In God Country


Karl De Mesa’s non-fiction collection, Report from the Abyss, offers plenty of terrifying tales that will make you want to lock yourself up in a fortress or in a brightly lit room. Far from the full-on phantasmagoria of his fiction (the novella collection News of the Shaman, and the short story collection, Damaged People: Tales of the Gothic Punk), De Mesa’s latest tracks down horrors that we encounter every day. These are stories that you’ve heard of in the news magazine shows, ripped from the hazy corner of a yellowing tabloid.

It’s easy to slide into pulp territory given the slippery nature of these incidences (indeed, two of the essays in the book are written in attention-grabbing tabloid vernacular) but De Mesa wraps them all up in crystalline prose while still thrumming with the eerie spirit of the weird and the occult.

For about half of the book, De Mesa takes us on a tour of his life and how each incident revolves around his manifesto to write about the horror and the macabre. Each part of his world that he lets us in harbors unique forms of terror that are far more harrowing than the supernatural. He reports from conflict zones; from his room while held up with a bad case of the flu (which becomes a brief rumination on how we transform after each disease that occupies our bodies); from a cramped prison camp where dreams are dissolved into transgressions and despair.

It only makes sense that the deadening brunt of the real world pushed De Mesa into writing horror. In his account of his coming of age in the Philippines starting from the pre-martial law era—an exorcism of a childhood spent in secrecy, communicating in codes and shuffling from one house after another — he lists his father’s incarceration as the primary reason for his shift from writing fantasy to horror.

“I wanted to draw the attention of the reader to real life, albeit indirectly, in a manner as subtle as an acupuncture needle being thrust into skin. I didn’t want escape; I wanted confrontation. Horror had it in spades. Plus, I was naturally drawn to the occult, the macabre, and mysterious. I dabbled in witchcraft, magick, psychic powers, energy healing, conspiracy theory, alien abductions, minor spells, conjurations and such esoteric stuff,” De Mesa writes.

See, unlike the coup of characters that wade in the charm of fantasia, ghouls, bloodsuckers and flesh-eating manifestations of fear can only drive us to face the monsters that we harbor within ourselves.

These creatures do appear, although briefly, in the book, and it might just be potent enough like the old world ghosts of a Lovecraftian tale. In “Adventures in the Heart of Darkness,” De Mesa talks to Tony Perez’s Spirit Questors about some of the most interesting cases that they’ve encountered. First, there’s the case of the Spanish poltergeist, which employs some basic scare tactics—doors slamming, footsteps on the floor, glass breaking—but still spooky enough for a haunted house account. Then there’s the case of the tikbalang familiar, something that followed Perez from a previous quest: an angry, 10-foot-tall creature that has the torso of a man and legs of an animal with horns and red eyes. Read it when the light of the day is fading with Eyedress’s ‘Nature Trips’ on loop and you’ll feel trapped in the most disturbing horror film you can imagine. And worse, it lives in your head and lingers long after you’ve turned the last page.

But the most interesting stories in Report are the ones that live on the streets. In the chapter “Friends in Bat Country,” De Mesa walks us through Quiapo, twice. First, at the tumult of the feast of the Black Nazarene, a microcosm of our country’s society and devotion to a higher power; and then in the stalls and vendors of amulets and talismans where people ask for powers that take them beyond this world. He also leads us into the cockpits of Manila, where superstition is a currency and science commingles with the Old Gods.

We Catholics live in “God country” and it isn’t surprising that different forms of magic make their way into our lives until now. The plethora of anting-anting vendors just within reach of a Catholic church do say something about how we turn to folk wisdom and the old world when things stop making sense.

Ultimately, Report confirms that ours is a colossal world of hurt and decades of gore and horror films have taught us that the ills that we encounter on the page and on screen are powerful reflections of turbulent times. De Mesa understands this and his documentary work is a testament to the strange conventions of the reality that we have to live in.

This article was originally published 12 October 2013 in The Philippine Star.



Battle Scarred

Alex Gilvarry, Photographed by Gabby Cantero; 2012
Alex Gilvarry, Photographed by Gabby Cantero; 2012

Alex Gilvarry’s acclaimed debut throws a Filipino fashion designer into the snarling jaws of New York’s fashion world.

The title of Filipino-American Alex Gilvarry’s debut novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, can be a little intimidating, or as Random House president Howard Kaminsky pointed out in the book’s testimonial video, annoyingly problematic. Its cover is grim: a mascot-looking prisoner reading a fashion rag as the darkness of his prison envelops him, the seven-word title stamped throughout the cover like a protest or a plea. It sounds like the kind of book that should only be read by anyone whose idea of a good time is watching CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera.

