№ 15. The May Wrap-Up — In Which Reading Time becomes Inversely Proportional to Writing Time

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☞ Read Leigh Bardugo’s The Six of Crows duology. I shudder at the thought of the Shadow and Bone adaptation having been made without the spice that the Dregs of the Barrel bring. I’ve also never really appreciated the concept of the duology before, but it seems a smart move now: chonky standalones can be too exhausting while trilogies are prone to saggy middle parts, so duologies hit the sweet spot between the two. And after putting myself through the likes of ACOTAR, it was refreshing to read Leigh Bardugo and see coherent, fully-formed sentences again.

☞ Also read the Brown Sisters books by Talia Hibbert. “Wholesome,” “healthy,” and “simp-y” are the first descriptions that come to mind for these books — and interestingly so, what with all the adult parts and the protagonists’ health issues. The characters themselves were so realistically rational, a distant cry from the repetitive escapist romances I usually read. It’s a relief to know that romance authors can actually write this way.

☞ Downloaded the Webtoon app on my phone and got myself hooked on Rachel Smythe’s Lore Olympus series. It’s a modern retelling of several Greek myths, but centers on the story of the taking of the goddess of spring to the Underworld. The gist of this story is close to my heart, so I appreciated the way Rachel Smythe approached Persephone’s plight. If my catching up on 154 episodes in the span of one night is anything to go by, this is the superior Hades-and-Persephone narrative.

It would seem that the universe has been hard at work making up for last month’s exhaustion with last week’s quality content. 3 May 2021

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☞ Watched The Mitchells vs. the Machines on Netflix. It was fun and beautifully animated, but either I am a smidge too cynical, or the film itself was a smidge too overhyped. Also saw Miss Congeniality, starring Sandra Bullock. I agree with Iana Murray who in a Letterboxd review said that the film “invented feminism.”

☞ Reread Madeline Miller’s Circe for the first time in years. I normally don’t talk about books I’ve reread, but this one warrants special attention because it happens to be the very first physical book I had bought for myself in 3 years. And it floored me to finally notice things about this book that never registered with me the first time: the transformation of “witch” from a hateful epithet to a title for a strong woman; Madeline Miller’s effortlessly rich prose; and the way it reads so that before you know it, a thousand years have passed in a single sitting.

☞ Finished the first season of Dickinson on Apple TV+. Initially I thought I was watching only to make the most of my free 1-year subscription. Towards the end, I realized I enjoyed the semi-fictional anecdotes — however anachronistically delivered — behind some of Emily Dickinson’s most enduring lines.

It was a relief to review the last week and see that I still managed to accomplish some things. Every waking moment lately has been spent plotting and relearning how to write fiction, as I strive for — surprise! — a reboot of Phoebe Wanderer’s story in the Kingdom of Alastro. You all heard it here first. 10 May 2021

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☞ Started and finished a mobile game called Tangle Tower. I have a free 3-month subscription to Apple Arcade, and this is the first game in a long list I want to get through before my subscription expires in July. Tangle Tower is a point-and-click game about a young female painter who dies in her extended family’s expansive home, and the suspected murder weapon is — cue film noir music! — the bloody knife in her painting. The game had amazing art and background music; and it was simply fun to play, because the puzzle segments were not so difficult that I needed to consult the walkthrough, but not so easy either that I felt I was being spoonfed.

☞ Also started playing the video game Reigns on Apple Arcade. It’s a Tinder-esque strategy game about a king who aims to stay on the throne for as long as possible but has to navigate through the situations presented by the people in his court. The situations got repetitive after a while, so changing up my decision-making has helped me make the most of the game.

☞ Worked my way through 42 semifinal projects and 71 final exam essays for my Philippine history subject. I wasn’t able to read any books last week, so I figure my having read all these submissions makes up for it. 18 May 2021

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☞ Caught up to the second and latest season of Dickinson on Apple TV+. Episode nine truly cemented Austin Dickinson as my favorite character in the entire show.

☞ Also watched the second season of Love Death + Robots on Netflix. I think the thing about having 18 episodes like the previous season did is that there is a larger probability of getting absolutely marvelous episodes, while if there are only 8 episodes like this season had, that probability significantly decreases. The only episode from the new season that really stayed with me was “The Drowned Giant,” which is based on the short story by J.G. Ballard.

