two to grow a freaking John Steinbeck moustache, and another year to transform it into a Thomas Mann regent. It’s unfair that G.K. Chesterton’s gringo is still going to be so much thicker than the world’s hairiest Asian’s treasure trail. Or pleasure trail, for you chicken lovers.

Let’s not even begin to talk of Filipinos. We’re the hairless-est Asians. Or the hairleast. Ha ha. We’re probably like the race that just had to have the most filamentously deprived dermis of all. (Whoa. Big words.) At least someone like Alexander Chee, who’s Korean, can still grow a formidable rap industry standard. And the Chinese can still beam with pride over bearers of the Fu Manchu. Meanwhile, have you seen a Filipino with a full beard? Or, at the very least, a goatee that doesn’t look like an inverted conifer? If you have, send me a picture. That way, I’ll be able to judge if he’s the kind of guy who’ll rape you first on Quezon Avenue before stealing your wallet or if he’s the kind of guy who looks like a novelist.

So there you go. Anyway, I’m reading The Unconsoled. It’s not as good now as the first time I read it. Although that’s probably just because I still can’t find a picture of Kazuo Ishiguro, masterfully unshaven.

18 January 2011

If That’s What It Says

Here’s an absurd notion: you’re either an L.A. person or a New York person. At first it doesn’t sound absurd. In fact, the more I hear about it, the more I realize that it’s rather popular.

Well. I haven’t actually been to America. I’ll be the first to admit that I have absolutely no say on the matter. But let me, if you will: when W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood emigrated to the U.S. in 1939, Auden chose to live in New York; Isherwood stayed in Hollywood. Wasn’t that supposed to mean something? And then there’s this Mad Men episode — “The Jet Set” (from the second season) — in which (a very charming, for me, and very serious) Pete Campbell, orangey from an aerospace convention in L.A., says how he didn’t quite like the people in California. Rufus Wainwright, who has lived in both cities, and who now lives in New York (at least as indicated in Twitter), once said in an interview — on BBC One’s Imagine, I think it was — that he, along with fellow librettist Bernadette Colomine, were known in East L.A. as “Euro trash”. Mr. Wainwright said it in jest, of course. We all know he is just the opposite of trash. But still.

It seems as though the world has been drawn in binary fashion. If you belong to one, you must not fit in the other.

Let’s take this to a locale. I had always thought of myself as a Quezon City person. This meant – automatically, I guess — that I disliked Makati City, which I kind of did. Or maybe it was the other way around: I disliked Makati and therefore I was a Quezon City person. (I can get along fine with more than a few Makati persons, though.) Of course, it must be noted that the contrast wasn’t as stark as East and West, as New York and California. But whatever. I was born in Quezon City. St. Luke’s Hospital. Moreover, since college, when I grew old enough to be able to get around Metro Manila, Makati had never appealed to me. Too many rules. Too many cars. Too many businesses and tall boring buildings that loomed over you. Too many collar-popping, coffee-drinking people at too many branches of Starbucks.

And the commute was hard. I had to take a jeep at Mayon Street, and then a Tamaraw FX to Quezon Avenue corner EDSA, and then the train to either Buendia or Ayala Station, and then another jeep to wherever it was I was going: my psychotherapist at Medical Towers on Rufino Street; the Inquirer head office at Pasong Tamo for an extremely brief internship; to my very first job interview (a marketing specialist post for Community Innovations at which I had failed miserably); to reunions with friends from school, which would be held at something like, I don’t know, Oody’s or Tropezz in Greenbelt — reunions at which I, standoffish by default, had also failed miserably.

When I finally found a job as a marketing specialist for Eastwood Cinemas in Libis, Quezon City, I still had to go to Makati and meet with the marketing managers of official film distributors, one of whom once made me wait an hour at reception. This was in the Pacific Star Building. Later, when she finally appeared in a condescending red blazer and led me to her office, I was not even offered an apologetic cup of coffee.

My next job, as a copywriter for a Quezon City-based advertising agency, also involved meeting regularly with Makati-based clients. One such client had an office in the Philamlife Tower. She always wanted to get things like planning public relations strategies and press conferences out of the way — so that she could get on with the rest of her work stuff, I guess — and thus scheduled meetings at nine in the morning, sometimes eight. I am not a morning person. It will shock anyone how much of a morning person I’m not. And getting up at five to eat breakfast at six to catch the company car at seven to beat the traffic along Paseo de Roxas Avenue and make the meeting at eight? That was traumatic. It gave a formidable shock to my system.

