Penman No. 249: Literature in the Time of Tokhang (1)


Penman for Monday, May 1, 2017


I WAS honored to be invited by the Writers Union of the Philippines (also known as Umpil, the Unyon ng Manunulat sa Pilipinas) to give the keynote speech at their annual congress last Saturday, April 29, at Ateneo de Manila University. Here’s the first part of what I said, with the conclusion to follow next week.

I’ve been asked to speak on the subject of “Literature in the Time of Tokhang,” and I’m sure we will all agree that no topic could be timelier and more troubling. I suspect that I was chosen to stand here today much less for any eloquence than for the simple fact that, even peripherally, my family can count personal losses in this sordid war. As many of you know, I wrote a piece for Esquire magazine last year, recounting a horrific moment that no family should ever have to undergo. Let me just read a paragraph from that essay:

“My wife Beng and I were in San Diego late this July, visiting family and taking in the harmless lunacy of Comic-Con, when we received the numbing news that Lauren Kristel Rosales, the girlfriend of Beng’s nephew Gab, had been shot dead by a man as she was taking a jeepney ride to work. We found a picture online of Lauren slumped face down on the floor of the jeep, clutching her bag, and it was the most heartbreaking sight I’d seen, the pain of which Beng’s wails could only scratch at. I’d come across ghastlier crime scenes as a sometime police reporter, but this one hit home and hit hard; she was someone we knew and cared for, someone who occasionally dropped by with Gab and whom we shared Christmas lunches with. We had flown to the US for a family vacation, and were flying home to a family funeral.”

As if this wasn’t terrible enough, three months after Lauren was murdered, her brother JR—a newlywed young man who had flown home from his job in the UK to pursue his sister’s case—was himself shot dead by a motorcycle-riding gunman who remains unknown, like his sister’s assailant, to this day.

To be fair—a word that seems hopelessly inappropriate in these circumstances—no one except the killers and their handlers can say for sure if these murders were part of the government’s so-called war on drugs. Neither was a drug user, and the police themselves would admit that neither Lauren nor JR was on their list of suspects. But these murders happened in an environment and in a manner that, as crime waves and police campaigns typically do, anonymized both victims and perpetrators, and tossed them all into a wide-mouthed meat grinder that crushed not only flesh and bone but guilt and innocence together.

The term “tokhang” itself is a corrupted word, a portmanteau of the Cebuano words toktok and hangyo, or “knock” and “plead”—the very embodiment of courtesy and consideration, conjuring the image of a uniformed policeman, his cap in hand, knocking on the door of a suspect’s home and politely seeking information or cooperation. In practice, tokhang has become its opposite: the gentle knock has become the kick of a booted heel, the cap a gun, and the appeal a barked command.

As writers and storytellers, we have to marvel not only at the terminal efficiency of this process, but also at the facility with which this brief narrative arc has become a cliché—and like all clichés has left us increasingly benumbed and unsurprised. In a sense, this is the true victory of the war on drugs—the capture of the passive mind, and its habituation to systematic terror.

As our friend and fellow writer Fr. Albert Alejo put it, “Sanayan lang ang pagpatay”—“Killing is something you get used to.” We’ve gotten used not only to the killings, but to the stories about them, to the telling and to the listening. And we all know by now how that basic story runs: Juan was a drug addict, so the police went to arrest him, but he resisted arrest, and was therefore shot and killed—probably the fifth or the sixth encounter of its kind in a long day’s war waged by the noble agents of the law against crime and evil.

In this situation, what can writers who have not surrendered their conscience and their writerly inquisitiveness do?

Writers come in many forms and functions, which at one time or other may overlap. In this audience here today are not only fictionists, poets, playwrights, and essayists but also journalists, editors, copywriters, screenwriters, bloggers, and propagandists of all kinds and persuasions. What unites us is the written word—and, increasingly these days, the visible image.

I often tell foreign audiences that we Filipinos can be very proud of our writers and literary resources. We have one of the world’s freest presses and social media, where no topic and no personage is taboo.

But this is accompanied by an awful irony: for all our vaunted liberties, the Philippines is also one of the deadliest countries for journalists in the world—according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, it ranked second only to Iraq in 2013. We have only to think of Maguindanao to remember and to understand that, politically, it is the frontline journalist who takes the greatest risks and sustains the most grievous losses in the battle for the Filipino mind.

By comparison, we fictionists and poets have it easy. Politicians read newspapers, not novels; bureaucrats and generals can’t understand Cirilo Bautista and Gemino Abad (and I’m not sure I do, either). Creative writing hardly pays us anything, but we can say whatever we want and reasonably expect to stay alive and ambulant. Nobody in this country ever got killed or imprisoned in recent times because of a novel or a story. Neither has a Filipino despot been deposed because of a play or a poem. Journalism, on the other hand, can be a lethal enterprise, especially if you live and work far away from the glare of the metropolis.

It’s worth noting, of course, that we have brought down three presidents—Marcos, Estrada, and Arroyo—by means of media other than print. The massive street revolt that drove Ferdinand Marcos away in 1986 was called for on radio; the movement that hounded Joseph Estrada out of office in 2001 ballooned over SMS; Gloria Arroyo’s disgraceful behavior in 2005 went all over the Internet. I fearlessly predict that the next Philippine revolution—whenever that will be and for whatever cause—will not be sparked by a novel, but by a viral video.

But again, between now and then, what’s a writer to do?

(Conclusion next week. Image from gmanews.)

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