In the summer of 2009, when I was fourteen, I ran away from our house in Davao City and decided to live in Polomolok, South Cotabato. At the time I didn’t know anything about Polomolok—or the entire South Cotabato for that matter—except perhaps that it was where my father had grown up, or that it was where wars, and so said the folk songs I used to hear on the radio on Sundays, broke out on almost a daily basis. Indeed my father, especially when he burst out during fights with my mother, seemed to be war-shocked. And it was of course one of the reasons that I left home: to flee from the war between my parents, where our appliances, instead of bullets, flew in all directions. But was going to an unknown territory, where real wars happened, the best thing to do? As a fourteen-year-old I didn’t know, and I just found myself one day impulsively packing up, having decided that I wanted to live somewhere else, out there, far away from here, from where I was.
Looking back, I’d like to think of that former version of myself as an “emotional refugee”—whatever that means—and perhaps I still am.
* * *
One of the reasons that Cotabato Literary Journal has been exclusive to writers in Region 12, since its inception in September 2016, is that it aims to highlight the literary works of “insiders,” those who directly confront, and have directly confronted, the daily realities within the region. The journal believes that such works collectively contribute to the ongoing discourse on the identity of the peoples in the region, or of the literatures in the region at least.
For the first time, however, the journal has set aside the abovementioned rule for this special issue. This current issue features works by “outsiders,” those who don’t live and haven’t lived in Region 12, and each work is about a particular place or thing in the region. We have works that talk of Sarangani and Cotabato, works that talk of the tnalak of Lake Sebu and the tunas of General Santos City. The journal, therefore, acknowledges that identity, may it be of an individual or a group, is inevitably an endless negotiation, or even a perpetual clash, between what we (the insiders) think of ourselves and what others (the outsiders) think of us.
“Hydraulics,” a poem by the late writer Jose Victor Peñaranda, establishes the need for oppositions in pinning down what we feel or experience. The poem uses contrasting imageries (“spring water” as opposed to “empty wells,” for instance, and “dry spell” as opposed to “rain”) to elucidate the “depth of [the persona’s] concern,” which for the persona, in yet another invocation of contrast, is “sky-driven.” To finally make sense of the longing the persona relates to “the heat and humidity of Sarangani,” the persona needs the image of “the underground river in Palawan.” The poem reminds us “to know more about hydraulic pumps,” about hydraulics itself, about how fluids (air, water, emotions, identity) flow and, if forceful enough, defy. (Cotabato Literary Journal would like to thank Ms. Jo Peñaranda, Jose Victor Peñaranda’s wife, for allowing us to publish his poem in this issue.)
Mark Angeles’s poem “Tnalak” recounts how a tnalak is made, from the libun’s dreaming of its patterns (“Handurawan ay ikikintal sa kanyang noo / ng milagrosang si Fù Dalu / tulad ng bathalang nanaginip ng mundo”) to her manual weaving of it (“Sakripisyo ang paghimpil sa blaba. / Kailangang hulwaran ay umalagwa sa bawat buhol at lala sa tela”). The poem also emphasizes that what we usually deem as contrasts, such as dreams and reality, are for the Tboli, like the interwoven threads of the tnalak themselves, ultimately inseparable from each other (“Ito ang mewet ng Tboli si kalikasan: // Hindi kailanman mapapatid. Maging sa bugtong na panaganip / magpapatuloy ito sa pag-ikid”). What precisely makes the tnalak a “rara avis,” a rarity, is how it deftly flows like a single current despite the contrasting patterns and colors it possesses.
In Rio Alma’s “Medyasyon sa Matutum” the titular mountain serves as a symbol for mediation, for being in-between (“Sa ibabaw ng mga tunggalian at alingawngaw ng bayan, / Sa lilim ng laging-lungting ligaya’t mga eternal na kariktan”). The poem, moreover, interrogates how oppositions tend to create hierarchies (“Higit bang banal ang pag-ilanglang sa halimuyak ng ilang-ilang / Kaysa putikang pag-aabang sa dukhang mutya ng saging?”), eventually hinting at their deconstruction (“Tingnan, sumusupling ang disyerto sa anino ng bawat piramide; / Ngunit sinisilaw ng sariling ningning ang nása taluktok”). Finally the poem, by extension, might be seen to offer two possibilities: the constant negotiation of cultural differences through what postcolonial theorists call “hybridity,” or the radical homogenizing and erasure of cultural differences through universality (the poem invokes images such as pyramids and ziggurats, and seemingly merges Mt. Matutum, “Mayon, Apo, Banahaw, Isarog, Kanlaon” into a single Platonic idea).
