In one of the many heart-wrenching images taken in the aftermath of Ulysses, about a dozen people can be seen half-crouched and trying to walk on top of the flimsy-looking GI roofs of shanties, held-up umbrellas impotent in the pouring rain, the wind visibly upending their steps, while behind them in the hazy distance residential towers watch mutely on. The caption said it was a community in Pasig, one of the worst hit by the floods. I must have stared at the photo for minutes, sick w/ helplessness. The reliable foreground-background combination that supposedly demonstrates age-old inequality, given urgency, a new sharpness. It still astonishes me the two countries experienced by Filipinos, the two countries that exist and trudge on simultaneously in people’s minds.
There are leaks and slippages between the two, of course, but last night, drinking w/ some friends, I told someone how this regime has exacerbated my anxiety, wrecked my mental health, and for the life of him he could not fathom what I meant. How adamantine the bubbles we inhabit, and there is in fact an imagined Philippines in w/c the government is compassionate, where things work, and everything else is manufactured dilawan-NPA nuisance (the tag-team no one needs, and no one asked for). Case in point: for several months now I’ve been staying in a high-rise that overlooks Marikina and the nearby Rizal towns w/ what I presume to be capitalist sangfroid, i.e., unseeing. I was 37 floors up the night when Ulysses hit. I remember being awake at 2 in the morning when the power went out, the wind in the dark sounding like a plane preparing to take off. The wind so vigorous and constant I couldn’t crack open my window. How the minutes slowed down, the hours. At one point rainwater began to leak through the AC opening, and for the first time in a while I thought how wonderful to have some company, how terrible it was to be alone. The view that I try to convince myself justifies the exorbitant rent that I pay every month nowhere, replaced by a terror.
This president seems to enjoy aerial surveys. Routinely, savegely castigated for his absence before and after the storms, he’d be flown over flooded farmlands and swathes of ruined houses, the rivers and tributaries that overflowed, the newly homeless like ants. That supposedly did the job. Then his cabal of trusted aides did the rest: deflect, pass the blame, and point out that the president is always “on top of the situation,” always “w/ us”–something issued to placate but w/c I will take as a threat. I learn absolutely nothing looking out my 37th-floor window; if anything, the distance and the perspective flatten chaos into order, conjure peace out of granular violence, from w/c all manner of sound–overworked engines, the blare of siren, the rare birdsong–coalesce into a meaningless, useless ruckus. What is the elevated view if not a position of detachment, a declaration of power, the privilege of “seeing” but staying safe, unscathed.
One hard-hit village in Rizal is a relocation site for urban poor families taken out of so-called danger zones all over Metro Manila. Families cornered into agreeing to be hauled away from their sources of livelihood and communities all on the promise of safety (it isn’t the first time it happened, too, a reminder that this status quo is by design, and sprawls beyond the current regime). Fatigue as a condition of life. From one danger zone to another. Fatigue but also confusion. The deafening deluge of calls for accountability on social media as expected matched not by action but a wave of troll activity, amplifying a completely different and false picture of government response to the calamities. A battle of perception, not facts. Bankrolled by the peoples’ taxes, no doubt supervised from–surprise–above. How to emerge from this kaleidoscopic hellhole? Where is our envelope moment, C asked. So permanent is our state of distress that there are hardly any discernible peaks to our discontent.
Speaking of confusion, all this took place as I slowly emerged from three or so weeks of writing-related eme. A workshop, a residency, and a couple of panels for a lit fest. That was its own haze, always illuminating and convivial, although life, and the political situation, always finds a way to disenchant the shit out of writing for me. To cite, one novel excerpt we workshopped, w/c I thought was brilliant, is set in Catanduanes, but some thought this fact wasn’t apparent, and looked for elements that would make it more obvious. For good or ill I remembered this innocent line of inquiry when Rolly, the year’s strongest typhoon, battered the island last week. At the lit fest Zadie Smith said of writers that the job is to observe, to observe better. That brought me comfort, w/ my fondness for pamimintana and staying put. But the trouble w/ looking out the window–and aerial surveys–is that you can always turn away. I want to think we are nearing the point when more and more people can no longer, and are refusing to, turn away.