30 August 2016

Typewriter Altar

Typewriter Altar by Luna Sicat Cleto, tr. Marne L. Kilates (The University of the Philippines Press, 2016)

No matter how one approaches Luna Sicat Cleto's first novel, Makinilyang Altar (2002), the default reading of it as biographical and autobiographical would certainly be the one to generate a lot of meanings and ideas. Its writing was a form of confessional and, at times, even of exorcism. Rogelio Sicat (1940-1997), Cleto's father, author of the novel Dugo sa Bukang-Liwayway (Blood Spilled at Dawn) among many other writings, was the driver of the novel. In her preface to Marne L. Kilates's translation from the Filipino edition, the novelist admitted that "witnessing my father's passion to write was a painful experience, and writing about that pain was a mirroring exercise that could literally wound you with shards of broken glass." A wounding reading experience this novel certainly was, but it was almost a religious form of wounding, where the muse of creativity and inspiration was ever sought like a bashful deity to be worshiped at the altar of literature.

The novel began self-reflexively, with a lyrical dream and with writer's block.

I am about to pick up the book on the windowsill when I notice a flock of long-tailed sparrows fluttering down the branches of the tamarind tree in the yard. Briefly, I listen to their chirping, then wonder why there are no letters, no words, or no text on the pages of the book in my hand. The sparrows then fly from the tree as a flapping, fluttering flock, and with it the pages of the book fluttering to a close.

Here was Laya Dimasupil, a writer tentatively testing the waters of literary creation, clearing the blank pages for whatever forms of expression would manifest themselves into words, sentences, passages, and chapters. She resolved to tell her journey into literature and "sing the elegy of the altar of the typewriter."

The typewriter generation of Laya's father was now anachronistic. Sometimes I think of those writers as the last literary craftsmen, the ones who first carefully weighed the words, completed their thoughts in their minds, before typing their sweat and blood. No delete and backspace for them. No tentative steps but an already instantaneous finality marking the words on paper. Laya's father, Deo Dimasupil, was a domineering father and writer to reckon with. He could not stand the noise of his children that would perforce stand in the way of his writing his masterpieces. A former activist, Deo was the quintessential revolutionary writer and professor in a state university, always combative and opinionated. The materials of his principled art were the proletarian struggle for equity and equality. He was the writer of the people, the writer who tasted poverty and hard work first hand and who was eternally frustrated by university politics and false righteousness and posturings among revolutionaries and rebels. Deo could never reconcile the (for him) hypocritical lifestyle of national leaders and supposedly creative class of writers with their (lip service) literary cause and vocation. His convictions were always eroded by the realization that the world was an unfair playing field.

Amid her father's frustrations, bitterness, and cynicism, Laya's literary consciousness slowly developed. Though her father had his fair share of quirks and impatience, hers was not a dysfunctional family although her childhood was not entirely lacking in neighborhood and domestic conflicts (from relatives outside the nuclear family). Her family experiences certainly marked her for life and shaped her critical and practical worldview. The discrete units of memory (hers, Deo's, her mother Gloria's) disrupted and invaded the flow of Laya's narrative. The reliance on unreliable memory was a novel device to get at the crux, at the essence or substance or point, of a writing life.

When will he write these memories into a novel? How will he draw out from his life the right words, and the words into a novel that would respond to these times? The blank page from his notebook stared at him waiting for his pen.

Like Edgar Calabia Samar's first novel, Eight Muses of the Fall (2008), this turned out to be a modern exploration of the fount of creativity and the ways with which lived and remembered and imagined and dreamed experiences colonized the writer's blank pages to produce the first novel of the would-be novelist. Samar and Cleto's protagonists were equally possessed by (literary) demons. They had to get the first novel out of their system if only to make sense of the materials they excavated from their personal experience. They had to make a report of their spiritual sojourns into literature and to publish their findings.

The same impulse and literary sickness afflicted Cleto's accountant mother, Ellen Sicat, who at the age of 57 decided to write a novel after the death of her husband Rogelio Sicat. Interestingly, to begin the literary conversation with her daughter's novel, she also named her character Gloria in her two novels Paghuhunos (Molting) and Unang Ulan ng Mayo (First Raindrops of May).

But since this was after all an elegy, or more like a homage, to a father, the onset and progress of Deo's fatal disease finally exposed the festering grief and loss in the novel's center. For the mortal Deo, brought face to face with his impending demise, this existential crisis was the closest he would get to an imagined holocaust or auto-da-fé. For the impressionable Laya, the loss of a parent was harbinger not only of pain but of the loss of her moral compass. A subplot concerned Laya's unfaithfulness to her husband. An affair with a co-worker was presented like a temporary bout of lust and insanity, a sacrilegious offense to the typewriter altar, symbol not only of the altar of creative minds, but of the spiritual moorings and moral groundings of a person.

By the time the novel inhabited Gloria's memory in the final chapter of the book, we were already used at following the episodic mind of a creative writer. The relationship between reader and writer was already secured, in the same manner Gloria appreciated being the first reader (and reviewer) of Deo's writings and feeling "privileged" because of it.

And I knew where it started—my own voice had been looking for its own space. I wasn't a writer but he let me feel the fulfillment, the exhilaration whenever he finished a work. And I admit, it was a privilege. I could tell him what I thought of what he wrote.

Perhaps like Laya's growth as a writer based on her close observation of and fascination with her father's explosive temperament as a writer, the incremental cultivation of Gloria's literary consciousness had its beginnings with the daily observation of her husband's habits and a close reading of his writings. Tentative and unsure like her daughter at the beginning of the narrative, Gloria was awakening from a dream of letters.

