By IAN ROSALES CASOCOT
Sometime last year, I published an essay on Rappler that chronicled the difficulties that the Martial Law years wrought on Negrense lives, especially with its specific stranglehold on the sugar industry that remains totemic of Negros society — but I wrote it the only way I knew how: in the painful mapping of the upheavals it wrought on my family, and how we lost everything because of political and economic machinations we never really knew had us in their claws. I wrote about our descent to poverty, and the hunger of those days. I wrote about my father, and how he lost his pride, which he never recovered from. And I wrote about my mother, and how she braved through the upheavals with her sense of survival and enterprise. In the final analysis, I can truly say that I understood fully the overarching social reality of my world at that time via the ways my family’s lives were reshaped and changed. The newspaper chronicles may have their facts and their numbers, but the pains and the joys have an extra edge when we see them through the lens of family drama.
I reflect on that because the dynamics of familial relationships—the jagged joys and the recurring recriminations—is the pattern that somehow emerges in this issue of Buglas Writers Journal, especially in our prose section. Here, we have writers trying to understand specific social realities in the ties that bind [and unbind] them with family members.
Two pieces of fiction featured here are the top winners of the Palanca Awards of 2022, and they set the stage for the theme of family this issue is somehow about. Rayboy Pandan’s Bittersweetland, which won the Grand Prize for the Novel, follows a haunted New York exile who comes home to Bacolod to attend a fete celebrating his politician father. In the excerpt we have chosen [which is Chapter 2 from the manuscript], we see the character preparing for the homecoming, and steeling himself from the flood of memories evoked not just by the familiar landmarks of home, but also by the reconnection to family a homecoming always entails. The excerpt provides the backdrop for the novel’s ultimate dilemma: his father, having announced his intentions to run for public office, is assassinated, and this puts our hero into a tailspin that involves not just family drama but also cruel Bacolod politics—and because the novel is set in the early 1980s, also the looming sugar crisis and the slow disintegration of the Marcos regime in the wake of the assassination of Ninoy Aquino.
I have also chosen to include my short story, “Ceferina in Apartment 2G,” which won First Prize in the Palanca, because it also chronicles a very specific kind of family dynamics: in this Los Angeles-set story, an aging mother, newly migrated to the United States, tries to make her new home feel more familiar by cleaning every nook and cranny of her son’s apartment, even if she is besieged by homesickness for Hinoba-an [a town in southern Negros], the ghosts of her own troubled past, and the specter of not being aware of her son’s homosexuality.
This gay theme is also touched on by Elsa Martinez Coscolluela’s short story, “After This, Our Exile,” which won Third Prize at the Palanca Awards in 1972. Told from the point of a view of a girl adopted by a landed Bacolod family, it chronicles the various personal tragedies that befall this family—all of them springing from the patriarch’s raging machismo. This invariably destroys the lives of everyone in the family, including the scion who becomes an activist who turns his back on his sugar roots after suffering the years of indignities wrought on him by his father who is disappointed by his “effeminate” ways. The story is also an indictment of Negrense society, and how it coddles societal ills by its acceptance of dangerous machismo, as well as embrace of a worldview that treats plantation workers—the sacadas—as vermin to be constantly put in their place.
This repudiation of machismo is also evident in Jose V. Montebon Jr.’s short story, “Bottle Full of Smoke,” which won Second Prize at the 1954 Philippines Free Press Short Story Contest. In this painful tale of family strife, a boy witnesses the abuses heaped by his alcoholic father on his mother—and proceeds to do the only thing he could to even the pain.
In Alana Leilani Cabrera-Narciso’s creative nonfiction piece, “Psalms,” we don’t get a family wrecked by an abusive alcoholic father—but nonetheless, it is a tale about a young daughter coming to terms with her father’s unbending strictness that governs their spiritual life, and how this is tested by a freak accident which changes their lives.
Not everything familial in this issue is painted in strife and struggles. In Albertha Lachmi Obut’s children’s story, “The Moon has Many Shapes,” we get a reprieve: it is the story of a young boy who lives in a world that only knows Day, but hears of a world that is somehow governed by Night. One day, in his reverie about that unknown world, his grandfather comes along to give him a story that may fire up the young boy’s courage to pursue what is not known.
The poems in this issue, however, stray from the thematic thread of the prose pieces. In F. Jordan Carnice’s suite of two poems, we get a mediation on garden life informed by the long lockdown of the pandemic, and we get a play at definition for a word that promises a multipliicity of meanings. In Jhion Jan Navarro’s “Kay Tuman ka Gabok sang Lawas,” we get two Hiligaynon binalaybays that maps emotional geography of a city. We get the same treatment in Simon Anton Diego Baena’s “Orison,” a short poem that that traces the phantoms of a rainy day in his hometown of Bais—a yearning for meaning that is also reflected in Junelie Velonta’s “Bright Lights on the Water’s Surface,” which does the same for Dumaguete with the persona confronting the dark waters off the Rizal Boulevard.