Small Victories

Some of these things are true:

Made plans and pushed through with the bare minimum. Purchased commodities, shared with a community. Standard cup of kilig from where you are to where he is. Perfect cardio workout. Drank coffee. Highlighted and diagrammed. Remembered filial obligation. Had a concussion, or two: first from forgetting how low the bunk bed is, second when entering a taxi. Glared when in a narrow hallway you had to be the one to step back and make way. Discarded books. Laughed hard to the point of tears at how ridiculous community has become, memes imitating art. Ate too little. Experienced, for the first time, pure elation at the words, the possibilities are endless. Because you don’t know when, or how, they’ll come at you, wings spread, eyes bright, claws for the inevitable jouissance crumbling your soul into cigarette butt, beer bottle, new notebooks, plastic bag, house dust. Whole, after the rush. You’ve become a fragment of the few words in this piece that you can trust.


Stand-Alone Adventures

former selves

“I felt like I was in danger of vanishing, though at the same time the feelings I had were so raw and overwhelming that I often wished I could find a way of losing myself altogether, perhaps for a few months, until the intensity diminished.” – Olivia Laing


Crooning pieces to adulthood: as a child, being told by my mother that what I feared didn’t exist. It wasn’t a matter of monsters but anxiety–the nuns at kindergarten would drink my tears and feast on my heart, I thought; the plaid on my uniform meant I would be bullied; the car, despite all my prayers, would turn turtle, crash, and fold my skeletons into unfamiliar frame.

A practice: consider that unexpected changes in schedule are only an exercise of the imagination, until they finally occur. And then consider that prophecies mean nothing until the central figure realizes that the material presence of all future-meandering is really a challenge to feel at ease with nothingness. Absence of new space, for instance, and then a re-doubled sense of loss when what was previously novel becomes distant: so a timetable becomes a calendar for losses, one which charts what footnotes demarcate as external but also supplementary. The footnote, then, is this: survive in the lack and treat this lack as personal space, else be doomed by false presences.

Fulfillment of changes in schedule as end in itself, as in this is an end. But there is also something attractive in not-speaking, in meaning: please let me persist alone a little longer. Please leave me here to digest myself. Olivia Laing writes,

You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.

The fact is that mothers always know best, but daughters, when they awaken to fear, swallow blades whole. Like the above, one might propose: what is internal should be divulged, raw, instead of shied away from. But perhaps there is also another way? Laing, still:

Language is communal. It is not possible to have a wholly private language. This is the theory put forward by Wittgenstein in philosophical investigations, a rebuttal of Descartes’s notion of the lonely self, trapped in the prison of the body, uncertain that anyone else exists. Impossible, says Wittgenstein. We cannot think without language, and language is by its nature a public game, both in terms of acquisition and transmission.

Seems simple enough. Create a new language with which to configure fear. But I disagree (it’s becoming a habit). The turn inward is important, but to what extent? What is gained by the unintelligible? To this I propose: do not create a new language yet; instead, listen to yourself. Avoid the convenient excuses people use to get under your skin. The self-same excuses meant to make you wonder if you’re really feeling what you’re feeling and would you like to elaborate on that? No, I would not.

It’s true; the public (to acquire, to transmit), will be there for you to use. But as with everything else that is social, it also requires further thinking before contribution to discourse. To understand the public is to allow for wonder, and that also means taking time to mull yourself over. Descartes, and then eventually Wittgenstein. Childhood fears turn into everyday realities, yes. However, it also means that such realities are quotidian and perishable in their persistence.

And if so, then you already carry within yourself the capacity to bear them.


Laing, Olivia. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Loneliness. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2016.


Queasy Inquiries: On Natsuo Kirino’s Out

“Disturbing” is an easy enough way to describe Natsuo Kirino’s Out (translated by Stephen Snyder), but there’s something more uncanny informing such a claim, I would think, when the words “perverse feminism” (along with “vigilante justice”) are used to review the novel.

The quick piece written by Wolff, is of course only a breeding ground for the elaborated thoughts here: but though her article is short and complete, it is those two words above that encapsulate and challenge my own notions of Kirino’s novel.

But what is this idea of being “perverse”? The anti-proper, the dark, the morbid, the clandestine—but even those definitions are neatly categorized and in an elongated plot that starts strong (Out is about how four women who work the graveyard shift at a boxed lunch factory conspire to dispose of a dead body), it doesn’t do much to communicate why this perversion is not merely a literary convention but a calculated move toward questions. Think of it as a motion to block an elusive parry, a more truthful question that sidetracks the entire discussion. It is what happens when, upon flipping a coin, the object does not so much fall on one side as show the one who flips it that there is an underworld where even a woman’s desire for survival suggests that perversion must be essential to the realization of a new life.


