Monday, November 25, 2013

Typhoon Haiyan: "How Is it Possible to Think of Literature in Times of Calamity?" by Luisa A. Igloria, Guest Blogger

Our Guest Blogger is Luisa A. Igloria, Professor of Creative Writing and English, and Director of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University. She is the author of Night Willow (Prose Poems), forthcoming from Phoenicia Publishing (Montreal, Canada: spring 2014); The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013)Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, university of Notre Dame Press)Trill & Mordent (WordTech Editions, 2005), and 8 other books. Since November 20, 2010, she has been writing (at least) a poem a day, archived at Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa site.

Not just about Haiyan:
How is it possible to think of literature in times of calamity?
Alongside the massive outpouring of support from various emergency organizations worldwide, several poets and writers began publicizing calls for contributions to disaster-themed anthology or book projects. Most stated they would donate all publication profits to relief and rehabilitation efforts; others announced they were simply interested in providing venues for "expression and healing."

But why even consider/make/include literature or art when there is the painful and more urgent work of rebuilding among those who have lost family members, homes, livelihoods, the very sense of any purpose and optimism for a future which seems to have no other shape but dread?


This question has been asked before. The German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno famously said in his 1949 essay "Cultural Criticism and Society" that after Auschwitz, no poetry could possibly be written again. In later work, he explained that what he meant was that it is not possible to create art within a “barbaric culture” –one that has become so bourgeois that it has rendered its citizens incapable of critical thought.

Later, Adorno also wrote: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the … question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living— especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared….” (from Negative Dialectics)

Perhaps this is what Filipino writer, scholar, and patriot Jose P. Rizal similarly meant when from Leipzig, he wrote to Ferdinand Blumentritt on August 22, 1886: “Each one writes history according to his convenience.”


Is it possible for someone who is not a direct survivor of history’s tragic events to write authentically about these without seeming merely to appropriate and exploit the suffering of others for profit, renown, or other kind of gain?  

Be that as it may, I also recall that the first elegies were written by Greek poets like Mimnermus, who was so moved by the sight of casualties in the Trojan war that he wrote lyrics like these: “And the heart wears away under the endlessness of its anxieties:/ There is no joy anymore then in the light of the sun.”

Wars and pogroms are perhaps different from natural calamities because the latter are indifferent to any kind of human influence. They are incapable of placation, and their scope and fury is something we can neither predict nor prepare for. When they happen, therefore, the sense of undoing seems so much more visceral and terrifying. Who could know?


When I was a child growing up in Baguio in the early ‘60s, monsoon season meant it was possible we would not see the sun for weeks, sometimes a whole month or more. The start of the school year (June) coincided with the start of typhoon season, and the ritual of buying school supplies invariably included shopping for rubber rain boots, raincoats, and umbrellas. When the typhoon signal was raised above 2, classes were suspended and we stayed home with nothing but the radio to connect us to the wet world outside, because in all likelihood electric power and water would have been cut off. 

Emergency preparations for storms, at least in my household, consisted of basic things: did we have candles, matches, some batteries? did we have boiled water? did we have rice? did someone remember to cook enough to last a couple of meals? where was the "kinque" or one-burner brass kerosene stove? did we have cans of sardines or Hokkaido mackerel or pork and beans? and where was the can opener? 

We did not calculate the number of gallons of water or dry food we had to have on hand per person in the household for a minimum of three days. We did not have water purification pills or solar battery packs. We did not have tarp, cords, flares, anti-diarrheal medications, antibiotics, first aid kits, kayaks, life jackets. The idea of disaster preparedness, in the way that we know it today, was not something I had any awareness of in my childhood; it seemed, neither did the adults in my family.  But then again, though we have had our share of disaster- and natural calamity-related experiences, their severity and unpredictability cannot compare with the most recent examples.


Isabel. Katrina. Sandy. Ondoy. Haiyan. 

