This is a story about the myths built into our spines. You and I are chatting about work one evening in early September, the conversation of friends who, two decades after meeting in high school, still can’t quite grasp how to shoulder the weight of our world. Perhaps we both would rather talk about the bright spots in our lives: taking care of pets, growing vegetables in the garden, playing farming games with retro graphics, and an adorable cast. But you are working to resist the growing darkness in our country’s regime, and tonight you tell me about how difficult it is: you work yourself to the bone, but you can never really know if it’s enough. Our people are murdered nightly. We are trying to stanch a wave of blood rolling over an entire country.
My mouth twists around the words I cannot say. Did you ever think, my friend, that we would come to this? When we were swapping terrible jokes between classes, when we wrote bad poetry and ranted about movies with all the abandon of people whom supervillains would never touch, did you ever think we would one day find ourselves in the middle of a war?
There is a creek in Nueva Ecija that runs through crumbling stone and knee-high cogon grass, alongside a dusty highway and the houses of Barangay San Roque. It is called Kinamatayang Kabayo, after drowned horses in a past I do not know.
Early this September a corpse was found floating in Kinamatayang Kabayo Creek, amid its murky water and tangled tree roots. The body bore over thirty stab wounds and smelled strongly of gasoline; the head was wrapped completely in packing tape, plastic, and black cloth. You can see it in the photos of the corpse in the creek; at first you think the black shape must be some sort of rubbish, until you begin to make out human limbs.
The dead body was once a boy named Reynaldo De Guzman. He was fourteen years old. His parents had been searching for him since July, when he disappeared together with a friend after going out for snacks late one night. His companion had already been found: Carl Angelo Arnaiz, nineteen years old, lay dead in a morgue ten days after disappearing, his body bearing multiple gunshots and the marks of torture.
Reynaldo and Carl disappeared from the town neighboring my hometown. When I heard about their murders the first thing I did was call my brother: Are you safe? Are you safe? Calmer, more rational people, with the benefit of distance and the logical remove of safety, would not have done such a thing. But people like me cannot pretend separation from the monster these days. Death crawls into our ears and curls up there with the persistence of snakes, hissing.
A few weeks ago I was messaging a friend to reassure her; her boyfriend was late and part of her worried that he had been taken by the police, shot in some back alley. It’s silly of me to be so afraid, she said. Her boyfriend did not fit the usual profile, after all. I wanted to tell her: there is nothing silly about being afraid of what is happening to us now.
I remember when I was young my elders would tell me stories of aswang and kapre, tiyanak and manananggal, to frighten me into obedience after the sun went down. Don’t stray from your parents, come home when you’re called—or you’ll be eaten.
These days we tell our children, study hard, listen to your elders, don’t go out at night, don’t get shot. We beg, with a rising desperation: please, please stay alive.
This is a story about escape. You are talking to me of fleeing the country as we sit at a Quezon City cafe late one afternoon. It is June; Reynaldo and Carl are still alive, and so is Kian, a seventeen-year-old who will be shot execution-style by police a month later despite his pleas to let me go, please have pity on me, I still have an exam tomorrow.
Will you look at this—I keep coming back to the deaths. But our conversation starts pleasantly enough: a professor and his former student catching up and swapping news. You are still teaching and writing; I am settling into an unfamiliar profession with less difficulty than expected. We order tea and pastries. I’m intrigued by the Earl Grey-flavored macaron.
“I’m trying to leave the Philippines,” you tell me. “I can’t live here anymore.”
“Oh,” I say. It’s the most articulate reaction I can muster through my shock. Of all my old professors, you struck me as one of the most dedicated: to your work, to your students. To our country. When not teaching or doing research you wrote impassioned plays about our social ills; together with so many in your generation, you protested and resisted during the time of Marcos’s martial law. I know people who are trying to migrate to the USA, or the UK, or some other Western country—with good reason, because life in Pinas is hard and growing even harder. But I did not think you would ever be one of them.
“I’m giving up, Dimas,” you say. “There’s nothing more I can do.” And then you tell me of despair.
