Introduction to and from Seasons by the Bay by Oscar Peñaranda
(T’boli Publishing, San Francisco, 2004)
Being of Two Minds: A Dialogic Introduction
to Oscar Peñaranda’s Seasons by the Bay
Simply put, Oscar Peñaranda’s Seasons by the Bay is an act of anamnesia, or better yet, anamnesis—
Whoa! “Anamnesia? Anamnesis?” Ay naku! What do those gazillion-dollar words mean?
Well, everyone knows what amnesia is—the state of not remembering, the state of forgetfulness, right? Since the prefix ana in Greek means to be backward, to negate, then anamnesia means to not forget, or more specifically in the context of Oscar’s collection of stories, to be against forgetting—in other words, active remembering.
Okay, okay. But I want you to promise: no more big words, okay? Let’s keep it simple. Something everyone can get.
But there are complex ideas at work in Seasons by the Bay—
Ah, but to be really good at what you’re doing, you should be able to explain these “complex” ideas with simple language, right?
Oh, very well. No “big” words. Well, maybe now and then, when it’s really necessary?
Fair enough. Okay, so explain why Seasons by the Bay is an act of—ano ba? what was that word again?—oh yeah, “anamnesia.”
Before we revisit that topic, let’s share what we know about Oscar Peñaranda. I first encountered his writing in the landmark Asian American literature anthology Aiiieeeee! His story, “Dark Fiesta,” was moving to me because it helped me to connect, emotionally and critically, with the Philippines of my parents—what it was like to be a child dealing with Filipino beliefs and customs. Peñaranda’s appearance in that crucial book cemented his reputation and standing among Asian American writers.
Half a decade before Aiiieeeee, Peñaranda similarly established his stature among Filipino American writers per se by his inclusion in the seminal anthology Flips. This book articulated the existence and dimension of the Filipino (and Filipina) American writer apart from the tradition and culture of Philippine writing in English.
Pare, quite a few big words there . . . anyway, my connection to Oscar is also personal. In the FLIPS listserve (an e-group of Filipino writers from all over the world), Oscar has been an important voice and presence, as one of the Deans (or is that “Dons”?) of Filipino letters. I have also heard lots of stories about Oscar: his being a martial artist and teacher, especially in eskrima or arnis; his efforts in the classroom to teach Filipino American children and others about Philippine culture and traditions; his activism to bring about changes in curriculum and educational policy to make teaching about the Philippines relevant and productive; and so on.
Probably, I see his most important role as being an Educator with a capital E. In fact, Oscar had my second cousin (nephew, really, in the Filipino way, since he is my first cousin’s son) as a student in junior high; he later went on to study martial arts in Thailand. So Oscar’s influence as educator is felt in many quarters, and this book is yet another of those educational projects. I’m a genuine fan!
Okay, now about “anamnesia”—
Uy, sandali lang—wait a moment. Why are there so many blades in Seasons by the Bay? There is the “hand-carved knife” in the story “The Shell”; the sentry’s “gigantic and beautiful Magindanaw sword, a Kris” in “The Discovery”; the bolo in “The King Butcher of Bristol Bay” (not to mention Kip’s butcher blade); the balisong or butterfly knife in “Day of the Butterfly”; and the ancestral sword in “The Courier.”
Well, to begin with, the Philippines has been for centuries a leading maker of blades. Traditionally, there were the kampilan and kris, along with other Moro edged weapons, the bonifacio-style training swords from the Philippine-American war . . . even today many of the blades sold in the world sword market are still made in the Philippines.
So there’s a long tradition Peñaranda is alluding to and taking part in by including so many blades in this book. In each of the stories mentioned, the blade is part of the maturation process of the male. The blade is a crucial part of becoming a man, in other words. Sometimes, as in “Day of the Butterfly,” we see humorous ramifications; at other times, as in “The King Butcher,” there are tragic overtones and undertones. But in all of these cases, there is a young man coming into his own and accepting the consequences of his actions. Maturation is a major theme in Seasons by the Bay, even in stories like “Baptism” or “The Visitor” or “May I Dancing With You,” which have no blades as such.
Yeah. You know, Oscar’s interest in the blade is also connected to martial arts. Many people think of eskrima only as fighting with wooden sticks. In fact, blades and other metal weapons are also important in eskrima. And growth of the self, of the spirit, is a crucial part of martial arts—perhaps the most crucial—so I’m not surprised that “becoming a man” is so central in the book.
It is important as well to acknowledge that the sword is an important symbol of anti-colonial struggle. The kampilan sword is well-known among Filipinos as well as non-Filipinos largely because it is the very weapon that separated Magellan’s head from his body. To go along with the “becoming a man” theme, one might note that the various statues of Lapu-Lapu in Cebu and Mactan often feature very large kampilans—phallic symbols that stress the centrality of struggling against the conqueror, the invader, the occupier. Makibaka! Fight the revolutionary struggle!
Okay, calm down . . . back to Oscar’s anamnesia—
First, let me ask you a question in turn, all right? What important themes or achievements do you see in Seasons by the Bay? What does Peñaranda do well in these stories, do you think? What central concerns arise for you as you read?
