Four novels

KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson (The Philippine Star) - October 25, 2015 - 10:00am

Launched last Thursday at Conspiracy Bar & Garden Café on Visayas Avenue, Quezon City, were four novels recently released by Anvil Publishing: Riverrun by Danton Remoto, Sweet Haven by Lakambini Sitoy, Locust Girl: a love song by Merlinda Bobis, and the third edition of my first novel, Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café.

The multi-launch and readings (with “Bing” Sitoy represented on audio tape) were held as a sidelight on the opening day of the Asia-Pacific Writers & Translators (APWT) 2015 conference spearheaded by its co-founders Jane Camens and Jose “Butch” Dalisay, Jr., with Nury Vittachi as Chair.  

We were happy to welcome back many other writer-friends from abroad. Among those we’ve already taken to call “balikbayans” are Robin Hemley, Xu Xi, Ravi Shankar and Tim Tomlinson, all of whom have served as panelists in writing workshops here, apart from editing anthologies that have featured Philippine writing.

And so it was a fun night reuniting with everyone, and making new friends from among the 30 or so foreign participants in the conference. The sessions for the first two days were held in UP Diliman, with the third day hosted by De La Salle University in Manila in the morning and University of Santo Tomas in the afternoon.

Also delightfully present at the multi-launch in Conspiracy were Singaporean poet Aaron Lee and his better half Namiko. As of this writing, I hope to see them again over Friday dinner at the UP Executive House, where I’m supposed to join a poetry reading with Jimmy Abad, J. Neil Garcia, Isabela Banzon, Tim Tomlinson, Bonnie McDougall and Kate Rogers. 

But back to the novels.





Riverrun is Danton Remoto’s first. As Anvil director Karina Bolasco said in her opening remarks, he’s a multifarious bloke who’s been known more for his lyrical poetry. An opinion columnist for The STAR, he has also co-edited several bestselling anthologies of local gay literature, translated foreign bestsellers into Filipino, taught at Ateneo de Manila University, and currently commands a nationwide radio audience with a popular daily program. He also happens to be running for congress person as a party list representative. Here’s hoping that our Philippine Congress be blessed with a premier littérateur by next year. Danton should more than make up for the absence(s) of Manny Pacquiao.  

Here’s an excerpt from Riverrun:

“I woke up, on the edges of sleep of my slippery dream of Luis. I held the dream close to my chest, so it would burn still.

“In my dream Luis seemed to be pierced with light. He was all there, blinding me with his smile, the eyes that were wicked and innocent at the same time. The moustache beginning to grow above his moist and reddish lips. How did it feel to embrace him?

“In my dream Luis was about to say something, some words I would hold on to in the summer of my departure. I would soon leave the province and follow my parents who now lived in Manila — ahhh, mad, maternal Manila. In the fever of a summer afternoon I wanted some images and words that would have the weight, the depth, of the first rains of May.

“The first rains of May falling in exuberance over the land, a crystalline cascade waking up everything — grass, leaf, sky, even the very air — from the languorous sleep of summer.”

We were all elated to welcome back our Bicolana friend Merlinda Bobis. Her latest novel was published by Spinifex Press, with the Philippine edition being brought out by Anvil. She’s still based in Wollongong, Australia, where she teaches and continues to produce literary works that draw rave reviews. Such as:

“Filipina-Australian writer Merlinda Bobis’s new work Locust Girl: a love song is a surreal allegory on the divide between selfish privilege and disenfranchised victimhood... At the story’s heart is the malevolence of imperialism and its mercenary and parsimonious protection of the little that is left of its plunder of the remainder of the world. This is no pointer to the future: the future is now and we live the border and the divide.” (from Mike Williss of servethepeopleblog)

And from Lucy Sussex of Sydney Morning Herald: “(A) book that can be read with pleasure for its language alone, and which subtly and surely subverts the status quo. Bobis messes with our minds, in the very best way.”  

Here’s an excerpt:

“We fled from the cave of the weeping woman, her stories pursuing us. How we ran, but we could not run away from the story of her green village once upon a time. Even if Beenabe said we should not speak about that cave ever again, I knew, like me, she was wondering about green.

“What’s green? Vaguely I remembered asking someone the same question long ago, but the present was a hot wave that washed it away. Outside it was as brown and dry as ever. Beenabe kept convincing herself that a story was never told, that it never happened. But how could she deny it when the saltiness remained in our mouths?

