Monday, June 25, 2007

Stories We Were Told, Stories We Will Tell

The last major battle in Cagayan Valley, Philippines, against Spanish occupation was waged under the leadership of a woman, a babaylan (priestess) of the Itawes tribe, by the name of Ines Carinugan. A friend emails her story to me, apropos of what, I do not know. Ines was also a mandyadyawak (a healer who also conducts rituals and dances, as oppose to the herbolario, who uses concoctions from plants and animals). I wonder now whether a mandyadyawak was ipso facto a babaylan, though the reverse may not hold true. In any case, the Itawes tribe contemplated rebellion on the heels of an uprising led by Magalat in the lowlands. Magalat's mother had convinced him to forego Catholicism and return to tribal ways, making my friend suspect she was a babaylan as well. Magalat's rebellion was so fierce it required treachery to defeat it; he was assassinated by "friends."

Undeterred, Ines led the Itawes into battle. With Spanish troops augmented by local collaborators (which is how Filipinos are, to this time, defeated), Ines and her warriors were captured. She was hanged (likely as a witch, as Gabriela Silang would be, a hundred years later) and all who followed her, executed. To obliterate her memory and all of her teachings/sayings, the Spaniards concocted the story of the Virgin of Piat -- a small brown statue brought by the Dominicans from Mexico to the Philippines in 1604. The statue, they claimed, instantly converted the Itawes (but only after killings and torture). Via this narrative of “superior magic," they obliterated the memory and teachings of Ines, replacing it with what the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard would call a simulacrum of memory. There is a basilica in place now for the Virgin of Piat.

I had heard of the Virgin of Piat, of course, but knew nothing about Ines. How many constructs had I absorbed through the years and how many more do I still absorb, on a daily basis? When narratives are perverted for purposes beyond truth, or even against truth, how does one distinguish between a simulacrum of reality and reality itself? The eye, after all, doesn't see; the brain does -- and if the latter's processes are perverted, if an automatic mantra rises in the brain that says that one’s thoughts are not sanctified and hence in error, inferior to the infallibility of those who create matrices, even one of smoke and mirrors, what happens then?

If Man were the tool-making species, Woman -- I'd always thought -- must have been the narrative-creating species. The paintings in the Caves of Altamira were likely made by women, as part of the effort to understand and survive nature. The earliest named poet (as oppose to ubiquitous Anonymous) was Ehenduanna (ca. 2300 B.C.E.), high priestess of the moon goddess Innana in that now unfortunate place called Iraq. Narratives, at the dawn of human time, were meant to explain and codify the values/perspectives/practices that enabled humankind to survive. In the hands of women of pre-history, the narrative was both integral to and integrating of communal life, inclusive, not exclusive.

The narrative has become warped, of course, as most things female-invented have in the rise of sexual dominance and private property. The narrative began to serve other purposes. From the earliest slave society to the present, narrative construction evolved into the making of tales (and cultural products) cautionary of rebellion or of questioning the matrix. The Iliad, whose core is an echo of the struggle between women's rights and men's rights (really a vivid illustration of how slave society consolidated itself), teaches the futility of defying the gods, of trying to weave a life outside the construct. Weep and learn, you who read this, is Homer's message; Troy was destroyed because it accepted a woman's right to decide. But our modern construct is that Helen was "the face that launched a thousand ships" (reflective of what we think should be women’s prime quality) rather than Helen, the woman who chose, who defied an arranged marriage.

Now we have modern constructs, trying to create acceptance of even the most unjust acts and actions, like war and invasion. Jessica Lynch and Kevin Tillman bewail before the US Congress stories imposed upon them: the first, as a supposed "female Rambo;" the second, of the supposed heroic death of brother, Pat. Jessica explains she didn’t even fire her gun; and only doctors and nurses were at the hospital where the US military allegedly mounted a death-defying rescue mission. Kevin Tillman, whose brother was practically a military recruitment poster boy, agonizes over the discovery that Pat had actually been killed by "friendly fire," the whole incident covered up and a construct of bravery substituted. As he himself say, the narrative does not fit reality. The two try to delete these simulacra deliberately metastasized all over the world.

