They say Buscalan is where you go to find true love. You go to Sagada, the neighbouring village, to mourn your lost beloved, falling on your knees crying “Why? Why?!” to the mountains’ backs. My friend David Sosmena didn’t bring me to Buscalan to find love, but to receive a traditional Kalinga tattoo from Apo Whang-Od, the 102-year-old mambabatok. “But I know you, Kay,” said Dave. “Something just as meaningful will find you.”
The final morning of our homestay as I sipped Kalinga coffee and the neighbour’s black pig happily slurped its breakfast, two men climbed the path between the rice terraces. Each had an assault rifle casually slung over a shoulder. Dressed in long pants and boots, they moved smoothly, swiftly covering the steep terrain, exchanging pleasantries with the villagers.
They smiled at me.
I smiled back.
Dave appeared at my shoulder. “Communists,” he said.
Curious, my eyes followed them upward, toward the peak. Dave told me we might see the NPA in the mountains, but it was unlikely. Duterte’s government had just raided the area. Amused, my friend confided, “They waited for the tourists to leave. You must have made a good impression here, or you would never have seen them.”
Dave took a final drag on his cigarette. “How will you write about us, Kay?”
That something meaningful coalesced: I am apprehensive when writing about others.
Our words have power. How we shape them, in ignorance, or even with our best intentions, can be harmful. Like many writers, my first attempts were artless and raw. Simple and clichéd listing descriptions, they failed to capture my subject with accuracy or depth. They lacked an ability and intent to honour.
On the bus to Pampanga, a little boy took one look at me and burst into tears. I offered him a maple candy; he cried harder. Dave chuckled. “He’s never seen someone like you before, Kay.” But others, as we traveled, were curious: “Do you like the Philippines? How long did you save to come here?” When Dave told them I was a writer, many wanted to know, “How do you see us?“
I replied uneasily, “Without comparison.” When pressed for a concrete answer, I had to consider my interests and process as a writer. Being an outsider, I would never accurately capture all the nuances of the diverse cultures around me. So, I replied that I look for, and try to write, those qualities in a place or person that are hard to find, the overlooked, the unseen. No one really wants to read a surface description of themselves or the places that are meaningful to them. Dave agreed with this.
People don’t want to be defined by the most obvious things. The most obvious suggests shallow thinking and this is where writers can get into trouble with stereotypes. Things like hair, the body, beauty, poverty, food, and dwellings still experience unwanted stereotyping.
I’m not saying that we should avoid surface details, many obvious qualities are crucial to our identities, but we should consider our intent when writing and ask ourselves if a person or place is being too narrowly defined. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing we have more knowledge about a subject, a person, a people, than we actually do.
That includes engaging with ourselves through writing. As we write deeper and deeper, past the surface, rejecting general language for precision, articulating through style as much technique, our revisions reveal us to ourselves. So, if we can’t write about ourselves with objectivity, when needed, or compassion, when needed, how can we honour another?
A year later, poet and memoirist Shoshanna Wingate suggested we take Terese Marie Mailhot’s Writing for Survival course. Terese said when curating our stories and recording friends and family, we have to give them ground: Represent someone as they would wish to be seen. Not as one dimensional, not as a stereotype, not as the situation they may have inflicted on us. A conscientious writer strives to show that humans are human, moulded by culture, environment and history.
A conscientious writer is also aware that they write from their own culture(s), from their personal perspective. Therefore, we can do research and ask questions. We can be informed and understand that even if we are knowledgeable, we may need to use a stronger technique and an appropriate style to capture our subject respectfully, with the life it deserves. No one wants to be reduced to a collection of facts, either.
“Respect, Kay, respect.” I heard this layered reminder from Dave a lot on our trip. He didn’t mean respect from my cultural perspective, either. Respect is meeting people on their terms, learning and acting within their cultural values, in life and on the page, as much as this is possible. Everywhere we went I was soon saying hi with the appropriate honorific. Dave also said, “I am trusting you with my culture.” Talk about pressure.
So, what’s a writer to do?
Although limited by my cultural perspective, I do strive to understand another’s point of view. The nuances are important. It is my duty to honour person and place. When I elevate to art, I keep in mind that there is a spectrum of fact and invention. Is there accuracy, is there space for different ideas or interpretations in my work? I try to build that.
Knowing some stories are not ours to tell, I asked Dave, “Is it OK for me to write about things like the fairy cats of Bohol?” He laughed.
“Dave,” I whispered.
“Kay,” he said. “Do you hear that?”
We opened the door quietly and crept down the hallway to the terrace. The cats were under the tables, moving their paws strangely. One would let out a series of meows and wait for a reply. It took them ages to notice us. When they did, they looked at us, looked at each other and pretended to be dumb kittens again. “Fairy cats!” I whispered to Dave. He burst out laughing and they scampered off.
At the beginning of the trip, I asked Dave about spirits and fairies. “Are they alive here?”
“What do you think?” he replied.
“I think it’s possible.”
He nodded slowly. “By the end of the trip hopefully you’ll understand, and not because of an accident.” On Siquijor, we rented a scooter. As Dave drove through the island’s interior, he warned me, “If you hear anything strange, don’t look.”
Accelerating up the mountain, the overcast sky erupted into a spectacular sun shower that made everything sparkle like jewels. ”The Tikbalang are marrying,” he said. As we crested the peak, drenched, the engine died. The torrential rain quickly washed away the gravel under the tires, and we skidded, plunging down.
When the Communists disappeared into Kalinga’s endless shades of green, we gathered our bags from the guesthouse and Pio, our guide, led us down to the mambabatok’s hut. (Pio had found his true love in Buscalan.) Apo Whang-Od chose the design. Dipping a long pine needle in homemade ink, she traced it along the inside of my forearm. As she tapped the long thorn into my skin, Pio told me the eagle meant freedom, spiritual guidance, and divine protection. “It brought you here,” he smiled.
We climbed down the mountain, mounted the motorbikes and were left at the carinderia to catch a jeepney back to Bontoc. A local offered me a shot of ginebra San Miguel. I nodded yes. We chatted through gestures. Tattoo? Yes. He grimaced: Did it hurt? I shrugged. (Boy, would it hurt later.) He called to his buddies. They all wanted to see it. I pulled back my sleeve and they raised their shot glasses.
You hear stories about this all the time. Despite cultural and linguistical differences, people get along, help each other, bond. Maybe that takes a certain willingness, but I feel it’s more than that, especially considering there is no end yet to conflict and suffering.
Writing shouldn’t capture this as expected, or as cliché. Like love, there is a constant renewal of humanity and trust. This a gift. Wouldn’t writers want to honour that in its many forms? Don’t we then honour ourselves as much as another? Can this also be a part of writing you?
I think so. I try to write well-researched, with great care and with love, yet none of my efforts will ever ensure I succeed. Even if Dave is confident that I do.
Differences inspire and enlighten us. Our writing can give back to that. When someone reads our work and feels validated and seen, hopefully we’ve done our jobs correctly. We’ve honoured another and their cherished spaces.
When we left Bontoc and the bus wound back through the mountains, literally in clouds aglow with the setting sun, I realized the something that found me is the uniquely varied and wonderous within us and without, and that striving to capture it takes a lifetime of writing you.