But Non-enemy Combatant is actually funny. It’s about a Boy Hernandez, a Filipino designer who moves to New York, and sets out to conquer the fashion world. Mostly everything goes according to plan — until Boy’s ties with a terrorist are uncovered and he is taken away to “No Man’s Land,” a notorious prison the likes of Guantanamo Bay.

From inside a six-by-eight-foot cell, Boy recounts his foray into fashion, name-dropping big designers such as Alexander McQueen, Carolina Herrera and Diane Von Furstenberg. His confessional was later compiled by fashion journalist and editor Gil Johannssen, who introduces the heavier political threads that surround Boy’s case — and corrects Boy’s misappropriations (Boy, for example, attributes a Nietzsche quote to Coco Chanel and mistakes Flaubert for Proust).

Boy’s similarities to certain Filipino fashion industry figures, namely Bryanboy and Timothy Garcia, have led people to think that Gilvarry based his protagonist on these larger-than-life characters.

Gilvarry explains, “I wrote about half the novel when my friend Liz Moore said ‘You know there’s this guy Bryanboy. I don’t know if you know about him. He kind of looks exactly like the character you’re writing about.’ So I checked him out and his website. I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ The similarities were crazy. Bryanboy sort of looks like the man I had been imagining as Boy.

“Bryanboy was one of the blogs I started reading more and more as I finished the novel so probably a little of him filtered in. In fact, I wrote him in the book, I mentioned him a few times. He’s one of the bloggers who writes about Boy to make him a little more famous in the Philippines,” Gilvarry says.

Gilvarry, a Norman Mailer Fellow who has contributed to The Paris Review, is striking in a Fil-Am sort of way (later, some people would tell me they picked up his book because he is “so gwapo”). He stands 6’3” and his warm voice makes for a perfect NPR commentator. He occasionally visits the Philippines and researching for Non-Enemy Combatant brought him more often in familiar places such as Manila and Samar, places that eventually became Boy’s past. Despite being born and raised in Staten Island, New York, Gilvarry admits his Filipina mom allowed him to grow up in a half-Filipino environment. He doesn’t speak Tagalog but his mom’s way of speaking English made him aware of the rhythms of the immigrant language.

Thus, Gilvarry’s Boy reeks of basic Filipino nuances — he maligns idioms and pronounces f’s as p’s or v’s as b’s. But Boy also bulldozes stereotypes in a world where Overseas Filipino Workers are usually portrayed as hardworking laborers who juggle jobs just to send money home; their voices clipped with Americanized English while hanging on to a hard Filipino accent as a crutch and a lifeline.

Non-Enemy Combatant comes at a period in the US where legalities surrounding immigration have formed a heavy cloud in an already volatile socio-political atmosphere. It has been the subject of many polarizing discussions, particularly now that the US presidential election is looming.

“America is a country of immigrants in some ways. Of course, now we don’t see it that way, people there don’t see it that way. There’s a big fear of the immigrants more than ever in recent history, I think. It was really just from inspiration and you can get a lot of metaphors out of the story of migration,” Gilvarry says.

Through Boy, Gilvarry weaves a gripping tale of post-9/11 New York, a city that has learned to stand ground and lick its wounds while still bracing against semblances of threat that hang in the air. The landscape may have changed and an enemy has been taken down but for Gilvarry, New York is still charged with the climate that has pervaded over the past decade.

“The biggest change was Osama Bin Laden is now dead, right? And I found that the climate hasn’t changed as much as we think it has, even though it has been 11 years since 9/11. We’re still at war with terrorists, we’re still very afraid of them,” Gilvarry says.

Non-Enemy Combatant not only skewers post 9/11 distrust and discrimination, it also addresses the dearth of the Filipino voice in American literature, something that he has always sought out as a publishing editor and as a reader of immigrant novels.

“I don’t think Filipinos are very well understood in literature and in American Literature, too. I feel like in the US, they already have Korean-American literature, which calls to mind a bunch of authors. Chinese-American literature, that calls other authors to mind. But we don’t really have Filipino-American Literature. But of course there are many who are coming around now. But I wanted a Filipino-American novel to tell that story because I don’t think it has been told enough, at least.”

As Filipino-American writers like Gilvarry, Miguel Syjuco, Lysley Tenorio and Gina Apostol pave the way for Filipinos in the greater fabric of world literature, we can only expect that the stature and myth that surrounds us Filipinos will expand to broader horizons, and that we will be known not only for our labor exports and YouTube cover songs.

“I think editors are now more aware of Filipinos and Filipino American literature and it’s only gonna get better and better for everybody as we build our canon,” Gilvarry says.

This article was originally published 22 September 2012 in The Philippine Star’s Supreme