The full text of the talk from which this segment was taken will be available via the premium pages of this website, under the title "Saudade/Sehnsucht: The Arrow of Time, Self-Imagery and the Faraway"
Thank you for coming and giving me the honor of your company. It is certainly a Sunday afternoon delight to see familiar faces and new faces and faces with a history I share—all of us joined in a contemplation of literature and pan de sal.
I must confess I was thoroughly entranced when Wilson—may I be on first name basis with you, Mr. Flores?—when he proposed that I speak here, amidst the bread and the cakes and our historic delectation, the pan de sal.
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WHAT MEMORIES ARE LINKED to this amazing and yet simple bread of salt: early mornings and cockcrows and the wind whistling through mango leaves. We do have pan de sal in New York City—but it is not the same. What we transpose to other lands and other climes are never the same, no? We still hanker for the original, that pale brown, moist and little mound of life-sustaining cultural artifact, incomparable as a mother’s breast whose milk brings the very flavor of the sun to one’s tongue.
But this is how it should be—talking literature, talking story, weaving narratives alongside pan de sal, our eternal symbol of re-assurance that the sun has risen once again and at least, for this morning, we will live—because the bread of salt welcomes the start of the hours of the day. Its time is that time Rosa Luxemburg called “the loveliest moment, before the dreary, noisy, pounding and hammering life… woke up.” No matter where fate may take us, in whatever part of the globe, pan de sal is our assurance that the country continues, the people survive, even if barely, the islands still float on the vast ocean of the unknown, the same that drew Ferdinand Magellan and seduced him into accidentally setting the direction for the arrow of time for this archipelago of 7.100 islands. Uh-oh, plus 400 more.
Our literary traditions saw the various genres of writing as inextricably linked with our daily lives—from the poetic pronouncements of our babaylan to the stories by twilight of our narrative weavers, to the three-day poetic jousts that accompanied the funeral of a chieftain. We sang, we danced, we declared, we chanted, we sculpted, the themes of our lives—or we used to, before the compartmentalization and division of aspects of knowledge into disciplines and moved the creativity of our souls into the academe, museums, library… Perhaps we need to return the expression and conscience of our race, to paraphrase Joyce, back to where they properly belong and thus end the dominance of the banal in our national narrative—to turn our art and literature to something as vital and sustaining as pan de sal.
"Perhaps we need to return the expression
and conscience of our race, to paraphrase Joyce,
back to where they properly belong and thus
end the dominance of the banal in our national
narrative—to turn our art and literature
to something as vital and sustaining
as pan de sal."
Our literature runs on the concept of what the Portuguese call saudade—a Galician word meaning a nostalgia for a past that never was. This is matched by the German word sehnsucht—a nostalgia for a future that will never be. Time, as you can see, is a major pre-occupation for me as a writer—the many timelines, fractured and truncated, unfulfilled and unrealized—tendrils of time unraveled from the main trunk, shivering in the wind, leading nowhere. Time, I have always said, is the only character of my novels. Our national narrative is like a disheveled piece of abaca rope, bristling with broken strands. I have considered it my obligation as a writer, from the very first story I’d written, to attempt its repair, to find the links to re-attach the broken time strands, to render whole once more our dismantled narrative.
I can say honestly that when I touch down at the Manila airport, I find ranged outside, almost instantly, the elementals of our collective unconscious, both the good and the bad, all saying, “there you are.” Forthwith, they resume the epic tale of our struggle against the Other—which is also a struggle to be ourselves, as we were meant to be, had another timeline come into fruition.
"Our national narrative is like a disheveled
piece of abaca rope, bristling with broken strands.
I have considered it my obligation as a writer,
from the very first story I’d written, to attempt
its repair, to find the links to re-attach the broken
time strands, to render whole once more our
I am aware that it is a kind of irony—for me to choose or be chosen for this task. Perhaps because the task needs a vision and an understanding of what we are, could be, in all the waves of probability; an awareness that comes from looking at the archipelago from the vantage of many other cultures and thus gain an awareness of what we should be, despite the crushing pressures brought upon us. This task is more urgent now, with the seas around the archipelago rising at ten times the rate of waters in other parts of the globe and the stage of our existence as a people in danger of becoming pais desaparecido.
I will leave you with a little summary of a story I have just finished, part of a triptych of stories of people who have gone away. The first of the three has come out in the UST literary journal, under the title “Winter Butterfly.” This story I will tell you is the second of the triptych; its title is “Interesting Paths.”
In the middle of winter, one of the worst for New York City, a young Filipina receives a white letter envelope marked “UNDELIVERABLE.” She had mailed this some weeks before—to a young Filipino aboard a merchant ship plying the ocean from continent to continent. They had met one fine day in Barcelona—only for a day—by accident. She had been set upon by four teenagers, Spaniards, who had tried to rob and assault her. He had come out of nowhere, seemingly, right into the teenagers’ midst and kung-fu-ed them to flight.
Because she was a nervous wreck, he took her to his hotel and they had spent the night together—just sleeping. In the morning, as they prepared to leave for their respective lives, he had asked her to send him a photograph. He gave her the name of his ship, of the company that owned it and his ports of call for the next three months. It had taken a while for her to turn her attention to this promise, since her employers had taken her back to the Middle East where she was not allowed to leave the house. She had to wait until her employers were assigned to New York—where, as she told herself time and again, she had “jumped ship”—i.e., fled her employers and assumed a life of an undocumented migrant.
In due time, she had had the photograph taken, slipped it into a letter envelope, addressed it and mailed it. The first time it had returned, she had researched the ship’s company and the ship’s ports of call and all possible addresses which could be used. Five more times, she had mailed the letter and it had returned. She was now preparing to mail it again, happy in the thought that there would be a day when the young Filipino would know that a letter from the past had chased him all over the world. She did not know that the beautiful young man she had met in Barcelona had been swept off his ship by a storm in the waters between Libya and Europe.
Saudade and sehnsucht—a longing for a past that never was and nostalgia for a future that will never be. In a little story of our metamorphic fractured timeline.
Thank you very much. —#