Okay. To me, what Oscar does incredibly well is evoke Filipino-ness. In the story “May I Dancing With You,” for example, he explains the use of the word “daw”: “The word raw or daw means ‘it is said’ or ‘they say.’ It distanced the bearer of the news from the news, the message from the messenger, a convenient disclaimer. The prolific use of the word became conducive to rumor mongering.” Oscar has this exactly right. It’s like the way the media uses “alleged” when reporting court cases, but it’s much more than that because it underlines the Filipino focus on avoiding shame or hiya. By pointing to a faceless them, the bearer of bad news can save face regardless of how embarrassing the news.
Another example is Oscar’s portrait of the gambler’s outlook in “The King Butcher”: the horses Kip bets on are “Comes the Dawn” (chosen because the dawn is a symbol of hope) and “The Seventh Sun” (chosen because the horse happens to be a “seven-to-one shot” and everyone knows 7 is a magic number). As Oscar tells it, “Well, ‘Comes the Dawn’ came in around midnight and ‘The Seventh Sun,” a seven-to-one shot, came in seventh.” The humor here comes from overturning what Kip relies on; it’s a cruel joke on the part of the universe that the “magic 7” horse comes in seventh. Again, very Filipino—both the superstition and Kip’s reaction—bahala na, come what may. The Filipino will deal, baby (sorry about the bad pun).
Okay, this actually brings us back to anamnesia. One of Peñaranda’s central concerns in Seasons by the Bay is that the Filipino American (and the Filipino, faced with rampant Westernization) is forgetting what it means to be Filipino. As we noted earlier, this is a central concern in Peñaranda’s teaching as well.
In the opening of the book, Amador asks his grandmother, Yasmin, about the Philippines today. She responds, “Gumanda na talaga and bayan natin, apo [our country has truly become beautiful, grandson],” but then she continues, “Pero and tao’y malimutin” [but the people are forgetful].” Yasmin adds that this forgetfulness is an “epidemic . . . some two hundred years old.” And she hopes “it isn’t here [in America, that is] also.”
As a matter of fact, we see in the stories (as we probably know it in our lives) that the epidemic is spreading. Filipinos—especially in the diaspora—are forgetting. They are becoming American or Saudi Arabian or South African or whatever. They are enmeshed in amnesia. Peñaranda’s basic task in Seasons by the Bay, therefore, is anamnesia. The stories tell us what we need to remember. They tell us to remember. They tell us more than that: we must be against forgetting. We must live our Filipino-ness, surrounded by the wilderness of forgetting.
The stories set in the town of Santander are told as legends, or more precisely as myths. The legend of Katigbas, blowing his conch as an alarm, resounds downward through the centuries to Totoy’s conch shell blown by Ngula, again in alarm. When the stories move, via immigration and diaspora, from Santander by Carigara Bay, to English Bay in British Columbia, to Bristol Bay in Alaska, to San Francisco Bay, and finally back to the Philippines, the legends follow, though they sometimes become tenuous as mist—and new Filipino myths arise, like that in “Day of the Butterfly,” where the narrator is no longer so sure of the facts but is certain of the import, the mythic elements, of the story.
In the closing story, we see Tino, a young Filipino American collecting family stories from his elders in the Philippines and in Hawai‘i (an important destination of early Filipino migration). In essence, he is recouping, recuperating the old Filipino stories. The family heirloom sword he is given to carry back to his father is a symbol for anamnesia, for the need to be against forgetting. Tino’s father literally has clinical amnesia, but his illness symbolizes what Lola Yasmin calls an epidemic: the loss of Filipino culture and tradition in our very selves and identities. The book ends with these words: “he took the sword back home to his father’s waiting amnesia.” The sword is Filipino, Filipino-ness.
So aren’t you also saying that the book is the sword? And the sword is the book? The book is Oscar’s sword? Interesting that the word sword contains the word word.
Hmm. I would have thought I would be the one to say something like that last sentence. But yes, that’s right. The book is the sword and the sword is the book. The important thing to understand is that we need to make the book and the sword one entity—a singular unit within our selves.
It’s crucial to note here as well that, although “becoming a man” is a central theme of the book, the importance of women, of the female principle, is also present in Seasons by the Bay. Women here are essentially the force of anamnesia. They are the ones who enjoin us to remember: Lola Yasmin, Tita Pitay (the aunt who gives Tino the sword), Sebastiana who is the spirit of the dance. Women are at the center; they are the eye of the storm; they are the bedrock.
The fact that we—one person, really—talk in two voices here is revealing. Peñaranda is adept in these stories as well as in his teaching at mixing the academic, the scholarly, with another kind of knowledge and speech, that of the street, the barrio, the cannery. Our two voices represent those two sides. Our two voices also represent the divisions each Filipino has in the contemporary context, in the diaspora, and even at home in the Philippines. Look how even our newscasts, our TV shows, are broadcast in Taglish. Peñaranda’s Seasons by the Bay is a clarion call, an alarm blown on the conch, that we need to find ourselves as Filipinos in the midst of centuries of colonialism, of neocolonialism today, of diaspora. We need to remake ourselves and become, again, real. Genuine. Totoo. True. Filipino.
Amen to that, kapatid, sibling, self. Amen.