Would she be able to write her own narrative, her own story? She didn't know where these musings would lead. But she knew she had material that she could write, that she wanted to express. She removed her name and began the narrative again by using the gender nouns "woman" or "man," and the children were simply their family rank: eldest, second, youngest. In erasing their names she was putting back the story she knew. She was not aware that she was now creating her own parable.

In the altar of memory and grief, the creative mind wanted to assuage its pain. What better way to find comfort than to follow the source spring of inspiration: to try one's hand at creative writing. Give in to the compulsion to write, inhabit fictive memories and fictional personalities, temper the point of view, hone the technique, discover subtlety.

Since the writing bug bit her she neglected to scrub the floors, forgot all about the curtains that had been hanging at the windows for, perhaps, three years now. When Gloria was writing, it was as if time stood still, everything was suspended. She had no morning, no noon, no night, so on that desk was parked a pink-lidded tray. Inside were some fruit. She'd peel a ponkan orange or a banana whenever she felt hungry.

That's Gloria Dimasupil now. My mother.

Laya and Gloria emerged as keyboard novelists after breaking out of the oppressive shadow of the father and husband. The "writing bug" that inspired them to tell stories proved to be a legacy just as lasting as the stories Deo Dimasupil typed in his typewriter, at nights when Laya and her sister would sleep outside their only room in the house so that Deo in deep concentration in his sacred altar would never be disturbed.

Typewriter Altar is part of the short reading list of Filipino women novelists in translation.

07 August 2016

Translation and its discontents: On Austregelina Espina-Moore's novelas cebuana, 2

One thing I appreciate in the translations of Austregelina Espina-Moore's three Cebuano novels was Hope Sabanpan-Yu's effort to add a translator's introduction or preface in each of them. Personally, I would like these introductions to appear as afterwords because most of the time they spoil too much of the story line, but the reader always had the option to read them for later.

Sabanpan-Yu discussed several translation issues in her preface to Where a Fire Tree Grows. The aspects she talked about included the tradeoff between literalness and fluency in translations and the dangers inherent in "naturalizing" or "domesticating" (vs. foreignizing) a text.

Since Cebuano is culturally and linguistically different from English, it makes sense to try fluent translation but without the alienating aspects of this particular type of translation. It also makes sense to translate literally especially when the goal is to emphasize the uniqueness of Cebuano. The language can be both creative and acceptable to English readers when translated literally. Because the translator "cannot possibly preserve all the features of the original" (Gutt 382), I allow myself to be guided by Jiri Levý:

In translation, there are situations which do not allow one to capture all values of the original. Then the translator has to decide which qualities of the original are the most important and which ones one could miss out. The problem of the reliability of translation consists partly in that the relative importance of the values in a piece of literature are recognized. (382)

Elements of the Cebuano language text such as syntax, phonology and diction, have to be brought into English, the target language text, otherwise it will no longer be translation but adaptation. I refer to syntax as the set of rules governing the manner in which words are combined to form sentences in a language. English is an S-V-O (subject-verb-object) language while Cebuano is a V-S-O language.

The translator then highlighted these issues by describing some of the strategies she used to deal with syntax, phonology, and diction while quoting sample passages from the novel. She presented (i) the original Cebuano text, (ii) its corresponding literal translation in English, and (iii) how she finally rendered her translation by analyzing and weighing the aspects of translation she wanted to preserve. However, the strange thing about this preface was that the passages she quoted in the preface differed from the actual translations contained in the text.

I could only presume that the preface was written before the translation was finalized and that the revisions made in the final translation were not used to update the quoted passages in the preface. If this assumption is correct, one unintentionally stumbled upon the process of editing or revising translations, with the versions in the preface taken as drafts and the version in the text as final. Here are some instances, with the original language first presented, followed by the "draft" (quoted in the preface) and the "final" versions (contained in the actual novel) of the text.

Mouna ka pagka propesiyonal kanako sa lima o unom katuig.

You'll become a professional five or six years earlier than I.

You'll be a professional five or six years earlier than I.


Si Jun ug si Lily namasilong sa sibay nga hulatanan sa bus duol sa escuelahan. Hapon kadto, sinugdanan sa Agosto. Nagbunok ang ulan ana sa usa ka panamilit tungod kay nanghinapos nang mga adlaw sa tingulan.

Jun and Lily took shelter at the bus stop near the school. It was an afternoon in early August. The rain poured down a farewell because the rainy days were ending.

Jun and Lily took shelter at the bus stop near the school. It was an afternoon in early August. The rain poured a farewell because the rainy days were ending.


Mainit, pilitpilit sa asin sa singot ang ilang kamot nga nagunitay.

Warm, their hands entwined, sticky with the saltiness of sweat.

Warm, sticky with the salt of sweat, their hands clasped.


Taudtaud, mahitungod gani silag tinukod ni Mr. Gonzales mohunong ug motanaw paglibotlibot. Human sa pipila nila ka nakitan, nangutana si Jun kon unsay ilang hunahuna.

Later, whenever they came across a construction of Mr. Gonzales, they would stop and look around. After they had seen a few, Jun asked what they thought.

Later, when they came across a building constructed by Mr. Gonzales, they would stop and look around. After they had seen a few, Jun asked what they thought.


Mao tingail nga ang mga tawo nga namasiyo sa Luneta niadtong hapon sa Mayo mohangad gayud, ngadto sa estatuwa ni Dr. Jose Rizal, ang hero sa Pilipinas – yutang tabonon.

