October 22, 2009

A bibliophile's confession

One Saturday morning I caught my eight-year-old niece Zaheeda completely immersed in a bookmaking project. She took out a few sheets of bond paper from her art class envelope, folded them in half, and started making illustrations with crayons and color pencils. I sneaked closer to see what she was up to, but upon sensing my unwelcome presence –my shadow obstructed the stream of sunlight from the window—she covered her drawing and the opening line to her story. I walked away and left her with her business. I envied her in a way. When I was her age, I never endeavored on a book of my own. I drew paper dolls or my interpretation of the cartoon classics Voltes V and Flying House. Once in a while I devised a mock stethoscope by tying small whatchamacallits to a red plastic headband for a game of “doctor-doctor.”

Twenty-five years later, I would amass real books and the only thing that still reminds me that I wanted to be a doctor is a copy of MIMS Philippines, which I use as reference to understand the action of medicines that are prescribed to a sick family member.

I live in a house full of books. A handful of which I obtained from my mother’s library –survivors of a termite holocaust that now sit safely on my dark wood bookshelves— together with books that I purchased through the years, or given to me by friends and past lovers. As my collection increased, I ran out of bookshelves to hold them. I had to buy those Do-It-Yourself racks because I could customize them to shapes and sizes that can fit in available spaces. But in time books spilled to different parts of the house. I use a 338-page manual on exposition as a doorstop. The smooth cover of National Geographic works perfectly as a mouse-pad. A stack of large hardbound books serves as an extra bedside table. There’s always a book in the toilet, the inspirational soup kind, to jumpstart my day. The casualties of my cat’s urine spraying are stacked outside the house, relegated as garden reading companion. Tired of weeding my carrot bed, I would rest in the shed for a while and read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

A few years ago I imposed a moratorium on book buying, but National Bookstore slashed down their prices during its sixty-fifth anniversary. There were books for as low as 50 pesos. I tried to avoid the bookstore for a few days, but on the third day I chanced upon an Oscar Wilde quote. Faced with the to-buy-or-not-to-buy question, it was an epiphany. A bibliophile is a moron if he doesn’t yield to the temptation of a book sale. The next day I went to the bookstore at 10am, spent a good two hours rummaging through piles of books, and brought home eight hardbound copies and five paperbacks.

I treat books with tender loving care. Covering paperbacks with plastic is a ceremony of almost religious significance that I take seriously. I dust my books every now and then. I inspect them for silverfish and termite. A few months ago I discovered an adult silverfish in one of my books. I shrieked with such horror passersby would have thought I witnessed a baby being hurled from the Empire State Building.

Books serve as markers –geographical and historical— of journeys that I’ve embarked on. Under my signature the date and place of acquisition, as well as some trivial notes are recorded on the title page. Salman Rushdie’s Step Across the Line was purchased in Kuala Lumpur on 12/21/04, after falling in a pool outside the pink mosque at Putrajaya. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran were bought at Borders in a ‘Buy One Take One Free’ sale in Washington DC, during the summer of ’05.

I’m extremely territorial and overprotective of my books. I’m tempted to put a sticker sign in the house that reads ‘NO BORROWING OF BOOKS ALLOWED.’ It’s for a good reason. Some of my books that I lent friends and cousins in the past were never returned. Others had been victims of ‘nth degree borrowing.’ A friend would borrow a book, and he would lend it to another friend who happened to have a cousin who had scoured all stores within a thirty-mile radius for a copy of the book, and so on. Now, when my friends insist on borrowing a book I tell that they are welcome as readers-in-residence in my house. I will prepare a reading space for them. I will even cook meals for them until they finish the book. In an impending catastrophe my books, at least the ones that I classified as ‘IMPORTANT’, are to be evacuated first, along with my cats, computers, and old photographs.

Books occupy physical space. There’s little of it left in my house I can’t stretch my arms anymore without knocking something off its place. More important books fill one’s spiritual void. They provide a retreat from the banality of everyday life, a temporary cocoon where one can be transported to other universes and realities that are totally different from one’s own. Many friendships are borne out of books, engendered by common predilection for an author, genre, or literary sensibility, bringing them to a shared geography of the imagination that seems incomprehensible to those who do not share the same passion.

It would seem strange to see people camping out of a bookstore in the middle of winter just to get a copy of the newest edition of the Harry Potter series. For fans, though, it would make perfect sense. The same would be true for writers and bibliophiles who gathered at Shambaugh House in Iowa City one fall evening to pay tribute to David Foster Wallace who killed himself in his home in California. They lit candles, read fragments from Infinite Jest and the author’s other works, and cry on each other’s shoulders. No one among them has met Wallace –well, maybe one— but they echo the issues that the author explored in his writings: the existential distance that alienates people from one another.

Books can bridge time and space. In the future I will learn to let go of them, bequeathing my precious collection to a public library or a member of my family. My niece Zaheeda perhaps. One day she might inherit the joy, wonder, and fulfillment that I’ve found every time I turned a page.

October 9, 2009

The name my father gave me


Make no mistake about it. There’s an overwhelming body of evidence to corroborate this claim. His name appears as ‘FATHER’ on my birth certificate. He read me stories when I was a child, sent me to good schools, got called to the principal’s office when on rare instances I strayed into the terrain of impertinence. He attended my graduation, clothed and fed me until a few years ago. We tower in a crowd, sport goatees, develop itch during winter conditions, and are predisposed to diabetes. Due to advances in the field of genetics, a laboratory can verify that we are of the same gene pool. And to erase any doubts of his paternity, he did the ultimate thing by giving me his own name— Gutierrez. Henceforth I became The Second, his Mini-Me.

