The timelessness of Lualhati Bautista

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Few authors get the distinction of being timeless. Timeless doesn’t only mean eternal, it also assures a writer’s relevance in a world that tosses and turns to the latest fad. It is the author’s badge of honor to have his or her stories read across the limits of time.

Novelist Lualhati Bautista had proven herself worthy of such a distinction. She is too much of a visionary to be just an artist, and too much of an artist to be simply called a storyteller.

Her tales cut across the immeasurable boundaries of its day, and for whatever these are worth in the education of a future generation, Lualhati takes her tales to the next level by keeping them readable, intelligent, and invariably true to form.

I first met Lualhati Bautista on social media. Here she was in her natural element, posting poignant commentaries about the country’s social and political dispensation with the flair of a true master of letters.

In the course of my introduction to the writing life, I have read some of her novels, particularly Dekada ‘70, a fictional exposé on the tragedy of life during Marcos’ martial law regime.

While the succeeding decades may have mellowed her down, one can still gleam a youthful feistiness to Lualhati Bautista today. Having come this far as a writer and novelist, one can safely assume it had never really died down. She still bears in her eyes the fire which had fueled her writings.

I have met writers who seem to have grown weary of the fight. But not Lualhati. If anything, recent developments in politics and governance only emboldened her to speak out more, with the quickness of mind that says I’ve been there, done that.

This puts her novels on top of every other novel published today. It’s a feat which no doubt only the likes of Lualhati Bautista could achieve. However, she has also come to terms that a lot of work is still needed for her country to achieve its goals of providing citizens with a dignified life.

What emerges from her past and present works is not only the product of imagination, but a level of realism which, for all intents and purposes, breaks the mold of current-day political writing.

Lualhati Bautista remains fiercely relevant today as yesterday. And if only for this, her novels should be read by future generations of Filipinos—not only to enrich memory, but embolden each and everyone’s pursuit to live lives free from the grip of tyranny.

PHILIPPINES GRAPHIC: Many fear today that the country is sliding back to the sort of government once perpetrated by Marcos during the martial law regime. The only difference is that today, pretensions to “greatness” or bringing back the country to its “former glories” are simply thrown out the window. Government has no respect for the Constitution and it displays its aversion to laws every single day. This brings back memories of the stories you told in your novels.

LUALHATI BAUTISTA: By comparison, Marcos was intelligent. And Dekada ‘70 was my entry to the Palanca Awards. It was published in 1983. When I first wrote it, I hardly considered the political landscape at the time. Because I’m a mother, I thought of using a mother for my character, one who lived through martial law. There was a time when I thought I lost my son, who I found out later on went to Bulacan to let loose his homing pigeons, to see if they will fly back home. And so I thought: how hard it would be at that time to have sons, to live at a time when having sons could prove dangerous.

So, you did not write the novel with any political conviction at the start? All you wanted to do was tell a story?

No politics whatsoever. I created the character and eventually these characters told their own story.

The novel, Desaparesidos, which came years later, sometime early 2000. Is this a “looking back” novel?

Not too many know it began as a teleplay. It was aired on GMA7. Then came the Philippine Centennial Literary Contest. And so I thought, why not write it as a novel? That’s me. I always come back to what I have written. As film, Vic del Rosario bought it, but later on, I was told that he could not produce it because it would require a large budget. We thought of having Lorna Tolentino to play the lead role. I learned later on that someone egged him not to produce it. Apparently, there was this group who demanded that they be first consulted if the film was about the desaparesidos. Vic must’ve decided to drop the production to ease his way out of a conundrum.

Of late, you’ve been busy writing in other genres—nonfiction to be exact. If given the choice, what would be your favorite book and why?

The book that made me was Dekada ‘70. While I made and wrote it, it also made me. It won in the Palanca. My first novel was Gapô. But by the time I was writing Dekada ‘70, in some ways you could say I was slowly viewing society from a political perspective.

So, you’re saying that politics did enter your mind as you were writing some of your novels, Dekada ‘70 not the least of them. What would be the most influential thing—books, writings—which formed your personal politics?

We all know that no author can write anything if he or she is not totally convinced about what he or she wants to write about. Going back, I believe it’s the First Quarter Storm and my husband, Charlie del Rosario, was an activist then. I think much of the influence came from him. Likewise, I was already aware of the people who had gone missing. At the time I was studying at the Lyceum, but it didn’t take long before I dropped out of school. Bodjie Jimenez, too, influenced my politics. He was my first tragic experience: a good friend who was murdered. He used to care for my children. I wept when he died. That was before the imposition of martial law, sometime 1971.

