In the wake of typhoon Haiyan’s destruction in the Philippines, I am finding it more and more difficult to think of home. When one is faced with pictures of whole communities flattened by wind and waves, dead bodies left for dead on the streets, the ravages of the living, one wonders whether one considers oneself lucky or unlucky to be away from one’s country. One is left, for the most part, watching news footage, following friend and family’s status messages on facebook as they desperately wait for news from loved ones, wondering whether everyone is safe. One is left with no choice but to watch and wait.
In the past few months, every time I would start missing home, I would ready a copy of Reminiscences and Travels of Jose Rizal. Jose Rizal (1861-1896) is considered the national hero of the Philippines and was a writer and a revolutionary. He is most well known as the author of novels that shaped the Philippines revolution: Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, and for which he would be executed. His novels are standard reading when I was in high school, but he was also a writer of essays: journalistic articles, scholarly papers, diary entries, letters. The letters I have been reading are from a collection of Rizal’s diaries and letters called Reminiscences and Travels of Jose Rizal published in 1961. Translated from the original Spanish into English, the lette are from his travels around Europe and the US between 1882 and 1892. I had never read these letters before and I have found a serendipitous affinity with the Rizal that I find in these letters.
Letters have always seemed to me to be proto-essays, displaying many of the qualities to be found and loved in the personal essay form: digression, the mix of formality and informality, a simultaneous focus and waywardness. When Rizal, for example, combines messages of well-wishing for his parents, descriptions of streets in Barcelona, and complaints of his trip, they read like a mix of memoir, travelogue and social critique. By virtue of being private documents, they bear the intimacy of eavesdropping on secrets being told. But their public nature also document the interaction between peoples and cultures. They reveal the tenor of the times. Jose Rizal, for example, in one letter assures his cousin that he has tried his best to get him a job promotion but pleads patience, patience. Colonial bureaucracy merges with family gossip and reading the published letters more than a century from when they were written one can’t help but relish in the transgression of boundaries of time and space: a transgression I’ve always associated with reading personal essays.
Rizal’s letters, however, are also important because they present a counterpoint to the tradition of travel writing. The latter half of the nineteenth century saw a number of Filipino mestizos, ilustrados, traveling to Spain to study. This led to many correspondences between homesick Filipinos and their parents. These letters have been of interest because they document the birth of the idea of nationhood to these Filipinos who would later be involved in the revolution. But they also document the intimate encounter of Filipinos with a foreign country. When travel essays are dominated by accounts of Western travel to the East, the letters of Rizal and compatriots reveal a return of this gaze. Their accounts reveal an expected appropriation of the genre and an inherently radical revision of it. What did the West look like in the eyes of my brown brother Jose?
Mostly praise and awe. He is a fan of eating dates. In a Barcelona zoo he exlciams. “they were some [monkeys] that resembled human beings, extending their hands to you as if asking about your health.” In Paris: “the Hotel Dieu has magnificent verandas!” and “Here there are water closets on the streets where for 15 centimes one can use them and they even provide on with soap. There is excessive cleanliness!”
Rizal interestingly dons the lens of European anthropology and turns back this Western gaze on its own inhabitants. “The Basque type is tall, masculine, ordinarily the face shaven, long rather than oval; small eyes, aquiline nose, and the general aspect reflects honesty, ruggedness, and frank affability.” (Paris, June 21 1883) To his eyes, they are exotic as he probably appears to the people around him.
Rizal’s observations, of course, are not all complimentary. He hates Madrid. “The streets were filled with dirty and thick mud, the ground was slippery and between the holes in the old and worn-out pavement were pools of water and little marches. Afterwards, a cold that penetrates through the marrow of the bones and nothing more can be asked. How ugly was Madrid!” In Paris, he whines about not having enough to go sightseeing. Many years later, on a trip to the United States, he, to no surprise, complains: “Ill not advise anyone to make this trip to America, for here they are crazy about quarantine, they have severe customs inspection, imposing on any thing duties upon duties that are enormous, enormous.” This may very well have been said in 2013!
Another common complaint of Rizal is the invisibility of the Filipino traveller. He is often mistaken for a Japanese. He complains how a display of Filipino dresses in a show is mistaken for being Russian or Canadian. In Barcelona, he relates: “ I strolled through those wide and clean streets, paved like those in Manila and full of people, attracting the attention of everybody who called me Chinese, Japanese, American, etc, but no one called me Filipino!” He is both hypervisible and invisible: a specter, an amalgamation of multiple visions and identities. He is unnamable.
My favorite letter of Rizal’s is the first one that’s published in the collection. It is written in June 7, 1882 when he is traveling from Aden in Yemen through the Suez Canal. Not only is this moment rife with symbolic significance (a Filipino entering past the gateway into the west), but it is a letter that is characteristic of many of the letters that follow and that displays Rizal’s unique perspective regarding both Europe and the Philippines. In describing the Suez Canal, Rizal falls back on the memory of the mother country: “Two beautiful tunnels one of which is as long as the distance from Capitana Danday’s house until that of my brother-in-law Mariano”. This is a letter addressed to his parents, and is predicated on the fact that any letter to home is really a testament to two landscapes – the one that has just been discovered and the one that’s been left behind, which he must imagine surrounds his mother and his father as they read his letter. His letters trace as much the cartography of the foreign, the West, as the familiar, the Philippine landscape. What is discovered (re-discovered?) is what he has known all along.
In the end, I find it interesting that it is this view of the nation from afar that will eventually shape Rizal’s perspective and then the rest of the country. It is a vision shaped by distance and dislocation, as if an archipelago of 7,107 islands could only be conceived as unified only if seen from the vantage of first looking away and then looking back. Or do I only think this because Rizal the traveler mirrors my own predicament right now. I think of Rizal’s statues that stand in public schools all over the Philippines dressed in winter coat that he would never wear under the tropical sun. He shivers from a cold we are taught to imagine. He is in many ways a kind of mirage: a vision from somewhere else, an overlapping of two places, not too different from what he describes in his letters from the Suez Canal: “Here I have tasted cherries, apricots and green almonds. We have seen the curious spectacle of a mirage which is the reflection on the desert of seas and islands that do not exist at all.” It is the mirage that is home.
When typhoon Haiyan cut down major communication lines and isolated whole cities from the rest of the world, many scrambled to find out whether their loved ones were still alive. Many had to wait five grueling days, a week, before they found out. Some are still waiting.
A journalist who had been covering the typhoon in Leyte collected messages written on paper from the survivors. Most of these letters bore the barest of messages: “Alive.” “Ok”. Some just bore names: the shortest way to signify survival. Isn’t that what every letter, every essay says anyway? “We are, in writing this, alive.”
Lawrence Ypil is from the Philippines and is the author of The Highest Hiding Place: Poems (2009) He is an MFA Candidate in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa.