Introduction

 

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

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Editors and Contributors

GUEST EDITOR

Jade Mark B. Capiñanes earned his bachelor’s degree in English at Mindanao State University in General Santos City. He has been a fellow for essay at the 2016 Davao Writers Workshop and the 2017 University of Santo Tomas National Writers Workshop. His “A Portrait of a Young Man as a Banak” won third prize at the Essay Category of the 2017 Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature.

REGULAR EDITORS

Jude Ortega is a short story writer from Senator Ninoy Aquino, Sultan Kudarat. He has been a fellow in two regional and four national writers workshops. In 2015, he received honorable mention at the inaugural F. Sionil José Young Writers Awards. His short story collection Seekers of Spirits is forthcoming from the University of the Philippines Press.

M.J. Cagumbay Tumamac is a writer for children and reading advocate.

CONTRIBUTORS

Rio Alma is the pen name of National Artist for Literature Virgilio S. Almario. He is a poet, critic, translator, editor, teacher, and cultural manager. He is currently the chairman of the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

Mark Angeles was a writer-in-residence of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in the United States in 2013. He is the author of the children’s books Si Znork, Ang Kabayong Mahilig Matulog and Si Andoy, Batang Tondo, the short story collection Gagambeks at mga Kuwentong Waratpad, and the poetry books Emotero, Patikim, and Threesome. He received awards for his works from Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Foundation for Literature, and Philippine Board on Books for Young People.

Rogelio Braga is a playwright, fictionist, and essayist born and raised in Manila. Among his notable works on theater are “Ang Mga Mananahi,” “Ang Bayot, Ang Meranao, at ang Habal-Habal sa Isang Nakababagot na Paghihintay sa Kanto ng Lanao del Norte,” “So Sanggibo a Ranon na Piyatay o Satiman a Tadman,” and “Mas Mabigat ang Liwanag sa Kalungkutan.” His short stories appeared in various publications such as TOMAS and Ani. He was a fellow for fiction at the UST, Ateneo, and UP national writers workshops and for Art Criticism at J. Elizalde Navarro National Writers Workshop for Criticism in the Arts and Humanities.

Reparado B. Galos III is a poet and lawyer. He was a fellow at the Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika, at Anyo’s poetry clinic in 2006 and became a member of the group in 2007. His poetry collection in Filipino won first prize at the Maningning Miclat Poetry Awards in 2015.

Jeric F. Jimenez is a graduate of AB Filipinolohiya at Polytechnic University of the Philippines–Sta. Mesa in Manila. He has taught in elementary, junior high school, senior high school, and college. His short stories are included in the anthologies Piglas: Antolohiya ng mga Kuwentong Pambata and Saanman: Mga Kuwento sa Biyahe, Bagahe, at Balikbayan Box.

Johanna Michelle Lim is a brand strategist, creative director, and travel writer based in Cebu City. She was a fellow at the 54th Silliman University National Writers Workshop and is the author of What Distance Tells Us, a collection of travel essays.

Bernadette V. Neri writes fiction and plays and teaches creative writing at the Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature, University of the Philippines–Diliman. She is the author of the children’s book Ang Ikaklit sa Aming Hardin. She is originally from Gabaldon, Nueva Ecija.

Jose Victor Peñaranda was a poet and community development practitioner. He was the author of the poetry collections Voyage in Dry Season (Sipat Publishing), Pilgrim in Transit (Anvil Publishing), and Lucid Lightning (UST Publishing). He received awards for his poetry from the Carlos Palanca Memorial Foundation for Literature, Manila Critics Circle, Philippines Free Press Award, Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas, and Philippines Graphic’s Nick Joaquin Literary Awards. He was born in Manila in 1953 and passed away in 2017.

Ralph Jake T. Wabingga is a college instructor and used to be a writer and producer for television. He was a fellow for fiction at the Davao Writers Workshop in 2017. He is from Sulop, Davao del Sur.

Abal

by Jade Mark Capiñanes (Nonfiction)

EXT. SEASHORE – AFTERNOON

Nobody hears the sound of driftwood being washed ashore. We hear only the waning waves, the shards of the sea, slowly shattering on the sand, the splinters of stones.

I am standing under a coconut tree, a few meters away from the shoreline, where my classmates are preparing the set for the final scene of a short film we have to finish shooting today in order to beat the deadline. Standing next to me is a boy, around five feet in height, holding a long piece of driftwood. We have been talking for some time now.

