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When private grief becomes literature |

Sunday Lifestyle

When private grief becomes literature

IN A NUTSHELL - Samantha King - The Philippine Star

Kerima Polotan had always been a buzzword back in my undergraduate days. Although well into her twilight years, she was inescapable; her work was referred to or made required reading in every Philippine Lit class. Younger professors would speak her name with deference; older ones couldn’t mention her without the ends of their mouths pulling up into a wry smile. When Polotan passed away in 2011, taking with her that sharp tongue and fearsome reputation, her name was as good as gold.

I had read a few of Polotan’s more famous short stories, and while I would marvel at the elegance and ease of her language, the writing itself never appealed to me. At the time, I fully subscribed to the view that authors, real authors, should always point to larger concerns beyond the scope of their subject. In Polotan’s case, the embittered, largely self-absorbed heroine seemed to me a poor excuse for a protagonist, much less a character that a millennial like myself could relate to. I found her women dated and perennially unsatisfied, never one to take matters into their own hands.

It was an admittedly narrow reading of Polotan’s work, as well as an unforgiving one, considering the era in which she wrote. But I was thoroughly immersed in the heady, politically-emancipated environment of UP, and my notion of upstanding women characters was limited to the angry, raw and aggressive.

Time always brings with it the benefit of new perspective, however. Revisiting Polotan’s The Hand of the Enemy during the summer, I was surprised at how differently I received the novel. No grand reason pushed me into picking it up again — I was reorganizing my bookshelf, spotted it in a corner, and thought, why not?

The phrase “hand of the enemy” is of biblical origin, replete in the Old Testament and Psalms. Deliverance, redemption, salvation from the hand of the enemy is a constant plea directed to God, but, in Polotan’s work, the plea is directed inwards, the protagonist realizing she can turn to no one but herself.

In 1961, The Hand of the Enemy won the Stonehill Award for Filipino Novel in English.

The story follows Emma Gorrez, schoolteacher, mother, and wife, as she picks her way through the wreck of her marriage. The novel is propelled by Emma’s various decisions —the unfaithful Domingo over the tragic Rene, Pangasinan over Manila, integrity over money — which in turn are linked to the apparent social and political decay of the middle-class.

Through Emma, as lonely and despondent as any Polotan heroine, the invisibility of a woman’s private life is written away. Indeed, any impulse to sweep domestic life under the rug is resisted, which is probably why the novel still resonates with readers more than fifty years later. Emma may not be the trailblazing, feminist figure I would have idolized in my undergrad years, but the choices she contemplates are so ordinary, yet so heavy with consequence, that no one can finish the story and still think her weak. Emma remains a proud figure, despite her constant defeats.

The Hand of the Enemy is not a celebration of a happy wife-heroine, but it is determinedly not a condemnation of domesticity as banal or oppressive, either. The novel contemplates, but ultimately resists, the trajectory from home to the bigger world. Emma stays bound to her filial duties as a wife and mother, and this, resolutely, is a decision all her own.

Polotan herself was famously a mother, with a set of triplets in her brood of 10. She was also famously a wife to newsman Juan Tuvera, the speechwriter of then dictator Ferdinand Marcos. While these dual roles no doubt shaped the course of her writing, in a 1961 profile, Nick Joaquin wrote that it was Polotan’s anguish over her strained relationship with her father, left unresolved by his death, that essentially troubled her fiction — “so cold on the surface, so angry at the roots.”

Polotan, whose self-proclaimed indolence (“she hated sewing, she hated housework, she hated all feminine tasks,” wrote Nick Joaquin) belied so much activity, died after a long bout with illness on August 19, 2011.

I can’t recall a novel I’ve read in recent years that has stayed with me as much as The Hand of the Enemy. The characters, the setting, even the generational slang are worlds removed from my own, and yet, in the hands of a master, I felt as intimately connected with the story as if I was the one who had loved and lost.

Anyone who can turn their suffering into art means they’ve transcended the bounds of their own lives. And truly, her fiction teaches readers that they can endure life better. Much like her genius immortalized on paper, Kerima Polotan, four years gone from us, still endures.


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