Even when in the grades, I had come across his name in the pages of Bannawag, my reliable every Wednesday bible.
And then this serendipity related to Tito Tugade's name and work got to be more dense and complicated as the years went by.
Paths crossing, I would say, this coming into an intersection of our lives, he a pillar of prose writing in the 60s and me, a neophyte of literary ambition
Before the activists began painting the walls of Elizabeth Marcos-Keon's provincial capital with political graffiti that ran the gamut of the activist's sense of purpose to denouncing the tangoing of the Marcos regime with the imperialists, I came across his book, in the dark corners of a dark bookstore passing itself off as one with its display of used book and new ones, many of them textbooks students used to learn the virtues of democracy and the need to get that Philippine education and then go fast to Mother America.
I was walking along Avenida Rizal Street in Laoag when I passed by that bookstore, rundown but selling all those stuff on literature, those songhits, notebooks with their artista covers that had Nora Aunor or Vilma Santos or Guy and Pip or Vi and Bubot in them, and other knick-knacks of student life including those early 1970's cheap albums and slum books you would fill out to write about your memorized definition of love and hobbies and ambition and like and dislikes.
A bibliophile to the core, I looked into the piles of books and there and then, I saw that Puraw a Balitok in hard cover.
I do not remember exactly the way it looked, but it could have come with a pre-computer enhanced drawing on it, a bit pastel or light brown, akin to the color of an upturned field in early summer.
I am not sure what made me realize I liked the book but I bought it from the only wealth I have scrimped for emergencies like this one. Even when I was young, I have looked at book buying as an emergency, urgent and something I would never have regretted, not a bit, not an iota of sadness even if it meant foregoing many meals.
I devoured the book, of course, read it many times, and I told the absent author: "I will make one like it someday." I had a name for the characters of my novel: the Agtarap clan of the rich and poor, of the loyal to the land and the traitors of the land, of the noble and the not-so, of the Ilokano and Ilokanized.
In my professional life as a teacher, I would go back to that book each time, and I would look for a copy in the libraries where I would teach. No luck.
And then I found one at the University of the Philippine Main Library in Diliman. Did Manong Juan Hidalgo and Manang Namnama Hidalgo made it sure that posterity would have its share of the wisdom of the fathers whose images, like all the pillars of Ilokano thought and art, we younger generations have to slay so our generation and the next would have a chance to exist? I do not know who had that long-view of making it sure that I would lay my hands on this book forever.
When I began to take interest in migration studies, I remembered Tito Tugade's ouevre, a masterpiece of imagination and the power of word and place.
I insist here the power of imagining a place, having learned, from hindsight, that the novelist never had the chance to go to Anchorage and other sites in Alaska prior to the writing of the book. How did he do it, this creation and recreation of a realistic place, I do not know. But imagination is imagination anywhere one goes. We have to rely on its magic and its capacility to seduce and enchant.
I was always awed and amazed at how stories came to be when one has returned home to tell them. But the problem with Tugade is that he did not return, he had not yet returned--because he had not yet left in the first place!
When I was a kid, we had a relative who had that power to look at our palms and would tell us all the good fortune that we would want to hear from him.
I would imagine the places where he told me I would go: "Makaad-adayokanto--you will go places so far away." I would relate myself to Tugade's character, that Cortez without the courts who would explore the world through his guts--or because of his guts.
And then I would travel, in the spaces of my mind, believing in the palmist wisdom of my relative and in Tugade's idea of a wandering Ilokano. It would be years before I discover Carlos Bulosan but in the end, I would be able to put together the pieces of the immigrant puzzle even if only in literature.
Was that the same way Tito Tugade invented Alaska in his mind? Never mind that there were atlases and geography and history books to consult. They are not the same as the places, the real McCoy. But to totally make us believe that you know the place the way you know the back of your hand is something else. This is plain maya, magic, fantasy in its most beautiful form.
Then a conference abroad came, requiring me to read up again on the novel and draw from there the sorrows and blessings of exile. I had not known Tito Tugade then and in my desparation, I asked Manong Juan Hidalgo where this guy could be found.
Manong Johnny said, "Exactly where he is, I do not know. He has not linked up with us for many years, decades even. But he has relatives in Dingras and they told us he has gone to the United States for a long time."
I was back to square one, zilch, zero, nothing. I worked on his novel nevertheless, drawing from there rich lessons on alienation and estrangement that happens to all exiles.
And then one day, this novelist showed up at the Los Angeles International Airport, ever ready to be picked up for a quick meeting with me.
Good fortune comes when it comes.
Los Angeles, CA
August 4, 2006