He has stopped schooling, he tells me, to help his father in providing for their family. His mother died a few years ago. He is only ten years old, he says, but his friends tells me later that he doesn’t really know his exact age.

Like a sailor, he places his right hand just above his eyebrows and just below his semi-golden hair. He gazes at the sea, eyes fixed perhaps at some distant island. He talks of fishing like he has done it so many times, like he knows all the secrets of the deep. He prides himself on being a fisherman at such a tender age, as if it is his fate, his destiny.

He is a Sama Dilaut.

He asks me what the scene is all about. This is the scene my classmates and I have to take:

Jenny is walking along the seashore, where the sand and foam meet,
and gazes at the sea. She meets a boy.

BOY
Are you lost?

JENNY
(faces the sea for a while)
I’m home.

We see a wide shot of the sea, Jenny and the boy in the foreground.

The boy starts scribbling things on the sand, using the piece of driftwood.

“Can you please write your name?” I ask him.

He does not answer. He continues to scrawl things, now circles.

There are a lot of pieces of wood—short, long, bent, straight, small, big ones—on the shore. The waves might have brought them to the shore last night or the other. A twig is lying just a few steps away from us. I pick it up.

“What is your name again?” I ask him.

He tells me his name.

I clear the sand in front of us. On it, using the twig, I write his name. He looks at his name for a while. I notice his hand, the one holding the stick, is moving, little by little, as if tracing all the letters.

Our director calls me. As the assistant director I am needed in the set. Next to the name I wrote on the sand, I leave the twig. I run towards where the set is, where the sand and foam meet.

 

EXT. BADJAO VILLAGE, BAWING, GENERAL SANTOS CITY – EARLIER

Riding a van we have rented, we arrive two hours late. We were supposed to be here at exactly 7 AM. Along the way we had a disagreement with the driver, because he had not been informed that we needed to shoot some scenes inside the vehicle. Fortunately, after some negotiation, he agreed.

The road toward the community is steep. From where the van dropped us, we can see the majestic blue of Sarangani Bay. We walk downhill, bringing a DSLR camera, an underwater camera, a tripod, a clapper, three walkie-talkies, several bottles of water, and all other things we need for the day. We encounter a man walking uphill, carrying a large bucket on his shoulders. He seems to be so focused on his load that he just passes by without even looking at us. My eyes follow him until he reaches the entrance, the peak, where he puts the bucket into a tricycle.

Finally we reach the house of the purok chairman our production team contacted some days ago. I approach him. We shake hands, patting our chests afterwards. We are all welcome, he says, but he cannot accompany us further because he is suffering from joint pains. Instead a woman offers to assist us in finding the places to shoot in and looking for the boats to rent. We agree.

The kind woman then leads our way along the almost labyrinthine community. But just as there are narrow alleys we need to pass through, so are there wide smiles on the faces of the villagers we come across. We arrive at their mini market, so small that there are just a couple of fruit and vegetable stands. She briefly goes to a vendor, perhaps her kumare, and I overhear her speak in Tausug. I start to wonder. Isn’t she a Sama Dilaut?

FLASHBACK TO:

INT. OFFICE – TWO MONTHS AGO

A professor in our university hires me as a research assistant for a project she’s working on. We analyze qualitative data gathered from interviews and group discussions conducted throughout Mindanao. I am tasked to collate the data gathered from Tawi-Tawi, which highlight the plight of the Sama Dilaut.

From the data I have analyzed, I learn that, historically, the Sama Dilaut, popularly known as the Badjao, are native sea dwellers in the southern part of the Philippines, as well as in some parts of nearby Southeast Asian countries. In the past they freely crisscrossed the waters, back and forth between their mooring islands in the Sulu Archipelago and in the adjacent island of Borneo, particularly in its northeastern tip, Sabah. Since the establishment of national boundaries, however, Sabah has become a separate territory and their maritime laws have been strict. The Sama Dilaut were forbidden to set their feet there, unless they have proper documents, which most of them do not have.

Since then the Sama Dilaut have been displaced, their traditional ways of living have been disrupted, and their plight have begun. Some of them have tried their luck in major cities in Mindanao, and even as far as Luzon. Here in General Santos City, a mostly Cebuano-speaking community, I often see them roaming around the city plaza, especially during the Christmas season, asking for some pinaskuhan, sometimes with a laminated document in hand. Until now I honestly do not know what that piece of paper is. At night, while walking along Pioneer Avenue, where the right hand of the monument of General Paulino Santos in the city plaza points, I see them sleeping next to closed roll-up doors of barbershops, drugstores, and banks, their backs cushioned by only a piece of malong or cardboard.

