Fiction Making and History in the Era of the Selfie, Part 1

Nonfiction by | June 12, 2016

I am told that I have all of 15 minutes to deliver my spiel, so I will self-indulge by sharing with you a Subanon masterpiece—a whole epic, including its contextual frame and a considerable amount of my commentary on it—all of which I will squeeze into 15 minutes.

First the narrative frame, before the epic itself:

A gutung ‘monkey’ was looking for someone with whom to share a jar of gasi ‘rice wine’, which he was carrying on his shoulder—in exchange for an inadung, which is the Subanon epic. He met a babuy, who assured him it could sing the inadung. So they drank wine, and when it was time for the pig to sing the inadung, naturally all that came out of its mouth was the squealing of a pig. What did he expect?

So then, when the monkey next met an usá, who said it could sing the inadung, the monkey was a bit more suspicious and had to ask, “Can you really sing the inadung?” The deer assured him yes, and so they drank the wine. But when the usá began to sing, what came out of its mouth was its natural deer squeak.

Next, came the lebuyu ‘chicken’, which could only crow—and only after it had drank some of the monkey’s wine.

So the monkey continued on his way, by this time very upset that no one could sing the inadung for him. Finally, he met the bekaka ‘kingfisher’, and they drank the wine first. And lo and behold, the bekaka began to sing. An inadung. A whole epic, which went like this:

“Kaka kaka, libutlibut sa deklin, manguyud mantuayen, apunapun sa tuud, mangundayag sa dagat.” Translation: “Kaka, kaka, he goes around at the edge of the field, dragging his tail, then perches on a stump to get a view of the sea.” Here the epic ends. The End. That is the whole epic.

So now, let us continue with the rest of the tale. When the bekaka ends his inadung, the monkey is suspicious. Why? Here are the possible reasons to choose from—and now we have to make this up based on the minimal details that we are given in this story-within-a-story:

  1. Because kingfishers cannot sing, much less a song with human words, much less a whole epic. Despite the monkey’s desperate search for someone to sing the inadung, when he finally finds the animal that can, he is suspicious.
  2. Because a one-liner defies the very definition of an epic. Was this bekaka pulling his leg? Or worse, mocking him for being so stupid as to ask animals to sing a poem, and an epic no less? Was this bekaka teaching him a lesson about hubris, meaning not to desire to be more than what their nature allowed them?

But here is how the monkey voices his suspicion: The monkey asks the bekaka, “You weren’t using a bayok ‘an allegory / metaphorical story’ aimed at me, were you?”

Monkeys, you see, hover at the edge of the rice fields, waiting for an opportunity to go and eat the rice. So, the monkey was suspicious because he had seen himself in the bekaka’s song—and he did not like what he had seen. The bekaka’s epic poem felt like an accusing finger pointing at him.

But the bekaka replies, “Of course not. Why would I use a metaphor aimed at you?”

“Let me hear that inadung of yours again,” the monkey says.

So the bekaka sings again. “Kaka, kaka, he goes around at the edge of the field, dragging his tail, then perches on a stump to get a view of the sea.”

The monkey starts jumping around angrily, thus breaking his jar of rice wine. And the bekaka flies away. The end. That, by the way, is the second “The End” to this story-within-a-story.

What does the bekaka’s epic poem mean, do you think?

Let us go by the assumption that the essence of history, especially the history of a postcolonial nation, is revealed in epic poetry. The Manobo epic, Ulahingan, for all the magical elements weaving in and out of it, is a bayok, or metaphorical story, of the origins of the hostilities between the Maguindanao and the Manobo. One can say the same of the sugidanon of Panay, the hudhud of the Ifugao, the kata-kata of the Sama Badjao, and so on.

Thus, the bekaka and the monkey, despite the antagonism with which their relationship ends in this story, must at least agree on one thing: that if the bekaka was singing an epic poem, then it was revealing the essence of Philippine history.

On that premise, then, we can begin to invest the details of the bekaka’s epic poem with historical meanings thus:

First, the monkey as the invader—“He goes around at the edge of the field” waiting to harvest the rice that is not his to take. Here, the bekaka’s inadung is a bayok of the Philippine political system, for it reveals the power relations between the invader/monkey and the original owner of the ricefield, that is, the lumad. It depicts as well the economic system: the invader waiting to harvest the rice for its own subsistence, but stealing from the original owner, the lumad, the fruits of his own labors.

The next detail in this inadung is: “the monkey is dragging his tail.” Its tail is the monkey’s signifier, pointing to its identity as a monkey, or its specific feature defining its nature as a monkey. Interestingly, what I would consider the protagonist—the most important character of this poem—the ricefield owner, or lumad, is the only invisible character. Interesting, as I said, considering the procession of secondary characters in the tale: the pig, the deer, the chicken, and the kingfisher.

