Home by Sunrise

Nonfiction by | January 27, 2019

Its tongue twister of a name born out of the B’laan tongue, “Flom’lok” means “hunting grounds.” When I was new in Davao, every acquaintance I met had a hard time pronouncing the name. /P/ push air out of the mouth for the first letter and roll over the rhythmic /l/ lulling of O’s, savoring the “mmm…” in the middle to suddenly stop at the sharpness of a /k/, suspending the tip of the tongue afloat inside. “Polomolok.”

“Where are you from again?”


“Pol, Pol, where is it located?”

“Between Gensan and Koronadal; 17 kilometers from Pacquiao’s city of origin and thrice that distance to the other side, the former capital, of South Cotabato.”

“Wait, so Koronadal is formerly Marbel?”

“Yes. It’s complicated.”

“Pol, Polo…”


A short awkward silence, then the conversation would progress to the difference between the three Cotabatos.
“So, how’s the war?”
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Staying Alive (excerpt)

Nonfiction by | January 13, 2019

Tita Lacambra-Ayala takes her time with friendship. One might think her a forbidding presence in public, with her pursed lips and sharp eyes, watching over everything in all-knowing silence. She is a true Crone. In our initial encounters, I didn’t dare speak to her without being summoned.

I can’t say when she decided we could be friends, although she did come to the launching of my book Women Loving in December 2009, offering a newly-reprinted copy of her first book, Sunflower Poems in exchange for mine, saying that these were her Baguio poems. She meant to underscore something we had in common: living in Baguio City then moving to Mindanao to start anew. She also gave me a coco-bead necklace that clashed with my dress, but which I wore anyway like a talisman. When she placed it over my head herself, it made me feel like a graduate receiving a medal for academic excellence. Or maybe a medal of valor. It didn’t matter that nobody got me flowers.

I remember on International Women’s Day the following year after a meeting of the Davao Writers Guild, Ricky de Ungria asked her whom she was currently reading. Tita quickly replied: “Lilia Chua, Edith Tiempo, Marjorie Evasco, Ophie Dimalanta, Jhoanna Cruz.”

I had long been a feminist, but I felt like that moment had turned me into a feminist writer, joining a weave of women writing of their experiences as women and for each other. But regardless of the politics, I couldn’t quite get over the fact that Tita Ayala was reading me. Never mind those poetry anthologies that excluded me! I needed to keep writing because Tita was reading me. Continue reading Staying Alive (excerpt)

Write Here: The Visibility of The Writer from the Region

Nonfiction by | November 25, 2018

In one literary event in my hometown, Iloilo City, I jokingly told my audience, “ako gali si Karla, ang taga diri nga indi man taga diri” or “Ako pala si Karla taga-rito pero hindi naman taga-rito.” This is my writing place. When I am in Iloilo, the emcee introduces me as a writer from Cebu. In Cebu, I am always the writer from Iloilo.

I first came to Davao in 2011 for the Taboan Writers Festival as a delegate representing Cebu although my works are not entirely in Cebuano and I am not a Cebuana. I do admire Cebu, in fact, I now consider it my home; however, my roots will always remain in Iloilo. It is my diri, dito, dinhi, here. Being a Filipino writer is a quest to situate the self in a multifarious linguistic and literary space.

Two years ago, Cebuano National Artist (but actually born in Dipolog, Zamboanga) Resil Mojares delivered in UP Visayas in Iloilo City a keynote speech that asks the provocative question, “Where in the World is The Filipino Writer?” Mojares urges the reader to view his paper as “notes or his desultory thoughts” on the place of the Filipino writer in the world.

He opens the discussion by quoting Pascale Casanova’s book The World Republic of Letters that traces the historical formation of what she calls “world literary space,” a space that has its own capitals, provinces, borders, forms of communication, and its systems of rewards and recognition. This space is dominated by “big” languages and “big” literatures, while “small” literature in “small” languages are “either annexed to dominant literary spaces or are invisible outside their national borders.” The word Eurocentric was expectedly mentioned, and he highlighted that Southeast Asia and the Philippines do not appear in any pages of this remarkable book. He explained that he is not complaining, well aware that our literature may be among the marginal and invisible, and Casanova’s lens made it even more marginal and more invisible.