You say: Over nine thousand people have died since our president took power, and still so many of our kababayan cheer him and his bloody war. You say: He is a madman who knows only violence, and he has all the power to carry out all his threats, a crowd millions-strong backing his attacks on women, marginalized groups, the free press. You say: He is destroying our government, he’s taking our institutions apart piece by piece, and as a professor in the social sciences, you know just how deep the damage goes and how long it will take our economy and society to recover. To be honest, you aren’t sure we will recover at all.
But this is not what drives you to despair. What keeps you up at night and costs you hours of angry weeping is the thought that all this is what our people want: the bloody fruit of the democracy that arose from the ashes of 1986. That this is what you fought for, in the end. The voice of the people, isn’t it? It’s a voice of murder, you say; it shouts, These people should die, kill them all, kill them all.
And you’re exhausted. You have marched in the streets, you have screamed your anger at a dictator and you have borne the blows from his armed dogs, you have risked arrest and torture and death all for the sake of your country’s freedom—but this, this is not a fight you understand. You don’t know this battleground; the terrain has changed and the enemy is everywhere, many-voiced, an immense, ungraspable shadow.
Darkness is consuming our country, you tell me. We reached out for it. We took it in.
You say you aren’t alone in this despair; you have many friends, most of them writers like you, who feel as you do. Whose hearts bleed as yours does; whose days are haunted by their helplessness, because, you ask me—and your eyes are far too bright, with fury or with grief I cannot tell—what can we do?
And I say: write, goddammit.
No: this isn’t a story about escape. Because we need writers now; we need you now, here, with us. The man who would be dictator is telling a story. It is one where, as though the Philippines were a body afflicted with gangrene, he would cut off the infected limb to save the rest of us—the pure and good and clean—for progress. It is a compelling story. It would be the only story, through the sheer force of its telling, if not for those who tell other stories, who speak and write and create to cry out: this is murder.
We need writers because we need someone to articulate everything that arises within us in response to the brutality of our lives. Because, after this nameless cry has found a semblance of words to frame it—at least enough to be sentence-skeletons, enfleshed enough to hold together as a mass of muscle and skin and anger—then we can grasp it. Then we can act.
We need writers because we need to say that people like Kian and Reynaldo and Carl once lived, then died. That once there was a girl named Danica Mae Garcia, who liked all things pink and Elsa from Frozen and chocolate milk, and at five years old she died when gunmen came to her house and started shooting at her grandfather. That somewhere in Quezon City lives a girl named Love-love Peregrino whose parents were gunned down before her eyes, and she remembers that the last thing her father said was her name.
We need writers to show us our faces as we weigh a human life in our hands. How fragile it is. I read a story once, with aliens and soldiers and a girl who was asked to kill her brother to save her village, and I shuddered in recognition. It is a terrible thing, to decide on death. Yet our people do it, every single day. Some of us can still sleep. Some of us still linger in front of mirrors.
You ask me what you can do. Write the shape of the darkness as it overtakes us. Write its grinning impunity, the muzzle of the gun against a quivering throat, the cardboard carelessly tossed over bloody bodies: Pusher. Addict. Write the kill lists, write the packing tape wrapped around corpses’ faces, write the bandanas masking the men who ride motorcycles around your area at night. Write: He said, the fish will grow fat on the corpses tossed into Manila Bay.
Write because they are cutting out our tongues.
Write the stories that tell me you lived. That there were people who resisted, back in the days of the Spanish and American and Japanese occupations, in the days of martial law. That people resist even now—because, my friend, I am sick with the fear that we have already been swallowed up by the shadow, bloodlust hollowing out our insides to reside permanently in our skin. That we are already so far gone that massacre is as routine and accepted as the morning newspaper that brings us the kill tallies for the night: He’ll do what must be done.
Write the stories that will endure, that will persist in resisting even when we are no longer here to tell them.
The body surrenders to knives or guns. Words are more difficult to destroy.
This is a wartime story as much as it is a story about myth. I return to that evening with you, old friend; to that conversation that we both wish was about Stardew Valley or growing cherry tomatoes, but is instead about the death in our streets and the terrible price we pay to stand against it. My mind is full of thorns as I think of what to say to you. I know the bone-deep weariness of the work. I’m familiar with the fear. But I struggle to grasp the idea of enough.