On the reverse side, Yoko Tojo in Japan is trying to change history's and popular judgment on her grandfather, Hideki Tojo, prime minister from 1941-1944, an architect of the carnage unleashed by that country upon its neighbors during WWII. He ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor and was hanged in 1948 by US occupying forces as a war criminal. Ms. Tojo offers a different narrative, with the claim that Japan went to war "in self-defense," since a US oil embargo threatened the country's survival. For the moment, she is a lonely voice, calling for Japan's re-arming, citing the Chinese threat. But who knows how far a "meme" could go, in its insidious assault upon consciousness? The grandfather of the current prime minister had also been a war criminal.

We think of the past as immutable but in the Philippines, some writers of children's textbooks are attempting to change the verdict on Ferdinand E. Marcos and his regime. They make the claim that his intentions were good, that his desire was for the nation's benefit, but he was just unsuccessful. Being a survivor of that unspeakable dictatorship, I suffer extreme angst, wondering whether, in due time, this simulacrum of memory will prevail, and all the dead, the tortured and the dispossessed will be, not just ignored or forgotten, but non-existent.

Hope comes from an unlikely source. Our building super, perched on a ladder in the backyard while fixing a window in my apartment, thrusts his head through the opening and in that delightful accent of a migrant from Trinidad, bawls out: "IS THAT WOMAN WITH THE SHOES STILL ALIVE?"

I had to laugh. Imelda's self-indulgence and lust for self-aggrandizement were just too loom-large; no construct wide enough nor thick enough could suffice to veil it. My super has just taught me that nowadays, one person's narrative is hardly ever solely about him/her; it inevitably encompasses his/her spouse, children, people close to him/her, friends and foes alike, their acts and actions impinging upon the main text of the story, providing unforeseen paths and channels by which reality can either deconstruct or reinforce legends of infallibility; or render myths -- well, less than interesting. It is a lesson both optimistic and cautionary.

In the shadow of the simulacrum that was the Virgin of Piat, the memory of Ines Carinugan was sheltered by a few who, under the lash of Spanish colonialism’s injustice and the arrogance and cruelty of its adjutants, the "black" friars, rejected the Dominicans’ “smoke-and-mirror” tale, choosing to honor Ines instead. Through 500 years, those who remembered dwindled to one, from whom an anthropologist got and wrote the narrative down in a book which itself was reduced by time to a single copy, which was fortuitously found and Ines became the name of a guerrilla squad operating in the area, both book and squad eventually lost in the turmoil of the post-Marcos era, but the story was remembered, jumping the ocean decades later, to this continent and, now, is sent to me who lives so far from the Valley. First, one mind held the narrative of Ines, then two; three now with me in the tally, and when you finish reading this...

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A Very Weird Day

Bambi was really frayed at the seams; it was time to replace her. Bambi was this deerskin shoulder bag bought in a little store in Banff a decade ago, for C$70 (US$35 at the time). The name came about because of the mock-horrified exclamations received each time I said it was made of deerskin: “what? You killed Bambi?” The bag had not been replaced because a) I liked it; b) a friend who had promised to take me to Banff again courtesy of an erstwhile knight in shining armor got into a tiff with him, and c) I feel guilty after shopping, berating myself for wasting resources which could’ve gone to yet another pamphlet or to food for empty plates somewhere in the world.

But Bambi definitely had to be replaced -- a sudden realization in the middle of Manhattan’s 34th street, between one appointment and the next. There was this seemingly apt revolving door into which I ducked before my mind could decide otherwise and presto, I was in a department store.