☞ Started and caught up to the Let’s Play series on Webtoon. It’s the story of Sam, an indie game developer in her twenties, and the romantic relationships and friendships that flourish around her. By the time I was 55 episodes in, I had no idea which people to ship with each other anymore — and it was actually more enjoyable that way. But I also appreciate stories that take the time to flesh out their fictional media content, and Leeanne Krecic did a spectacular job with Sam’s game “Ruminate.” I do hope the legal issues about the third season get resolved soon.

Still no books finished last week, but I’m not worried. A number of people in my book clubs have been complaining that they’re in reading slumps, but I tell them that calling periods of non-reading “slumps” only creates more pressure to be constantly reading. Call these periods “time to do other things” instead, and watch what happens when downtime is seen as a palate cleanser instead of a problem. 25 May 2021

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☞ Finished the following films on Netflix: The Happiest Season (with Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis), Meet Joe Black (with a 35-year old Brad Pitt as the titular character), and The Two Popes (starring the incomparable Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce). My rewatch of The Two Popes was quite an emotional experience, since the film explores the intersections of forgiveness, purpose, and faith. It’s now officially part of my roster of comfort films. Meet Joe Black took me several days to get through, but in looking up trivia about it — something I actually do for every single film I watch — I was rewarded with this magnificent paragraph from Vulture:

Meet Joe Black is not for everyone. It requires a suspension of cynicism to let yourself get caught up in a three-hour film about Anthony Hopkins coming to terms with his mortality while his mortality sits next to him at dinner. It also requires a real suspension of disbelief to watch Brad Pitt pretend to be a virgin. However, if you do fall for its weird charms, you will be rewarded with several scenes of Brad Pitt eating peanut butter in a way that can only be described as pornographic, and a sex scene wherein Brad Pitt — remember, a virgin! — holds back tears of joy as he mounts Claire Forlani near a gigantic indoor pool.

☞ Gobbled my way through Leehama’s Gourmet Hound series on Webtoon. It follows Lucy Fuji, a woman with an intense sense of taste and smell, as she tries to uncover the changes in kitchen staff that has led to changes in the flavors at her favorite restaurant. It’s a thoughtfully inclusive series that touches on a variety of themes, including success and grief. I would also just like to voice out my frustration that I did not realize Graham Ramos, one of the main characters, was Filipino until episode 101. Rest in shame, my reading comprehension.

☞ Returned to a favorite literary adaptation, Geraldine McCaughrean’s King Arthur and the Round Table, a book that’s been in my possession for fourteen years. My childhood fascination with Arthurian legend is second only to my obsession with Greek and Roman mythology, so I’m really looking forward to The Green Knight when the film comes out from A24 Films next month. And I’m long overdue to pick up J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, so here’s hoping I find a copy of that soon.

N.B. If any of you readers are considering reading up on Arthurian legend before the film comes out, may I offer this succinct but powerful summary of the Green Knight’s tale from The Toast.

☞ Wept my way through In Paglayag: A Sulu Story, a documentary from Muslim filmmaker and activist Rhadem Camlian Morados. The half-hour piece is centered around the Sultanate of Sulu, which in the centuries prior to the mid-1500s was one of the most expansive and prosperous kingdoms in Southeast Asia. The composition of the documentary left a lot to be desired, but watching made me emotional anyway because the need to include Moro and indigenous narratives in mainstream Philippine history is something I’ve been pushing at my students since I started teaching years ago. Ah, well, knowing that there is still much to be done only convinces me to keep at this job, however thankless. 31 May 2021

I N   O T H E R   N E W S . . .

◇ Earlier this month, tired discussions about Filipino culture and identity were rehashed when users of the free Internet made some commotion about Jordan Clark, the founder of The Aswang Project, being a non-Filipino. Clark’s identity as a white Canadian man was never a closely-guarded secret, not since the inception of his project and not among the circles that have worked with the man. However, a handful of netizens have made claims to his “racial deception,” which frankly just reads to me as if they had been too lazy to look him up in a search browser but now refuse to admit that that is something they could have done from the beginning. As for claims that Clark is guilty of cultural appropriation, Pamela Punzalan addresses those in this simple but thoughtful Twitter thread, and Christina Newhard expounds on those claims and more in this Open Letter on the Aswang Project Controversy.