Our sense of space is tied to our sense of culture, identity, and, for French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, social production. The Sama Dilaut, traditionally, are less familiar with being on land than they are with being in the sea. In the city they feel a kind of “landsickness.” To live in urbanized areas, whose structure is shaped and designed by urban-dwellers in order to suit their own urban needs, therefore, poses a challenge for the Sama Dilaut, who in turn are further marginalized. That is why they are often forced to become mendicants in the city—which, unfortunately, is the stereotypical depiction of the Sama Dilaut, mainly because of our ignorance of and indifference to their history as a people.

When some of the displaced Sama Dilaut settled in Tawi-Tawi, where they lived in coastal communities called pondohan, characterized by houses and bridges built on stilts over the waters, and started agal­agal (“seaweed”) farming, some Tausug from Sulu encroached on their dwelling and livelihood. Being naturally mild-mannered people, they refused to fight back and were forced to leave. Hence, again, their displacement.

MONTAGE
– The waves rush to the shore.
– The sand and foam fill the screen.
– The sea is seen, majestic in its blueness, its currents
flowing in unpredictable and agitated motion.

BACK TO PRESENT

Maingat kaw mag-Tausug? (“Do you speak Tausug?”)” I ask our guide, using the few Tausug words I still know.

Maingat kaw tuwi? (“So you speak it, too?”)” she answers.

I say yes and proceed to share a little about how I learned the language. Growing up, I learned two languages: Cebuano and Tausug. Before moving to General Santos City several years ago, I spent my childhood years in a coastal community in Davao, where I had Tausug neighbors and friends. Some of my aunts, in fact, married Tausug men and since then have embraced Islam. My mom’s aunt, whom I call Mommy, also married Al-Hassan Adel, a Tausug, whom I call Tatay. Tatay grew up in Patikul, Sulu. As a child I would stay in Mommy and Tatay’s house, where I used Tatay’s binoculars to zoom in on Samal Island. Tatay inherited a big bolo from his father, which he claimed was one of the weapons the group of Lapu-Lapu used in defeating Magellan.

While I can understand Tausug now, I can only speak a few words and phrases. Malingkat. (“Beautiful.”) Pakain kaw? (“Where are you going?”) Mayta kaw byaan? (“Why are you like that?”) Kalasahan ta kaw. (“I love you.”) Katiyu lang in katumtuman ko byaun. (“I can only recall a few right now.”) Mataud na in kyalupahan ko. (“I have forgotten many.”) So from time to time I code-switch, between Cebuano and Tausug, while talking to her. But to use the language of the people who once took away a significant part of you, I think, must be difficult. If only I could speak in her language, Sinama. If only I knew a lot more Sinama words than abal, which, based on a Sinama dictionary I found online while researching for our short film, means “the rough water at the meeting of two currents.”

Abal, as my classmates and I agreed upon, will be the title of our short film.

But still our guide becomes warmer. I cannot help but wonder why, although little by little I start to feel more comfortable.

We meet some of her neighbors, and she tells them that I speak Tausug. Maybe because I am donning a keffiyeh around my neck, they think that I am a Tausug myself. They ask me where I am from, and I tell them where I grew up. They recognize the place, claiming that they have relatives there.

Our guide tells me that not everyone in the village is a Sama Dilaut: they share the place and live harmoniously with the Tausug. Much to my surprise, she says her husband is a Tausug. They have been married for years.

We walk on, and a familiar scent, as I take a deep breath, fills my nose. Petrichor, they say, is the earthly scent of soil moistened by the rain. I wonder what they call the watery scent of the shore dampened by the waves. Memories overwhelm me, and I remember, among other things I associate with my childhood by the sea, those little grains of sand stuck between the gaps of my toes. In every step I take, I know the sea is just nearby.

Finally we reach the shore. Our guide introduces us to a fisherman whose boat we can rent. I make an arrangement with him and, unlike the driver of the van, he agrees with the deal without qualms. Everything goes smoothly.