Continue reading Write Here: The Visibility of The Writer from the Region

A Prayer for My Father

Nonfiction by | July 22, 2018

I was taught how to pray before I knew how to write. But my father made me learn both at the same time.

While my mother wanted me to memorize the Lord’s Prayer at the ripe month of six months, my father, a non-Catholic, had explained that a prayer only consists of four words: Thank, You, God, and Amen.

That, my father explained to her daughter, who would one day tell him she is a lesbian, is all you need in prayer.

So when I had learned from my CLE teacher in Grade 2 that a prayer had four parts instead of four words, I was skeptical in making my own prayer. I remembered thinking that my father knew prayers so well, maybe that was the reason the Lord’s Prayer started with an “Our Father”—to honor fathers. Years later, I would learn that the “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer was a form of adoration.

Being the ambitious kid who wanted to have the best written prayer, I told my teacher I didn’t know where to begin. Years later, I would take up a degree in Creative Writing and would still ask that same question—especially when I write about my father. My then late-30s teacher wrote the acronym A.C.T.S on my paper with her veiny hands and said, “This might help you write.”


A prayer must always start with adoration. Think of it as a letter heading. Put an addressee so that the letter wouldn’t get lost.

I had to make sure my prayer was heard by God and no other deity. It is meant to be sent. My CLE teacher told us to always start the prayer by saying His name or an adjective that connotes praise before His name. It shows respect to His power.

I hated myself for not having an adjective to describe my father. I felt like I had no respect for him since I couldn’t associate him to an adjective. Maybe generous? Because he gave me the toys I wanted and the books I wanted to read. As early as two years old, he knew I preferred books to toys.

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Nonfiction by | July 1, 2018

When mothers go bald, children would start to think that there is something going on. I guess it is a spur for every child, or perhaps it is only a way of thrusting into my mind that I wouldn’t think differently; that the curious mind of a six-year-old would think of the bald boy in school whom she laughed at, and then she would look at her mother again. She would look at her twice, thrice, until there would only be her mother and the void. Finally, it would sink in that her mother is beautiful even without her crown of black hair, and that she need not wear a hat.

It all started with a slip. I hunkered down to my mother who was lying on the bathroom floor, naked. Her lips were pale and her eyes were half open. A little while ago, mama and I were bathing together in the bathroom. She lathed me with soap from head to my tiniest toenail until she could consider me clean. Clean, for her, was the immaculate whiteness of our bathroom tiles and the dustless walls and windowpanes inside. I flushed stark and dark against the bleached background, and was a disappointment in her sight. She rubbed my brown skin patiently until it reddened, and then she washed the soap and body dirt away.

“Maryosep! Kang kinsa man kang anak?” My mother just disowned me and continued complaining that if only my father listened to her and refrained from taking me every weekend to Cuaco beach, that according to her standards was a place no better than a garbage dump, her only child would have had fairer skin. In a fit of pique her rantings caused, I defended Papa and proved her how cool he was by telling her how he threw me from a dock into the water without my floaters on for me to learn how to swim. It provoked her more and made her address my father by his full name.

Kani jud si Samuel Ruiz,” she paused to catch some air, “Bantay ra gyud na imong amahan pag uli niya.” She can threaten my father freely while he was still not home yet from work. Her fury flared as she ruthlessly scrubbed my knees. I tried to calm her down with the assurance that Papa always got my back and would never allow the sea to take me away. Her mouth kept on blabbering about the said matter as if she did not hear me or deem my excuses considerable. She stood up from a squat and lost her balance.

I thought she fell asleep. The sight of my mother lying against the white tiles disturbed me after long seconds passed. I felt the cold seeped into my soles as slow as the pace of panic. I called her name a few times and paused for a moment, then I screamed for help. 

Continue reading Slip

A Siege Means No Classes

Nonfiction by | June 24, 2018

Grey and black smoke rose from the city like leaning towers. Gunshots and explosions replaced the sounds of crickets in the evening. The smell of fire spread everywhere. War and death were right in front of me.

The Zamboanga Siege lasted for about two and a half months, causing destruction and death. It’s been four years now, and the world has moved on to worry about other deaths and destructions. What was previously a top news story is now forgotten by many.