Vintage International edition. Translated by Snyder.


Kirino’s novel, though it centers around four women, is really an inquiry into the steel resolve embodied by Masako’s character. That this resolve, in fact, places her on top of the hierarchy among the four becomes clear immediately; she is closely followed by Yoshie, whose fast reflexes at the factory earns her the moniker “Skipper.” Lagging behind them are Kuniko and Yayoi, the latter of which serves as both catalyst and millstone when she finally kills her abusive husband.

The murder of such a figure is understandably liberating and, again, one might be tempted to say, perhaps fitting to be associated with the perverse. Still,  it is not the murder itself that upsets, but the new roles that characters play, factory style, when group leader Masako accepts Yayoi’s plea for help to dispose of her husband’s corpse.

True enough, the parallelism between the exacting labor at the factory (imagine a gustatory 90s homage to the first assembly line; massive amounts of beef teriyaki and rice that need to be measured nearly to the last strip or grain per boxed lunch) and the process of working on Kenji’s corpse is a blunt one at best, but it is only through this [translated] bluntness that the work tries to rationalize not only murder’s perverse nature, but also the same nature as found in the troughs of marriage and the need to earn a living.

This is where the first important question surfaces: is the novel perverse merely because it contains gore, as inflicted upon, by, and dealt with by the four women? Would it not be more appropriate to propose that it is perverse because in addition to the politics of such gore, these women must continue to make ends meet, and find solid footing in their respective families? What is remarkable about Kirino’s work is that filial life becomes precisely the reason that the grisly act must be done, and all other consequences of helping Yayoi be faced.

This is true for nearly everyone butMasako—that is, until three-fourths into the novel, when a former colleague, Jumonji, sees business potential in the joint talents of Masako and Yoshie. The two of them, after all, are an efficient pair, slicing Kenji’s corpse over Masako’s covered bathtub, and then placing the parts in forty-so plastic bags. The two are so efficient that the act is almost a butcher’s job except for struggle to slice through rigor mortis, and the sterile way in which the bathroom must be cleaned when the bags have been filled.

Financing the body

In elaborating how financial well-being (not for themselves but for the reinstatement of their validity as women) justifies covering up for Yayoi’s crime, the novel then moves into the area of the dialectic. Might not society, after all, be more perverse than these four women? After all, it is society, as concretized in the characters’ dire filial situations, which demands that on top of keeping odd hours at a backbreaking job, these women assert themselves for extra pocket while remaining subservient to their domestic roles: Yoshie must earn money not merely to provide daily needs but also to satisfy the foolish demands of her two daughters, as well as attend to the child-like needs of her ailing mother-in-law; Yayoi will receive insurance for the death of her husband (mysteriously murdered, the official story goes), but must face the growing demand to pay her friends for scattering the remains of Kenji at different locations. Meanwhile, Kuniko and Masako represent different needs in terms of financial and filial situations. While one faces the need to pay off debt, the other wonders at the possibility of freedom from her silent husband and resentful son.

Although the turn to the body seems inevitable, even expected, at this point, the body that confronts the reader is important, for several reasons: because it is shudder-worthy; because it questions the fate of the four female bodies by the end of the novel; because it proposes that the unknown to which such bodies are thrust is inescapable, and because the bluntness of narration undercuts the freedom Masako had already been moving toward, shortly before brutality subjected her body to the ultimate violation.

A curious realization

That is where the territory becomes unknown, and where I walk on shaky ground—why is this violation essential? And how, then, is it dangerous in this supposedly essential nature? Why does it remain suspicious, despite the fact that Masako seems not only to survive, but also find an opportunity to live a new life for herself, after this terror?

However, because the novel, despite its blunt storytelling, dodges easy questions about motivation, the answers to the above take the form of a coin that exposes an astonishing underbelly. That is, one is prompted to mull over Masako’s violation and the brief period in which it is unclear whether the pleasure she experiences is staged or if she experiences it despite her misgivings and her will to survive (the latter sets alarm bells ringing in my mind). In this way, there is a question of complicity, but wedded to this inquiry is the truth that a new body emerges for Masako—a body which is unrecognizable and perverse, not because of what has been done to her but because of the seeming acceptance with which she wears this new body.

Secondly, on the subject once more of the perverse, it must be said that what happens to Masako is the epitome of what happens to the other three women because it is she who insists on turning the page completely. She is in fact, considering Kuniko especially, the one who has the most will and ability to insist on an entirely new beginning. Moreover, her experience is deemed disgusting not only because it is a crime committed by a male psycopath, but because Masako’s role in it sheds doubt on the new resolve she gains at the end of the novel. True enough none of the others, physically or emotionally, survive the assault on their bodies and financial security the way Masako does—but what is the specific reason for this? If she has been a source of strength, of absolute resolve, since the beginning, can the new body and life she promises to have be considered proof of any meaningful development? Obviously my answer leans toward the negative.