So Makati became even less congenial.

But a funny thing happened. A book contract recently fell into my lap. Funny, because I’m sure there’s no other way a book contract would’ve been offered me, not until I can resist overwriting. Even funnier, in a funny and sad sort of way, is the fact that it’s a coffee table book, which is the kind of book that is perhaps never meant to be read. (I wouldn’t call it a many-paged, glorified, super-calendered press release.) A colleague whom I had met while she was working on public relations programs for Intel Philippines — let’s call her Miss T — contacted me for a project with her new employer. Something to do with intellectual property.

Miss T’s office is in Makati, near the corner of Jupiter Street and Makati Avenue. It’s a governmental-looking building, which means that all one would ever remember from it is that it’s colored gray and looks post-constructivist, even Stalinist. When I went inside for the first time, a female security guard/receptionist mispronounced my first name (Juan) as “June” — as in, “So Sir June is meeting Miss T today? You can keep your ID but I’ll have to ask you to log in on this notebook. The time is two-thirty.” I told her she could call me Migs.

During one of the editorial meetings, held at a long governmental-looking conference table, Miss T handed me the contract, which I only pretended to read. Then she asked me to sign my initials above the text that designated me as a “content development expert”.

“My what?” I asked, baffled.

“Your initials.”

“My what?” I asked, baffled.

“Your initials.”

“My what?”

I was new to all this initialism, although of course I should have known better than not expect binding legal agreements from an office that was run by a lawyer. I was, after all, the ‘winning’ supplier in a procurement activity, one that would reward me more handsomely than my diary entries ever did. It was a one-month contract, and I was allowed to write everything at the family home, at the apartment I’d been renting, or wherever I wanted, on top of doing all the non-rewarding stuff that had kept me busy. Meetings — for research, proofreading, fact-checking, coordination with the graphic designer — were to be held invariably in the Makati office. Which was all right. I’d have been insincere if I ever complained about anything that had to do with the project.

Happily responsible for the production of this first book, I began to enjoy the jeep rides, the FX rides, the train rides, the solitary lunches at McDonald’s, the taste of non-instant coffee served in the public relations department, the smoking of cigarettes at a balcony that overlooked — it occurred to me fully for the first time — what must surely be the Philippines’ version of New York City. My father used to keep telling me the very same thing about Makati, but I was too young then to appreciate the idea; I was too young to have any feelings about New York.

Or Los Angeles. They were so far away. They’re still so far away.

And besides the idea is so absurd. Popular, yes, but absurd. It’s rarely unedifying to find one’s self in a place where one’s a stranger; on occasion it may even be liberating. So if you ask me now whether I am a Quezon City person or a New York person, I’d tell you I am neither. I’d say I’m a content development expert. That’s what the contract says.

08 January 2011


Dear Mr. Colm Tóibín,

There is nothing that I have read this year that is quite as beautiful as The Blackwater Lightship. Nothing as beautiful as it, that is, until perhaps I decide this year to again try reading To the Lighthouse, a novel I’d encountered at an age when I was too young to understand it, and to which surely your novel nods.

I have read The Blackwater Lightship twice now—the first time, as soon as I could, and the second time after I decided I’d waited long enough to read it again. I tell you, it was certainly worth the wait. My copy had come from New York, from a good friend who believes, like I do, that my life would be better with books. The same friend had also sent me The Master (signed by you), Mothers and Sons, The Heather Blazing, and The Story of the Night, all of which, unfortunately, I lost last year when a fire ripped through our ancestral home in Manila. I was able to save The Blackwater Lightship because I took it with me on an earlier trip out of town.

It is pretty hard to find copies of your other books here, although I do recall seeing your most recent novel—Brooklyn—in Bestsellers, an unimaginatively named bookstore at the annex of SM North EDSA. Indeed it’s a shame that, while there seems to be no supply shortage of Stephenie Meyer and James Patterson books for young readers to go gaga over, the one copy of Brooklyn has to be found somewhere in the armpit of the metro, right next to the public bathroom at the tail end of an extension building of a shopping mall that stands at the northern terminus of the main highway, about a fifteen-minute walk from the last station of the MRT. Which isn’t fair, because I like to think of myself as a young reader, too. I rescued that copy of Brooklyn, just so you know!

