published in the national daily newspaper Malaya, March 21 2002

What does it take for a book to be picked up amongst rows upon rows of confused (and confusing!) National Bookstore arrangements? A salesgirl who has the sense not to place a thin book tome-facing-the-customer on the shelf; a groovy cover that screams “different book! different book!” amidst conventional local book covers; and the word “bitch” in big colored letters.

Chinie Hidalgo’s TheBlair Bitch Project: A Book of Bitchy Poetry (2000) was apparently sooo successful (self-published as it was) that the author – or authors, as she’d make us believe – found the need and the market for a sequel, which was un-creatively titled The Blair Bitch Returns, Another Book of Bitchy Poetry (2001). Now, in a publishing industry where only Jullie Yap Daza and Margie Holmes are asked for sequels, and with a limited local reading and book-buying public that is wont to avoid poetry like the plague (think poetry, think Shakespearean sonnets or e.e. cummings – blame it on our educational curricula), Hidalgo’s achievement is hard to come by. I mean, when more than one student in a class of 20 submits Hidalgo’s book as a review topic, one knows that this is the closest anyone has ever gotten to this text generation’s “literary likes” after Jessica Zafra’s hayday. Hidalgo must have something going that others don’t. Or, like me, her book covers were just too hard to resist for the young Pinoy reader who rarely sets eyes on “bad words” in big bold letters – unless of course one has seen the walls of public bathrooms.

And relative to bathroom walls, Hidalgo’s poetry is only a tad bit better.

While I don’t agree with the kind of poetry that our educational system has subjected students to all these years since the Thomasites landed in Manila, I also don’t think that Generation X, Y, Z reading Hidalgo’s kind of poetry is any more promising. Given that this might be all of local poetry – if there’s any poetry at all – that this text generation might ever read, how terrible that what Hidalgo treats them to is poetry that’s stuck in the tradition of hickory-dickory-duck in bitch mode. This practically eradicates all the effort that Filipino writers in English, Filipina writers in English in particular, have worked so hard on all these years – poetry that has more than just rhyme and meter, but content that can change minds about and open eyes to this society’s nooks and crannies, dirty and grimy as they most often are.

Of course one might say that in fact, the bitchiness in these books is all about how this society is dirty and grimy. Because as we pretend that things are fine and dandy, we are stuck in familial ties that bind so tight it actually hurts and we are bound to societal rules of politeness that we have mouth sores from biting our tongues. One finds though, that as far as these books are concerned, this would be an over reading. As the introduction says, its bitchiness is really only about saying things that are usually left unsaid or, as far as I’m concerned, are said behind peoples’ backs. Why? Well, because these are mean things to say. And here lies the confusion. In a hypocritical Catholic country like ours, we are told to bite our tongues and say only good things about our neighbors, at the same time that we are taught that truthfulness and honesty are the virtues of a good person, and the pain that may be inflicted can only be for the better. But why the hell would you waste time in telling a mother who says that her baby’s the cutest little boy who has ever been born that she’s living in a dream? Kids will grow up and find out for themselves that they’re not as pretty or handsome as their playmates, and mothers are suppose to handle the insecurity at that point. To inflict pain on the mother’s ego by telling her that her son looks like a monkey (as the book puts it), is not only pointless, it’s also just downright mean.

And here lies one of these books’ biggest problems. It creates the stereotype of the bitch as a mean person, who is really only truthful and honest. Come on. The greatest bitches are those who don’t waste time griping about ugly children with proud mothers, or dates with bad English. Instead, they are women who have the capacity to be well-meaning and are well-grounded as they choose the words worth saying and the battles worth fighting. One doesn’t go about saying “hey, I’m a bitch, watch me roar about this terrible looking person with a huge zit on his face!” But one does go about living a life that’s truthful and fair, and that which has a point in critiquing (not lambasting) the way people live their lives and what those lives stand for in the context of a society that is impoverished. Those are the bitches that all Pinays can be proud of. Not the woman who’s really only, in common parlance, pintasera.

In the end, this is what Hidalgo reveals her concept of bitchiness to be. A person who is not critical of, just cynical about, people. A person who is so shallow she can’t go beyond a person’s looks, diction, or clothing as if that’s how the worth of a person is measured. A person who counts how much other people give her, and how much other people stand for. And a person who is just richer than everybody else that she can tell if what another person is wearing is fake, in the same way that she can tell if a person is a fake Fil-Am or not (as if that was the important thing to gripe about as far as Fil-Ams are concerned – but that’s another essay). And to say that the poems in both books were actually written by a lot of people who helped her with everything from topics to rhyming words, and pointing out that in fact she’s a nice person (even teaching religion!), just adds to the falsity with which this book treats its readers. A true bitch knows she is one, knows she has a point in being so, and won’t find the need to apologize for it – the way Hidalgo does in practically every other poem. So really, the poems can’t even pretend to be bitchy, as the writer (and apparently publisher) destroys the concept even before one starts reading.