Which is why the people who were strolling at the Luneta that afternoon in May had to look up, to the statue of Dr. Jose Rizal, the hero of the Philippines – land of the brown race.

Which is probably why the people strolling in the Luneta that May afternoon looked up, to the statue of Dr. Jose Rizal, hero of the Philippines – land of the brown race.

Whether or not the assumption that the final version is the one contained in the text was correct, I think that the small or not-so-small deviations from the quoted texts in the preface were an improvement.

Good and evil in Austregelina Espina-Moore's novelas cebuana

Ang Inahan ni Mila (Mila's Mother) [1969-1970] by Austregelina Espina-Moore, tr. Hope Sabanpan-Yu (National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2008)

Diin May Punoan sa Arbol (Where a Fire Tree Grows) [1960] by Austregelina Espina-Moore, tr. Hope Sabanpan-Yu (USC Press, 2010)

House of Cards [1973] by Austregelina Espina-Moore, tr. Hope Sabanpan-Yu (National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2013)


The three translations of Austregelina Espina-Moore to date, all undertaken by scholar and translator Hope Sabanpan-Yu, were but a small subset of her novels written in the Cebuano language. These so-called novelas cebuana were part of the Cebuano tradition of novel writing with distinct characteristics. Sabanpan-Yu described this genre as 'serialized fiction' in her preface to her translation of Where a Fire Tree Grows:

The novela cebuana, as the term indicates, is unique to Cebu. It is a novel published as a serial in local Cebuano magazines. Like the Western novel, the novela cebuana contains typical elements and the narrative usually progresses in a linear pattern. The novela cebuana does not deal with culturally dissident issues or with political matters. In the Cebuano context, the novela penetrates the traditional Cebuano cultural milieu by dealing with the universal themes of family, romantic love, life, morals, struggle, and the arts. Overall, it has the wide appeal of popular literature.

My decision to translate one of the [ten] novelas cebuana of the late author, Espina-Moore into English, is to counter the hegemonic dominance of American popular literature and build on existing Cebuano literature.

Sabanpan-Yu's effort in her three translations was indeed commendable for offering alternative reading materials to – let's face it, an unwinnable proposition – counter the American popular fiction hegemon. At the very least, her translations breathed life to this genre of Cebuano novel for the discovery of adventurous readers.

Based on the page count of the three texts, the novela cebuana was actually a novella, of only some fifty-odd pages in English translation. The three novels were presented in bilingual format, but not in facing pages: the whole novel in Cebuano appeared straight through first, followed by the English translation in the second half of the book. They were what the translator described them to be – fiction concerned with domestic family lives, relationships, and morality.

The exploration of morality was what probably makes the genre popular to the readership of Cebuano magazines (e.g., Saloma and Bisaya) during the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, serialization of novels in magazines (and comics, for the graphic novels format) was quite popular in the Philippines during the postwar period not only in Cebuano magazines but also in Tagalog weeklies and in other languages as well (e.g., the epic Hiligaynon novel Margosatubig also first appeared as a serial). Fiction writers were revered by the reading public in that golden age of novel reading when support for and readership of novels was so high. Given the popular following of novels by the masses during those times, it was such a huge step back to local popular literature (and to culture, in general) when readers in the vernacular languages now became so enamored with other forms of entertainment and reading material.

It was quite understandable why Sabanpan-Yu wanted to challenge the currently reigning mindless, Hollywood hegemon when the reading public then was more receptive of the effort of local novelists. The translator wanted to resurrect interest in the Cebuano literary production which had become marginalized and now consigned to library archives.

The reasons for the present state and (relatively poor) reception of Filipino literary culture by its own citizens were quite complex as they span the socioeconomic, political, and artistic domains. Investigation into this would require a dissertation about the martial law and the postcolonial conditions. But then perhaps Espina-Moore's novels already hinted at this rapid shift toward cultural backwardness with her intimations of the rise of materialism and capitalism in the Philippine economic structure.

In any case, Espina-Moore's brand of serial novellas had so much to offer the general reading public in terms of the family conflicts and marriage woes, domineering wives, spurned lovers, philandering husbands, spendthrift mothers, divorce, children caught between their separating parents, artistic sons and daughters, traditional and modern roles of women, class tension, moral degradation. Her careful delineation of the conflicts in short, snappy chapters – perhaps the natural division of the weekly installments of a serial – nurtured enough suspense to keep the interest of common readers. In these novellas, the cast of characters was enriched by a dominant 'villain' who served as counterpoint to the moral center or conscience of the story. In Mila's Mother, the titular Teresa was a fierce character shaped by unfortunate circumstances. Her daughter Mila – a modern woman with passive feminist ideals – provided a counterpoint to her mother.

"What I want to say is that the natural predisposition of woman is marriage. After marriage, there's no more freedom. Husband, child, home – home, child, husband. The woman who strays will certainly get censured." The image of her mother, Teresa, arose in her mind; –. She could hear her say: "That's the Filipino way of thinking – the traditional Filipino."

"Continue. Is there any other?"

"Another way of thinking is this: There is no difference between woman and man when it comes to individual liberty or freedom. Real freedom arises from an act that won't hurt or be detrimental to oneself and others. Freedom that knows no bounds isn't freedom at all but abuse, and in English, it's what's called taking license."

"Is that from theory or experience?"

"Everything. Theory, experience, and common sense."

