The last ten years has seen the rise of publishers coming from outside “imperial Manila.” Some of them are affiliated with university presses, while others are run by young, maverick publishers who want to lob new, in-your-face books into the mainstream.
Imprenta Igbaong belongs to the latter, its steady stream of books coming out from San Jose de Buenavista in Antique. One of their offerings is Anghel Sang Capiz, a controversial book of gay stories in Hiligaynon and Filipino, written by John Iremil Teodoro. This is the ninth book of Teodoro, who has won the National Book Award for the Essay for the appropriately titled book, Pagmumuni-muni at Pagtatalak ng Sirenang Nagpapanggap na Prinsesa. Teodoro has the MFA in Creative Writing (with high distinction) from De La Salle University Manila, and has taught at Miriam College.
Teodoro (in the Filipino translation) writes with lyricism, fluidity and grace. This is a poet writing the stories of his lives. It’s a no-holds barred, brave look at the poetics of desire. In the title story, “Anghel sa Capiz,” Uriel, the object of the character’s affections, is described in this way.
“Lumapit siya sa katre. Umusog ako sa tabi para may mahigaan siya. Sa pagdampian ng aming mga balat, parang lumagablab ang lagnat na kanina ko pa nararamdaman. Hinihintay ko na masunog ang kumot, ang mga unan, ang higaan, pati ang buong kamalig. Sa mga oras na ito, walang halaga ang mga salita. Hinalikan siya ni Uriel. Ang kaniyang dila, lasang talaba at may amoy ng sigarilyo. Pinakamasarap na talaba at pinakamasarap na sigarilyo!”
That is Teodoro’s technique: to root desire back into the every day, and not to let it fly into a misty world.
“Ang Lalaki sa Ilog Iloilo” has a poet for its main character. Our poet meets Carlos Miguel, a mysterious, young man after a poetry reading in the Residencia, a big house beside the river. They become fast friends, and the man brings him to their house, where everybody is wearing white, as if for a formal banquet. While the people are dancing without expressions, the bombs begin to explode, for suddenly it is Iloilo, during wartime, and the Japanese are now storming into the ballroom, their bloody bayonets raised…
In this story, the past slides into the present, seemingly without borders. The characters are full of longing for someone or something to complete them. That someone is a lover, of course; the something is the slippery Muse of art.
“Maganda doon sa veranda. Kulay lilak ang gabi. Ang kadulom, ang kalangitan, at ang tubig sa ilog parang ipininta ni Van Gogh. Matingkad at magaspang ang ganda ng mga ito.” That, also, is the essence of Teodoro’s art: vivid and rough, perfume poured into the fluted bottle of memory.
In “Pagmamahal sa Perpekto na Lalaki,” our main character, Mario, has to force himself back into the coffin of the closet for the sake of Karl, his boyfriend. He compares himself to a colorful parrot locked up inside a golden cage. Karl is bisexual, and will soon leave him for Rossbelle, his girlfriend.
It’s like Brokeback Mountain all over again, but set in the beach where the grains of sand are as dazzling as the sun.
“Naramdaman niya ang paghigpit ng yakap sa kaniya ni Karl. ‘Pero hindi kita pababayaan, Mar. Mahal pa rin kita kahit kami na ni Rossbelle. Sana maintindihan mo ang sitwasyon ko.’ At hinalikan siya nito sa noo, sa kaniyang ilong, at sa kaniyang bibig. Matamis ang mga halik ni Karl. Para itong oksidyen na nagpapabalik sa normal sa paghinga ni Mario.”
Like the other stories, this one ends with a certain stillness. It may be the stillness of a mind taking a step back and reflecting on the pain that is breaking one’s heart. Or the stillness of a heart like a boat finally reaching the shore, the acceptance of one’s real situation.
Teodoro’s aesthetics reminds me of the Japanese, where beauty and sadness intertwine. Life is beautiful because it is sad, and it is felt deepest in the moments we share with the beloved. This is found in the story “Corazon del Mar.”
Our main character seems to be an anomaly in the 21st century — a gay man who still falls in love with a straight man!
“Pero ano ang magagawa ko? Sa mga tunay na lalaki ako nagkakagusto. At karamihan sa mga lalaking ito, ako ang pinagbabayad sa bill naming sa restawran at hotel. Nakakalungkot din sana ito subalit ano ang magagawa ko? Ayaw ko naman maging tuyong bulaklak dahil hindi nadiligan ng halik at yakap ng isang lalaki!”
But this time, he meets Lei, a straight man who pays for the bill and brings him to beautiful Guimaras Island. Where before, he would go to the chapel and pray to the saints and angels to send him a man whom he would love, now his prayer has turned into reality.
But you do not know what is reality and dream in this story, what is fantasy and in-your-face “truth.” Our character dreams of swimming right into the very heart of the sea: the waves are big but he is not afraid, for he is swimming with Lei. Into this dream world they dive, their hands locked into each other. The seawater breaks like skin, or like a mirror.
But back into the city — and the real world — he does not see Lei again. Not in the tennis court, not in the school, not on the hard and blazing streets. Saturday after Saturday he waited, but all for naught.
And then this wonderful ending, sounding like syllables whispered into the inner ear of a sea shell: “Ewan ko pero parang namigat ang aking mga paa habang naglalakad pauwi sa apartment. Sa kaloob-loobang bahagi ng aking tenga, naririnig ko ang mahinang musika ng dagat. Sa aking dila, nalalasahan ko ang asin na regalo ng kasingkasing ng dagat.”
Anghel sa Capiz is not only historically important as the first collection of gay fiction in Hiligaynon. It is also a book of finely-wrought stories about absence and desire — about wings that lift us to the sky, as well as arms and fins that make us slide sinuously into the beautiful, the dangerous sea.
Professor Danton Remoto taught for 30 years at Ateneo de Manila University and has published 15 books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org