The queer book that shaped me: ‘Aura: The Gay Theme in Philippine Fiction in English’

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Writer Lakan Umali talks about two stories in the queer anthology “Aura” that were instrumental in shaping how she thought and expressed queer desire and identity.

Editor's note: As part of our Pride Month special, CNN Philippines Life invited people to write about the books that have formed aspects of their identity and shaped how they look at being part of the LGBTQIA+ community.

J. Neil Garcia, the illustrious professor and poet, is famously known for spearheading “Ladlad,” the pioneering anthology of gay writing in the Philippines. But in 2012, he edited another queer anthology that deserves an equal amount of readership and critical attention: “Aura: The Gay Theme in Philippine Fiction in English,” released by Anvil Publishing Inc. One might ask, what distinguishes “Aura” from “Ladlad?” As Prof. Garcia says in the introduction, “this book provides invaluable documentation of crucial fictional ‘imagings’ of gayness,” both implicit and explicit in the various collected stories. Garcia notes the “paradox” that while gayness has been a taboo subject for much of Philippine history, it has also occupied a notable place within the Filipino imagination. “Aura” encourages readers to reevaluate earlier stories and intimate the “aura” of queerness which permeates them. Though the entire book is an eminently readable and worthwhile collection, two stories were instrumental in shaping how I thought and expressed queer desire and identity: Boots S. Agbayani-Pastor’s “saturday night” and Ophelia Alcantara Dimalanta’s “The Plain Face of Truth.”

“isn’t it tragic when you have so much love to give and nobody seems to want it?”

Garcia praises Pastor’s “saturday night” as “arguably the best-loved of English-language stories in the ‘Ladlad’ volumes” and reading it reaffirms its esteemed reputation. The story focuses on Gari, a student from Bacolod studying in Manila, as he navigates a tempestuous love triangle between Maki, another student, and Jay, an older, dashing American in Manila for business. Like any beleaguered romantic lead, Gari is torn between two kinds of love: Maki’s warm affection and Jay’s darkly seductive cosmopolitanism. Gari faces the perennial question of any lover: security or excitement? Tender consistency or titillating secrecy?

“saturday night” sketches its queer sexual encounters with well-shaded complexity; they are neither purely carnal nor hopelessly romantic.

Pastor’s limpid prose snatches the reader’s attention and plunges them into the heady, intoxicating Metro Manila of the 1980s, before Grindr and dating apps, when gay men cruised along Ermita and Santa Cruz to find like-minded people with like-minded needs. “saturday night” sketches its queer sexual encounters with well-shaded complexity; they are neither purely carnal nor hopelessly romantic. There is always the negotiation between attachment, emotion, desire, caution, and even transaction. And the complexities of sexual relations also serve to heighten the complexities of the characters. Maki and Jay are not the clean-cut Betty and Veronica of Gari’s triangle. Gliding beneath Gari and Maki’s enviable domesticity is the needy messiness that defines many gay relationships. When Gari confesses his affair with Jay to Maki, like any healthy gay couple, they have torrid sex instead of actually thoroughly discussing and processing their problems.

Pastor paints Jay and his relationship with Gari with even more delicious tension. During Gari’s first encounter with Jay, he experiences a feeling that was “alien, very alien” and “warmth that seemed to dislodge all doubts embedded deep, deep in his consciousness.” Jay insists on paying him and giving him “tokens” for their encounters. The transactional nature of their relationship offends Gari, challenges him to match Jay as an equal, intensifies his spite against the American for muddying his relationship with Maki, and ultimately acts as a means for Gari to deny his very real feelings for the older man. A grim turn at the story’s climax deprives Gari of having to choose between Maki and Jay. He is thrust into such a state of distress that he initially refuses the love of the remaining man in his life. He consigns himself to loneliness and finds himself cruising the same street and meeting the same stranger who had propositioned him at the start of the story. However, a sudden realization compels Gari to accept a measure of joy and run home to his beloved. Amidst the hook-ups and bitch fights and shocking bursts of violence, Pastor manages to create something many readers could only hope for outside the text: a happy ending. Or at least, the aura of one.

“She is, you see, the sense person. Amelia is.”