At the start of the novel, Milagros Garcia (Mila) was speaking to her compatriot Roberto Eleazar (Bobby) in New York. Mila was taking a vacation. They just met. Eventually the two fell in love and decided to marry. Teresa's palpable presence for her daughter was evident in the way she voiced out to Bobby what she suspected her mother would say about the Filipino perception of women ("She could hear [her mother] say").

When the two young lovers returned to the Philippines, it turned out that Bobby's father and Mila's mother were previously an "item" in their younger years. The two had a rather colorful history. Mila was then a poor young woman and it was impossible for her (given her unremarkable "ancestry") to marry Juan "Johnny" Eleazar, who was the scion of a very rich family. After all, in Johnny's own words (in speaking to his wife), Teresa was a bad match:

Teresa did many things then that showed how rotten her character was, her hunger and greed. I knew this not only from suggestions but from what I observed. She'd be jealous of the enjoyment and happiness of others. I noticed this. Teresa was like a lovely but poisonous flower when approached. The only good thing was that I wasn't blind or deaf. Maybe the psychiatrist would say Teresa's attitude originated from her situation because she grew up deprived – deprived not only of wealth but also of love. Just think of it. A pretty child growing up in poverty, watching other mestizas like her who wouldn't even glance at her. Just think of a child growing up, watching her classmates or playmates with toys, with the right clothes, the right car, but she had none of these things and could only have a taste of it all when given attention or given by friends. Just think of a growing child, suddenly slapped and reminded whenever she made a small mistake that she was a replica of her mother ["a dancer"]. I learned this from others and from Teresa herself. It's a pity. But what could I do? Could I be sure that when we married her nature would change? What's called nature is very difficult to change if ever it can be changed. Marriage isn't for a few days or months. Marriage is forever. So even if I really pitied her situation and knew the cause of her bad character, I also knew that I wasn't born to this world to become a martyr for a woman. A wife like Teresa? God forbid!"

At this point we hadn't yet met Teresa – described elsewhere by her American sister-in-law as "the very lovely woman whose industry and vigor's like a troop of Hitler's soldiers" – in person, and yet her infamy, at least in the eyes of her former boyfriend, already preceded her. It was already firmly established by those who knew her that she was a "bad" person. Espina-Moore already dispensed character nuance and complexity here. Mila's mother was no Mother Teresa. The novelist was playing to the popular notions of women and marriages and was making radical shifts in other directions. The novelist was constructing the play of plot and the subsequent comedy of manners, clash of traditions and customs (between the Filipino tradition of the old Cebuano family of the Eleazars and the American tradition of the Grahams), and catfights, when the two families, the Garcia Grahams and the Eleazars, met to plan a wedding.

Teresa Garcia rose from poverty by marrying Kenneth Graham, an enterprising American businessman. Their marriage was held together by the birth of Mila. Even Teresa herself acknowledged and embraced her shrewdness and wiles to "bag" Ken Graham as a husband and improve her financial status in life.

Poverty is a crime. No one respects you; no one looks at you; no one falls in love with you when you're poor. They say that I cheat, I take advantage, I'm cunning, grab what isn't mine, I'm envious. But if not for jealousy, there'd be no ambition. If there was no ambition where would I be now? I'd still be a salesgirl in Cebu, married to a scumbag, give birth to scum who'd marry scum. Now everything's possible because of my ambition – of my efforts. My own efforts. Even this husband beside me now [in church during Mila's wedding] who's a successful businessman. He's mine because of my efforts. I didn't wait for him to fall to others. When I saw him, I said, this one's mine. And now he's mine. Our situation is like this because aside from my efforts, I also pushed my husband to strive. I drove away friends who wouldn't be any good. What's the use of friends who can't add to wealth? Isn't there truth to the saying that friends are treasures as well? For me, a friend's a treasure if he brings wealth. So now, with Mila's marriage to Johnny's son, it evens out everything. The community's sin against me is paid up. But only on that score.

After Mila's marriage to Bobby, Kenneth pondered the idea of separating from Teresa since he was no longer bound to protect his daughter Mila from her mother as she already had a husband to mind and a new family to build.

Mila's negative definition of freedom ("Real freedom arises from an act that won't hurt or be detrimental to oneself and others") became the anchor of the narrative as the satirical novel took a turn for tragicomedy once Kenneth made up his mind on whether or not to divorce Teresa.


In addition to the depiction of a dominant 'villainous' character, what is unique about Espina-Moore's novelas was the presence of a moral center, a sort of counterbalance to the figure of the evil. It must be said that while the concepts of good and evil are not often enclosed in quotes, neither of them was strictly relativistic in Espina-Moore's fictional universe. Good is good; evil is evil. And yet the sympathetic consideration of what made the evil personas come to be was explored and weighed. Again, in the tradition of popular Philippine novels, the didactic tradition of having a "moral" in the story – contrary to the usual modernist, Western novels where good and evil are confused in an ethical conundrum – were closely adhered to, even actively pursued, in these three novellas.

Mila was the moral center in the novel centering on her mother's flawed character. In Where a Fire Tree Grows it was Jaime Gonzales Jr (Jun), the intelligent son who observed at a distance the rediscovered love affair (let us say: adultery) between his favorite teacher Ms Estrella Arcilla and his father. The idealist Jun romanticized about liberal arts (sometimes waxing about poetry) and its role in society.