◇ Last May 8, the University of the Philippines Baguio announced the opening of its new PhD in Indigenous Studies program. The program introduces a wide range of theories and frameworks for examining indigenous issues, with the hope that such a program would also eventually contribute to the improvement of IP education in the country. Additional details on admissions can be found in the program’s Facebook page.

◇ On May 28, Germany officially acknowledged the genocide it committed against the Herero and Nama people from 1904 to 1908. The Herero and Nama hail from present-day Namibia, which was under German colonial occupation from 1888 to 1915. Their genocide is considered the first — albeit often overlooked — genocide of the 20th century, where the two populations were exterminated, placed in concentration camps, and subjected to eugenics research. Germany has pledged billions of euros to the government of Namibia, though anyone from the Global South who has had a decent history teacher will know that whatever amount of financial reparation is nowhere near enough to make up for the enduring damage caused by colonial greed.

◇ Speaking of colonialism, the call for a free, decolonized Palestine is still ongoing, for as long as Israel continues to trample on Palestinian rights and many Western superpowers continue to back Israel. For those of you looking to learn more about how Palestine has suffered all these decades and why that must all stop, Decolonize Palestine is home to a variety of resources produced by actual Palestinians. Their website has explainers on the country’s history from 9000 BCE to the present, as well as materials debunking myths and generalizations about Israeli atrocities against the Palestinian people.

◇ To those of you who still consider yourselves Potterheads, this is your bimonthly reminder that J.K. Rowling is a transphobic author and that no matter how much we may plead the separation between art and artist, your nostalgia comes at the cost of the rights of the trans community. To those who particularly consider Harry Potter to be the pinnacle of children’s literature, I strongly recommend that you read more books. In limiting your standards to this one author’s world, you are doing a disservice to nobody but your own self.

Let’s talk!

☞ Have you tried any of the books, films, shows, webtoons, and games mentioned in my weekly digests? How did May go in your corner of the world? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

The Battle of the Malunggay Soup

One blustery weeknight during my college sophomore year, I was out having dinner with a friend from the dormitory, at a chicken barbecue place behind Katipunan Avenue that has long since closed. It was one of many, many mealtimes where we dormers had to strike a balance between the need for a healthy diet and the cost of living away from one’s parents.

“I think I’ll have the chicken fingers,” I finally said then, having wrinkled my nose at every other item on the menu for the last five minutes.

“Again? But you get that every time,” my companion observed, eyebrows raised.

“So? It’s cheap and easy to eat.” I felt obliged to defend my loyalty to boneless, deep-fried chicken strips served with rice and shredded corn.

“I should have known. You eat like a ten-year old,” he sighed.

The remark made me pause, take stock of the situation, and stubbornly concede.

For as long as I could remember — and history majors are always expected to have long memories — I had always been a delicate eater. While there was most nothing children aged ten and below did not want to eat, including the occasional mud pie and insect, my palate was considerably devoid of the same excitement. My family was the type to uphold the differences between child and adult, even in viands, and my appreciation — or lack thereof — of food was cultivated under such instructions.

Children’s dishes as prepared in our home were basic, easy-to-cook, and almost always deep-fried. From these same children’s point-of-view, grown-ups’ dishes were far more complicated, had more than one ingredient, and always had too much sauce or too much soup.

Children in our household also had the privilege of stopping anytime during a meal should they feel like not eating anymore: “Dili na ko” (I don’t want any more) was a phrase my younger sister and I as young’uns had the power to wield, and it was a power I personally exercised often, much to my parents’ later inconvenience. These were the culinary instructions with which I began, until the day came when my parents thought I was mature enough to move on up to the grownup-level dining experience.

The author of the children’s books A Series of Unfortunate Events once described the smell of horseradish as “bitter and strong.” Horseradish is considered by many to be the English equivalent of malunggay or kalamunggay in my mother tongue, though malunggay has neither bitterness nor strength. Moringa might be the more correct name, then, but whatever malunggay is called in other countries, the clear fish soup that it is often cooked into remains in my culinary experience a staple in most Filipino households.

For the first ten years or so of my life, malunggay was the only legitimate vegetable I deigned to consume, but even then it took me a while to actually appreciate it. This auspicious event happened one mid-morning in my grandfather’s house, when I sat with my mother at our huge round wooden dining table, the kind that had an elevated center for the viands that was always fun to spin. In front of us was, for the very first time in my existence up to that point, a plate of rice, drowned in malunggay soup.