“I don’t think it will ever be enough,” I say. “I don’t know if what I do makes any difference.” It’s so hard, my friend. We’re both so tired. Everyone I know is tired. The work is killing us. But—a shrug—it will be one thing or another, in the end.
You say you don’t even know why you’re doing this. You are not particularly patriotic and “love of country” is a nebulous, far-off concept. But you love your neighbors. You love your town.
“My partner says I’m a hobbit,” you say. You never wanted to be involved in all this. You would much rather have the horrors of the world leave you alone. But they are here too, in this quiet green town you love. One of your neighbors told you of their fear. Their brother was gunned down some months ago. They worry they will be next. There have been killings a stone’s throw from where you live.
I’d laughed through my tears at your first mention of a hobbit. It’s an apt comparison. But my laughter fades: it’s too apt. We are so small, and the machinery of destruction arrayed against us is so huge. We are surrounded on all sides.
There is no ring.
“It’s true,” I say. “You’re a hobbit. And in the end, they made a difference, didn’t they.”
I think of the morning after martial law was declared in Mindanao. I made my mother watch Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King with me, because I needed to see a tiny bit of hope, even fantasy hope, otherwise I would suffocate. Maybe it’s like that for you, too. The story does not change things. But it makes the darkness bearable. It allows us to pretend enough to stand. And keep walking.
The past month I have been reading more books. Usually I am quite lazy when it comes to reading, but in addition to histories I have gone through a raft of novels: Aliette de Bodard’s gorgeous Dominion of the Fallen books, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea, Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Chronicles, and one rainy afternoon when I was in mourning, Zen Cho’s warm-hearted Sorcerer to the Crown. I read Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings and The Wall of Storms one after the other with the same methodical thoroughness one is meant to bring to the buffet table. I roared with delight at the conclusion to Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives trilogy. I read as if I were hungry and could not be sated by anything my current reality could give.
I am fortunate to have books to read. They have kept me sane when so much is pressuring me towards madness. Or perhaps the world around me is already mad, and the books only allow me to pretend I am not part of it just yet.
News has reached unreal levels of grotesque, even for my country. A celebrity bride’s intricately embroidered train falls in white flowers beside corpses lying on concrete, their bloody hands still open as if in supplication. Frivolity beside evil, some of my friends call it. I don’t know much about frivolity. Maybe they would call my immersing myself in Sabriel’s world frivolous also, if I told them about it. I do not seek escape, only some sort of comfort to soothe me for a little while.
The comfort never lasts, of course. There are days I wake up and think: surely the whole world must be trapped in an intensely dramatic story, and the turning point—the pivot, the ultimate conflict, the final battle, the thing that saves us—will happen soon. It must.
But instead of pivoting the story keeps growing, this monstrous beast, continuing in a cascade of horrors.
The other night I picked up a plate for dishwashing and was struck anew by the sheer wrongness of it all—the root-crowded creek, the dead boy floating in it, the tape encircling his head, the world that allowed it to happen. I thought, how can we live like this? How can we sleep without turning into gibbering heaps of rage, how can we eat when everything must taste like blood and dirt, how can we keep going when our Facebook feeds are studded with “please share” posts that teach you how to ensure your family can identify your body if you turn up dead?
And I remembered absurdities piled upon atrocities: how our representatives voted to reduce our human rights body’s yearly budget to less than $25, how our president said that bereaved families should be grateful when one of their children turns up dead, how the government called the destruction of the beautiful city of Marawi and the massacre of Bulacan’s people both triumphs, and I thought: this is not a world I want to live in anymore. How can we live? How can we live? It was getting difficult to breathe.
Let me tell you the rest of what happened that night: I put the plate down, and I went to my bookshelves, and I picked out a book. It was by Kai Ashante Wilson, titled A Taste of Honey. And I sat down, and I read, and grief’s salt tracks dried on my cheeks, and somehow I kept on breathing.
