Introduction to Issue 3: The Ties That Bind and Unbind


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.

Introduction to Issue 2: The Other Side


Sometime in 2008, I had the fortune to be asked to form and moderate LitCritters Dumaguete, a fledgling group of young writers in Dumaguete — all of them students studying at Silliman University at that time — who were keen on learning about creative writing in depth, and were willing to go to great lengths to produce stories fit for national publication. It was a local branch of LitCritters Manila, a group led by Dean Francis Alfar, which was known for following a strict workshop and reading schedule, like so: every weekend, usually on Saturdays, the group would meet and discuss three or four stories by known [and some unknown] authors, and try to see what made them work [or not work]. And then, after three weekends of reading and critiquing stories, each member of the group was required to produce their own short story — to be workshopped by all the rest on the last Saturday of each month. This period, which lasted until 2012, was probably the most productive time I had writing-wise, and many in the Dumaguete group would go on to publish their works in national magazines. Many others [both in Manila and Dumaguete] would also win national awards for our efforts. It remains an unequalled time in terms of personal literary production.

One such story that saw national publication was Justine Megan Yu’s “Sweet Baby.” This story came about because of a writing challenge we posed to the entire group: they had to write fiction whose sensibility was the complete opposite of their own. One member of LitCritters Dumaguete hated domestic realism with passion, so he was asked to write one. [He made a refrigerator fall on his protagonist, just to end the wretched exercise.] Another one was of the religious sort, so he was asked to write a story that was in complete negation of God. I have never been known for my sense of humor, which makes me uncomfortable with writing comic stories — so the group challenged me to write one. [My effort, thankfully, was later published in Philippines Graphic Magazine.] Justine was famously a fervent feminist, and so she was asked to write a story that followed what we called a “male chauvinist pig.” She demurred, but she nonetheless accepted the challenge. The story she produced was phenomenal for its stark rendering of a character we knew she hated, and we encouraged her to submit it for national publication. A few months later, the Philippines Free Press accepted it.

This made me realise that sometimes going outside one’s comfort zone in writing can make for the best literary exercise. That “comfort zone” may be defined by what we believe, or what we know, or what we are used to in terms of style. You may call this your “voice.” Admittedly, many of my own stories are products of what I believe in, and what I know, and what I am used to in terms of narrative style — but I also find that sometimes going against my innate writing instincts, governed by all three, usually give me stories that are surprisingly fulfilling for me, although the effort in crafting them is hardly easy.

What’s on the other side of what we know, what we believe, and what we are comfortable with?

Justine Megan Yu‘s short story “Sweet Baby,” about an unrepentant Romero in Dumaguete forced to deal with an unexpected twist in his love life, is certainly a testament of what can be achieved when one considers the above question fully.

Bacolod writer Nicolas Lacson‘s “The General” also does the same: he confronts a towering family figure he barely knows, and sees that the ghost of the past may still haunt, but they are irrevocably gone. What’s on the other side of legend? Dust.

In Dumaguete writer Francesca Flores‘ “Multiverse,” we get a science fiction twist to a tale of amnesia and “lost” love, and posits this dilemma: what’s on the other side of another life?

And because it is his 98th birth anniversary on September 22, we have decided to include Duamguete screenwriter Cesar Jalandoni Amigo‘s short story, “Rain Without Meaning.” It is reprint from the pages of the 1946 issue of The Sillimanian Magazine. What’s on the other side of devotion and expectation? Hatred and disappointment, Amigo tells us in this story about a daughter, who could never measure up as a pianist to her exacting elderly father.

In our collection of poetry for this issue, we begin with two poems by Cesar Ruiz Aquino. In “Illuminatus,” Aquino derives playful dilemma from an interview with Negros Oriental’s Father Eleuterio Tropa, a former Catholic priest turned founder of an environmental cult he named The Lamplighters. [He died in 1993, and is buried in Zamboanguita.] What’s on the other side of your professed beliefs? Secrets you can never tell the world. And then in “Sun,” Aquino does his occasional exercise in revision of an earlier poem [this one has various iterations in previous publications]. What is the other side of “finished”? A poet always on the side of tinkering.