What a lousy excuse for a book of poetry this fake bitchiness has turned out to be. And what a terrible way of revealing that one does not have a sense of Pinay history and literature of which any Pinay writer is inevitably part. Angela Manalang-Gloria must be turning in her grave.

Lording it Over

published in the national daily newspaper Malaya, February 18, 2002

Rarely do I see an adaptation of any literary text without having first seen it on paper. Not out of some obsessive-compulsive need to know the story ahead of time, but out of the need to find out wherea given adaptation comes from, as this does not only give one a history of the text itself, but a sense of how it’s retold through another medium. The downside to this is the fact that most of the time, the adaptation – and in this day and age of “Disney-ized” fairytales, these are mostly movies – are such failures compared to the original texts. Too often, I’ve found myself regretting having paid 50 bucks for a movie that not only missed the point of the original text, but also added onto the original in an effort at selling the movie version. Think Rica Peralejo in the role of, uh, an originally old, fat, ugly maid who becomes the Tatarin.

Having been disappointed far too many times, for far too long, and quite recently (while Tatarin may be forgettable, Harry Potter is not) with movie adaptations, I wasn’t too hot about seeing the firstinstallment of the movie version of Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. But since I read the trilogy as an adolescent and didn’t really remember much of it, I figured I had less to lose. At least the disappointment in yet another adaptation will be hampered some by a certain level of unfamiliarity with the original text. At least, without my usual expectations, I could dismiss the movie as just another adaptation that miserably failed just because adaptations are meant to – what with producers who are only out to make money, directors who work against instead of with the original text, and writers who just decide to take on a text literally, albeit with some “needed” subplots and additions (a kissing/sex scene, an action scene, a god in a basket).

But director (and co-writer) Peter Jackson wasn’t one to disappoint. As the story of The Fellowship of the Ring was told me all over again, it didn’t matter that I could barely remember the original text. The movie took it upon itself to tell the story, without taking the easy way out and just putting the story on the screen word for word, event by event. Instead, it took on Tolkien’s original story and made a story of it for the big screen – choosing events and concepts that would tell a whole story. Too often movie adaptations suffer because there is an unthinking effort towards re-creating the whole text for the new medium. The Fellowship of the Ring doesn’t even work towards this goal, and in the process, the movie did not only remind me of what the original story was all about, it also brought me back to that point in adolescence when I was fascinated and awed by this world that Tolkien had created. The only way the movie could’ve done that was by being fascinating in itself, in the manner in which it told Tolkien’s story.

In the end, one realizes that the power of a text’s adaptation lies, not in its “faithfulness” to the original text, but in its ability to take the text and make it the medium’s own. A text that’s different altogether, but which is clearly and honestly tied down to the original. That Jackson, together with his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, was able to do this is not only tremendous; it’s proof that one cannot give up a text to another person who does not admire and respect the text enough to give it as much work as it deserves. Jackson has spent the past 7 years of his life working on this film and the years before that being a fan of Tolkien’s writing. He had wanted to take on the film when there were countless others who could do it; then he feared having to do the film when it was obvious that he was the only one who cared enough to keep working at it. It is this kind of respect for a literary text, and for the writer who brought the text into being, that produces a retelling that becomes, not only a success for the director and writers, but for the writer of the text himself/herself. One finishes watching The Fellowship of the Ring not only awed at the cinematic experience that it was, but at J.R.R. Tolkien himself, more than 50 years after he wrote the piece.

This is not to say that this adaptation was so unlike others that it did not add onto the original text. As is the issue with practically every LOTR discussion, Arwen is given more mileage in the film than in the practically all of the (three!) Lord of the Rings books combined. But that the movie’s writers had found this to be the only worthy, major addition is admirable, as it does not make the text suffer. Instead, it re-invents Tolkien and makes him more, um… gender conscious, than he actually is in the original trilogy. That’s not a revision that Tolkien – or any male writer in the year 2002 – would (should) want to go against.

And yet I find that the most thrilling experience I’ve had in relation to this movie, is realizing that like British Harry Potter, The Fellowship of the Ring did not only have Finnish Tolkien for a writer, the author’s estate also decided to have a Kiwi director take this on. In this day and age of America touting itself as the savior of mankind from anything that’s remotely un- or anti-American, it’s just fantastic that some people can still ultimately, snub America.

This Pinoy Harry Experience

published in the national daily newspaper Malaya, February 4, 2002

We were crazy to begin with, to think of watching the Harry Potter movie on its first day. But finding that it was showing in two theaters, with one having a line that would put the University of Pila registration to shame, my friend and I decided to try our luck with the other theater. It didn’t matter that we would enter in the middle of the movie – heck, we know the rest of Harry’s story beyond the sorcerer’s stone.

