MARJORIE EVASCO Reviews
Humanity: An Anthology (Vol.1) edited by Eileen R. Tabios
(Paloma Press, San Mateo, 2018)
Marjorie Evasco's review was previously published in the Tambara Journal, June 2019
Of sheer necessity, books with huge titles often beg for ways of qualifying its high purpose, and this anthology offers that frame in the editor’s introduction. Tabios says that the book was conceptualized by poet Aileen Cassinetto, publisher of Paloma Press, who was inspired by Annie Dillard’s creative nonfiction book For the Time Being (1999). Dillard’s short and powerful note in that book may give a handle on how Cassinetto yoked the inspiration with the concept of Humanity. Dillard says: “This is a nonfiction first person narrative, but it is not intimate, and its narratives keep breaking. Its form is unusual, the scenes are remote, its focus wide, and its tone austere. Its pleasures are almost purely mental.”
Tabios came in as editor of the already-conceptualized book mainly because of its theme, and she wanted “a diversity in views...sufficient content to make a wide variety of readers pause, think, then think again, and perhaps engage in some positive action as a result of reading.” As to the kind of post-reading positive action Tabios has in mind, her introduction’s title “Reaching for a ‘Mountain-Like’ Love” (invoking Martin Prechtel’s shamanic proposition to reach within ourselves that love beyond despair), would evoke the image of the pilgrim-lover trekking up a steep and wild mountain trail. Immersed in the necessary travails of journeying to the peak, the pilgrim hopes to find there the boon of a wider vista that empowers a different way of seeing and “a better way to live.”
Twenty articles, including Tabios’s lengthy interview-conversation with John Bloomberg-Rissman on the poetics of arduity, constitute the anthology’s reach, offering a breadth of landscapes that extend from a rural Kenyan hospital’s intensive care unit where Mary Pan served as a volunteer doctor, to the frozen steppes of the Arctic where Christine Amour-Levar and a team of women activists lived with the Nenets reindeer herders of Siberia, in an expedition meant to inspire women to help women survivors of war. While these telluric spaces demanded from the writers the courage to undergo difficult physical and cultural adaptations for survival, the complex inner terrains of human relationships required of them even finer skills to apprehend the basic gestures of kindness and generosity that have marked, and continue to mark, humanity’s survival.
Mary Pan, who trained in global health and narrative medicine, says that in the midst of an exhausting day of attending to Kenyan patients without the medicines and medical technology often taken for granted in the U.S., she learned from her Kenyan fellow medical caregivers the importance of listening to the patient’s story, as well as of the benefits of taking the mid-morning and mid-afternoon tea as a humanizing way of having “time for a reprieve.” Christine Amour-Levar in the harsh 36 degrees below zero centigrade arctic zone, says of the Nenets in the Yamal Peninsula who literally live at the world’s end, “the noble Nenets people of Siberia remind us of the importance of community and family for survival, how we are all connected, and how the future of their home is inextricably linked with ours.”
Among the writers in the anthology, two pairs offer us the chance to intuit these spiritual and metaphysical bridges that tenuously connect the human family: sisters S. Lily Mendoza and Leny Mendoza Stroebel, and father and son Renato Redentor Constantino and Rio Constantino.
