I remember that when I came to the United States to try my luck here, one of my sisters told me quite frankly: "You be ready to take in lots of pains. The sacrifices are in every nook. They are in each corner of the road you take."
I looked at her. I wanted to figure out if in this land that promises so much, we have to go through the pains of the sakadas. Or the likes of one character invented by a novelist, the character eking it out in the cannaries of Anchorage: Alvaro Cortez.
I was in Hawai`i at that time, passing by her home, on my way to Los Angeles where there I was to take the licensure examination, or the first of the many steps, to getting my teaching credentials so I could teach English in the United States.
It was fair enough that I got the warning, a kind of a reminder, from a sister who has been here for more than half of her life and who has seen what it takes to make it here, with all the emotional investments and entanglements involved.
In all these, the stories of exiles, migrants, and Filipinos in the diaspora came back to me in unhealthy profusion, as if warning me as well that the roads are not paved in the paved freeways of this huge land, the humungous roads ever-ready to swallow you up anytime.
I have read enough of the sakadas.
I have read enough of Bulosan, the Filipino farmers of Stockton, the cannery workers of Alaska, this last one introduced to me by a young novelist in the 70s when I was just a boy, past innocence but not with the child-like and peculiar love for any reading materials that I could lay my hands on.
I wanted to keep on reading and I remember that when I was in the grades, my textbooks would be my best friends, and in two weeks after getting them I would have devoured my books and would, by the third week, start to get bored with the rules of English grammar and sentence diagramming. Whoa, I would go to the library each day and there, I would be lost among the books donated by people from the United States, the hard cover ones, far more elegant than the mass-produced and visually inferior ones published in the home country.
It was in these wanderings that I stumbled on many of the writers I now call friends, an honor and a privilege.
One is Teresito Gabriel Tugade, who, even when a young novelist, wrote his name as T. Gabriel Tugade, the T with the period inviting some attention for a child like me but a child nonetheless who asked questions even if I did not get answers. Or I did not know where to get them. Since no one I could ask knew what that T was since in all the other writings that I would find, the T remained some kind a "Da Vinci Code-like" Templar symbol of the lost and those about to be lost--or those exiled who want more of it, this sense of exile, and the kind of tragic sense of the non-sense that goes with it.
I bumped into his book, the Puraw a Balitok, the first book that I bought out of my savings.
I am not quite sure anymore but I could have earned the book money from a prize I got when I won a poetry writing contest, my piece I had the opportunity to read on radio and heard by many Ilokanos. It was a my first poetry award, the price could have been P50 in those times, enough to last me for a week of good living in the small city where I came from, the city when the governor's capitol was still the dingy and dirty and filthy place surrounded by equally dingy and dirty and filthy sari-sari stores connected to each other by rusty nails and the will of their owners to survive.
All of these formed the background of my personal introduction to Tito Tugade whom I now call a friend. I looked for him long time ago but he hid from my view, having successfully hid from the view of every Ilokano writer for decades.
When I was in Los Angeles, I got a call from him, as if the call came from a place unknown and unfamiliar.
I knew him--this Tito Tugade-- from this relationship of absence, he as a novelist you cannot learn to hate because you like his imagination going wild. Like your very own wild imagination going wilder and wildest.
In the ensuing years that brought me back to graduate school and then to Ilokano writing, he remained absent.
But it is in that relationship of absence that I got to know him more and more, a kind of knowing generated by a reader who does not know the author--or a reader who has killed the author, metaphorically at that, in order for that author to come alive in the imagination, alive and kicking, and telling to the reader all those lies about the Alaska life of that Alvaro Cortez character in that novel about Alaska and all those cannery workers.
I did not know that the whole narrative exercise was all of an invention by an eager-beaver kind of a writer who was able to make you believe that the locale is something he knew so well.
I was jolted by the knowledge--a revelation from him and more from Loring Tabin and Sinamar Tabin--that this Tito Tugade who successfully fooled us about the Alaska locale had never been--NEVER BEEN--outside of the Sampaloc apartment where he imagined the place where the wandering character Alvaro Cortez went about looking for the gasat--the wonderful fortune and good luck--to come about.
The powerful transplantation of the Sampaloc locale of the writing of the novel to some places in Anchorage is an impossible feat. But the novel made it possible. And believable, which makes it a double feat. He has asked me to translate the novel to English and I took the challenge. Now is my time to get even.
You could not believe our first exchange, his call and my obligatory answer.
I have not met him, I have not talked to him before. The shock registered well to me and my voice cracked, not knowing how to handle this novelist on the other end of the line, some kind of a guy you knew from that novel but you realized you did not know him at all. If his call were an announcement that I had won the California lottery, I could have collected my winning really quick and packed my bag and go back to Marikina where there, life is definitely sweeter, simpler, more sustaining.
I told him: Hey, you came back from the abyss.
No, more than, he said.
The banter was just like that, as if we had known each other for ages even if the age gap is, well, a real age gap because, one, he was already a novelist when I have yet to create in my heart that illusion that I could write a novel's title perhaps better than Puraw a Balitok, and two, he is two writing generations away and had also claimed, in banter, that he knew Bulosan because they worked together in the farms of Fresno in California. That you cannot believe, of course, if you know your literary history well. And he did not know that I knew my literary history enough not to be fooled by him the second time around.
While listening to him, I was imagining his wandering Ilokano of a character in his novel. I liked the story of that character, this Alvaro Cortez, with the extraordinary gift to endure and persevere, and defining that, yes, yes, Ilokanohood, and Filipinohood for that matter, is a matter of the heart and soul eventually, not one of place, a territory, or a damn, damned, or damning country like the one we have got back home.
Since then, Tito Tugade has not stopped inspiring. Together with Manong Loring Tabin, Manang Sinamar Tabin, and other stalwarts of Ilokano writing, many of them the 'pagtamdan--the models', they have urged me on, egging me some more to keep on with the felicities and faith that creative writing demands.
So each day, I have to write, anything, even if writing stands in the way of partaking a good meal. For me, writing is life itself, like breathing, coming off as naturally as you inhale and exhale and in many ways, there is not much thinking involved especially when the issues are close to your heart.
I asked Tito Tugade to come and join us up in the Nakem Conference. For months and months on end he said, simply, in a non-committal way: Kitaentanto--we will see. Even the language, you realize, means simply No, if one were smarter. I broached this idea of him joing the Nakem Conference late last year and it was only about a week or so ago that he saw the importance of his joining us up so that finally, he stopped saying "kitaentanto" but now says, I am coming.
So we will have him in the Nakem Conference and I asked him to speak about "The Making of Puraw a Balitok." He said, yes, he will do it.
But then, I had his name listed in the conference website as Teresito Gabriel Tugade and right the following day, he called me up from San Francisco to tell me that he did not like the Teresito in his name but simply the letter T.
Ha, I had to beg the website administrator to go fix it fast; it is not a good prospect if he backs out.
So we are back to T. Gabriel Tugade of the "Puraw a Balitok" fame, the name without the Teresito.
He will surely hate me for blogging this.
But this will be a part of a T. Gabriel Tugade biography and I stand by my story. I swear.
Now I see, the sister is right. It is not easy going around in America's unpaved roads. You have to earn you life here or the means to pursue and catch the American dream. Like T. Gabriel Tugade who came back from the abyss of non-writing to, now, writing again. Or at least, inspiring us to write, we who have just come here to his own adoptive land, we FOP--fresh-off-the-plane--kind of immigrants waiting for our little joys, or big joys if we are lucky enough.
Ah, what little joys, what big joys to come full circle with this exilic life.
A Solver Agcaoili
U of Hawai`i at Manoa