Ophelia Alcantara Dimalanta’s “The Plain Face of Truth” presents a seemingly conventional dramatic situation: Pete, a middle-aged lawyer on a business trip in Cebu, meets a woman staying at his hotel, and is tempted to have an affair. However, Dimalanta steers the story into bold and unexpected territory. Pete refuses the stranger’s proposals because he is beguiled by another woman; not his wife, but a mysterious figure named Amelia, beside whom “all women were plain.” Initially, the reader assumes Amelia is his mistress, a part of the long tradition of querida characters that have dominated Philippine literature. However, Amelia is not Pete’s mistress, but another aspect of Pete’s self, the self that lingers secretly but potently underneath the veneer of Pete’s masculine, heterosexual, middle-class marriage and family life. Dimalanta’s story might be one of the earliest and most powerful articulations of trans identity in Philippine literature in English.

Reading “The Plain Face of Truth,” I was again reminded of the startling capacities of writing: literature, like painting or film, can conjure cinematic images in the minds of the reader. Yet, it can also describe the abstract, the ineffable, the unfilmable, the inner machineries for making and understanding the self.

Dimalanta was one of the grand-dames of Philippine poetry, and her skills are at their fullest powers in this story. She uses lush, stunning language to describe Pete’s rich interior life when he imagines Amelia: “Rich, flowing life in her limbs, the music of the spheres in her movements, and incandescence that is impossible to muffle, her very presence announcing it. She does not move, she gradually unfolds, glows and quivers...” Dimalanta rivals another master in depicting the interiority of characters, Clarice Lispector, in expressing the mystical beauty of thought and feeling. Reading “The Plain Face of Truth,” I was again reminded of the startling capacities of writing: literature, like painting or film, can conjure cinematic images in the minds of the reader. Yet, it can also describe the abstract, the ineffable, the unfilmable, the inner machineries for making and understanding the self. Dimalanta dares the reader to swim past the small talk and civilities and banalities of domestic life and dive into the depths of Pete’s/Amelia’s consciousness.

In Paul Preciado’s “Can the Monster Speak,” he collects a speech he gave at the L'École de la Cause Freudienne, where he talked about transitioning and the “regime of sexual difference” that branded trans people as disgusting or mentally-ill. He argued that sexual differences were not purely natural, but also historical, that “institutions, conventions, practices and cultural agreements make it possible for a society to decide...who should be considered human and under what conditions.” And in most cases, trans people are not considered human, not deserving of conventional human rights, freedoms, and protections. He was booed off the stage. In the process of transitioning, one tends to meditate and become more attuned to the self. A trans person spends much of their time looking inwardly, in order to determine what parts of them are true to their self and what parts are a result of conforming to social expectations. “The Plain Face of Truth” conveys this inner journey wonderfully. Dimalanta’s main character suffers the drudgery of social expectations, which has stultified his loveless married life into a long and unbearable chore. His return to his wife was “an imperative, a vile necessity.” Throughout everything, Pete clings to Amelia. In a psychoanalytic session with a priest, Amelia surfaces, “Artemsia, half-animal, half-willed, half-conjured, but bigger than any reality.” Amelia, no matter how hard Pete tries to repress her, asserts herself and provides the soul of Pete’s rich interior life even as his exterior life trudges along, “half-dead.”

“The Plain Face of Truth” ends with the chilling line: “And one is saved, if not damned forever first.” The declaration captures the twin ramifications that come when one realizes one’s queer or trans identity. Damned, because being trans means becoming exposed to mockery, harassment, and violence even in the most seemingly open environments. And in more repressive worlds, like Pete’s Philippines of the 1970s, it means disassociation, a complete severance of the outer and inner self, where the true self only exists in thoughts and dreams, half-willed and half-conjured. But it also means salvation, because it’s the recognition of genuine selfhood. To borrow Paul Preciado’s language, it’s a way out. A way out of denial, distress, the exhaustion of constantly lying to yourself about who you truly are. Whereas “saturday night” unknots the tangles of queer desire, “The Plain Face of Truth” explores the brambles of recognizing one’s queer identity. Tense, conflicted, frightening, especially in a society that views queer people as less than human. But also, a plain necessity. Because like an aura, it can be ignored and dismissed. But it will always remain intimately felt.