Still, discussing perversion alone leaves the other term in the shadow, which prompts us to ask: is such a novel actually feminist? To be particular, how can feminism (which is already subjected to countless instances of misreading, none of which singularly can or should overthrow the struggle against patriarchy, I believe) become perverse? Is the use of the word “perverse” along with feminism, merely a way of describing the kind of fight Masako and friends put up as “unconventional,” because gory? Or is it perverse only because while society’s expectations for a woman to fulfill both filial and financial obligations are normalized, the spectrum of ways in which women subvert such duties, in contrast, are considered nauseating?



An Exercise in Description

Personal intrigues: what makes narration descriptive, how is a description a narrative?

Make like loops and lollipops to answer the question:

The lure of time on your own and of your own choosing, of course, is how well-configured the spaces can become between pause and continue. For instance: take these words, which you began six months ago, and focus on them.

Ah, but the mind resists, for it is no longer used to examining serifs and italics. Easier to digest: the slant of architecture in neighbor’s roof, the gape of canal in another long-polluted road that smells of too much work, the polish of saltine spray bottles that come cheap but inevitably amount to more costs than one would have imagined as necessary (repeat after me: they were thinking of you when they removed the truck ban. The trees are for show. You are right to assume, this city is trying to kill me).

Less facile to speak of: the rounded edges of tables now protected against water marks, the lackluster scenery as seen from a vehicle when you hitch with a friend–you never know whether to make polite conversation, or let yourself get lost in the same dull illusion of reflections overlapping in the glass pane and leering drivers outside. Or the highway that invites traffic at all times of day. Still, ennui in a moving vehicle demands a kind of concentration. It is there, and just flimsy enough to be broken into should conversation suddenly become essential. Describe it like a poem in reverse. Take a cue from Mr. O’Hara:

It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so. I admire you, beloved, for the trap you’ve set. It’s like a final chapter no one reads because the plot is over.

And then, as distraction to project the kind of life you could never live:

Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too, don’t I? I’m just like a pile of leaves.

Leisure is ridiculous as it allows for indulgent description. And yet, when the cliche push comes to shove does, indeed, come in, one looks at the backlog and is surprised at the number of narratives. Given one’s own pace, one can distinguish a personal calendar of accountability to one’s pen. Instructed to do so, however, one freezes in her tracks. Hmm, perhaps I went wrong somewhere. There was something about this, a while back:

Why should I share you? Why don’t you get rid of someone else for a change?

And then:

Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous (and how the same names keep recurring on that interminable list!), but one of these days there’ll be nothing left with which to venture forth.

The addiction, however, is pull of black hole, like auto-pilot on public transportation, allergies be damned. It is the realization that all pauses, to mean something, must only be significant in relation to enjambment. You can dither all you like, but the deadlines will be met and the signatures collected to make a pact.

You are surrounded by people who would give it all up, and how lovely! And, would you like to join them? And yet. And yet (always, that voice!):

However, I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass. Do they know what they’re missing? Uh huh.

The answer is that we take a breather to understand ourselves. To fall back, take it slow, and realize you have fallen in love with yourself all over again. That is the reason behind the laughter, the incapacity for description that grips the narrative, rendering it plotless.

Why, of course I’ll be back.

The above is what happens, naturally, in the lull. And then there will be non-reviews to attend to, of course.

Early Constructs

Domesticity is easy if you find a system of language for it.


In the first few phases of life, the word is “mother,” because there is no career–not hers, and certainly not yours, not yet. Not even now. To cook meals, there was only ever heat and crumbling kitchen tiles, made alive by the dread of being told, as a child, to set the table.

Now, nearing “old”–“older”?, domesticity means you bought your own food supplies but forgot all the basics that you’ve stored in your heart these long years. So in the end, you starve. Nothing comes of nothing, after all. If nothing were salt. Or pepper, or vinegar, or fish sauce.


The first recipe you ever really learn from your mother, and execute on your own, is this:

You take out the shrimp from the freezer. You immerse it in water to defrost. You look for the olive oil, make sure there’s butter. You gather eight to 10 cloves of garlic, and crush them with the flat side of the knife. You place the pan on the stove, on medium heat, and wait a while until it’s warm enough: ready for the oil and butter, and just when it melts, you know to put the garlic. And then you must wait just before it burns to pour in the gray-black of raw shrimp, mixing it a little, waiting to turn them all pink.