Around 10:30 AM the sun is blindingly shining and hot. Still we have to go to the shore and start to prepare all the things we need for the first scene we will take for the day. One by one, our director, our cinematographer, the fisherman, and I get into the boat.

Slowly we sail away from the shore. With our camera I take some wide photographs of the community as it is seen from the boat. This might be what a pondohan looks like, I say to myself as I look at the pictures I took. It also looks similar to the place where I grew up: the wooden houses on stilts, the boats, the children running along the shore, the sea.

After handing the camera to our cinematographer, I gaze at the village. I imagine the village gazing back at me: a Cebuano, in a community named Badjao Village, where the residents, Sama Dilaut and Tausug alike, share the same shore, let alone the same roof.

 

EXT. SEASHORE – AFTERNOON

My classmate who plays the role of Jenny walks along the shore, where the sand and foam meet, and gazes at the sea. She meets a young Sama Dilaut, the one we cast to play the role of the boy.

“Are you lost?” the young Sama Dilaut asks.

“I’m home,” my classmate says.

They both look at the sea.

“Cut!” shouts our director.

And with that our filming is finished. The whole production has been tiring, and our film still have to undergo post-production, but my classmates and I still rejoice.

FLASHBACK TO:

INT. FUNCTION HALL – A MONTH AGO

We are having our preparatory filmmaking seminar. I submit the screenplay of our short film to our resource speaker, a director from Manila. After the evaluation of manuscripts, he points out that I need to name the characters. “You don’t know the characters you have created?” he asks. “Not even the protagonist?” He adds that names will talk a lot about them, as well as how I feel about them.

I have some reservations about it. I think naming implies that I know exactly who my characters are. But the point of the story is that I still do not know them, in the same way the protagonist finds it difficult to know and accept her true identity. At that time I have yet to grasp what our resource speaker said, so for compliance, I admit, I give the protagonist a name. Perhaps only when I see it all, only when I meet them in person, only when I see the reality behind—and especially beyond—the screenplay, will I be able to understand it all. Only then, beyond this rough water, will I finally see that currents, despite their seeming separateness, are all part of a greater thing, are all just the single swaying of the same sea.

BACK TO PRESENT

It is getting late in the afternoon. The wind blows harder, and it starts to drizzle. We start fixing the set, but we feel we do not have to hurry. It is, after all, the last day of shooting. We take group photographs every now and then. For the technical staff and the cast, it is a day to be remembered.

I go back to the coconut tree, under which I left my things. The boy is still there, still holding the long piece of driftwood. On the sand his name, which I wrote earlier, is still written. Beside it, however, I see a couple of letters. Although they are somehow crooked, the small a’s looking like o’s with unnecessarily long tails, nonetheless they are legible.

The letters spell out his name: Aman Tapsan.

A Portrait of a Young Man as a Banak

By Jade Mark Capiñanes (Essay)

 

From time to time, almost to the point of rarity, a school of peculiar banak visited Panacan, the place where I grew up. They were a spectacle: if they had visited more often, the place would have been a tourist spot. Unlike the common one-footers that could be caught using lanit, they were roughly two feet long and swam in a group of around twenty to thirty. Nobody knew when they would visit, and when they did the place would immediately come to life: the children, barely catching a glimpse of them, would run over the wooden bridges that connected, like a web, our little coastal community; the fishermen would hastily equip themselves with harpoons, although nobody, as far as I can remember, would catch a single one of those elusive banak. Nobody was ever prepared for their swift, unannounced appearance.

Our community was a small purok in Panacan, a barangay in Davao City, but to this day I still wonder whether the purok was named Jasa or Jacona. When somebody asked me where I lived, I found it difficult to answer. Perhaps it is one of the usual difficulties you encounter when you live in an informal settlement, in which you develop a rather unusual sense of home. “Sa Trese,” or at Trese, was the most convenient reply, but it was not that specific. So most of the time I would say, “Atbang lang sa Macondray,” or just in front of Macondray.

***

Over the phone Mama told me she would meet me at 7-Eleven, in front of the flyover at Agdao, Davao City. I had just arrived after a three-hour ride from General Santos City. Standing in front of Ecoland terminal, I told her I did not exactly know where our meeting place was.

Naunsa. Taga-Davao ka unya wala katuod?” she said. She meant I should know where our meeting place was because I’d been born and raised in Davao.

“Ma, dili baya ko diri nagkabuot,” I said, clarifying that I had not matured in Davao.

Pangutana dira. Tigulang na baya ka.” She said I should know how to ask people for directions because I was old enough already.

I crossed the street and went to the jeepney stop. When the jeepney came I hurriedly got in and sat in the front seat. Pretending that it was my first time in Davao and stretching the act a bit, I handed the driver a twenty-peso bill and said, “Kuya, saan po ba banda ang Agdao? Doon lang po ako sa may flyover bababa.”

The driver looked at me for a second. Patay, I thought, basig mahalata na Bisaya kog dagway. I was afraid the driver had noticed that I looked and sounded Bisaya. He did not say anything. He just handed me my change.

It took only a few minutes for the jeepney to be full. The time was 6:30 PM, and Davao was filled with urban lights. In a single glance, Davao was a mixture of colors: it was a sky full of fireworks, notwithstanding the irony of the metaphor. Behind the red, blue, orange, and yellow sparks and specks, however, the black mantle remained: the night sky, the dark alleys. But like little moths, we were drawn to the light. So we went on amid and through the traffic that was already building up. While jeepneys move slowly, I thought, Davao changes very fast. I looked outside the window and an unlit building caught my attention. It was not there the last time I had visited Davao, or at least I just had not noticed it.

The jeepney stopped near a flyover. “Dito na,” the driver said.

“Thank you po,” I said. Apparently my plan worked.

I searched for the 7-Eleven Mama talked about and saw it on the opposite side of the road. Across the road and under the flyover, I walked, carrying a bag that contained five sets of clothes, just enough for my five-day stay in Davao. I entered 7-Eleven, found myself a seat, and looked for Mama. She was not there.

“Ma,” I called her. “Naa na ko diri.” I said I was already in our meeting place.

Paspasa ba? Padulong na ko.” Mama wondered why I had gotten there so fast and said she was on her way.

Asa na diay ka, Ma?” I asked her where she was exactly.

Duol na lagi ko.” She said she was almost there.

And Mama arrived after about thirty minutes, which made me think about her sense of time and distance. She looked significantly older and more haggard than the last time I saw her. I was quite sure I was not getting any taller, but Mama seemed like she was getting shorter all the time. Just when I was about to say it to her, she said something first, as if surprised: “Naunsa diay ka? Bunguton na man lagi kaayo ka?” She asked why I had grown a thick beard.

“Ma, tigulang na baya ko,” I said, meaning I was old enough already.

***

Several years ago I went to Sulit, Polomolok, South Cotabato, to spend my summer vacation at my grandparents’. It was supposed to be just a visit, but after some time I decided to stay there for good.

Sulit was totally different from Panacan. While Panacan had the sea, Sulit had the earth. While in Panacan I kept fish in an aquarium, in Sulit I kept fireflies in a jar. While in Panacan we shared the same wall with a neighbor, in Sulit we shared the same empty space within which we could exchange echoes with a neighbor. I may be exaggerating in the last one, but you get the point. Curiously, though, when it came to gossip, an empty space seemed to be more efficient a medium than a shared wall. In a week the people there already knew about me—and some pretty accurate details about my family.

Staying in Polomolok, of course, meant leaving Davao, where I had spent the first thirteen years of my life. It meant that I would possibly have to spend the rest of my life there too. Whether it was overfamiliarity of the known, or the desire for the yet unknown, or just plain teenage hormones triggered by a pretty girl named Angelyn that pushed me to come up with the decision, I am still quite uncertain. I am certain, however, that it was my first major decision in life.

Years later, after finishing the third and fourth year of my high school there, I moved to the nearest city, General Santos, to pursue a college degree. It is where I live now. General Santos, I think, is Davao and Polomolok combined.

***

Mama said we should celebrate because it was the first day of Kadayawan. She suggested that we drink at Matina Town Square, but I told her that I did not feel like drinking. Besides, I was still dizzy from the three-hour travel and was already starving that time. A simple family bonding would suffice, I told her, like a chat over pizza or something. (When was the last time we bonded as a family? I could not remember.) We went to Roxas to meet Justine, my younger brother, who now worked in the call center during the night and went to school during the day. He, too, looked smaller than the last time I saw him, perhaps because of lack of sleep. After that we went straight to Gaisano, or as they elegantly put it, “G-Mall.”