Haruki Murakami writes in Kafka on the Shore: “When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”  


We lived at Number 6 City Camp Alley, an eight minute walk away from the City Hall, a fifteen minute walk from Holy Family Academy, my elementary school (which we could see from our kitchen window clear across the roofs of other houses back before the construction boom), a fifteen minute walk in the other direction from the Baguio City market, another five minutes away from Session Road in the center of town. Our neighborhood had a higher elevation than two others similar to it in name: City Camp Proper, and City Camp Lagoon.  All three came into existence because of the city's own development as a hill station for the American colonial government in the earliest part of the 1900s. The blueprint was drafted by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, and hundreds of laborers were conscripted in the building of new roads and infrastructure. Many of these laborers were housed in camps--- hence, City Camp.

City Camp Lagoon was at the very bottom of a swampy hollow. Locals have it that the area has always been in the public (as opposed to residential) domain. The problem is that it has also, through the years, become one of Baguio's most densely populated "squatter" communities. Year after year, during the most severe rainfalls and typhoons, City Camp Lagoon always flooded and its residents always had to be evacuated to barangay centers, the parish gym, or community halls. We at home dragged our mattresses to the middle of the living room where it was driest, huddling there under blankets as we watched the walls and windows (no double- or weather-insulation) turn into indoor waterfalls. In the morning, or after the storm abated, my mother would hasten to the Lagoon after gathering up a group of her friends and organizing food and clothing drives. And life in between calamities would go on, with or without or despite us.


Neither I nor my family members have experienced the magnitude of the losses wrought in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, but reading daily reports and looking at photograph after photograph of harrowing destruction and unspeakable grief, I am moved constantly to tears. Perhaps the closest thing to this that we have experienced was in July 1990 when an earthquake registering 8.8 on the Richter scale nearly obliterated Baguio from the map: nothing could have prepared anyone for that either. 

We lost a home that had barely been constructed six months prior, on a housing loan. Two weeks after the quake, aftershocks still threatening the city, my father passed away from congestive heart failure on a makeshift pallet in a wing of the Baguio General Hospital; young medical interns, including a few who had once been my students in College Composition, tried unsuccessfully to revive him. In the days and weeks after, I remember going out at first light to look for food and water: remember storekeepers handing out supplies from the insides of their half-crushed establishments, at risk of their own safety; remember the queue for water at one end of the park where someone had disengaged one section of the water main; remember how strangers with vehicles still running offered lifts to others. 


What other things do I remember most about the 1990 earthquake?  What do I remember of the time my family and I left Virginia as hurricane Isabel bore down along the coast?  What messages and stories were hurriedly communicated, as if in the manner of telegrams being rapidly composed and delivered?


During that time, we told stories as we sat in the dark: impossible to sleep. Or is it that we wanted the assurance of our continuity, something that might be gained by linking this time to the past that came before, as well as to what we could not yet see? Is it any wonder that even now, during similar moments of exigency, we tell each other stories about that time?


I can still remember how the then youngest daughter had just been toilet trained a few weeks before, and after the quake forgot everything. How I was meaning to go to the store after work for an extra pack of diapers, but that didn’t happen. How we saw pregnant women begin to have stress-induced deliveries on the street, from their great fright. How the piano swung from one end of the living room to the other. How the plates in the cabinet shattered, but how the small glasses remained intact. How they laid the dead in rows on the sidewalk. How flies led rescue workers to bodies deep in the rubble. How there were no more coffins to be had. How the newly homeless walked among the newly dead collecting clothing, money from pants pockets, anything thought still serviceable. How in the darkness, as we held each other and sat with neighbors on plywood sheets provided by a man who owned a construction business down the road, someone might speak aloud as if to no one in particular:  This is worse than the war, when I was a boy…  Someone might take it up to despair, reassure, echo, augment.


Here are more links to Luisa A. Igloria's works
 Here are Videopoems made on some of Luisa A. Igloria's Poems from her book, The Saint of Streets
"Reprieve" by Luisa A. Igloria on YouTube -

No comments: