Friends, lovers of literature, dreamers in writing and in life, good morning.
When I left Davao years ago, I left in tears. My students gave me a truly memorable despedida – I felt that I was already dead, and their testimonies were eulogies for someone who had reached the end of his tether. Davao will always hold a special place in my heart, and I feel no different from Pres. Digong when he sighs in a special way and always yearns to come back here, to the consternation of a lot of people in Manila. “The city of my last breath,” the poet Ricardo de Ungria calls this place, and I always heave that same sigh when I utter the name of this beloved city.
I came here in 1999 thinking of myself as a literary missionary. After 15 years in Dumaguete City where the first writers workshop in the country was established in Silliman University by the Tiempos, I arrived here at the turn of the 21st century thinking that it would be a literary desert. But I was immediately embraced upon arrival by the founding members of the Davao Writers Guild – Aida Rivera-Ford, TIta Lacambra-Ayala, Ricardo de Ungria, Macario Tiu, and many others who like me, seemed to have idealized and romanticized their experience of the writers workshop in Dumaguete and wanted to establish one here, too.
Now it feels that that dreaming has borne fruit. My former students have taken the helm of the Writers Guild and I see a vibrant literary culture among the young people here in Mindanao. It takes time to cultivate a literary generation, in the same way that a single writer has to know how to make his writing, his life, and his environment merge into a confluence of what the French call “belle lettres” (beautiful writing).
I begin with this romantic or idealized view of Davao because I want to set the tone of this year’s workshop with this dreamlike hope for attainable beauty, a sort of prayer uttered only to ourselves, in silence if not in sigh. I did not expect that I would sit in the same panel with my former students and experience the thrill of knowing that they can do it better than I did: the dreaming of their lives into literary being. The young will be the ones to define Mindanao through their writing, and everything else will be the madness of art.
How do you get from there to here? From being a fellow, to becoming a panellist in the workshop? One of my regrets now is that I never got to sit in the panel of the workshop with the Tiempos when they were alive. I never felt that I had earned the authority to sit up there with them for I felt that writing was such a humbling experience. Now I know that it is only from the perspective of a teacher not a writer, that I could have justified sitting up there with them. One can never be an authority in writing, for you will always fall short of an ideal. We just happen to be here as guide and teachers to young dreamers.
Perhaps the best example I can cite on how to do this trick is my student John Bengan who, in 2003 (13 years ago!) was a fellow in one of the workshops here that I helped run. If there was anyone green enough to be salad for their batch, it was him, John the Bengan. I wish I had a copy of the very first story he showed me as proof of his greenness. You won’t be fooled by his pretensions now. Truth be told, I had no inkling that he would win the Palanca later and become head of the Writers Guild itself!
But John was willing to go through an apprenticeship that true artists have to go through. There are no shortcuts in art, everything has to be earned. You can bluff your way through other endeavors in life – become an overnight millionaire by all sorts of shortcuts – but not in writing. When you’re lazy, you’re lousy; and when you’re good, you’ve worked hard at it. This on top of sheer talent. This workshop is a glimpse of what is in store for you if you take this path of apprenticeship.
And it is a long, hard path. Life-long, in fact. You will need to strike a graceful balance between the butterfly winds of real life and of dreaming to be able to perform this tightrope act.
John, I think, illustrates this idea beautifully in his Palanca-winning story “Armor.” It is bound to become a classic, a canonical story not only in Mindanao, but in Philippines literature itself. “Armor” is the story of a bayot named Ronnie who finds something to live and die for.
Ronnie is one big loser. He has to close down his beauty parlor in Mintal because his assistant has absconded with the money from the cash register. On top of that, Ronnie’s male lover whom he had supported through college (ang iyang laki) has married another girl. At the start of the story, Ronnie is down on his luck and has to go door-to-door offering manicure, pedicure and alot (haircut). Bayot, paghikog na lang!
And then one afternoon, Ronnie is about to fling himself in front of a truck when he looks up to see (taraaan!) a Miss Gay banner at the entrance of Mintal gym. He sees the light! He has found the meaning of his life! He has to win Miss Gay Mintal. And it gives him hope! He forgets about his plan of killing himself and sees himself “in a long gown, on that stage, spotlights beamed on him. Ronnie knew that he still had one thing left to do before killing himself.”
Now when I teach fiction writing, I usually tell my students to try to make their stories “propulsive.” The reader has to be thrilled by the plot and should be made to feel that they cannot stop themselves from reading until the end. And the way to do this is to make the character have a goal, a dream, a wish they really want to attain. This what they mean when they say “Something should be at style” in a story.
For many of us, winning Miss Gay is not worth it. It is too trivial to be the philosophical basis for the meaning of one’s life. But John ups the ante by introducing another element in the story that results in a dilemma for Ronnie. At the same time that Ronnie is obsessed with winning the Miss Gay Contest in Mintal, he also has to evade the Davao Death Squad. Ronnie has to escape death while running toward his dream of winning a beauty contest. The author gives a double push to the character in the story, resulting in a really thrilling propulsive read. A beauty contest, something we intellectuals, consider trivial and superficial, becomes a matter of life and death.