By what motivation he decided to give me his name I did not bother to find out anymore. Whether it was out of pure vanity, a testament to his virility, or the simple pleasure of siring a child that inspired him to give me exactly the name that his father gave him –the namesake of the first Filipino governor of Cotabato— is of no consequence to me now.

“It sounds like a family name…” is a comment often repeated, causing me a slight discomfort, my eyeballs to roll, and, because of the gift of storytelling that I also inherited from my father, an occasion to spin my own tale of the provenance of this unusual name. I will narrate the fabricated story to anyone –at the school registrar, airport, embassy, bank, hospital, and lately in an interfaith dialogue seminar— who care enough to lend me their ears for a minute or two.

My story goes something like, “During the Second World War, my grandfather had a good friend, Captain Gutierrez. One day they raided a Japanese military detachment, and in the course of the fighting Captain Gutierrez sustained a gunshot right through his heart. My grandfather mourned the loss of his friend. When his first son was born, he named him Gutierrez, in honor of a friendship. My father gave the name to me when I was born, so that we may not forget that once a Muslim and Christian became the best of friends. A reminder in this age when differences can sometimes get in the way of potential friendships.”

I have repeatedly told this story and, at one point, accepted this lie as truth. For what is the business of naming but the invention of illusion. One of our neighbors in Cotabato was named Maximo – an extremely masculine name that conjures images of the contravida in Filipino movies who perennially wear a black leather jacket despite the tropical heat and a tacky ponytail. As it turned out, Maximo was the gayest person that I have known in my childhood. Except for the first Adonis that I met in life who was really handsome, everybody I know seems to possess the opposite attributes that their names represent. My classmate Mussolini was one of the most diplomatic people on earth. My cousin Melody could hardly carry a tune. Iskandar Julkarnain, another cousin who was named after a Maguindanao sultan in the nineteenth century, lead a life of boozing and drug addiction.

The business of naming a child is a matter that should not be taken lightly. Names endure time, outliving their owners. Great men and women are remembered for their deeds, the same way thieves, mass murderers, dictators, and rapists continue to bring horror to the living. Mahatma Gandhi’s “Be The Change” remains an inspiration today. The memory of Adolf Hitler never fails to send shivers to the spine.

A name defines the Self. It sums up what and who we are. And since it’s the duty of parents to give names to their children, we leave it to their wisdom and foresight to exercise their right of taxonomy. We may never fully grasp why boys end up with girly names like Jennifer, Abigail, or Jocelyn; perhaps their parents expected a daughter. Ten years from now children will wonder why they are called Marimar, Zaido or Luna Mystika, and, expecting some profound explanations, they will get disappointed upon learning that their names are a product of Nanay’s couch potato habits.

The variety of Maguindanaon names is a subject of great interest. Some of my ancestors were named after nature. Ubal, monkey; Tapudi, grasshopper; or Umbos, bud. Again, the wisdom behind these names may never be fully revealed. Was it planting season when the child was born? Or was it the intention of the parent to allude to the happy-go-lucky attitude or destructive tendency of a grasshopper? Others had names that were vivid and descriptive. Latog, erection; Masebud, fat; or Balikwat, turned upside down. Parenthood is something the Maguindanaon wears proudly; hence, people are called the parent-of-the-name-of-their-firstborn. My parents are addressed as Ama-ni-Teng and Ina-ni-Teng. With the growing Muslim consciousness, children are now given names that declare their faith – Abdullah, servant of God; Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet; or Amir, commander. Some names are never mentioned out of deep respect. For instance my ancestor Datu Ali of Kudarangan is always referred to as Nasabil, or The Martyred. Disapproving of American colonial authority, he was killed in an ambush in 1905.

At age twenty I thought of changing my name into something indigenous along the native-American way of personality description. A law had been passed making it possible for people to legally change their names, like in the case of Kidlat Tahimik who used to be Eric de Guia. However, I was afraid that it would be misconstrued as being disrespectful of my father. So I settled for a second name –Redsun, or Pulang Araw. It perfectly suited my personality. I can be impatient and prone to making fits. I used it for the first time when I registered for a French language class. My teachers called me Soleil Rouge. I was proud of my invention. I thought that if I continued using this name people would begin to be inured to it. It was going to be the rebirth of a new me, but the name game did not last long. Writing a twenty-two-letter name on documents was already a Pilates workout for my left hand muscles. Adding six more letters would literally push it to the edge of the page.

Looking back, my decision to have a name change was borne out of the cargo of living in my father’s shadow. I was my father’s son only when I accomplished something that my old man could be proud of. In high school, winning quiz bee after another, people would say, “You inherited your father’s smarts. He must surely be proud of you.” But when I started softening like frozen marshmallow in a roasting pit, the same people advised me, “Toughen up. You do not want to be an embarrassment to your father.”

I am proud to be my father’s son. I share his name –a legacy that I have learned to live with responsibly— but we are two very different persons. Our personalities are a study in contrast. My father is realistic, purposeful, cool headed, tactful, decisive, and frugal. I am spontaneous, inclined to take a chance on almost anything, impulsive, vacillating, and extravagant. While I bask in the glory of my father’s illustrious name, I would like to have the power to mold my own being, like a clay in a potter’s wheel in the ultimate act of creation, being shaped and reshaped in the process, unmindful of the slight mistakes until it’s time for me to revel in the glow of the kiln.