Large-scale disasters and fascist regimes serve one useful purpose: they’re blanket design constraints that force people to work and collaborate in ways that would not normally be possible.
Luckily for us, 2017 had these man-made constraints aplenty.
Luckily for me, that led to meeting the ladies of Gantala Press, an independent women’s literary press run by the likes of Faye Cura, Janine Dimaranan, Bebang Siy and Rae Rival. Thanks to our common friend, filmmaker Jaja Arumpac, that led to helping out with Laoanen, a fundraising and information-sharing drive on the effects of the Marawi Siege on women and children on the ground. With Faye’s and others’ equal parts of madness and tenacity, Laoanen quickly evolved into a number of events and talks, the Me & My Veg Mouth and Good Food Community-led Food for Peace yumfest, plus two books: the Laoanen chapbook of talks and reflections, and Mga Tutul a Palapa, a cookbook featuring the food and stories of longtime friend and colleague Assad Baunto. The latter was mostly Asi, and I helped chop onions and peel garlic in collaboration with Nash Tysmans, food writer, scholar and designer Ige Ramos, with the amazing Emiliana Kampilan doing the cover art. Some of my writing, and surprisingly, a lot of my amateur ink sketches, are included in both.
All of this came at a time when the usual avenues of engagement were failing, doors and windows hammered shut. A land use planner and peace policy worker working on behalf of a multilateral development organization is only as effective as the client government and home organization will let her. I am not Mranao or Mindanawon but it was wall-to-wall rage, grief, and helplessness to have been on the ground on May 23, seeing even the most powerful decisionmakers in the region, and in Mranao society itself, unable to do a damn thing. I was in a meeting with the region’s leadership in Cotabato when my grandmother passed away in Manila; one of my closest friends had his professionalism and integrity questioned by a parachuting, racist expat while the military bombed his home into rubble. I guess the only thing, the most effective thing, we could do at the time was to cook, talk, eat, write about food, and draw.
Interesting, this: many of the most fruitful collaborations of 2017 (including those that did not include Gantala) were triggered by longstanding personal and professional relationships, but were carried forward by people I had only met within the last twelve months or less. I met Faye in May because of Jaja, whereas I had finally joined forces with Nash in Sagada in February, after years of hearing people say that we were too much alike and so simply had to meet. (Feels as if I’ve known these people forever though.)
All of this rage and urgency allows us to cut across multiple political boxes and lines, as long as the objectives and non-negotiables are shared and absolutely crystal-clear. I believe in doing development differently, usually get the constraints of class, ethnicity and gender shoved in my face at least once a week, but I’ve always shied away from calling myself an activist or a feminist. A lot of it has to do dissatisfaction with the institutions and practices that use these labels in a particular way, and at thirty I’ve earned just enough experience to be able to articulate why. As I was telling a scholar-activist friend over breakfast the other day, I cannot align myself with the ND line because the top-down command structure of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines clashes with my fierce belief in supporting the nuanced regional struggles happening simultaneously across the archipelago (among other reasons, of course). I cannot support the narrative of two governments in the Philippines when I see and work with at least five. Still, that does not prevent me from collaborating with and loving those who do.
The gift of the small independent press is that it allows for rapid prototyping, as a more manageable and tangible microcosm of the kind of societal change processes I try to mess around with. Write a book on anything you please in a month or a night. Lay it out. Print the pdf at the UP Shopping Center. The small press democratizes publication and allows for endless experimentation–with the caveat of course that the content must be extra compelling to make people part with their hard-earned money and attention. I love how community culture is of fierce support but equally ruthless critique. It cuts the usual “madaling chumaka pero mahirap gumawa” dichotomy–you can only truly talk shit when you can back it up with results, but the best and most critical of the lot are also the most kind and generous. (Hello, Adam and Chingbee.) Interdisciplinary and intergenerational support and co-mentorship isn’t quite there yet, and ironically that’s one of the few areas that the development community is better at. Still, it makes me excited about the opportunities for new forms of synthesis and engagement in ways I never thought possible when I was still teaching English literature GEs.
Even now, as I pay for rent and catfood by writing policy papers and research notes on the root causes of conflict that only a handful of people will read (or will only see in powerpoint form), I am interested in looking at how the same content can be shared and remixed in non-formal ways: in a talk, in music, online, in a conversation in my kitchen in Project 3, in a zine.
We thought 2016 and 2017 were bad, but 2018 will probably be even more fraught. Only way to survive, I think, will be to make things together.