I don’t want to spoil it for who have not read the story, but suffice it to say that a judge in a Palanca said that John’s story stood out from the rest of more than two hundred (200) entries in the literary contest for sheer drive of story-telling, the propulsive engine of the plot drives it full-throttle. The grim prospect of death is yoked to the humor of kabayotan and extravaganza.
And so Ronnie puts the prospect of death at the back of his mind, and enlists in Miss Gay Mintal. The bulk of the story is a detailed description, so authentic only a bayot could have written this, of creating a campy costume for Ronnie as Miss Great Britain. It is a medieval armor – “cased in gold armored sleeve, the arm looked like it belonged to a knight. The warrior queen stepped out of the tube (TV) and crossed into Ronnie’s living room, blinding him with light.”
Ronnie is prone to these blinding visions, as if death, along with shabu, has made life more intense and deep in the living for him. The obsession with creating a Miss Gay costume – scraps he gets from the ukay-ukay, aluminium sheets from the talyer – assumes the cinematic thrill of girding himself for “a major battle.”
Against the odds, the story inverts our assumptions for what, philosophically, might be the most important things in life.
Question: What is more important than death?
Answer: Winning Miss Gay pageant.
Traditionally, philosophers have claimed that an awareness of death is the beginning of wisdom. But Ronnie, in this story, chooses beauty over death. It is worth fighting to achieve beauty even if one dies in the process.
The heart of the story is what psychologists call a “double bind.” A double bind “is an emotionally distressing dilemma in which an individual receives two or more conflicting messages, and one message negates the other.”
Death or beauty?
Beauty or death?
It is a paralyzing dilemma.
The person in a double blind will be automatically wrong regardless of his response or choice. “Confusion is used to make it difficult to respond as well as to resist.”
Ronnie is in a double blind.
Death or beauty? Beauty or death?
Or could it be that Wallace Stevens was right? Death, he said in a poem, is the mother of beauty.
But the story has an open ending. Bitin. The story leaves everything up in the air, and the reader is left in a state of suspension.
However, having lived in Davao for twelve (12) years, I would like to interpret this unresolved double-bind in light of the realities here. Now that Digong is at the helm of our nation and people have become aware of the uniqueness and complexities of Mindanao, the story “Armor” resonates with an even richer implication.
Twelve years ago, when I was new here, there was a bombing that killed many people at the airport. Just like the bombing at the night market a few months back, the event created panic and uncertainty. Death and violence was in the air. I remember quite well that time because when we received news of it, I was in SM City preparing for a concert by our school choir Koro Kantahanay. There was a small debate among us teachers: should we or should we not proceed with the concert? Death or art? But the worried parents of the kids started calling us, demanding that their kids be brought home safe immediately. For some time, I sat there on a plastic bench coming to grips with what I considered Davao realities. I almost experienced a blinding insight like Ronnie’s: beauty (please) over death. Go on with the show, I said to myself. The music you will create is even more meaningful now. In the face of death and violence, beauty even becomes imperative. Beauty was not trivial now; it was the only alternative to the ugly realities of life.
But at that time, we had no choice. We had to give in to the anxiety of the parents. Beauty, and the attendant courage to assert its primacy, gave way to darkness and fear.
One of the most touching, and at the same time funniest, scenes in the story “Armor” is when Ronnie, in his frantic search for a costume as Miss Great Britain, finally finds an ukay-ukay dress which he then re-fashions according to something he had seen or TV.
“Using a long stick with a hooked end, the shop girl took the dress down and shoved it to Ronnie.
Ronnie was close to tears. The silhouette was similar to what he’d seen on TV… Paired with an armored sleeve, the dress would look stunning on him.
Elated, he did not even haggle.”
What kind of dream drew would overwhelm us that we will settle for its fixed price in life? Ronnie is both pathetic and admirably heroic as he contrives to put together the dream costume. Like him, we have to make do with what we have, pick up the scraps and ukay-ukay of our lives and try to create beauty out of it. We have to look long and hard at our environment, at the people around us, and re-fashion them into the stuff that dreams are made of.
Davao, to me, stands for what is possible for our country. That sight, that blinding vision of whatever beauty we can rescue from our benighted situation, is an integral part of what we try to achieve when we write. I have lost my missionary zeal but I continue to dream that you will continue to be as foolish as Ronnie. We write for vanity, yes, for beauty contests hoping that in the end it is these trivial dreams that will matter in life.
At the very end of the story, Ronnie faces death, stands poised at the threshold of a new commitment, transformed by his suffering even as he has cast off his fake golden armor:
“… Ronnie got up, unfettered by his garments, his limbs springing back to life… His body shimmering, he cleared the rows of bewildered observers, ran beyond the exit, and stumbled into a sudden, cool night.”
Thank you, John, for the gift of this beautiful story. May Mindanao produce more masterpieces that will remind us who we are and what we can be.
Thank you, thank you.
Professor Timothy Montes read “The Double Bind in Writing” during the opening program of the 2016 Davao Writers Workshop where he was the guest panelist. Prof. Montes is an award-winning fictionist from Borongan, Eastern Samar. He currently teaches at the De La Salle University, Manila.