"Isn't the aim of Liberal Arts that of making the 'humanities' comprehensible or the various studies refer to the society that revolve around people? Because we mentioned Fr. Roger, I tell you that I am in agreement with the Jesuit thought that if the Humanities is learnt and understood, what will follow is the search for the right profession or means of livelihood. It doesn't matter if one is a doctor, carpenter, engineer, street cleaner, lawyer, a businessman, gardener, or cook – whatever – most of all, one should be a good person, a whole creature whose heart is in the right place and whose thoughts follow a good direction."

In one of the poetry readings he frequently attend, Jun invited his father Jaime Sr and there Jaime met Estrella once again after many years of their separation. Their previous affair ended on a somewhat bitter note. In Estrella's house a fire tree stood, symbolizing the fires and passion of a lost love reignited. The poetry of the telling was notably cheesy and self-conscious. Oh, yes, the poetry in the background was defeaning.

Estrella left the kitchen first, went through the living room towards the door. But the living room was dark and the night was quiet. Their steps echoed together with the cries of their hearts. Their steps stopped. A few fireflies floated from the flowers of the fire tree with the breeze carrying the low cries: "Estrella, Estrella ... Jaime, oh my love, my love Jaime ..."

Jaime's wife, Emmy, was physically invalid due to an accident. Lately, Emmy was noticing Jaime's unusual behavior of coming in very late from work in the office. Her reading material was not so subtle, too, and so was her mounting anxiety and disorientation.

Luz [Emmy's home nurse] gently laid a hand on her patient's shoulder and said, "Ma'am, weigh your thoughts. Sadness and worrying too much isn't good for you. Finish your orange juice and we'll go to the roof garden. I'll read you a few pages from Anna Karenina. On our last reading, Anna had asked her husband for a divorce. What do you think is next?"

Emmy closed her eyes tightly, leaned against her chair, and continued, "Tolstoy's novel – Anna Karenina – is about a beautiful woman whose experiences were hair-raising. Whatever entertains, [also] provides a lesson ... and other books, all books, amusement, gardening, roof gardens, television, radio, a good nurse who's always there, a good and intelligent son, a beautiful house, all the food that you want, all sorts of clothes you can think of. It's true, there's so much convenience and not a care. Oh, Luz!"

Jun's mother was losing her grip on the world, now that her suspicion of Jaime's infidelity grew every day. Her critical opinion of Tolstoy's novel might as well be the guiding framework of the novelist's popular fare. Whatever entertains also provides a lesson.

Elsewhere, Mikhail Lermontov's lines were recited and discussed at length. There's a Russian strain of emotions flowing in this novel. In a climactic confrontation between Jaime and Estrella, poetry was once more sign checked. "For her [Estrella], the most painful thing was that she gave someone else pain. If she were a poet, this would be the most beautiful poem of her life."

She don't say. And by the end, the novela closed with Lermontov's lines about feeling and passion.


In House of Cards, we have as 'conscience' of the novel, Honorio de la Paz (Nor) and Marifel Baraza. Nor was a student tenant in a dormitory ran by Nang Cristy, while Marifel Baraza was the young daughter of a rich business-owning family. Nor listened to the story told by Nang Cristy about her work as housekeeper in the mansion of the largely decadent Baraza family. Like the image of a fire tree in the yard, the 'house of cards' was a transparent symbol of the irreversible, domino effect of the Baraza family's moral disintegration.

There was Don Cesar Baraza and his wife Doña Mercedes throwing away money as if there's no tomorrow. They changed housemaids constantly as not one (save for Nang Cristy who had the sense and stamina to survive working for the notorious husband and wife and their cruel children, excepting the gentle and kind Marifel) could tolerate and adjust to the masters' unorthodox attitudes. The way Doña Mercedes spent the family fortune shopping in Europe on Christmas, preferring to be away on a holiday with a "new company" – an intimate, or an illicit lover, it was implied – than to spend her time with the family. Don Cesar, for his part, was keeping a mistress for years.

When the Baraza business became practically bankrupt overnight due to the poor decisions made by Don Cesar, the house of cards started to fall apart. Nang Cristy, who survived the hellish Baraza household as a temporary relief when the previous head of housekeeping resigned at short notice, had her own dose of lesson to impart to the reader.

It is said that life is happier if we do what we're capable of, if our intentions are good, and if we exercise with industry our talents and skills that God has blessed us with. So I drew on my femininity here in my employer's [Baraza's] home. I was not only glad they were pleased with my work but I was also happy that when they needed me, I was there. It is also to my credit that they wanted me to stay permanently in their home but I liked my old job better. So I told Mrs. Baraza I was returning to the factory and I, myself, would look for a housekeeper [to replace her] for them.

Nang Cristy shared her colorful story in the house of the rich to Nor, and our student dormer had acquired practical knowledge about the life. The housekeeper might be lowly in her station in life, but her "love and desire to understand one's fellow human beings" allowed her to get an insight into effectively dealing with difficult rich people who were blind drunk with wealth and power.


Readers are indebted to Sabanpan-Yu's informed translation of Espina-Moore's fictional works. The translator is also author of a book-length study on the writer entitled Women's Common Destiny: Maternal Representations in the Serialized Cebuano Fiction of Hilda Montaire and Austregelina Espina-Moore.

I cannot evaluate the faithfulness of the English translations to the Cebuano language. I can only assume that like the evolution of the Tagalog language, the quality and register of Espina-Moore's Cebuano in the 1960s and 70s must be quite different to the usage of the language today. I had to wonder why the translator would render a Cebuano sentence Husto na ang parte ko sa pagka polis as "My role of policing was palling." I was not sure if it is the alliteration or word play or simply the dated Cebuano of the 70s.