I remember it in fragments. It was a carelessly developed plot that led to no profound meaning. The situation was straight out of a disaster film made solely for enjoyment. Except, of course, this was in no way a movie, and in no way fun.

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The Many Faces of Hope, Part 2

Nonfiction by | May 27, 2018

(Second part of the Keynote Speech delivered at the 44th Congress of the Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL) and the 31st Gawad Alagad ni Balagtas held in Roxas City on 28 April 2018 with the theme: “Kadulom kag Kasanag: Panitikan ng Pag-asa.”)

Kanya, another image of the bird na lumabas ay ang ibong malaya. Ito yong inawit ng mga makibaka-huwag-matakot na ang bokabularyo ay dominated ng tatlong “ismo” monsters. Sa kanilang paningin tayo ay nakakulong sa malaking hawla ng tatlong “ismo” at “isang dipang langit” lang ang ating nakikita.

Ang daming mga Messiah ang nagsulputan, isa na si Marcos who viewed the oligarchs and communists as the evil causes of our poverty, declared Martial Law, and offered the New Society as the sinalimba or hope of Filipinos. In turn, ang mga ismong activists viewed Marcos as the biggest demon in Philippine society. Nag-mutual demonization. Kaso, mas makapangyarihan si Marcos at pinaghuhuli, pinagtotortyur, at pinagpapatay ang mga aktibista. After twenty years nagcrash ang New Society and was replaced by Hope who wore yellow at EDSA. But it went phht very quickly.

One government after another has come and gone, offering hope in the form of millennium goals that went up in smoke, a kagang-kagang jeepney, matatag na republika na madaling nalosyang, and another sinalimba labelled “kayo ang boss ko.” But the country’s situation has worsened. We’ve mangled our Constitution several times, but the diaspora continues, not only to the States but also to Arab countries where our so-called heroes could end up being murdered and hidden in a freezer.
I continue to be stunned by our poverty figures. Lanao del Sur (ARMM) – 74.3%, Sulu (ARMM) – 65.7%, Sarangani (Region 12) – 61.7%, Northern Samar (Region 8) – 61.6%, Maguindanao (ARMM) – 59.4%, Bukidnon (Region 10) – 58.7% etc, etc. Nationwide, it’s still a shocking 25%. Self-rating surveys say 50% of Filipinos feel they are mahirap.

Continue reading The Many Faces of Hope, Part 2

The Many Faces of Hope, part 1

Nonfiction by | May 20, 2018

(Keynote Speech delivered at the 44th Congress of the Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL) and the 31st Gawad Alagad ni Balagtas held in Roxas City on 28 April 2018 with the theme: “Kadulom kag Kasanag: Panitikan ng Pag-asa.”)

To all UMPIL officers and members, our Balagtas awardees, National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario, fellow writers, guests, and friends, maayong buntag.

I find our theme very interesting: “Kadulom kag Kasanag: Panitikan ng Pag-asa” (Darkness and Light: The Literature of Hope).

We are all familiar with the Greek myth of Pandora, the beautiful girl who received all the gifts from the gods and goddesses. She was a very curious girl. She was told not to open a jar, but open she did, and all kinds of evil came out, darkening the world — calamities, hunger, diseases, plagues, giyera, ungo, kapre, aswang. Na-shock si Pandora, but she had the presence of mind to close the jar. Ang naiwan sa loob, HOPE. Pag-asa, Paglaom.

I’d like to interpret this myth as the origin of how humankind acquired hope, rather than as how evil got into the world. Hope was Pandora’s gift to us. Her brother-in-law, Prometheus, gifted us with fire. Si Pandora, hope. Yong evil of the world na lumabas sa jar, gawa ni Zeus. Maldito man na si Zeus.

Across the millennia, Hope took different faces, shapes, and sizes, depending on the type of evil that prevailed during a particular era. Whatever shape it took, it always meant something good or better than the situation people found themselves in.

Hope is what keeps the fire of Prometheus in us burning, it keeps us going despite all the challenges, hardships, calamities – personal man o communal.

Continue reading The Many Faces of Hope, part 1