We ate in a burger house. Waiting for our order, which seemed like forever, Mama and Justine took some selfies. Later on they invited me for some group pictures. Looking at the photos we had taken, Mama again pointed out my beard. I needed to shave, she said. I needed to eat, I said. I might have seemed distant in all of those photographs, but I was there, with them, my seizing the moment being not necessarily said by my frowns the camera captured.

When our order was finally served, I ate immediately. Before having their share of the gigantic burger, Mama and Justine—again—took some selfies. While eating, we talked about how we were doing, how our studies were, things like that.

Papa texted, asking me where I was. I replied I was having dinner with Justine and Mama. He said okay. I called the waiter and had a take-out order for Papa. Justine had to go first because he already had to work. Mama and I stayed and talked for a while before finally leaving.

Uli na ko, Ma,” I said as we went out of the mall, meaning I had to go home.

Dili ka muhapit kadali sa akong ginatrabahuan?” She asked me if I wanted to go to where she worked.

***

After three years in the Accountancy program, a failing mark in a major subject, and several bouts with boredom and restlessness, I decided to shift. It was my second major decision in life.

In my Philippine Literature class, which I took up in my first year in my current course, our professor once assigned us to research on the origin of the name of the place where we grew up. That time I had no recollections whatsoever of stories about Panacan. I tried to remember the times the old folks had narrated tales of yore to us children during those long, cozy afternoons, but what I could only retrieve was the story of how Barangay Tibungco got its name (Tibungco, they said, came from the word trabungko, a mutya or a jewel taken from the head of a mythical giant snake that once roamed the place). Unfortunately, I had not grown up in Tibungco, a few kilometers away from Panacan, although I have fond memories there (I had studied in F. Bustamante National High School, a school at Tibungco, for two years: first and second year high school).

But of course the information was just on the tips of my fingers. I found the etymology of Panacan in a site in the Internet. The site says that Panacan can be traced back to the Cebuano word banakan, an affixed form of the word banak (a kind of saltwater fish; “grey mullet” in English). Therefore, Panacan roughly means “a place teeming with grey mullets.” A very long time ago, the site adds, Panacan was famous for its grey mullets; due to their abundance, fishermen from all around the area could easily catch a lot of them. But due to unmitigated fishing, perhaps, their population significantly decreased in number, and through time they became fewer and fewer.

The story almost appears to be a myth, but myths have a certain nugget of truth in them. It can be summarized thus:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there were many banak swimming in the sea and those many banak that were swimming in the sea left the place named Panacan…

Panacan was their home. But after many years they became just visitors.

***

Diri ko nagatrabaho, nak,” Mama said as she pressed the doorbell of a two-storied house. She said it was where she worked.

A boy opened the gate. The son of her boss, Mama said.

“Hello,” the boy said. “You’re tall.”

“He’s my son,” Mama said to the boy.

As we entered their front door, we came across a foreigner, perhaps around forty to fifty years old. Mama introduced me to him. The boss, she said.

“So you’re Annabelle’s son?” the foreigner said. “Are you the one with the allergies?”

That moment I knew whom the foreigner meant. Justine has skin allergies. Ever since he was a child, it has been his problem. Mama, I thought, is still the same. She shares too much information. That moment, too, I was afraid she had divulged to her boss some embarrassing facts about me.

“No, no,” Mama said, “he’s my eldest son.”

The foreigner shook my hand.

After that encounter I sat in their living room, which was bigger than our whole house. I looked at their wooden ceiling, which was very high. From it I could hear footsteps. Going down the stairs, a woman stared at me. She turned out to be the foreigner’s wife, a Filipina. I also met their other kids, who were all chubby. I tried to be nice. I glued a smile on my face.

***

The built-in thesaurus of my computer lists the following words as the synonyms of home: house, residence, abode, habitation, domicile, dwelling, etc. But some nuances of words, and language in general, cannot be fully captured by a thesaurus or a dictionary. Assassinate and butcher, for instance, are synonymous, but while you can butcher and assassinate people (which is not to say you should), you can only butcher, but not assassinate, a goat (unless it’s a prominent goat, which is still highly unlikely). As terribly clichéd as it may be, a house is not necessarily a home.

I once asked Papa if he thought about buying our own house. He did, he said, but his income as a glass installer was just enough for our daily expenses. A house for now was a luxury, he tried to tell me. “Kamo na siguro bahala ni Justine,” he said, meaning it was up to Justine and me.

Unya asa man ka mupuyo, Pa?” I asked him where he would live.

