‘Winds, Waves, Wars, Words’
Ongoing in Subic is Tabaoan, a Philippine writers’ festival. Tabaoan means a marketplace, and the festival brings together writers from all over the country, including two National Artists, to exchange ideas.
I was asked to deliver a keynote address, and would have wanted to stay on to listen to the other writers. But I had to get back to Manila for work.
The participants did ask for copies of the speech, preferably through this column, so here is an edited version, and in two installments.
Thank you for inviting a columnist to deliver the keynote address at this writers’ festival.
I still remember the first time I was asked, by a stranger in an airport, “Are you the writer?” I was perplexed and asked what she meant, and it turned out she was referring to my being a columnist. I wanted to explain there is a difference between a “writer” and a “columnist,” and that not all columnists can be considered writers, in the sense of literary production, while many writers would not consider being columnists. But I kept my silence, feeling very good about being called a writer.
Since then, I’ve been approached by more people with that line, “Are you the writer?” and I smile, trying to hide my pride and keeping myself from answering, “Yes indeed!”
Thank you then for allowing me to address you today, as a fellow writer.
I decided to use the theme of your conference, “Winds, Water, War and Words,” as the title of my presentation. I must say here that I have mixed feelings about alliteration. Used well, alliteration resonates, as your theme does. But a slight excess can be disastrous, trivializing what is said or written. I hope that today, I will do justice to this device as we explore winds, water and war.
Like it or not, we are one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, both “natural” and “human-made.” This vulnerability has shaped the way we think, the way we live. Winds, waves and wars have permeated, maybe sometimes invaded, our lives.
With the Malaysians and Indonesians, we have a shared fear of the winds. The Malay masuk angin translates as pasok hangin, the entry of winds into our bodies blamed for numerous illnesses, from respiratory ailments to gas pains, (kabag) to assorted muscle pains.
We fear the combination of winds and “lamig” or cold, especially if it results in the drying of sweat on our backs; and to protect ourselves, we have the ubiquitous sapin. With young or old, women or men, you find the sapin peeping out of people’s backs—a Good Morning towel, a handkerchief, even the Philippine Daily Inquirer or some other newspaper.
All this should not be surprising given that we live in a monsoon zone; in fact, we shield Southeast Asia from the winds coming in from the Pacific, finishing the alphabet with names of typhoons.
The fear of winds is a fear of storms, so much so that we have a counterpoint: a fear of the absence of winds. I am referring to the feelings of dread that we get with the deceptive calm before a storm, knowing that the stiller the lull, the more furious the impending storm.
When the storm does strike, unleashing its fury, we seek shelter in our homes, listening to the winds outside. As the winds subside, another kind of fear takes over. We almost dread the end of the storm because we know that when the winds die down, we will have to confront the world outside, one marked by the stillness of devastation and death.
As a nation of islands, numerous Filipinos live in coastal communities, fearing the waves that come with winds. People talk of walo walo waves, eight days of eight-foot (or eight-meter) waves. Walo walo is almost onomatopoeic, suggesting the howling of the winds as it agitates the waves.
Our fear of waves may come as well from collective memories of perilous sea voyages made by loved ones, whether fisher folk, seafarers or one of the many Filipinos who use interisland vessels. The waves symbolize the uncertainties of life, of anticipated joyful homecomings turning into tragedies, newspapers’ front pages with photos of the capsized ship. For the bereaved, the waves will always be reminders of watery graves of loved ones.
Our fear of waves is not limited to the oceans. We fear underground waves too, the earthquakes. Our mythology includes underground serpents, the Southeast Asian Naga, their cataclysmic movements associated with the earth opening up and swallowing humans. In recent years, we have come to fear the tsunami, waves sent from thousands of miles away. We have seen how rumors of non-existent tsunamis can create city-wide panic, sending people into the streets, parents into schools to evacuate their children.
We fear the winds and the waves. We fear the fire and water that come with the winds and the waves. We fear nature.
But our fear of nature and natural disasters is eclipsed by our fear of war. The mortality figures from armed conflict are staggering: 300,000 to 600,000 in the Filipino-American War, half a million during Second World War, including 100,000 during the so-called Liberation of Manila, several thousand during the martial law period, including the many desaparecidos, the disappeared, the ones made to disappear. We have Southeast Asia’s longest standing insurgencies: the New People’s Army, the various Muslim insurgencies. (See necrometrics.com, a rather grim Internet site, for mortality estimates in the many wars of the world.)
Wars divide, rent the social fabric, leaving intergenerational pain and sorrow. Our fear of wars is a fear of the other, fellow Filipinos transformed into the new aswang, used to frighten and silence children. I remember one night more than 30 years ago, in a heavily militarized area in Kalinga, a mother trying to silence a crying child by banging on the walls of her hut and calling out, “solchacho, solchacho!” It took me a while to remember that the Kalinga often interchange “ch” with “d” and that she was using “soldado” (soldiers), to coax, no, to threaten her child into silence.
More than pain and sorrow, the most dangerous intergenerational effect of war is mistrust, Filipinos wary of Filipinos.
(On Friday, I will talk about what words can do, to help us overcome our fears of wind, water and wars.)
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