I would presume you already know what was to happen—martial law…

We knew before the proclamation was made. All my experiences prior to the declaration of martial law and even after that served as the basis of my stories. As I always say, all our experiences, all our memories, they grow inside of us. A day will come when we will need the information and all we have to do is open the documents the way we do it with computers today.

Did you ever fear for your safety, your life?

In truth, no. For some strange reason, I was actually waiting for them to arrest me. But then, this question I have carried with me for the longest time: would I have endured the same way the martial law victims endured should they’ve arrested me? Would I have survived the way some of them did? In many ways, you can say I have been preparing for that day. I was prepared to face any untoward incident. The regime already had a board of censors. Yet to me, the greatest sin is for a writer to censor himself. Before Dekada ‘70, we already came out with a film—Sakada.

Did Sakada survive the Board of Censors?

It did, but briefly. Shortly after, it was pulled out. If memory serves, it happened when some military personnel sat as members of the Board of Censors. I was told that this happened because of the showing of a bold movie—Mga Ligaw na Bulaklak Part 2. I knew it was Sakada. You know why? Because all copies of Sakada thereafter disappeared. I co-wrote Sakada with Oscar Miranda. It was directed by Bhen Cervantes. Some copies resurfaced after Cory Aquino assumed office. In fact, I found out that the movie was shown in buses where busloads of nuns sat as the audience. I’ve witnessed many things during the martial law era, which was why I made sure to always be careful with what I write or say. I’ve witnessed the La Tondeña strike of  the 1970s, which is why it’s wrong to say that contractualization started during Cory’s time. No. It began during the Marcos era. The rise of the price of rice—it happened in 1973. At the time, they don’t buy rice by the kilo. We had the salop for forty centavos each, which was more than a kilo. Life under martial law became harder and harder.

You’ve witnessed quite a lot through the years. And now, under Duterte, it seems, things are sliding back to the days of Marcos.

We all have reason to be anxious. When Duterte won as President, I made the suggestion to my sons to have their passports processed. Just in case things don’t go the way we want them to.

And you?

I will choose to stay. I’m old, ready for anything. The future I see is not too encouraging. The alipores will always follow their leader. It was easy for Marcos’ minions to be corrupt all because their leader was corrupt. The same is true with Duterte. Life today is unbelievably cheap. He also kowtows to China. Why are there 100,000 Chinese in the country, buying properties here and there? Is the Philippines now their country? Is Xi Jin Ping the boss of Duterte? Is the Philippines now a province of China? It seems that way. Sometimes, I refuse to post a commentary on Facebook all because I have said all that I needed to say.

Of late, issues regarding literary writers and journalists taking sides were exposed on social media. What are your thoughts on this?

It’s nothing new. It also happened during the era of Marcos. I have a phrase for them—na-budol-budol, or people who were somehow hypnotized. I simply cannot understand why after all the things that had happened under Duterte, these people remain blind.

During Marcos’ time, writers who opposed Marcos and martial law went underground. Edgardo M. Reyes, the writer of Sa Kuko ng Liwanag, I knew him. I read his novel at the time it was being published by Liwayway. At one point we hid in his home, in his child’s room. After reading his novel in full, I refused to talk to him the whole day. I’m sure he wondered why. Pagsumulat kasi si Edgar, he refused to use exclamation point—only periods. So, it’s up to the reader to absorb all the emotions in his stories.

Given the chance, what would you say to young writers today, now that they’re going through a regime that is no different or maybe even worse than what you’ve been through?

I say study history. I once had the privilege of speaking to a group of Grade 5 and Grade 6 students at the Precious Gem Academy. It was difficult to explain the past. Martial Law, in their books, was only raised in passing. He was President and then he was ousted in a popular uprising. That’s it. But we should understand that many factors contributed to the rise of the Marcos regime and his ouster. There is rich history behind it and it’s sad that they only heard it from me.

You’re also known as a champion of women’s issues. Did your advocacy figure in any of your writings? Also, what are your thoughts on Duterte’s statement that degrade women?

Even as a teenager, I have always been conscious of women’s issues. I once faced a culture where girls were largely frowned upon. I’ve always questioned the belief of some that girls cannot choose their suitors (laughs). Problem was, I leap higher and I feel stronger than most boys in our school. And because of it, I was always told “You’re a girl, and you shouldn’t be doing that”. I’ve questioned these things since then.

Duterte fears the vagina (laughs). Seriously, standing for women’s rights and issues while the same women laugh at his sexist jokes is a difficult task. This pushes women’s consciousness back several decades.

Any projections you may have three to five years from now?

I still believe in the military, that not all of them follow blindly. I would like to think that with them there is hope. The military is not stupid, even if they are being wooed by Duterte with higher pay and positions in government. G



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