I will be the first to admit that as a kid, I never grew up reading fairy tales. The lives of Cinderella, Little Mermaid, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood were never stored in my personal memory box. I have often wondered what my outlook would have been had I been initiated into these fairy stories early on.
I surely would have formed mental images of faraway kingdoms, talking creatures, and majestic castles. I would have wished to a fairy, befriended a giant, or believed I was a princess for a time. These marvelous creations might have fed my creativity as I explored endless possibilities of imaginative thought. Perhaps I would have also been more hopeful and optimistic about the world, looking at it with more shades and color.
I think of these, and wonder if my character would have become the opposite of what it is now, the product of my own fairytale life in the slums of Tagum City. In our own little shanty at Third Avenue, children’s books were out of reach. Instead, I battled the giants of poverty and goblins of injustice with my family. My young eyes took in in the all-too-familiar sight of hard realities. Too early in life I heard the moans and snarls of destitute fate.
If other kids grew up listening to fairy tales for bedtime stories, I grew up listening to war stories of my aunts and uncles who were former communist rebels. Instead of warriors fighting dragons, I thrilled to their tales of guerilla tactics and shrewd ambuscades. In place of princes marrying princesses, I became familiar with stories of marital infidelity and unpaid debts from our neighbors. I drank in the conspiracy tales of the shanties – for instance, the great fire across the street was said to have been purposely set by the land owner to drive us iskwaters away. Back then, it was not hard to believe what my chatty neighbors and communist storytellers said. I was living in their stories.
For me, the slum was my Neverland. It was the place where I used my next door neighbors’ early morning spats as my alarm clock. It was where they asked for my pet dog’s meat when he was hit and killed by a tricycle one afternoon. It was where Christmas and New Year were welcomed literally with a bang ― from pistols of my uncles. It was the place where I grew up.
Was I being deprived of childhood innocence? In a conventional sense, yes. As a child, I did not have room for imaginative thinking. I was pushed into growing up, seeing reality the moment I became conscious of my existence. But then, should it be otherwise? Should children be molded first into innocence by wonder tales, only to have that innocence dashed because they can never be true, just figments of imagination by grown-up authors?
Originally written as a film criticism of the movie “Into the Woods,” the panel lauded this piece as an example of a memoir. They found its approach fresh and its subject matter unique and arresting. One panelist noted that stories like this record life in otherwise neglected aspects of the country.