Depende. Mahibaw-an ra na.” It depends, he said. We would just know it soon.

Dili na diay ka gusto mupuyo kauban ni Mama?” I asked him if he still wanted to live with Mama.

***

As of this writing, Mama still works as a housemaid in that two-storied house. Before I left there, however, she told me about quitting her job and finding a new one. “Kapoy kaayo, nak,” she said, meaning she was tired of her work. “Ako ra juy katabang diri, all-around pa jud. Luto, silhig, laba. Kapoy kaayo saka-kanaog ug manglimpyo sa ilahang balay.” She was the only maid, and she did everything from cooking, cleaning, to doing the laundry. She was so tired of cleaning their up-and-down house.

Isa na lang bitaw ka tuig, Ma, mu-graduate na mi ni Justine,” I said, consoling Mama that a year from now Justine and I would graduate from college. “Makapahuway na ka puhon.” She would take the rest she deserved very soon.

It was not totally different from Mama’s former job. For two years she had worked as a domestic helper in Kuwait. When she came back she had nothing to do, nowhere to go. Since she had no stable income, her savings ran out, and her few pieces of jewelry were pawned.

Mama and I once had a misunderstanding when I found out she lost her money and necklace in tongits, a game she had promised not to play again. Papa said that her gambling, which I think was on the verge of being pathological, was the reason why he decided to settle for good with his new partner. He could not even remember the last time Mama cooked for him, he said.

But, as Mama would say, Papa’s infidelity was the reason why she gambled.

Mama had to look for another job, which brought her there.

Kamo na lang jud ni Justine akong pag-asa, nak,” she said, meaning Justine and I were her only hope. “Dili na ko muasa pa sa imong amahan. Lipay na siya didto ni Fe.” She had stopped expecting anything from Papa, because she believed that he was already happy with Fe.

Ingnan bitaw mangita na lang kag kano, Ma,” I told her in jest, teasing her to look for a foreigner. “Tan-awa imong amo. Nakakitag kano, kwartahan na kaayo.” Look at your boss, I said. Married a foreigner, now rich.

Mama just laughed. She accompanied me to find a ride home. Before saying goodbye, we went back to 7-Eleven. Mama bought some chocolates for James, my youngest brother.

***

Papa now lives in a house at Dose, particularly Sto. Rosario, just a kilometer away from our old place. Here are some facts: one, the house is rented; two, I refuse to call it an apartment, for it is far away from the connotations of luxury the word apartment has; three, it is plagued by small ants that bite into clothes, leaving tiny holes on them; and four, it is where Papa’s live-in partner also lives.

It is not the first house they have moved in since the demolition of our house in Panacan. The first one was in PDRHAI Village, which was also rented. But while it had no ants that ate clothes little by little, it had no clean source of water, either. (Maslow said that water, a physiological need, must be answered first before clothes, a source of comfort. He was right.)

Sometimes Justine stays at Papa’s, especially on weekends. On weekdays he stays in a boarding house, near USEP-Obrero. He spends a lot of his time in his studies and his part-time job. Until now I still wonder how he manages to do both at the same time. Perhaps he is more responsible than me. James, on the other hand, likes to stay in my aunt’s at Panacan, because there he can play with our cousins. But whenever I go to Davao, James goes home.

***

On the way to Papa’s, I was engulfed with apprehension. Several years ago when I had gone there, I was surprised to see a woman cooking in the kitchen. The woman, as I had discovered later, was Papa’s live-in partner. Papa had kept it from me—and until now he has never talked about it with me. I could not do anything about it but to accept it. Last time I had visited Davao, the woman, Mama had said, was months pregnant. I had believed it, too, for I could see her enlarged belly. It had been months since then. During the time I was away, I had never really asked anyone about it. I had not confronted Papa about it too, and something in me had waited for him to be the first one to open up. But Papa was Papa. Whether or not the woman had already given birth, I did not know.

Now was the moment of truth. I knocked on the door and Papa opened it for me. He looked at me for a while and said I looked like a hermit because of my beard. I said nothing in response and handed him the burger I had taken out for him. James, who had gone home and waited for me, was already asleep on the foam on the floor. The woman was beside him, her body covered in blanket. I was looking for someone else. I was looking for her child.

But I did not find one.

I went straight to the bedroom and changed my clothes. Taking a deep breath, I flung myself into bed. I could not sleep. Later I went out and watched the late night news. Papa was eating the burger I had bought for him. Except for the news anchor in the television, nobody was talking. Papa broke the silence when he asked me about my studies.