* * *
In Polomolok, specifically at Barangay Sulit, I lived with my grandparents, as well as with an uncle and an aunt. It was also where I finished the remaining two years of high school. At first I found it hard to blend in, language-wise. But maybe my bilingual training in my childhood years in Davao—as a child I spoke two languages, Cebuano and Tausug, for I grew up in a Tausug coastal community—helped me learn Hiligaynon easily. The population there was predominantly Ilonggo, but there were also Maguindanaon residents. The Maguindanaon words I learned, however, were very few, and they could not let me strike up a conversation with a native speaker.
In Polomolok I knew that my father’s paternal lineage could be traced back to Iloilo. “In Iloilo,” my uncle once said, “there’s a village where everyone is a Capiñanes.” Strangely I didn’t remember any time, back in our house in Davao, when my father had spoken in Hiligaynon.
* * *
“Ang Lihim ng Nakasimangot na Maskara” is an excerpt, the first chapter of Rogelio Braga’s young adult novel Si Betchay at ang Sacred Circle: Ang Lihim ng Nakasimangot na Maskara. The chapter prefigures a detective story, one in which the Sacred Circle, composed of Betchay and her friends, and their Ma’am Soraida fly to Negros and solve a “weird” but “exciting” case involving a certain Mrs. Weil, their client. The chapter also highlights the origins of Betchay: when she was still an infant Ma’am Soraida saved her from an armed conflict in Sarangani and consequently brought her to Manila. The most striking feature of the story perhaps, in terms of style at least, is how it mixes and juxtaposes languages (Filipino, English, and even gay lingo), as well as cultural references (McDonald’s vis-à-vis MNLF, for instance), which might signify the multiple and often warring realities Betchay finds herself and struggles to define herself in. The intricacies of how individual and cultural identity is constructed (or deconstructed), we predict then, would be further problematized and explicated in the rest of the novel.
Like the abovementioned story, Bernadette Villanueva Neri’s children story “Migo” also deals with a protagonist displaced by war. Migo, a Tausug from Cotabato, had to flee to Manila together with his family to escape from the protracted war in Mindanao (“nagpapatuloy na digmaan sa Mindanao”). This forced migration to Manila (which we have also seen earlier in Betchay’s case) might be symbolic of how dominant cultures tend to subsume marginal ones. In the story, moreover, Migo (as his name suggests) tries to win friends in his new school, but such exposure to a new, dominant culture at first disorients him: “Wala siyang nakita ni isang naka-kupya at turung kaya inayos niya ang abaya at huminga nang malalim.” Dana, one of his new classmates, also bullies him, making him feel that he doesn’t really belong to where he is now. Migo is now left with a choice: should he blend in, or should he assert his own identity?
In “Sa Dalampasigan ng General Santos City,” a poem by Reparado B. Galos III, the persona uses tunas, for which General Santos City is known, and the doomed struggle they have to undergo (Sa bawat pagsalag, / Sa bawat pag-iwas / Sa sibat, / Sa bawat pagpiglas / Sa kawit, / Sa bawat pagsupil / Sa lubid, // Hanggang sa tuluyang / Masugpo / Ang pag-aaklas) as a metaphor for how the marginalized sectors of the society inevitably succumb to the demands and pressures imposed by capitalism, by the ruling class. More importantly the poem tackles a kind of displacement caused not by war but by economic instability: “Ang mangibang bayan / Upang masagip / Ang ekonomiya / Ng bayan / Maging sashimi man / O naka-in can.”
* * *
No wars happened in Polomolok. At least when I was there.
My aunt once told me, though, that several years earlier, when she was still a teenager, the military had set up cannons near the plaza, near where the playground was now. The soldiers then bombarded the surrounding woods and mountains, she said, because they thought the New People’s Army (NPA) had camped out there.
My grandmother also told me about the clashes between the Ilaga and the Black Shirts during the Martial Law period. When I asked her what life was like during those years, she said, “Don’t ever fight back.”
* * *
In its call for submission to its current issue, the journal indicated that it would also accept works set in Maguindanao. Technically Maguindanao belongs to the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), but it is geographically and historically a part of Region 12’s reality. That’s why the journal has included Jeric F. Jimenez’s “Mula sa Kaniyang Humango sa Kanilang Lahat,” a poem that recounts the Maguindanao Massacre, one of the most infamous incidents in Philippine history, through a peculiar perspective: through the eyes, as it were, of the backhoe itself that buried and unearthed the victims. The backhoe, the poem’s persona, points out both its being a witness and an accomplice in the heinous crime: “Ako ang nagsilbing saksi paanong pagpatong-patungin ang sira-sirang / sasakyan nang lalo silang mabaon sa lupa.” This of course ultimately imputes complicity to the real witnesses of the crime who have remained silent, either due to fear (“isa-isang itinutumba ang nagbibigay ng simpatya”) or greed (“dinilig na ng salapi ang prinsipyo”). In the end fear and greed fuel the culture of violence and impunity that has hovered over the lives of the dead and the living.
