After releasing forty consecutive monthly issues, Cotabato Literary Journal ceased operation this year, but it has nothing to do with the pandemic, which has been the main reason for the restrictions, cancellations, dissolutions, and sudden deaths of a myriad of things. Maintaining an unfunded online publication, or any literary endeavor for that matter, is simply full of challenges even in the best of times. We are momentarily back for this special issue—a collection of essays on natural phenomena and the supernatural, gathered with the help of cultural worker and multi-awarded essayist Wilfredo Pascual, who comes from outside the region but was declared adopted son of General Santos City a couple of years ago.
In “Nalulunod Din ang Mga Isda,” Rexcel Samulde narrates how a massive fish kill, specifically the repulsive smell that it emits, ruined a supposedly idyllic getaway to Lake Sebu, arguably the most famous tourism destination in the region. The essayist explores various explanations for the calamity, including barbers’ tales, scientific theories, and T’boli myths. He also shares a family tragedy and some personal experiences related to the lake and the smell of death. By using olfactory sensations and associations to make sense of a phenomenon, Samulde gives readers something unique and scintillating.
Another work about nature’s wrath is “Ang Ikawalong Salot,” Arville Villaflor Setanos’s musings on locusts, abominable pests for farmers and delicacy for many people in the region. Eating fried locusts reminds the essayist of his childhood, particularly the summer vacations that he used to spend in his grandparents’ village, where he became friends with some boys in the neighborhood. Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, the essay shows that a locust infestation is devastating but the human spirit is not easily broken.
Lino Gayanilo Jr.’s “Sa Ikalawang Yugto ng Yanggaw” is about the harrowing experience of an Ilonggo family when one of their members exhibited bizarre and eventually violent behavior, prompting them to believe that he was turning into an aswang. Skeptics and medical professionals would argue that the man had psychotic episodes, but the essay is more concerned with how people in farming communities typically deal with such a matter. Although the story is secondhand information, Gayanilo deftly presents it as an intimate portrait of a family trapped in uncertainty, helplessness, and mounting terror, culminating in a scene where the mother asks a neighbor to prepare his gun and shoot her son in case he finally grows wings and flies into the night, fully transformed into a diabolical creature.
In “Leping ni Ama,” DM Gasparillo Adil II shares an open secret of his family—his departed father has a spirit-twin that guards their home and that they in turn take care of in ways that many people would find strange and even creepy, such as keeping a dollhouse for it and assigning it a seat at the dining table. Although proud of Maguindanao culture, the essayist has been uneasy with his family’s beliefs and practices because these beliefs sometimes defy logic, the family is living in a predominantly Christian city, and a ritual that was once performed on him was meant to suppress his sexuality, invalidating his identity. The essay navigates between tradition and modernity, filial piety and self-assertion, nostalgia and objectivity—a wonderful read altogether.
In “Sanib,” Hannah Adtoon Leceña recounts the series of demonic possessions, which was perhaps a case of mass hysteria, in the school where she teaches. One of the victims is even said to have died and been resurrected, later becoming a faith healer with hundreds of patients flocking to her house. The essayist looks back at the experience with skepticism and awe. She seeks for practical answers, but the inexplicable scenes she witnessed and became part of—and the predisposition of the people around her to believe in the supernatural—were overwhelming. With her knack for storytelling, Leceña reveals how a strange experience can leave its marks on a commmunity and transform a member of it.
Another piece about small-town life is “Ang Sigbin, Si Natoy, at ang mga Kambing” by Jeffriel Cabca Buan. The essayist’s village, which has a history of violence, was blanketed in another kind of fear when domestic goats started to turn up dead in their owners’ backyards. The animals were eviscerated and sucked dry of blood, leading the villagers to believe that a vicious mythical creature was on the prowl. The creature was even rumored to have appeared to a deaf man. By turns satirical and self-deprecating, the essay shows that stepping out of an environment alters perspectives.
Portrayed in a more positive light is the community in Roland Dalisay Maran’s “Si Smaleng.” The indigenous cultural community at the top of the mountain had to work together one day when a toddler went missing. As believed by the members of the community and deduced by a healer next town, the toddler was a victim of an evil creature that could imitate the appearance of any person and takes away children. It’s interesting to note that the people in the village did not ask for help from the authorities, an indication of self-reliance, lack of access to government services, or both. Simple and fluid, the essay gives us a glimpse of Blaan beliefs and of communal relationship.
Another essay that touches on indigenous culture is “Lipak” by John Dave B. Pacheco. Tagakaolos believe that making fun of animals has an instant, serious punishment—a lightning would strike the offender. When he was nine, the essayist played with a crab and, as a result, experienced inadvertent ostracism. The community wanted to help him, but most of them didn’t have the knowledge or means to avert the lightning and were afraid of being struck by it along with him. Even if readers don’t believe that jokes and meteorological phenomena are connected, it’s difficult not to empathize with a child who believes that he is going to die any moment. There is also so much more to this essay than what is discussed. In light of the world’s current situation, we must change our ways by changing our views, and we can learn a thing or two from indigenous peoples, especially on their relationship with nature.
In “Tayhup,” Luis B. Bahay Jr. shares the memories that he had with his departed father, a healer who specialized in animal bites and used simple rituals and homemade oil. Every so often, the essayist served as his father’s assistant, and he witnessed many a patient get healed. In his eyes, his father was a good man, the ability to heal a gift from God, but for religious people, it’s the opposite. Not only once did he hear them say that faith healing was the devil’s work, and in response, all he could do was retreat in quiet indignation. The essay is a reminder that truth for one may not be for another and truth for many is rarely for all.
Martsu Ressan Ladia, who was born blind in the left eye and with severely limited vision in the right, shares his journey in life in “Ang Paghahanap sa Nawawalang Liwanag.” Doctors diagnosed Ladia with retinopathy of prematurity, but a Kalagan healer said that his condition was caused by something that his mother had seen or was not supposed to see. His mother corroborated the healer’s explanation—she had watched an eclipse while pregnant. When an eclipse occurred recently, it made Ladia recall that far more than the literal darkness, blind people struggle with the metaphorical darkness created by the ignorance, prejudice, and lack of empathy by those who have normal eyesight.
All these essays were longlisted at the third edition of Lagulad Prize, a competition that Cotabato Literary Journal conceived with Blaise Francisco, a writer from General Santos City that is now based abroad. In this year’s competition, organized with Wilfredo Pascual, the shortlisted entries were revised under the supervision of Pascual and other distinguished writers from outside the region, namely, Romulo P. Baquiran Jr., Franklin Cimatu, Allan N. Derain, Eugene Y. Evasco, and Danilo Francisco M. Reyes. These essays show what the region has and is capable of—rich cultures, perceptive storytellers, distinct literature. May we be able to write more in these trying times. Stay at home and read.
Senator Ninoy Aquino, Sultan Kudarat