Dili na ko,” I recall saying right away.

Wala pa gani nimo natilawan. You haven’t even tasted it yet.” I remember thinking that perhaps if I kept my jaw locked tight enough, she would not be able to force anything into my mouth. Wordlessly, obstinately, I shook my head.

Nearly half an hour later, my backside was starting to ache from sitting down. My dining companion had gripped my arm and forced me back into my chair every time I attempted to escape. By virtue of some or other law of conservation, as well as the simple fact that my lips were pressed as hard as was physically possible for me, the food on the plate remained exactly the same volume as when the meal began.

Sige na, ‘day,” my mother coaxed for the umpteenth time, waving a spoonful in front of my face. In a final act of defiance, I slowly wriggled around in my seat, my back to the dining table.

My mother’s patience finally began to ebb. “Dili maayo talikdan ang lamesa kay gatalikdan nimo si Jesus ana. Talikdan lugar nimo ang Ginoo?” she challenged me, switching tack. (It is not good to turn your back on the dining table, because you are turning your back on Jesus. Do you want to turn your back on the Lord?)

I did not know how to make her understand. As much as I loved the Lord then, I was expected to eat a plateful of malunggay soup with rice for the very first time, and to a child weaned on tender, juicy reds and golden browns, the mass of green lumps on the white grains was unfortunately sinfully unappealing. 

I also vaguely remember that we had run out of the usual stock of hotdog, Vienna sausage, and Ma Ling luncheon meat that day, but I would like to think that we were financially comfortable at that time and that my ascension to the adult ranks was borne of more dramatic than practical reasons.

Looking back, I may have only really disliked the dish then because I was forced to eat it, as these feelings usually go. Every spoonful of rice and malunggay felt like eating hair: the leaves clung to my tongue and teeth, and making faces was the only way to maneuver the leaves to the back of the mouth where they would be chewed into an even more distressing state than they already looked on the plate. The flavors did not register with me, but I recall thinking that the taste of malunggay was apparently just as plantlike as everything else I liked to sample in our garden. At the time, though, santan flowers were definitely preferable to malunggay leaves.

By the end of that morning, I had been at the dining table for two hours, not once had my mother left my side, and the plate of malunggay and rice had been nauseatingly clean. I had resented every spoonful I downed, but those globs of green were eventually cleared from the plate with the serious threat of getting placed in a sack and hung above a fire from the mango tree in the backyard.

The thought process around my concession still rings in my head: I was aware my grandfather’s house had a vast backyard with a couple of trees, and I could tell the malunggay tree from the sampalok tree from the guava tree but had no idea which among the others was the mango tree. That diminished my mother’s threat somewhat, but I remember thinking how scratchy the sack was going to be and how hot the fire was going to be if I refused any further, and that was why I finally opened my mouth.

Several years after that skirmish with my mother saw me enrolled in a history program for college, and on two separate occasions I wrote about the Battle of the Malunggay Soup as an example of how memory was a fickle friend to historians. With each writing, it became clearer to me: children remember things differently, as do adults.

By that time, I had grown to like kalamunggay — and satisfactorily, on my own terms. In the college dormitory canteen where I breakfasted and lunched without parental supervision for four years, I rarely ever chose soup over hotdog — I remained a child in that sense — but at least I could eat soup when it was served without gagging or offending higher powers. Perhaps there is a distinction between child and adult dishes, or perhaps I had finally ascended to the ranks of older taste buds, but perhaps everything just changes when there is no more santan bush in the garden to put flavors in perspective. 

This is the fifth in my samtang wala nalimtan series, a writing exercise devoted to the preservation of my tricky memory. The composition is actually a work in progress, an expanded version of which I mean to submit to a certain national essay competition, should they ever decide to reopen this year.

I lived most of my childhood in my grandfather’s house, until we moved to a different place after his death in the 2000s. The featured sketch is of the malunggay growing outside my mother’s house: not the exact tree that had been the bane of my childhood, but I was no less wary of it when I drew it in mid-2009.

My thanks to Dr. Karl Ian Cheng-Chua and Dr. Ambeth Ocampo for assigning us to write about our earliest food memory in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Sir Karl, my crush on you will endure forever. Red Roaster Bistro, you will always have a special place in my heart and my stomach.