This is a story about survival and the things that exist outside survival. You do not know me, but you have already saved me; or maybe you will save me a month or two from now. You are a writer of a book that I found at a particularly dark and dangerous time of my life, and I clung to your writing as one clings to a piece of driftwood after a storm has washed one out to sea. You are a writer of a book I have not read yet, but will later on, when the burden of caring about my country crushes me—when I lose a friend or relative to the government’s guns—when I succumb to the sickness myself. And I will grasp your book as a rope as I claw my way back to the land of the living when I would rather be dead.
Here is a truth I call a lie: dear writer, I am tired, and afraid, and I do not know how much longer I can keep holding on. I tell my friends stories of increments: living hour by hour, day by day; Frodo and Sam struggling through the wilds of Mordor; Ged in the tombs of Atuan as the darkness closed in around him; Leia standing small and slight before a viewport filled with her planet’s obliteration. These did not happen in our world, I say. But they were woven from true patterns. There is hope yet.
But I cannot hear the stories I tell. They do not reach me. So I turn to you.
Some weeks ago I read one of your stories, and at the end of it wept—not out of sorrow, but out of longing for a world where the threads you wove, dear writer, can be true. Where revolutions can bring people mercy as well as justice; where the memory of people long enslaved by outsiders can awaken and turn not to vengeful bitterness, but towards rebuilding, flourishing, growth. It is a beautiful vision; I do not know whether it is one that can exist in my country. But it is something to hope for.
And I think this is why I need you so badly in these dark days; not only to tell me the shape of the darkness that has rooted itself in my skin but also to sing to me of the light that exists outside me. I remember rising from my grandmother’s deathbed and stumbling outside into the sunlight and drizzle of late morning. The sun surprised me—I had forgotten everything outside that small world of hospital beds and my grandmother’s spotted skin heaving under the defibrillator. It feels like that now; as if the world is only one outrage after another, and there is no room for goodness in it anymore, or wonder, or dreams of dragons who enjoy tea, and spaceships patterned like moths, and cities of bone thrusting upward into the sky.
But you reach out to me and say: Here. There is so much more.
You don’t know me and probably my words will never reach you. But I want to say to you: you have made a difference in my life; you continue to make a difference. You tell me there are things that continue to exist outside of evil, beautiful and defiant and brilliant as fire. You tell me to look at the sky. How high it is, dear writer. How it stretches endlessly on.
I write this to you, dear writer, not to ask you only to write of happy endings or cheerful things. Many of the books that sustain me these days do not end happily; one favorite book is made of darkness: it closes with the death of the protagonist’s lover, with no comfort offered even as a sop. Instead I write this to, I hope, speak to you as you navigate the wilderness of story that is writing. Your work has meant immeasurably much to me. It matters. Please keep writing.
Writers bring us back to ourselves; they remind us who we are and who we can be. I say this as I struggle daily to get out of bed and face the task of living: your work sustains me. It tells me that I can reach higher than my present self. That, faced with leviathan, I can look the darkness in the face, and make a choice. To act with courage, maybe; or, failing that, to act in hope.
In my notebook, written in capital letters three inches high, the words: STORIES ARE HOW WE SURVIVE. Before it, in smaller writing: in times that seek to destroy us.
I asked a friend who lives in Mindanao: what are we to do in the face of Marawi’s destruction, and the displacement and killing of your people? And she said, Do not look away.
We cannot look away. We must not. But somehow we must also go on living. To do both increasingly feels impossible. Looking upon atrocity with steady eyes, day after day, grinds one down. I am fortunate to only be a witness, for now. And yet. Even so.
More and more, we find ourselves unmoored from meaning. Life makes no sense. What difference lies between “murder” and “justice,” between “progress” and “purging?” Reading the news, it all begins to sound the same.
On the same page in my notebook, my past self wrote: reading and writing are fundamental forms of resistance.
I have begun writing these things down because I’m starting to forget what I’m thinking and why I’m doing my work. I keep my notebooks for the moments when I begin to tell myself: maybe I should just give up.
Because they help us survive when evil wants us dead.
I wrote this, I think, after I woke screaming from a nightmare. I was speaking at my mother’s funeral. I still remember parts of the eulogy I gave: I spoke of her refusal to be cowed by death threats.