Wrong choice. This was Macy’s, which before Wal-Mart was the biggest store in the universe. Wrong time. This was three days before Mother’s Day, which started out as an anti-war day and was now the busiest business day in the universe. Wrong section. The revolving door gave into the perfume chapel where I was instantly bathed by moist air redolent of flowers, spices, and musk, accosted by tall-handsome men and women offering cardboard strips and perfume bottles, asking in seductive tones: “would you like to try it on your skin?“

They wouldn’t let me go, seeing the LSR stamped on my forehead (low sales resistance). At moments like this, my brain goes into dual processing mode. One half went “oooh, that is soooo nice! Honeysuckle, is it?“ while the other half began accessing my mental encyclopedia: “there are only four cosmetic companies in the world, they own/control every other brand; so each time a woman squirts herself with scented water, she likely adds a few dollars more to the income of that guy -- what’s his name, check database -- whose funky divorce from Ellen B (what’s B’s newest film, check database) was the talk of the town, he ran for mayor here and outspent everyone, though those millions didn‘t even come to one per cent of his income…“

Swear to god, this is how my leftsideofthebrain speaks when I lose control of it, a cascade of associations and data, clicking merrily away, drowning me as much as the scents wafting my way… Prada, Dolce & Cabbana, Lauren, all promising with one squirt to transform me into an odalisque in a garden of lilies. One woman spotted my increasing vulnerability and moved in for the kill, aiming a bottle at me and saying, “this is our newest.“

Rightsideofthebrain was inspired to come to the rescue, turning me supercivilized and making me say that that was really nice but I was looking for my favorite, the only perfume I use, had been using since I was 15. She arched an eyebrow. Coldly: “And what is that, ma’am?“ And I named the greatest perfume ever made, currently difficult to find: Joy by Jean Patou. “Ah,” she was impressed. “Where are you from, ma’am?” Rightsideofbrain spoke up: “France.” I had no idea why I answered that way. She did a double-take. I looked Asian, certainly. But then, I could be French Vietnamese.

She switched to French, saying no, they did not carry Joy. Now, I understand French but can barely speak it. Rightsideofbrain made what seemed to be a proper French gesture of regret: back of right hand to the brow. “But Lord & Taylor does.” Good. That was ten blocks away. Escape. I turned toward the revolving door. “Ma’am, better to go that way.” She pointed to the interior of the store. I said “merci,” aspirating my “r” the way my French teacher used to, breathing out “Mme, Rhoshca.”

I was congratulating myself as I walked past display cases, loads of merchandise, inching my way between men and women who were, I swear, salivating over goods when boing! I was in the bag section. Oh, good. Let’s look for Bambi’s replacement. Now, I like my bags pure and simple, geometric, more vertical than horizontal, preferably with a front panel into which I can stick plane tickets, passport, ID cards, Metrocards, a green tea chocolate bar, etc. Surely I could find a plain and simple one among what looked like a million bags. NOT. All the bags had straps, chains, buckles, studs, so much metal they barely kept from sprouting steering wheels and zooming away. Not a single plain and simple one; each seemingly inspired by an upscale bikers gang. One hour searching and I couldn’t find one.

So away; forget about it, look elsewhere. And there it was, inside a glass case, in a section remarkably bereft of shoppers, right near the front door. Voila! “Can I see that, please?” The saleslady took it out. I inspected the thing, opened it, removed paper stuffed inside, turned it upside down, rapped it with my knuckles, was pleased with it, said: “A little shiny, but won’t it crack?” “No, ma’am, it’s patent leather.” “It looks okay, how much is it?” “$799.95.” Anak ng tinapa! which translates to child of smoked fish! No wonder no one was shopping here. “It’s Louis Vuitton, ma’am. It’s a classic.” I was looking for something a little more practical, I said. “What kind of bag, ma’am?” “British,” rightsideofthebrain replied. “We Britons make sturdy bags, unlike the French.” I had acquired a British accent.

Having done shopping in the last five years on the fly, mostly at airport malls, I could hardly believe that people periodically go through days like this, days rendered weird by commodity fetishism. Oich veh! Sorry, Bambi, but I’m coming for your sister. ###