This reading of the monkey’s tail as a signifier, or representation, of its predatory nature is confirmed by another lumad tale in the Mindanao literary tradition, about an invasion of Mindanao by a horde of apes with tails shaped like a scythe—which we may read as a bayok, or metaphor, for the Muslim invasion of Mindanao in the 13th century.

The epic poem continues: “then the monkey perches on a stump.” We can infer that the monkey’s perching on a stump is motivated by his desire for a vantage point from which to view the ricefield, which he is about to rob.

How would the epic poem continue from this point?

Option A: The ricefield owner/lumad catches sight of the monkey and kills it. This is because the monkey, made careless by greed, has made itself visible by perching on the stump. Thus, the lumad triumphs and the invader gets his comeuppance. Now this is pure fiction or wishful thinking for the lumad because the reality is the opposite: In Philippine history, the lumad, the real owner of the land is, time and again, defeated by the invader. But such triumphalist, or Utopian, endings are permissible in fiction.

Option B: Or the reverse possibility: instead of the ricefield owner seeing the predator, it is the predator who sees the ricefield owner first. Having a greater view of the surroundings from his elevated position, the monkey invader sees the lumad and runs away. This still signifies the lumad’s victory, albeit temporary (because we can infer that the monkey runs away only to return another day, perhaps more prepared with ammunition and reinforcements). This kind of ending gives the reader a sense of foreboding at the end, the kind that one gets from noir stories. Or, seeing the ricefield owner from his elevated position, the monkey lifts its tail up in the air into the shape of a scythe, sending out a signal to its allies lurking out of sight, to attack and take all the rice harvest for themselves.

Option C: Or the stump is a foreshadowing of the rampant illegal logging and deforestation again perpetrated by the invader.

But instead of all of the above, the last line of this epic is: “He perches on a stump to get a view of the sea” —to get a view of the sea. This sudden, surprising twist defies our expectations of how this inadung should have ended because it does not seem logically consistent with the narrative elements preceding it. If this monkey were hovering at the edge of the field, waiting for the right time to rob the ricefield of some of its grains for himself, then why is he suddenly gazing out to sea?

So now, the monkey perching on a stump to get a view of the sea breaks the literary law of probability, meaning, this is not what we had thought would probably happen as the monkey was hovering around the ricefield. Meaning, this inadung has blindsided us.

And because this inadung’s end has surprised us, we must now return to its very beginning and reread it within a new frame of reference that is dictated by this last phrase. And this is what makes for the writer’s triumph—she does not fulfill your expectations within your comfort zone; instead, she has held your hand as you both walked together toward that last phrase, allowing you to read each detail of the story within what you comfortably thought was your common frame of reference. But when you get to that last phrase, she suddenly lets go of your hand and tells you, you are on your own now, kid; now figure out what that last phrase means—albeit still within the law of probability, still with reference to our world of material reality. In this tale, the bekaka, the inadung chanter, suddenly flies off, leaving the monkey alone in its bewilderment and anger.

It is the suddenness of the inadung’s last line that gives the reader that pleasurably painful (rather like an orgasmic) moment of floundering in a sea of polysemic uncertainty, which can only be dispelled by the act of re-reading once, twice, as many times as that last line will compel you until you figure it out—or until you give up figuring it out. Whichever.

But not to forget—this is a story-within-a-story. And we haven’t looked at the frame story as yet, which, obviously, is a fable—a story of pure fabulation—about animals drinking wine and boasting that they can sing an epic poem, and finally one that can, and so on. It is a story of the kind we are familiar with in our fables or novels or even our historical texts, in which, from moment to moment, occupants of roles make their exit or are killed off and are replaced anew. (Heneral Luna comes to mind.)

Of course, everything about the fable I just told you is pure fabrication many times over, and refracted through the narratives told by the various characters in the fable: the squeal, the squeak, and the crow—all these competing ideas of what our island story is, but none of which the monkey can see himself in and therefore refuses to accept as his inadung. Until he finally finds an inadung that he comprehends enough to provoke him into a rage.

What has caused the monkey’s outrage upon hearing this inadung?

(To be continued…)

Rosario “Chari” Cruz-Lucero is an award-winning writer and teaches creative writing and Philippine literature at the University of the Philippines Diliman. This keynote lecture was delivered for the opening of the 2015 Davao Writers Workshop on October 27, 2015 at Lispher Inn, Matina, Davao City.

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