I plan to read the three other novels of the Cebuano novelist originally published in English, written a decade apart from each other between 1970 and 1992. Her three English novels and two short story collections (Cuentos and Choice) are signed under the diminutive version of her first name. From Austregelina to Lina Espina-Moore, the writer opted to produce her English novels and stories with longer page counts and in alliterative titles. I'm intrigued to see how her English novels continue or diverge from these thematically and technically unified samples of her novelas cebuana.

The three translated titles of Espina-Moore are included in the reading list of Filipino women novelists in translation. They are available from the Cebuano Studies Center.


04 August 2016

The True Deceiver

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, tr. Thomas Teal (New York Review Books, 2009)

Tove Jansson liked to deal with isolated systems and observe her characters within the boundaries of that system. Life in an island was explored in The Summer Book; the lives of two artists in Fair Play was set in a seaside house. In The True Deceiver, the village during the season of snow was as good as cut off from the rest of the world. The place was clearly bounded, leaving only the writer to shake a little the snow globe (input to the system) and observe carefully the tempest within (output).


In such a delimited system, the characters were not robbed of free agency. They were free to roam and to decide their fates; they had self-determination. In their self-sufficient and insular universe, small conflicts seemed to be magnified and human natures were stranded by their principles and personal convictions. Raw and savage nature clashed with civilization.
In such a remote, isolated place dwelt the candid and calculating Katri Kling whose craftiness and dog-eat-dog mentality allowed her to survive. Katri made up her mind to invade the property of Anna Aemelin, a humble and rich children's book illustrator living alone in a large house. The plan was for Katri to colonize Anna's house little by little. This she did for a reason, for some noble cause (self-preservation, happiness, materialism) which was enough fuel for her to go all-out in her singular conquest. Katri's insidious determination propelled her to devise creative strategies to achieve her goal. Malice and evil were relative concepts in that isolated system. Katri's monomania was both touching and frightening.

By staying true to her objective, Katri was a true, methodical deceiver. She would call an ace, an ace; a spade, a spade. But she would also lie to her teeth, and she would manipulate, remaining steadfast in her mission. The ethical ramifications of her deceit became the ballast of Jansson's novel. As Anna slowly discovered Katri's deception, her idealism was shattered. Her ideas were shattered.

Anna shrugged her shoulders and, with sudden spite, commented that Katri's interest in money seemed somewhat exaggerated. In her family, money was not considered a proper topic of discussion.

"Really?" Katri said. The word came out like a blow. "You don't say! An improper topic?" She had gone pale, and she took an uncertain step towards Anna.

"What's the matter?" Anna said, backing away. "Don't you feel well?"

"No, I don't feel well. I feel really ill when I see how you throw money down the drain for no reason at all. Because what you throw away, what you so utterly despise, is quite simply possibilities. Don't you understand? The possibility of becoming so secure you don't have to think about money, the possibility of being generous, the potential for new ideas that can't grow without money. Without money, a person's thinking gets narrow. It shrivels! You have no right to let them cheat you this way..." Katri had been speaking in a quiet voice – a new, frightening voice – and now she stopped. The silence stretched on and grew awkward.

For Katri, her and her brother Mats's happiness was contingent on financial security. The very idea of money at one's disposal could allow for "the potential for new ideas", for a sense of life free of daily worry. Her sobering position was enough to make Anna question her deepest held belief in the honesty, goodness, and generosity of men. Katri held on to her materialism; Anna, to her honesty and politesse. It was a battle they each waged to the best of their talents and abilities.

The woman and the dog walked down the hill, equally grey and furry. Anna watched them go. She was still quivering from fright, but her agitation was coloured by a touch of excited curiosity. Katri Kling is adventurous, she thought. Not like the others. But who is it she reminds me of, especially when she smiles..? Not one of Anna's acquaintances, the acquaintances she use to have – no, it was a picture, something in a book. And suddenly Anna began laughing to herself. In fact, the smiling Katri in her fur hat reminded her of the Big Bad Wolf.

I am not sure it mattered who emerged the eventual winner and who the loser in Jansson's drama of class antagonism. Innocence and vulgarity, truth and deceit – they may after all just be a matter of perspective. There's always a shift between first and third person viewpoints in the novel. Is the self the true deceiver?  

Jansson's novel offered a lot of provocations. Tender and menacing – it was an isolated true horror story.

03 August 2016

A Roomful of Machines

A Roomful of Machines by Kristine Ong Muslim (ELJ Publications, 2015)

One only asks of a poet to be continually surprising and for her metaphors to be engaging and rad. Metaphors are fragile constructions. They weave together disparate things, and they easily break. How to make a single unit things that together sit unusually?

Enigma of Socks

Like half a piece of July
on a girl’s barrette.
Would have bent double
in the drawer when whisked
with the other outcasts, the ones
assuming a distinct
shape and configuration
when used accordingly.
Could be a fortune told
by the lines of woven cotton.
Could be a crescent moon
or a miniature sphinx.
Could be a forced smile.

Socks and moon, socks and sphinx, socks and a smile. There is no end to socks comparisons. Ultimately, the wearer has to declare the fit and snug. The poet has to make a point even if, just like a forced smile, she seems to have forced her metaphor. The enigma of socks lies in the weaving.


It’s only a reconstruction, the curator insists.
I do not believe him. I know that

the reptilian bird waits—the predatory
posture intact through the years.

And it will raze again. For now, it quiets
down, stays close to the ground where

the weak ones scuttle past. The glass box
only keeps its hunger, keeps it small.



