“It might not be COVID-19 that directly hit us, but our foiled lockdown plans, the emergency surgery, and being quarantined together reconnected us and brought us back closer than ever,” so goes a line in “Change of Plans, Change of Hearts,” an essay by Rezeile Eigo Brahim. The line summarizes the essay and reflects the message of four other essays featured in this issue—“The Voice in the Window,” also by Brahim; “Pandemic Drives and the Kindling of a New Fascination” by Dalziel Chaz B. Oyao; “Golden Fighting Cocks” by Romeo E. Tejada Jr.; and “Fleeing the Fly Zone” by Daniel E. Costas.
With a death toll of nearly four million and counting, COVID-19 has been a massive blow to humanity, and writing about it helps us understand our predicament, so in the early part of the year, the Facebook page Sulat SOX conducted a pandemic-themed essay writing contest with the Philippine College of Physicians–SOCSKSARGEN Chapter, headed by hematologist, oncologist, and award-winning essayist Noel Pingoy. The five essays mentioned earlier were finalists in the contest. (“Remembering the Bygones” by Rexcel Samulde was also a finalist, but the essay is not included in this issue because he’s one of the editors.)
The sixth essay in this issue, “Nang Minsang Sumakit ang Aking Tiyan” by Marvin Ric Mendoza Esteban, is written in Filipino and not about COVID-19, but it’s eeriely relevant since it deals with sickness and the Filipinos’ propensity to seek help from traditional healers instead of going to the doctor.
Death figures prominently in the selected works of fiction. In “The Long Road to Asik-Asik” by Erwin Cabucos, a man carries out reluctantly the last wishes of the brother he hates. Inspired by Filipino myths, “The Creature That Devoured the Sun and the Moon” by John Mark G. Parlingayan is about a boy who hunts a bird that turns out to be a vengeful monster. In “The Balut Vendor,” also by Parlingayan, the narrator observes the relationship of his departed grandparents with an old neighbor. In “Sa Layla Sari-Sari Store,” a Cebuano short story by Mary Divine C. Escleto, a seemingly deranged woman recalls a massacre.
Alluding heavily to Greek mythology but grounded in Philippine reality, “hamartia” by Julius Marc Taborete is a suite of poems about healing and healers. The rest of the poems deal with matters that are not related to the pandemic, but they were written during the pandemic. In the Filipino poem “Burol ng Kamusmusan” by Angelo Lenard Yu, the speaker bids goobye to his hometown. In another Filipino poem, “Ayaw Kong Magmahal ng Selosa” by Philip Jay Leaño, the speaker’s heart beats for things other than a girl. Also written in Filipino, “Araw at Buwan” by Escleto likens the fate of a couple to the fluid interaction of nature’s major forces.
Five of the poems were shortlisted in another contest of Sulat SOX—“Paghulat sa Imo” (Hiligaynon) by Stalingrad Samulde Dollosa; “Ikaw, Labing Gamhanan” (Cebuano) by Luis B. Bahay Jr.; “Keeper of the Unkept” by Ghermaine Marie M. Micaroz; “Kapag Umiyak ang Langit” (Filipino) by John Dave B. Pacheco; and “Langit sa Karimlan” (Filipino) by Jerusalem D. Nalig. Sponsored by writer Blaise Francisco, the contest encouraged poets in the region to write love poems that veer from overt, and hence sentimental, expression of feelings. In Dollosa’s winning poem, a lover waits by the table, laid on which are the beloved’s sauce of choice and a sweating pitcher, among simple food for dinner: Init pa ang sinugba nga tilapya. / Napreparar na ang luyag mo nga sawsawan: . . . Ginabalhas na ang pitsel.
The featured works about the pandemic are mostly hopeful, especially the essays since the contest encouraged writers in the region to share how they had been “holding on.” At the time, COVID-19 remained largely a threat to us. Transmission was sporadic, and the imposed community quarantine was mainly preventive. Now, after the government loosened the restrictions before conducting mass vaccination, the virus has spread so much faster out of metropolitan areas. Death has come closer to us, taking away people we are connected with—the sister of a former classmate, the friend of a cousin, our own grandfather. In the uncertain days ahead, this journal will remain steadfast on the side, supportive of frontliners, a refuge to writers and readers.
Senator Ninoy Aquino, Sultan Kudarat