“Sa Likod ng Ngiti ni Joy,” an ekphrastic flash fiction by Ralph Jake Wabingga, is about Joy, a Tboli girl, who is forced by her own mother to pose for tourists at their local festival. What we can notice in the entire story is that virtually Joy doesn’t speak: the absence of dialogue, either direct or indirect, might signify this silence. Joy says nothing, and the story offers only her emotional reactions like fear and anger (“Dahil sa halong takot at inis, walang magawa si Joy kundi sundin ang kaniyang ina”). In the story Joy is apparently “objectified,” a “thing” tourists can gaze at and take pictures of. Like Jimenez’s poem, the story reveals the complicity of the mother and Joy herself, and there’s nothing worse than being an unwilling accomplice in your own oppression, no worse oppression than being unable to speak.
Johanna Michelle Lim’s travel essay “Water and Glass” narrates her encounter with Mark, a Tboli skylab driver, during her trip to Lake Sebu. We can immediately sense Lim’s sensitivity as an essayist. She’s fully aware that essays, a highly subjective literary genre, always runs the risk of “othering” who the “I” talks about, problematizing the genre itself: how should we write essays about the “other” then? She makes up for it with the restraint with which she handles her narrative: tell less, show more, offer as little commentary as possible. The essay of course, on one level, is about the power dynamics present in the encounter between the tourist and the guide, the foreign and the local, the dominant and the marginalized. Lim is self-aware, as a tourist and an essayist, that she might be ultimately complicit in “thriv[ing] on the underdeveloped,” so instead of doing all the talking, throughout the essay she lets Mark speak.
* * *
To write this I had to call my father to ask him about cannons.
“What cannons?” he said over the phone.
“Auntie told me about them, Pa,” I said. “It happened years ago when you were still young. The military were fighting NPAs. There were cannons at the plaza.”
“I don’t remember anything about it,” he said. “I must have been in Maasim back then.”
“What were you doing in Maasim?”
“I finished my high school there.”
My paternal grandmother hails from Maasim, Sarangani. We have relatives there. Originally, however, they came from Cebu. I wondered why my father had run away too, why he had chosen to live somewhere else. Was it about war? Were there wars in Maasim? Was he an emotional refugee too?
I forgot to ask him, or perhaps I didn’t want to.
* * *
“Sa ngayon, ang panitikan ng Cotabato Region ay wala pang sariling pagkakakilanlan,” an editor of Cotabato Literary Journal said in a lecture. “Nakalutang at nakakalat ang ating mga gawa. Tumatahak ng iba’t ibang landas ang ating mga manunulat, at ang marami ay papunta sa sentro o pumapailalim sa itaas.”
Maybe the editor is right. And maybe it also tells us that our cultural identity—the identity of our literature—is always dynamic, always provisional, always dependent on who does the looking and what is being looked at. That it should always drive us to acknowledge the multiple realities we find ourselves in, to question the dominant forces that try to subsume us, to concede that we too tend to impose something upon them in return, to speak, in the face of being silenced, for ourselves.
This current issue, which features the voices of outsiders, may be seen as our willingness to engage in a dialogue, not necessarily an antagonistic one, in which we can reconcile and reassert our commonalities and differences at the same time.
* * *
I recently called my mother to ask her about her father, my maternal grandfather. He died when my mother was still an infant, but she heard a lot of stories about him, stories I also heard from older relatives when I was growing up. He owned mutyas or talismans, she said, including the mythical bangkil sa kilat (the fang of lightning), which made him do extraordinary feats like catching shrimps and crabs just by simply dipping his hand into the water. I wonder, however, where those amulets went when somebody hacked him to death with a bolo, but still my mother believes in them, the stories about his father, the only things she has in memory of him.
My mother has Mandaya roots, but I also discovered over the course of our phone conversation that her mother, my maternal grandmother, who is now also dead, had Kagan blood. My grandmother only became a Christian when she married my grandfather, a Christian from Zamboanga.
Maybe what I always forgot in the past was to simply ask.
To look back, to look forward.
“So when will you be coming back to Davao?” my mother asked.
I’ve been unemployed for a month now. My mother once suggested that I find a job in Davao City, where there are more employment opportunities. A week or two earlier I was also informed by a friend in Davao of a vacant teaching position in the university where he teaches. My mother also said that it might be time for us to live together again. The idea of going back to Davao, of returning to where I came from, however, has always made me feel uncomfortable. Davao will always be that physical and abstract space where I anchor all what I think of when I think of home of course, but I don’t think it’s where I belong.
“I don’t know, Ma,” I said, quite hesitantly. “Maybe soon.”
Jade Mark Capiñanes
General Santos City