There are other things to learn from the hands of a father. Things like: Should you really leave that mess on the table what will happen if you do why didn’t you throw this out this is why our life is anything but spotless but where is every little thing–

And then there is resourcefulness. The first thing that comes to mind (because you wanted to do it yourself) is a project in elementary, when a number of you were failing, and for extra points, were told to construct any three-dimensional shape, wrap it up in fancy paper, and pray to god that the points added up to say you might be, for now, just enough.

You wanted to construct this yourself. As in a narrative, there was (always will be) a shape in your mind. Points on a plane serve a purpose, though no one ever tells you this project can be taken away from you. Paternal resourcefulness means you should have used the balustrade to make the illustration board pliable, should have had the hands of a man and the patience of a father to do so, and you can do this, too, sulk and be memorable.


Domesticity is easy to spell and savor now, the way you learned, on your own, to scramble eggs and add cheese and olives. The way you know, exactly by the ironic fact of estimation, how much milk to put and to never stop stirring until you see the fluff of it, the promise of many healthy mornings and idealism, but we were talking of your mother, and now of yourself, when you remember:


You add only half a packet of tomato paste to the shrimp in the pan–any more and there you have it, yesterday’s disaster. And then a little water, and cover the pan a while–But not too long! Less than five minutes will do. You add the sweet-and-sour sauce, and mix and mix and mix, and laugh at the shrimp that falls out of the pan (onto the counter, onto the floor) because your wrist is unpracticed, because the aim of your hand isn’t yet true. You add a little ketchup and sugar and salt (all by estimates) and stir, and cover, and stir again. Easy, easy, tell yourself. It’s all so easy. Repeat your mistakes, repeat yourself.


You know you can only claim culinary success if you cook what your mother does with eyes closed, but eggs sunny-side-up are difficult enough as it is.

To wit: success means nilagang baka, tinola, or real sourness, real flavor, sinigang.


In the end, teaching students empathy boils down to this. This is not pathos, this is not writing, this is not cooking, this is not domestication, this is not flight, this is not sadness, this is not life, this is not work, this is not a CV, this is not a career, this is not an emotion. She writes, “You want to learn how to stop feeling sorry for yourself. You want to write an essay about the lesson. You throw away the checklist and let him climb into your hospital bed. You let him part the heart wires. You sleep. He sleeps. You wake, pulse feeling for another pulse, and there he is again.”

But empathy is craft, too, and careful construction, and messy estimates. I stop, I breathe, I disagree again.


not today, not yet


if the art of losing isn’t hard to master, consider waking up to disaster.

more importantly, consider the probability that what you fear the most probably has very little to do with sympathy. if, at the moment that the unimaginable occurs, retreat to sorrow. if they want to tell the world, let them. and if you must follow suit, learn, at least, to be invisible.

(Ibig-sabihin: posible palang salamin ang marinig sa diskurso ng pagsusulat; maaari palang ibang saloobin ang naisusulat at pagsasarili ang nangyayari. Hindi lahat ng bagay na kailangang mangyari, kailangan mangyari ngayon)

Natsuo Kirino’s Out: now this is what suspension of disbelief should be. Do not offer readers a variety of choices when faced with the textual violence of a body cut up and placed inside forty plastic bags. Accept that there are two paths. One can read on, and follow Masako. Or one can, despite continuing to read, reject the idea that without compulsion, four women can be bound by one gruesome act that has little to do, inherently, with three of them.

(Clue: dugo at pera)

a funny story, though probably not uncommon: you know a friend with whom you can converse about each other’s pain without making the conversation a matter of either/or (i.e., either we only talk about me, or we only talk about you). the sound of “and” always infiltrates the discussion.

Minsan na raw niyang sinabihan ang isa: Wag kang iiyak, wag kang iiyak; ikaw ang aalis, wag kang iiyak! Kasi nga naman, wala raw karapatang umiyak ang mismong lilisan.

(Clue: mahirap ipaglaban ang katarungan kung hindi mo sigurado kung sila o sarili ang ipinaglalaban mo sa bansang ito. Tandaan: baka naman kung sila ang iniisip mo, kailangan mo ring i-lugar ang sarili mo. Tanong: saan ka lulugar? There is no goatherd at luncheon, stupid; you are the goatherd; you must not finish your meal)

Natsuo Kirino’s Out: for days when I had the time, I devoured the novel, but stopped more than halfway through. Functionality means: you must pace your pleasure. Functionality means: you are your own Masako, learn to conceal someone else’s murder.

how to speak of the insufferable; how to speak of things one cannot manage to endure; how to write if there is no metaphor; how to speak of “alone” if there is no point of register: