Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hanggang Sa Muli: Pinoy Homecoming Stories

AT LEAST ONCE IN OUR LIFETIME, we meet someone who would, despite how brief the encounter was, have a major impact and influence on our lives. Thirty years ago, while attending the University of the Philippines Summer Writers' Workshop in 1982, I was to meet a writer named Reni Roxas who, in my case, would fit this category. As a biology major at UP Manila, I wanted to see what it was like to be in a writers' workshop, because I had no idea what it was all about, so I applied, was accepted and went to Diliman where I met Reni, one of the twenty or so fellows that were also accepted. For the next four weeks, we cradled in our laps the fat envelopes containing our manuscripts like babies, and grimaced and gritted our teeth as the panel of critics tore our babies apart, line by excruciating line. The whole ordeal was made endurable by the excitement of meeting new friends, and I was glad to have a chance to sit next to Reni one day to share writings with. She was pretty, gentle, gracious and supportive, and I was instantly drawn to her. One particular story of hers that I remember was about a large tree stump in her garden, on whose top she would stand on and play as a little girl, making wishes and urging the tree to live, imagining her outstretched arms as the living branches and leaves of the long dead tree, until it somehow came back to life. It was an image that I would not forget; and much later on I would realize that that child's innocent gesture summed up Reni's very own character and spirit: nurturing, supportive, encouraging, and, in many ways, life-giving. Before the workshop ended, we exchanged autographs, addresses and dedications on our manuscript envelopes, pledging to keep the Muse alive by writing, no matter what the critics thought. 

Over the following years, I would correspond with her as she pursued her master's degree at Syracuse University, and later on as an intern for CBS in New York City, all the time offering words of appreciation for my writing, which I sent her from time to time.  In one particular letter, she expressed how her job was turning her into a person that she didn't like, but she also described the wonders of NYC: "New York has just about everything for everyone, even you, and I am looking at it through the dazzled eyes of a naive girl who, fortunately or unfortunately, wandered into the big time."  Those very words would shape my ambition to go to New York and find my fate there no matter what.

Inspired by her encouragement and support, I dumped biology as a major and concentrated on writing, eventually obtaining a bachelor's degree in English, cum laude, in 1985. Before I graduated, Reni came home and paid the Creative Writing Center a visit, where she was reunited with former professor Franz Arcellana (Please see the entry "One Hundred Years of Universitihood"). Incredibly, she also took the time with her driver to see my humble quarters in Vice Chancellor Luis Beltran's garage just to see how I was doing, and invited me to her house in Forbes Park. A year later, while on a graduate assistantship in writing at Wichita State University, Kansas, I was to remember receiving my first mail at Fairmount Towers dormitory: a post card from her in Brooklyn welcoming me to the US: "Be sure to bundle up; it can get quite cold!" Some time after that, I received news from a friend in the Philippines about who she really is. That she is former President Manuel Roxas' granddaughter. That she is Margie Moran's cousin. That she is from the Rufino clan.  And then I realized just what a lucky a dude I had been all along, a guy from the boondocks of Mindoro, corresponding with someone he could only dream of throwing a look at him. And then I decided that all the correspondence had to stop, and over the next two decades, I lost touch with her as the natural dance of the cosmos prevailed and took on a life of its own. As I tried to get my working papers and settle down in America, I followed a rough and tortuous road that led me to many way stations I had never before imagined myself to be, working, among other jobs, as a fishmonger in Redondo Beach, a caregiver in San Diego, a gas station cashier in Honolulu, a credit collector in Van Nuys, a passport processor in Charleston, and finally as a bookseller and US Customs inspector in New York City, where I became an American citizen, finished my master's degree in library science at Queens College, and my daughter was born.