Because they give us meaning in a time when forces seek to erase all meaning.
Writing this now feels like indulgent hyperbole. But then I remember what the president said when asked about his policy of killing drug users. “In the first place, are they humans? What is a human being?”
Because they give us voice in a time that demands our silence.
What is a human being, I think to myself. My president asked that question. My president is not sure whether people involved in drugs are human beings. I look out the window. I turn to my books. My hands open and close.
After a few moments, I open my notebook, and write on the bottom of the page:
Because they teach us, over and over, that we have a choice.
This is a story about silence and its child, annihilation. September is ending as I write this. Mindanao remains under martial law. The killings continue.
Yesterday my spouse asked me if I was sure I needed to write this. Do you really have to? she asked. It’s making you sick. I’m worried.
I’m writing this for someone, I told her. They need to read it.
Reader, I am writing this for you.
I do not know if you are a Filipino; I do not know if you care about what is happening in the Philippines. I do not know what is happening in your own country or whether those you care about are safe. I don’t know your politics or whom you support or anything about you; all I know is that I have to tell you this.
Your reading, too, is resistance.
Back in school, we spent hours in the classroom learning about Jose Rizal. We memorized dates and names: his publishers, his manuscripts’ publication dates, the labor of getting his books to press and in the hands of readers. We talked about how his writing got him killed.
We did not talk about how people reading his work helped make our country free. I wish we had. Maybe we would have learned earlier on that we, too, had power. That we, too, could make choices and take action. Maybe we could have seen ourselves as part of the revolution, agents of change.
Reading transforms us as much as it gives stories flesh. Is this not what is needed now? When tyranny would have a monopoly on what must be believed or heeded; when dictators would have us cower in fear, too starved of words to resist or dissent.
Readers join the massive chorus of resistance. You refuse to let voices be silenced. You disrupt the processes that stifle dissent and snuff out hope and imagination. You put yourself on the line; you stand in the way of annihilation.
You become a vehicle for the story, the spark. The flame.
Let me say, this reading is not closed to certain types of stories. In my country there are people, some of them my own elders, who have used our history and our troubled present to argue for the primacy of realist fiction, or stories about social ills in the Philippines past or present, or work, they say, that is practical: something that can be used. I understand their concerns; when energy is scarce and one must fight fiercely for time to read or write, don’t we owe it to ourselves to spend our scant resources on the most effective tools we have?
But I do not agree; I believe speculative fiction is just as powerful an instrument as realism. Few things are as vital as the literature of the imagination in fueling the fight for a world that has been lifted out of this present darkness. Few things are stronger vehicles of hope than fantasy. Few stories outside it can match science fiction’s examination of what it means to be human. And in countless ways I have found horror unmatched in its searing dissections of the banality and many-faced nature of evil; the impossibility of questions of justice; the careful, detailed portrayal of the monster that lives alongside us and sleeps in our skin.
So read. Read all the books and genres you desire. Read widely and carefully, thoughtfully and passionately. And when a story speaks to you, when its chords resonate with your own heart’s cry, share it. Pass it on. Amplify its voice. Do not allow its truth to succumb to the tyranny of silence. Let it enable you to act as part of something greater than yourself.
I do not know when you will read this, dear reader. I do not know what will have happened in my country by then; I do not know where I will be. I think of all the people we have killed. I am sure we will do even more terrible things to ourselves in the months to come.
I write this and I think of Kian and Danica, Reynaldo and Carl and Love-love and her parents and all the people we have brought to the slaughter. I wish I could ask them to forgive us, but that is not something that can be said. It feels monstrous to even ask. Nor can I make promises; we cried once, “Never Again” and yet here we are once more.
Instead I can say: we will keep fighting. We will push on with our voices and our bodies and our fear-filled, doubt-wracked hearts. And we will not look away.
We will keep saying the names of everyone whom evil would reduce to nameless, faceless numbers. We will keep listening to the voices of those who speak out of their loss and pain. We will keep amplifying the voices of those who stand against tyranny. We will keep telling the stories.
We will refuse the silence just as we refuse our annihilation.
To you I say: I hope you will, too.
© 2017 by Dimas Ilaw