In a natural history museum, the visitor gazes at a small specimen encased in glass. For him it is the real monster awaiting its time, ready to pounce on the "weak ones". The restoration of an ancient bird accepted as the bird itself, there is no higher praise for the "taxidermist".

We have reconstruction. Then we have deconstruction.

William Carlos Williams, in retrospect

I have missed this: the upturned trough
where the white chickens bend down

to drink. All the mythical elements
blend at some point. Art books sum it up

with the laws of perspective. The red
wheelbarrow is smeared with cow dung.

It is drought season, and the cows
graze what is left of the grass.

So much depends upon a recreated poem, glazed with an inverted season (drought vs rain water), and filled with new details (trough, cow dung, cows, grass). In retrospect, this is not deconstruction but homage. This is still life. Art books sum it up: The blending of the elements is a matter of perspective. Another example of this blending: the way the evidence collected from a "crime scene" speaks loud.

The Evidence Locker

Reconstructed bits of a tragic tale
now bagged, labeled, sealed.

A leaf with a portion of a boot imprint,
a hammer, a chipped coffee cup,

a rusted knife, a glass shard—
tell us your story, teach us how

a wreckage calls out
to its survivors.

This is the general tendency of the poet—to speak after the fact, after an accident or crime or tragedy. We know something tragic or unforgivable happened because the lines of poetry had to call out to its subject to tell the whole story: a wreckage calling out to survivors to bear witness. As in the opening of "From Scratch": "There is no way / to stop me from / confessing to murder / in poetry." The images are silent with something inherently violent in them.

from Dream Wreckage

... The doors
of houses are flung wide open—
the throats of two hundred
ventriloquists stitched end to end.


from A family room that doubles as camouflage

Underneath the glass, the deathless
butterflies are pinned in place.
Death has not altered their symmetry.

The art of Kristine Ong Muslim's poetry borrows from the art of the detective story, with the right amount of guilt and paranoia. Hers is a performative act—the very act of deciphering in poetry. It is to her credit that her lines are devoid of self-consciousness and self-absorption.

Hers is the sometimes violent act of deconstruction and reenactment of sordid images and crimes. As in the poem "Blasphemy" where the lines began with the ending so that the entire poem loops back on itself and intimates the vicious cycle of violence. Perhaps what encapsulates Kristine Ong Muslim's general feel for metaphor is the doctor's diagnosis, in "P is for Phyllis", of what appears to be the ailment of a mental patient.

It’s your fear of the ordinary
that brings out the strangest of things

It's not all violence and the aftermath of a murderous rampage though. She is so great and versatile, sometimes she reminds me, in her plainspokenness and matter-of-factness, of Wisława Szymborska, as in "Soul".


It slouches or stretches
to resemble me
down to the tiny mole
at the back of my left hand.

It has the invisibility
of a polite guest,
the will of an intruder,
the dreams of a child.

Barefoot, it glides
and hides behind the vase.
It waits for years
to catch me empty-handed.

I read the second edition of A Roomful of Machines. The first edition was published in 2010 in the UK. My copy of the book is courtesy of the author.

Bonus link: Kristine Ong Muslim's translation of a poem by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles in Asymptote (link).

01 August 2016

Women in Translation Month: Novels from the Philippines

Women in Translation (WIT) Month, celebrated every August, is an opportunity to take stock of one's reading habits and focus on the women. I once made a survey of novels translated from Philippine languages. The list has since grown (see Annex below). This post enumerates the Filipina novelists who were already translated. So far, their number could only be counted by the fingers of two hands.

First, some general statistics:

  • To date, a total of 23 novels were translated from Spanish or a Philippine language into English. 
  • Majority of the English translations (and retranslations)—86% (20 out of 23 novels)—appeared only in the last 10 years (2006-2016).
  • All English translations save for the two José Rizal novels (91%) were published and distributed in the Philippines. Hence, they can only be accessed by a small readership. The novels of Rizal are available in Penguin Classics edition. A very limited number (3 or 4) are available in a digital format (Kindle or Kobo).
  • Looking at the publication year in original language, 10 of the novels were published in original language between 1885 to 1947, eight of them appeared after the war (1960-1975), and only five (21%) were by contemporary novelists (1991-2013). 
  • Only four languages were represented: nine were translated from Tagalog/Filipino; six from Spanish; and four apiece from Cebuano and Hiligaynon.

Gender-related statistics:

  • Of the 23 translations into English, nine (39%) are by women novelists.
  • The 23 translated novels were written by 15 individuals, only four (26%) of whom were women.
  • About 60% of the "primary and latest" translators were women.  
  • Of the nine novels by women, seven (77%) were translated by women. 
  • The novels by women were translated mainly from Tagalog (4), Cebuano (3), and Hiligaynon (2). None were translated from Spanish.


Magdalena G. Jalandoni (1891-1978)


1. Juanita Cruz, tr. Ofelia Ledesma Jalandoni (University of the Philippines Press, 2006). 

2. The Lady in the Market, tr. Edward D. Defensor (U.P. College of Iloilo, 1976). 

Jalandoni was a very prolific female writer in Hiligaynon language. She also wrote in other languages and was considered a proponent of feminism. I recently bought a copy of Juanita Cruz, translated by her niece. The Lady in the Market was out of print and only available in libraries.

Austregelina Espina-Moore (1919-2000)


3. Ang Inahan ni Mila (Mila's Mother), tr. Hope Sabanpan-Yu (National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2008).