I said all was fine.

Now and again I looked at the woman. Later on the blanket slid off her body and I saw her tummy, still enlarged. If she was pregnant for months the last time I went here, I thought, how could she still be pregnant? Puzzled, I turned off the television and went to the bedroom. “Pa,” I said, “matulog na ko.” I told Papa I was going to sleep.

I fished out my phone from my pocket. Lying in bed, I texted Mama: “Abi nako buntis si Fe, Ma?” I thought Fe was pregnant, I texted Mama. Moments later I fell asleep.

The following morning, upon waking up, I saw James sleeping beside me, holding my phone. Perhaps, I thought, he played games. I kissed his cheek and slowly pulled out my phone from his grip.

I read the text messages, one of which was from Mama: “Naa man diay siyay myoma, nak.” Mama texted that Fe had myoma.

I lay in bed for a while, eyes focused on the nonfunctioning fluorescent light on the ceiling. Afterwards I heard a knock on the door. I knew what it meant. Going out of the room, I saw the woman preparing our breakfast. Papa was already at the table, taking a sip of lawuy, a vegetable dish, his favorite meal.

Kaon na, Gong,” the woman said, inviting me to eat. She called me by my nickname.

I did not say a word. I found myself a seat, trying not to look at her.

***

James Joyce calls it a “voluntary exile,” an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Joyce lived an itinerant life, but all of his literary works, it can be said, hark back to Dublin, Ireland, his birthplace. “If [Dublin] one day suddenly disappeared from the earth,” he says, “it could be reconstructed out of my book.” The book Joyce is referring to is his novel Ulysses, whose characters and events parallel those of the epic Odyssey, and those of the life of Joyce himself. Like Ulysses, Joyce was in his own physical and spiritual odyssey, and he remembered the shores of Dublin, his Ithaca, wherever he was.

The final part of Ulysses is titled “The Nostos,” a reference to the Greek literary theme of nostos, which means “returning home,” or in the case of the Odyssey, “returning home by sea.” The Greek word is also one of the origins of the word nostalgia. Home, perhaps, is just a reconstruction of the past, which encompasses all our staying and going, our arrivals and departures. It is created by piecing together bits of hazy images, faint scents, bland tastes, indistinct voices, and clouded emotions, which altogether constitute what we call memory. It is never fixed or certain: like water, it slips out of our hands the moment we think we have grasped it. Like the sea, it changes its form, has its own tides, and has its own waves. What we visualize when we think about home, perhaps, is just the sea in its quietude.

I am writing this in my room, in a boarding house near the university in General Santos City where I study, two weeks after my visit in Davao. I have been alone here since my two roommates left a couple of months ago: one graduated, and the other one had to find another work someplace else. The room contains two double-decked beds. I sleep in one bed, leaving the other one empty. Living alone, having a bigger space for oneself, is tricky. Most of the time it just means a lot of empty spaces to fill in.

***

The place of my childhood faced a part of Davao Gulf whose blue waters stretched towards the shores of Samal. Our old house, like everybody else’s, stood proudly above the waters, supported by wooden stilts that raised it considerably higher than the sea level during high tides. One time, however, the seawater was so high it reached our tabla floor; fortunately, it did not cause too much damage. Several years ago it was demolished, alongside some of our neighbors’ houses and some of the wooden bridges.

But a little part of the place still remained.

For the last day of my visit in Davao, I decided to see that place. In my visit I would feel that even though the majority of it had been turned into a seaport, it was still the same. There I would see some of my childhood friends and would be reminded of the things we used to do: how Ada, Alicon, and I once went boating and had the boat sink; how we were once chased by police officers when we joined a gang war of luthang and pellet guns; how we went caroling with friends, most of whom were Muslims, in Decembers; how they would invite me, a Christian, to partake in the food they prepared during the feast after Ramadan; and so on. There I would look at the sea and fancy that those peculiar banak were also on their own odyssey, still uncaptured, constantly looking for their home, but found it important to visit the place from time to time.

I got in the jeepney and sat in the front seat. I handed the driver a twenty-peso bill. “Asa ni?” he said, asking where he should drop me off.

Sa Trese,” I said. “Atbang lang sa Macondray.” At Trese, I said, in front of Macondray.

And I knew where it exactly was.