In “King of Comedy,” Bacolod poet Hezron Pios tackles one magnificent trapo of a politician — the offending person goes unnamed in the poem, but is not difficult to deduce — whose ungodly shenanigans pains the poet, who unleashes a magnificent tirade in this piece. What’s on the other side of bad politics? A lost dream.

In “New Key,” Dumaguete poet Lyde Sison Villanueva takes the metaphor of a key and fills it with rumination on memory, geography, even grief. What’s the other side of a jammed lock? A spare key that does not want to be useful.

For our essays in this issue, we are reprinting from the pages of Silliman Journal, Niccolo Rocamora Vitug‘s impassioned reconsideration of the legacies of Dumaguete writers Edilberto and Edith Tiempo and the legendary workshop they co-founded in 1962 in the light of recent criticism about their work [in English] and the claim that the Sillliman University National Writers Workshop is problematic because of its alleged ties to American imperialism, its supposed adherence to the tenets of formalism, and its insistence on only considering works by Filipino writers in English. The other side of all these is nuance.

Finally, in celebration of Amigo’s 98th birth anniversary, I have written an appreciation of the Dumaguete filmmaker and writer. He was acclaimed and well-awarded in his prime, and produced many great works that have contributed considerably to Philippine cinema and literature — but he is sadly mostly forgotten now. Only last September 2, a restoration of one of the films he scripted, the Gerardo de Leon classic The Moises Padilla Story, was screened by the Film Development Council of the Philippines in Quezon City. This was part of the celebration of the Philippine Film Industry Month this year—and the organizers forgot to invite Amigo’s family to the screening. This second issue of Buglas Writers Journal aims to rectify this cultural amnesia by devoting space in remembrance of Cesar Jalandoni Amigo.

Introduction to Issue 1: Home


The idea for this journal was conceived in 2017, right around the time K-12 was at the height of being implemented by the Department of Education, and there was a sudden clamor by educators for literary materials that came from their specific regions, especially those written in the Mother Tongue. It was a good time to introduce an online literary magazine that focused on the literary works of local authors — but it took five more years before the idea would finally come to fruition. The pandemic and its uncertainties certainly helped in the eventual realisation of this effort, but it was the desire to showcase the works of writers from Negros and Siquijor that was the biggest force. It was a much-needed corrective to the lack of local literary publications.

I’ve always been fascinated with literature that comes from my region of the Philippines, specifically both provinces of Negros Island [and also Siquijor, which used to be part of Negros Oriental]. In 2003, when Vicente Garcia Groyon came out with his first novel The Sky Over Dimas [which won the 2002 Palanca Grand Prize], and Rosario Cruz Lucero followed suit by publishing her astounding sophomore collection of award-winning short stories under the title Feasts and Famine: Stories of Negros, I found myself wondering what exactly it was about Negros Island that attracted and stirred so much imaginative storytelling.

Barring the [almost] hegemonic boundary-setting to the geography of the Filipino imagination as something concentrated only around the slums, business districts, and posh subdivisions of Manila, Negros [I think] comes in as good alternative as the place by which we have come to situate the creative Filipino. In films alone, Peque Gallaga [of Bacolod] have given us the quintessential Filipino epic Oro Plata Mata [1982], a cinematic masterpiece about Negrense hacenderos during the Japanese occupation in World War II. That film is still arguably unequalled in terms of scale and ambition—except perhaps by Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Ngayon [1976], directed by National Artist for Film Eddie Romero, which as a film makes a conceit of trying to define what it means to be a “Filipino.” Although Ganito Kami Noon is not set in Negros, Romero [of Dumaguete] has also given us other homebound masterpieces, such as The Passionate Strangers [1966], a film noir set in Dumaguete, and Kamakalawa [1981], an epic tale of prehistoric Philippines which people say is set in old Negros [or the pre-Hispanic Buglas]. But even if it was not Buglas, Kamakalawa was filmed in Negros Oriental anyway, employing locals as supporting players and extras, and employing Oriental Negrense backdrops to flesh out pre-colonial Philippines—from the rolling plains of Bundo in Siaton to the green niches and rivers of Amlan.