“It took two days of walking for my brow to behave. It kept singing Cho-choli’s story, as if to memorise it. So how could we deny it?

“Beenabe refused to listen. She refused to walk with me. She was the one lagging behind now. She must stop to rest, she called out to me. But I saw from the corner of my eye that she was studying the brown sand, her brown wrap, her brown skin. On the second night as we lay together after a meal of sand, she finally asked me, ‘What’s green, Beena?’

“I knotted my brow until it hurt, to remember. Nothing. Even my locust did not stir. We slept dreaming of green. We invented it. It became everything that was good once upon a time.

“Green was anything we wanted it to be. Like dry cheeks and dry eyes or faces with eyes, or hot barley soup, or barley sprouting on blessed earth, or putting together again the creature that I had broken, or sleeping with sisters, or drinking not salty water, or walking past the horizon then home.” 

Lakambini Sitoy wrote Sweet Haven from 2006 to 2009. It was translated and published in France in 2011, by Albin Michel, as Les Filles de Sweethaven. Sweet Haven was released in May 2014 in North America, as an Ebook, by the New York Review of Books.

Her previous books are Mens Rea (1998) and Jungle Planet (2005). She received the David T.K. Wong fellowship from the University of East Anglia in 2003, was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008, and has received a Manila Critics Circle National Book Award and numerous prizes in the annual Palanca Memorial Awards. She holds an MA from Roskilde University in Denmark, where she resides and teaches English. She’s presently working on two new novels.

Bing writes: “I teach general and academic writing courses (C1 in the European Frame of Reference); the one I’m teaching at the moment is an academic writing course, and one of my students, Larissa from Brazil, was Miss Earth 2009! It’s wonderful because I get a peek into the professional concerns of people at the MA and PhD and highly-senior level in Denmark… Aside from the writing courses, I’m sometimes given assignments to teach conversational English and other tailored courses: companies here often offer courses in English as a means of professional development for their employees, and I’ve only recently been put in the pool of teachers at Studieskolen that gets sent out on those assignments. It’s not a steady income but it is very exciting for me, after years of being out of the workforce, and I give it my all.”

She adds that she’s very happily married to Vagn Plenge, a Danish publisher of fiction from Asia, Africa and Latin America, and that they travel about once or twice a year.

Bing is from Dumaguete City, the setting of her latest novel.

Following is an excerpt:

“In the video, the girls lie supine on the same narrow bed. They appear to have been filmed unawares, through an aperture in the ceiling.

“Though the footage was probably taken months apart, the girls seem to lie twisting on the same filthy sheet — helpless, served up for our gaze, on the same hot afternoon. Three girls.

“Through the magic of computer editing, the camera proceeds from one naked woman to the next without explanation, as though an infinite number of succulent females queues beyond the round black frame. From time to time the camera startles us by wandering over a body, venturing so close that identification is irrelevant.

“It is hard to tell whether the same man services all three.

“Sweat slicks their chests and glistens off their foreheads. Their features twist as though in alarm, as though in the final stages of strangulation. On the grainy screen, their complexions are the flat, bruised gray of death.

“All the crucial details — of face and breast and dark, split sex — are visible, and that is what counts.”

As for my own first novel, Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café was first published by the Book Development Association of the Philippines (BDAP) in 1988 after it won a CCP grant for a novel manuscript. It also won the Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel. It was reprinted by UP Press in 1997.

The original paperback in newsprint had a wonderful front and back cover design by Jose Tence Ruiz. The book paper reprint had a cover illustration by Nonoy Marcelo, but retained part of “Bogie” Ruiz’s illustration of a decade previous. Now, the third edition from Anvil happily features a new full-cover illustration and design by Bogie, who’s fresh from his Vienna Biennale success. I thank him profusely here for accepting the assignment anew. The book looks terrific.

It still features the introductory essays by my literary fathers Franz Arcellana and Nick Joaquin, plus a new photograph of the latest statue of the real-life revolutionary protagonist Pantaleon Villegas a.k.a. Leon Kilat of Bacong, Negros Oriental, as sculpted by Danilo Luces Sollesta of Dumaguete City. Thanks much to you too, Danny! A copy should reach you soon.

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