So there we were, pre-bought baon and SM drink (everything sold in the SM theaters are now branded Shoemart) in hand, confident that our plan to watch in medias res was just perfect for people like us who really only wanted to see J.R. Rowling’s world onscreen. Of course we failed to realize that while we may have been early for those who were just stepping out of their offices, school was out by that time. And that theater was way beyond SRO mode – there was even no place to stand.

We didn’t want to leave – we had gotten a glimpse of quidditch at that point. Not watching the Harry Potter movie within the day would just ruin the rest of our week. So we braved it and decided to take a chance with the balcony section which, while full, still had fewer people and even spaces on the steps to sit on.

Sooner than later, we wereable to get seats – not the most pleasant ones considering that with those crowds, the theater probably couldn’t be cleaned between screenings – but seats(!!!) on the first day of what promises to be the first Harry Potter movie. And I thought, how lucky can I get?

Apparently, a lot luckier. I could’ve gone to a theater with an audience that had the sense not to bring all their kids just because it’s cool that they see this much-talked-about movie. Never mind that kids who are too young to read the book would also be too young to watch the movie. One kid screams: Mommy, madiliiiiim!! The fact that the novel was dark and dreary, and that the movie would relive that, was apparently not expected by the dear parents. Daliiii ibaba mo na sa maliwanag! the father says in a loud whisper. And down ran the mother and child to the area where the light of the fire exit and the entrance shone a little. Ay mommy, si Santa Claus!! exclaims a girl of five upon seeing Prof. Dumbledore. Something the mother fails to respond to – busy as she is trying to watch the movie.

A young girl starts to cry in another row and the mother shushes her, saying Ay! Ay! Tingnan mo o… may asong tatlo ang ulo!! And the girl, shifting from bored to scared, screams even louder. Further down the row behind us, a little boy asks bakit lumilipad walis nila? to an elder who seems as awed at the thought as the young boy is, and fails to answer. Unlike a mother, who decided to give a speech about good and evil, when her young companion asked di’ba bad ‘yon? upon seeing the wand-waving and spell-chanting.

At this point, my mind starts to wander, and I remember J.R. Rowling saying in an interview that she in fact, kept her young daughter from reading the first Harry Potter book because she felt that it was too scary a book to be read by someone younger than seven years old. She should have thought the same thing for the movie, I thought, and required that the movie be given a PG7 rating.

Until beside me, an older girl in her school uniform fidgets in her seat and in loud whispers asks her friends Bakit ganon yung pictures? Sino yon? Anong nangyari? And, given the strangeness of the realm with which Rowling worked in the book, and with which the movie worked, Ano? Ano raw pangalan? Bakit ganon ang classes nila? Her questions weren’t innocent ones, they were confused ones. These are questions which, if one were ready for the kind of world the movie had to offer, wouldn’t be asked.

The thing is, Filipino kids are only used to two kinds of worlds in the movies – the cartoon world (which spans everything from Snow White to Buzz Lightyear) and the un-real world where stories of real-live Santa Clauses and impossible things happen through prayer, wishes, dreams (with happy endings and gods-in-baskets to boot). Rarely, if at all, are we treated to a movie that shows our children an alternate reality where other children like them exist. The wizard world to which Rowling introduces us is shown to be as real as our world, both in the book and the movie. This is of course, something that has been praised about Rowling’s writing. And yet,this is the same thing that keeps our young Pinoy audience from appreciating this movie for what it truly does.

The bigger girls besideme had trouble absorbing this world that seemed so much like ours, and yet, is just too different. It wasn’t all about the magic. It was about the technology (moving pictures), the processes of appellation (the names), their kinds of chocolate and sweets (frogs and any flavored beans), their system of education. Yes, Harry Potter is all about magic. But it is also all about another world, as real as ours, that probably exists in some form or manner, but which we’ve looked upon as baloney, unscientific, unreliable, unreal. At it’s core is this young boy who finds his personality, his life, in a world that is not of the muggles – that is not ours.

And here is the tragedy of this movie. That in good old Philippines, a majority of our kids will fail to absorb this movie and see its power. It is not just about children who live in “another” world. It’s about a world that uses everything we used to have, things we’ve been taught to only see as un-Godly and evil – worship, chanting, spells, home remedies and potions – and validate these as logical, real, and probable in a movie. That there’s a movie like this for kids is just amazing. That a majority of our Pinoy kids won’t get it is, at the very least, saddening. Because its a measure of how little they know of their pre-colonial past and, given the kinds of parents I encountered in this Harry Potter experience, it’s a measure of how little an effort our elders are making toward teaching our Pinoy kids otherwise.