These are films. Literary titles about Negros, on the other hand, constitute a small sub-genre of Philippine literature. There are so many novels, short stories, poems, essays, and plays set in Dumaguete, Bacolod, and the towns and cities of both provinces, as well as Siquijor—and not just those written by local writers. It also includes literary pieces written by other writers not native to the region who have somehow been smitten by our specific Visayan airs, entranced or curious enough about our lives here to put their impressions down on paper. [Not always in the positive light, of course, but that’s part of the fascination.] Which is why tackling this very fascination makes for a great theme to constitute the very first issue of Buglas Writers Journal.

So what is it about Negros that tickles our fancy? Perhaps it is the Tropical Gothic [Nick Joaquin’s term] nature of the place—all these haciendas, old acacia trees, old churches, and old Spanish and American colonial houses quickly serving as beacons to ghosts of a very write-able past. Perhaps it is the intricate codes and manners of the Negrense social hierarchy—all those sugar aristocrats with their beautiful sons and daughters, and their mad, eccentric lives, and all the hungry hangers-on and downtrodden masa that surround them. Perhaps it is the sheer beauty of the place—think Silay City, for example, with its gilded mansions, or think the Rizal Boulevard of Dumaguete with its “sugar houses.” Perhaps it is Dumaguete’s intellectual air, and Bacolod’s snobbish appeal. Or perhaps it is the exquisite blend of the urban and the rural which Negros shares only with a handful of other places in the Philippines.

Whatever it is, the Negros in our minds has always proven to be intoxicating … and readable.

As previously mentioned, in literature, the list of stories, poems, and plays about Negros runs long, and for this maiden issue of Buglas Writers Journal, I have chosen a sampling of literary pieces which, for me, provide a rich enough tapestry of life in [and history of] the Island. Consider the selection a sampler—a meager one at that, since there are many other pieces not included which could also very well do the job of providing a map of the imagination of Negros.

The fiction, poetry, drama, and essay in this issue of Buglas Writers Journal are beguiling for the stories they tell, but I’ve also chosen them because they also provide the reader a great sense of place — virtually providing us a survey to the Negrense world in all its varied colors and textures, its smells and airs, its idea of joy and dread.

One of the short stories that do this best is Bobby Flores Villasis‘ “Menandro’s Boulevard,” which, beyond its story of a fragile friendship between two unlikely people, gives us a literal and emotional map with which to understand the stretch along the Dumaguete shores known as the Rizal Boulevard, and the denizens who live there in their so-called “sugar houses.” Villasis, who has written extensively about Negros Oriental in his many award-winning stories and plays, is probably Dumaguete’s James Joyce: his Suite Bergamasque, where our story is collected, is the city’s version of Dubliners, but concentrated on a single city street.

There are also pieces that sometimes go beyond the literal in their rendering of place, and make that place a stand-in for the symbolic. Such is Marianne Villanueva‘s “Dumaguete.” Here, the famed Bacolod writer trains her eyes on the capital city on the other side of the Island, and makes it emblematic of a family’s unraveling: for a mother and son pair “on the run” from Bacolod, their self-imposed exile to Dumaguete becomes it a dark, claustrophobic place that threatens with [perhaps imagined] dangers. The thrill of the story is delicious, and I love seeing Dumaguete rendered this way.