Somewhere in between, thanks to the Internet, I would learn that Reni has settled down and brought into this world two sons in the Philippines, at the same time establishing a successful publishing company for children called Tahanan Books (it has received nine National Book Awards), and moved back to the States with her now teenage sons so that the company may serve a much larger, worldwide audience. In June of this year, upon learning through a friend's Facebook account that Reni had recently published a book called Hanggang sa Muli: Homecoming Stories for the Filipino Soul, and was going to launch it in New York City, I knew that I had to make contact with her, no matter how awkward it might feel and look. And am I glad I did. Not only did she remember me as an old friend, but she also sent me a copy of a poem that I had written for her a long time ago, which I have now edited slightly:

Summer Solstice
(for Reni)

After your trail has carved a memory across the sky,
startled dusks recall the shape of your flight;
tides reprise the golden thunder of moonbeam
fragrant with rhymes flickering in the lungs of violins.

You left no welts on the crystal skin of solitudes
when dews of innocence unpearled into ardors silvering
in the air, shadowless, like a poem burning reason
to ignite the bones expiring against the stare of age.

Orchards burst under the whip of your harmony;
your voice, sleek as a bird's,
attuned the silence brooding in the cusps of scars,
weaving passions spliced by the reins of resilience.

Campfires will not breathe of the perfume of your image;
your wings, unforged by the clasp of wine;
trees bleed of shadows swimming across the porch
to touch your tracks piercing the rocking chair.

So, here I am thirty years later, older and wiser and with Reni's permission, introducing to you her book Hanggang sa Muli, even though I am not a book critic. It is an anthology of short memoirs, stories, poems, narratives and essays written by Filipinos and Filipino-Americans, which she likewise edited.  Described by The International Examiner as a "wonderful chicken soup for the soul for Filipinos, Americans, and the broader global audience,"  the book begins with Reni's anecdote about how, when she was living in New York, she had this Saturday morning ritual of taking the subway train from Brooklyn to a nondescript store in Queens (Was it Phil-Am, or Krystal?)  just to buy pandesal, Filipino breakfast rolls whose familiar aroma and taste reminded her of the homeland. Divided into sections according to genre, the book contains pieces written by masters and new voices, but each one resonates with the Filipino soul's yearning for the homeland. Reni introduces each section and gives insights on the contents. There are classics like Bienvenido Santos' "Scent of Apples," Carlos Bulosan's "The Laughter of my Father," Kerima Polotan's "Filipinos in America," Rolando Tinio's "Valediction sa Hillcrest," and Jessica Hagedorn's powerful piece "Ghost Town." There are hearbreaking homecoming stories like Marivi Soliven Blanco's "Mourning Flight" on the event of her father's death, and humorous, lighthearted essays like Carmen Guerrero Nakpil's "Where's the Patis?" and many more pieces to satisfy the homesick Pinoy. Apart from its substance, the book is also a visual delight, using script fonts for titles and a picture of a pair of tsinelas--that Filipino footwear of choice for peregrination in the days of old--for the front cover.

I would have loved having a copy of Hanggang sa Muli while I was training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia almost three years ago. One night, while a few classmates and I sat in a smoky bar, the speakers suddenly played "Georgia on my Mind." It had been another killer day at bootcamp; I just did the 1.5 mile run in fifteen minutes early that morning, and exhausted as I was, I still had to sit through lectures and exams the rest of the day. Maybe it was the exhaustion, the shin splints and aching joints, the academic stress and lack of sleep, the crappy food in the cafeteria, the asshole instructor, whatever, but everyone was dumbstruck when the song played even though nobody was from Georgia. (Some of us were from as far away as Guam or Alaska.)  Then it struck me that the song was not really about Georgia but about all sweet, familiar places in one's imagination where the body and soul can rest. It was crazy; there I was, a step closer to the ultimate American dream which was to work for the federal government, and yet I was yearning to be home--not New York, I would realize later, because long after I had been back to the city, there are nights after a long day's work when I would sit on the stoop, haunted by memories of an old place and familiar folks that are a world away:

                                                 No peace I find,
                                                 Just an old sweet song...

Here are pictures of Reni Roxas with her sons and a showcase of Tahanan Books titles in Seattle.

To order a copy of the book, contact Tahanan Books Corporation, email:, phone: (425) 773-7465