4. Diin May Punoan sa Arbol (Where a Fire Tree Grows), tr. Hope Sabanpan-Yu (USC Press, 2010). 


5. House of Cards, tr. Hope Sabanpan-Yu (National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2013).

Austregelina Espina-Moore (aka Lina Espina-Moore) wrote several novels in Cebuano and three novels in English: House of the Lotus; A Lion in the House; The Honey, the Locusts. I have already read the three translations above and will probably post about them in this blog. They are all available from the Cebuano Studies Center.

Rosario de Guzman Lingat (1924-1997)


6. The Death of Summer, tr. Soledad S. Reyes (De La Salle University Publishing House, 2013)

7. What Now, Ricky?, tr. Soledad S. Reyes (Anvil Publishing, 2013) 


8. The Cloak of God, tr. Soledad S. Reyes. (De La Salle University Publishing House, 2013)

Lingat's novelistic voice was one of the most profound during the Marcos dictatorship. What Now, Ricky? [review] recently won for its translator Soledad S. Reyes the triennial award A.L. Becker Southeast Asian Literature in Translation Prize (yes, there's such an award). Reyes also wrote a biography of the writer, Rosario de Guzman Lingat, 1924–1997: The Burden of Self and History. An article by Reyes about Lingat's fiction can be read here (pdf).

Of the three translated novels, the best is probably The Cloak of God [review], which I also read in its original Tagalog.

Luna Sicat Cleto (1967-    )   


9. Typewriter Altar, tr. Marne L. Kilates (University of the Philippines Press, 2016)

Luna Sicat Cleto is the only contemporary Filipina novelist translated to date. The original work, Makinilyang Altar, appeared back in 2002. She also produced a second novel, Mga Prodigal (The Prodigals). Translator Marne L. Kilates is a poet and a seasoned translator of poems, notably the multiple poetry collections of Rio Alma.

I started reading it though I'm not sure if I can finish it within the month, let alone post something about it. Based on the first chapter alone, I believe this is worth translating and reading.

Women in Translation Month is initiated by Biblibio.


No. Title Author Gender Translator Gender of Latest Primary Translator Original Language Pub. Year of Original Pub. Year of Latest English Translation
1 The Golden Dagger  Antonio G. Sempio Male Soledad S. Reyes Female Tagalog 1933 2016
2 La Oveja de Nathán (Nathan's Sheep)  Antonio M. Abad  Male Lourdes Castrillo Brillantes Female Spanish 1928 2013
3 Ang Inahan ni Mila (Mila's Mother) Austregelina Espina-Moore FemaleHope Sabanpan-YuFemaleCebuano1969-19702008
4 Diin May Punoan sa Arbol (Where a Fire Tree Grows) Austregelina Espina-Moore  Female Hope Sabanpan-Yu Female Cebuano 1960 2010
5 House of Cards Austregelina Espina-Moore  Female Hope Sabanpan-Yu Female Cebuano 1973 2013
6 Fort: A Novel Buenaventura S. Medina Male Buenaventura S. Medina Male Tagalog 1991 2006
7 Eight Muses of the Fall  Edgar Calabia Samar  Male Mikael de Lara Co & Sasha Martinez Male Tagalog (Filipino) 2008 2013
8 El Folk-Lore Filipino [vol. 1 of 2] Isabelo de los Reyes  Male Salud C. Dizon & Maria Elinora Peralta-Imson Female Spanish 1889 [vol. 1];
1890 [vol. 2]
9 Ang Diablo sa Filipinas ayon sa nasasabi sa mga casulatan luma sa Kastila  Isabelo de los Reyes  Male Benedict Anderson, Carlos Sardiña Galache, & Ramon Guillermo Male Spanish 1886 2014
10 Noli Me Tangere  José Rizal Male various Male Spanish 1887 2006
11 El Filibusterismo José Rizal Male various Male Spanish 1891 2011
12 Orosa-Nakpil, Malate Louie Mar A. Gangcuangco  Male Carla Mae Sioson & Louie Mar Gangcuangco Female Tagalog (Filipino) 2006 2009
13 Typewriter Altar  Luna Sicat Cleto  Female Marne L. Kilates Male Tagalog (Filipino) 2002 2016
14 The Gold in Makiling  Macario Pineda Male Soledad S. Reyes Female Tagalog 1947 2012
15 The Lady in the Market  Magdalena G. Jalandoni  Female Edward D. Defensor Male Hiligaynon 1935 1976
16 Juanita Cruz  Magdalena Gonzaga Jalandoni  Female Ofelia Ledesma Jalandoni Female Hiligaynon 1966 2006
17 Nínay Pedro Alejandro Paterno  Male E. F. du Fresne Male Spanish 1885 1907
18 Margosatubig: The Story of Salagunting  Ramon L. Muzones  Male Edward D. Defensor [1979]; Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava [2012]
Female Hiligaynon 1946 2012
19 Shri-Bishaya Ramon Muzones Male Maria Cecilia Locsin-Nava Female Hiligaynon 1969 2016
20 What Now, Ricky?  Rosario de Guzman Lingat  Female Soledad S. Reyes Female Tagalog 1971 2013
21 The Cloak of God  Rosario de Guzman Lingat  Female Soledad S. Reyes Female Tagalog 1975 2013
22 The Death of Summer Rosario de Guzman Lingat  Female Soledad S. Reyes Female Tagalog 1969 2013
23 Driftwood on Dry Land   T. S. Sungkit Jr.  Male T. S. Sungkit Jr.  Male Cebuano unpub. 2013