The National Artist for Literature Edith Lopez Tiempo also regularly sets her stories and novels in familiar places from her very rich life—sometimes some small generic town in Mindanao, and sometimes the Nueva Ecija of her childhood. But in many of her stories, the spirit of Dumaguete is endlessly evoked, even if they are camouflaged by some other name. In her last novel The Builder, however, she drops all pretense of cover-up, and states clearly that her murder mystery is set in Dumaguete, with ample mentions of nearby towns of Sibulan and Valencia. By the story’s end, we find the protagonist in the middle of Tañon Strait, battling both revelation and spiritual horror. But my favorite Edith Tiempo story is the wartime tale, “The Black Monkey,” which won third prize in the first ever Palanca Awards held in 1950. In this story, a housewife—on the run from war-ravaged Dumaguete—is forced to fend for herself in the jungles of Negros Oriental because of an injury that makes her a liability in their small community of evacuees in the foothills of Valencia. Even while the Japanese occupation forces advance deeper into the jungles in search of their like, her husband builds her a little hut by a cliff where she could stay and be away from the rest of the camp—with only a gun her husband has given her promising her a semblance of protection. And then the black monkeys come to disturb her.

Edith Tiempo’s husband, the equally legendary Edilberto K. Tiempo, also set many of his stories in Negros Oriental, but for this issue, I’ve chosen the title story from his 1992 book Snake Twin and Other Stories, simply because it weaves a magical blend of scholarly pursuit and folk superstition common in the region, while making quick stops not just in Dumaguete, but in the nearby town of Sibulan, as well as Siquijor. Is the folk belief of people born with snake twins true? The story explores the anthropological meanings of that belief, and finds itself delving even deeper—including a malevolent political reality.

Their daughter Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas’s harrowing domestic chronicle in “The Fruit of the Vine” is also a fine example of a Negros tale, which involves the domestic [and financial] travails of local sugar planters — a commonality the story shares with Vicente Garcia Groyon‘s “Justo and My Father’s Car” [a delicious, Whartonian exploration of the foibles of Bacolod high society] and Rosario Cruz Lucero‘s “Good Husbands and Obedient Wives” [a delicious, Jamesian exploration of the misdemeanors of the Bacolod middle class].

In “Valencia Drive,” the late Tanjay writer Ernesto Superal Yee renders the story of a young writer driving from Dumaguete to the hills of Valencia — and the whole ride becomes a tribute to the Tiempos who are the author’s mentors. It lends this truth: sometimes Negros is not just place; it’s also the people — especially if those people are as accomplished as the Tiempos.

There’s more to that Negrense world-building in the poems, essay, and play featured in this issue. In Augurio M. Abeto‘s Hiligaynon poem “Panay kang Negros,” we get an exercise of the historical and sociological kind as the poet examines the pre-Spanish migration of Panay people into the island then known as Buglas, and the culture and community building that soon followed. In Elsa Martinez Coscolluela‘s “Cuernos de Negros,” we get an ode to the mountain range that separates Negros Island into its two component provinces — this time rendered as a memory piece of harvest days and remembrances of family. In Myrna Peña-Reyes‘s “At Camp Lookout,” we get a mournful confessional of a Dumaguete denizen away from the hubbub of city life while enjoying a break in the famed spot high up in the hills of Valencia, which overlooks the entire city. In Anthony Tan‘s “To a Tree Near a Boulevard,” we get an ode to the nature that defines the Dumaguete shoreline. In National Artist for Literature Gemino H. Abad‘s “Casaroro Falls,” we get the story of a family hike to the famous waterfalls in Valencia, which becomes an examination of youth, ageing, the rejuvenation made possible by nature, and the waning search for adventure as we grow older. In my own essay, “A Field Guide to Burning the Town Red,” I examine the night life in Dumaguete, and how it has evolved over the decades. And in Mike Gomez‘s “Tirador ng Tinago,” we get an excerpt from his Palanca-winning play which satirises Filipino action films in its take of small-time hoodlums in the Tinago slum of Dumaguete.

I hope that by the time you finish reading every piece in this issue, you will come to understand how each of them somehow give light to what it means to live in Negros Island [and Siquijor] — and why this place, home to most of the writers featured here, is the wellspring of much of our literary imagination. Enjoy your visit to Negros and Siquijor in this issue, and welcome to the Buglas Writers Journal!