Leny Mendoza Stroebel meditates “on becoming an ancestor” in her retirement as professor of American Multicultural Studies in California, a path she had been following since she uprooted herself from the Philippines in 1983 “in order to find Home.” As founder of the Center for Babaylan Studies in 2009, she moved along her path of scholarly research and community building inspired by Filipino historical babaylans and “other discourses within Filipino Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices.” In her lyrical conclusion, she asks: “What stories do I want my descendants to remember? Who do I want them to remember? I want them to remember their ancestors. I want them to know their history in all its complex entanglements and how it shows up in their lives. I want them to know their non-human kin—the trees, creeks, mountains, oceans—and I want them to feel the heartbeat of the Earth as she breathes. I want them to fall in love with a Place and be claimed by her…”
S. Lily Mendoza’s narrative began as her keynote address in the third international Babaylan Conference in the Unceded Coast Salish Territories in Vancouver, Canada. She cites the wisdom of the Cree people who identify modern civilization’s disease of loss of soul or spirit “wetiko,” which resonates with the Filipino idiom of a similar malady of lostness, “nawawala sa sarili.” She tells about the indigenous soul and the trespasses against it throughout history and brings the discourse to its crux: “How now move forward? How create a throne in our lives, in our childhood culture for the lost Indigenous Soul to once more take up residence and find a home?” It is from her that we hear the wisdom of Martin Prechtel, who offers a way home in his book Secrets of the Talking Jaguar (1999/2004): by “suffer [ing] together creatively in a beautiful way…[and keeping our delicately balanced world alive] by feeding it the grief of [our] human failures and stupidity…”
Renato Redentor Constantino writes his memoir of growing up in the Constantino household in his engaging maverick style, saying that while his classmates were feasting on Culture Club and Tears for Fears, he on the other hand “just loved [his] parent’s music, which snuck under the skin and brought [him] sunshine and Blue Bayou.” The continuities and discontinuities in the ways of familial generations bring us to his own family’s dinner table where Red tells his kids “of the night [he] sat beside the pop star Madonna and her lovely children…during a service at the Kabbalah Center in Manhattan.” To this story his son says “Wow,” in a tone Red identifies wryly as “sardonic,” seeing that in the process of maturation most of us “try to follow the footsteps of our elders.”
In his own family through three generations, the way had been that of critical thinking, interrogation and deconstruction of fossilized views boxed in by worn-out conventions. For instance, Red’s insight after college, articulated before entering the professions was: “when faced with a choice between the unknown and probable stability, consider choosing the greater challenge. It may not be the wisest counsel, but if you do encounter job options, why not invest in your capacity to grow.”
Rio Constantino, the youngest of the anthology’s contributing authors along with Gabriela Igloria, writes of how he recognizes – now that he is older— that his parents’ stories as environment activists of the places they travelled to and people they met, are now his stories: “The grim reality of my parents’ stories has turned out to be mine. The warming globe will be my generation’s to inhabit. The tyrants of yesterday, succeeded by the dictators of today, will be ours to face tomorrow. The future is tenuous and uncertain.”
Yet, we know Rio has taken to heart the batch of homegrown truths his parents had handed down to him, among them “There is always mischief to make” and “There’s always ice cream to enjoy,” when he says that “play exists for a reason” and that “thankfully, [he] never learned to let go of silly things…” He concludes: “My parents bring lots of things home from abroad. A prayer wheel and a Masai club, a hide shield and a Persian rug. Masks painted red, yellow and green. They are reminders of places I have yet to see, and maybe never will see. But the chance remains, for as long as other places are there, a waiting possibility.”
If from the mouth of babes the naked truth comes forth, then from another young author we hear it in Gabriela Igloria’s poem titled “Catastrophizing,” which ends with:
What will they do when they realize
the earth has stopped spinning?
I imagine the children will see it first,
how the sun refuses to set, how suddenly
everything is afloat: jump ropes,
lawnmowers, the house cat, rollercoasters.
A child cries out, the sky is falling.
Humanity is a book where the gravity of this child’s cry is already heard by those who listen, not only to the harrowing cries of the trespassed today, but also to the “stories of endings” in a foreseeable future, as the late poet Marthe Reed and co-editor Linda Russo says in Counter-Desecration: A Glossary for Writing in the Anthropocene (2018). All the writers gathered in the book are already adept in creating and re-creating the vocabulary of this language, where the act and art of writing is not to conceal from the mind and heart the many transgressions by humanity of humanity and the earth, but to reveal where and how humanity’s indomitable spirit may reach that mountain peak home.
Marjorie Evasco is Professor Emeritus of Literature at De La Salle University, Manila and a University Fellow. She writes poetry and creative nonfiction and sits in the teaching panels of national writing workshops in Dumaguete and Bacolod. She serves her home island Bohol in her advocacy for the preservation and continuity of its cultural and natural heritage through teaching literature and creative writing. Among her books of creative nonfiction, Ani: The Life and Art of Hermogena Borja Lunday, Boholano Painter (2006), The Bohol We Love (2018) and Valentina’s Valor: Stories from the Life and Times of Valentina Galido Plaza (2019) embody the fact that she is irrevocably and happily “lured by the local.”