But back to The Blackwater Lightship. There were tears in my eyes rereading that, and I’m a pretty hard bastard. Perhaps I recognized in the story something that was close to me. The Philippines, as I am sure you know, is at least as Catholic as Ireland. Not that reading the novel said anything about religion, no;  only, a story involving the loves and faiths and losses and resentments of members of a family is always bound to strike a chord with me.

Do excuse my unsuccessfully (stammeringly) trying to get to the heart of a novel. I’ll stop here, lest more pour forth. I am no more capable of talking about literature than articulating what makes good food good. I do like to cook—and I like writing even more. And today I’m writing you, Mr. Tóibín, to say thanks very much for a story that has helped me more effectively get through these days, and for proving that life indeed is better with books. Vampire novels withstanding.

02 January 2011

Perpetual Servitude

"Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many, Mr. Jiabao. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent—as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way—to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse."
From The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning novel
  • I’d say the same thing about the Philippines, except that our 0.1 percent are not as strong, not as talented, and certainly not as intelligent as the oppressed 99.9 percent.
  • The White Tiger is very Asian, which is to say that the novel introduces a setting, a world, that hasn’t yet been explored fully by traditional contemporary literature. Thankfully, Adiga is an author eager—and definitely brave enough—to lay out the beauties and pornographies of the “Third World”.
  • I was rereading my copy of the book at a cafe recently, when out came a purple strip of paper with my name on it. It was from K, who’d slipped it in-between the pages before sending the package—a petit paquet—from Ontario. “Happy Reading,” the note read. How delightful.

01 January 2011

How to Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Manila

Get your ass in Eastwood, Newport City, Power Plant Mall in Rockwell, Mall of Asia, High Street, or some other highly societal commercial center with a swaggering name.

Get drunk on two-hundred-peso mojitos and martinis and, just before the explosive pyromusical countdown, raise a toast to your friends, to the night being so “epic”, to a happy year ahead, and to resolutions like “I’ll really stop smoking,” “I’ll really join at least one 21k run,” and “I’ll really have more sex this year.”

Watch the Manila sky, which really is sort of beautiful. Not this-is-Times-Square beautiful, but wow-so-this-is-what-a-warzone-looks-like beautiful.

Tweet people with the message, “Happy New Year and God bless your family — now bring it on, 2011!” using your preferred Twitter app for iPhone, even though you have their mobile phone numbers. It’s more social that way.

Address male friends as “bros” and female friends as “sweeties,” “darlings,” or “bitches”.

Make fun of adults who light up gay firecrackers like piccolo and kwitis.

Acknowledge the coolness of those who have the nerve to use pla-pla, Super Lolo, Goodbye Philippines, and Trillanes without covering their ears.

Lose a finger. Like really lose a finger. Spend New Year’s Eve in the emergency room of a hospital with your hand — or what’s left of it — wrapped in a bloody towel, then be interviewed by Atom Araullo or Jeff Canoy, both of whom should be handsomer in person. No matter how badly your breath reeks of Red Horse, flatly deny that you have had too much to drink. The very idea! It was the goddamned Roman candle’s fault.

Wish that you could sue Dragon Fireworks, the bastards. (Not that we are, in any way, as capitalist as America.)

Wish that you could grow your finger back, even though you know you’re never going to grow your finger back.

Celebrate with family, with the extended family, a family so extended it wears your sense of self-identity thin. Then open up a bottle of Novellino, a bottle of the several left over from Christmas.

Tell the aunties, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews you’ve previously never met that you’ll add them up on Facebook, even though you’re not really going to. Confirming friend requests for quantity’s sake is so 2008.

Set up the party-legitimizing device known as the karaoke machine.

Sing your favorite Journey song and sing it silly, so that people can’t tell that you really like Journey.

As you look into your mother’s eyes, your father’s eyes, the eyes of your brothers and your sisters, thank God or whoever it is that you have to thank for being here, for being here now, and for the fact that, on the last day of a year in which oils were spilled, cables were leaked, Haitian settlements were devastated, Chilean miners were trapped, Tea Partyism was spread, European flight operations were cancelled (no thanks to Eyjafjallaifdoslfskja), talents were taken to South Beach, and so on and so forth, you’re still celebrating. Well, okay — sure you’re still in the Philippines. But at least.

Or just start a new blog.