Books: Typhoon Yolanda and the Art of Call-and-Response

June 26, 2014

 

Typhoon Yolanda (international
codename “Haiyan”) barreled through the Visayan Islands, the mid-section of the
Philippines, on November 8, 2013. Media outlets declared it one of the strongest
tropical cyclones in history. Yolanda wreaked havoc on the country’s
telecommunications, agriculture, and transportation infrastructure, delaying
recovery and relief operations. Entire provinces and cities in Samar and Leyte
were massively destroyed and flattened. Over 6,300 people in the central
Philippines were killed, and more than 16 million were affected and 4.1 million
displaced. International relief continues to pour into disaster areas while local
governments have mismanaged relief efforts through corruption and embezzlement.
Today, nearly 1,600 are still missing.

I watched,
like the rest of the Filipino diaspora, from afar. After the winds fell and black
body bags began crowding the streets of Tacloban, I felt the rage, the anger,
the loss. As my television screen replayed the destruction left in Yolanda’s
wake, I could feel what those at ground zero felt: grief, hopelessness, and the
need to continue on. But within these moments of tragedy, many writers and
artists gathered online and encapsulated their shifting emotions in art. We
grieved together on blogs, via email, and on Facebook. We searched for our
loved ones through Facebook status updates and Google Person Finder. When Juan
Felipe Herrera, the Poet Laureate of California, and poet Vince Gotera sent out
a call for poems of uplift and healing on the Facebook group, “Hawak Kamay:
Poems for the Philippines After Haiyan,” the group epitomized the power of the
Filipino collective psyche: kapwa
(togetherness), kagandahang-loob
(shared humanity), and pakiramdam
(shared inner perceptions). This great tragedy tied the community together—and
in turn, our art shifted into a call-and-response against tragedy.

Two anthologies were born: Outpouring: Typhoon Yolanda Relief Anthology
(Flipside Publishing, 2014), edited by Dean Francis Alfar, and Verses Typhoon Yolanda: A Storm of Filipino
Poets
(Meritage Press, 2014), edited by Eileen Tabios. (Full disclosure: I
am one of the contributors to Verses,
as is Hyphen Editor-in-Chief Abigail
Licad; Hyphen books editor Karissa
Chen is a contributor to Outpouring.) In a communicative act of healing, both
publications are donating their proceeds to the Philippine Red Cross for relief
efforts. Verses and Outpouring have become examples of the
community uniting during tragedy and through the strength of literature.

Verses: What are poets for?

Verses
contains the work of 133 poets from the Philippines and the Filipino diaspora.
It begins with an introduction from Leny Mendoza Strobel, who asks the question,
“What are poets for? … [This is] a question that is even more relevant in the
face of Yolanda’s aftermath.” Her answer is this: poetry is healing. Language
invites us to “Stay. Read. Be Here. Feel.”

The book divides the poems into two
sections. The first is ordered in a sweeping and compelling narrative arc. The
beginning lays bare the immediacy of Yolanda and its wake of destruction,
embodying the idea of kapwa, of a
cultural identity steeped in shared humanity. It then exposes the manmade
climate change that birthed this monstrous typhoon. Many poems connect us to
those who weathered the storm, like Janice Sapigao’s poem, “An Invocation after
Haiyan in News Reports”:

For the
one who told her mother to let her go

For the baby who was born without her country’s infrastructure

For the interviews and news reports and prayers

For those occupying towns treated as coastlines

For the woman who gave birth in the airport control tower

For the military practicing peace

For the man wailing for his wife who won’t wake up

For the diaspora that awaits electricity and contact

For the camera people on the ground

And the photojournalists who uploaded

For the neighbors becoming families

Searching through impaling tree limbs

For the poets who write to mobilize

Sapigao’s use of found language and rearranging new reports
creates a rhythmic chorus that becomes a surge of collectiveness and oneness.
It’s a powerful technique that Cynthia Buiza also uses in her poem, “Aftermath,”
which she ends with the question, “Is it possible to ration your sorrow?” We
are forced, as readers, to struggle with this impossibility along with the
destruction of Yolanda’s wake and her beginning. The poems ask and reveal what
caused a storm of such magnitude, like Luis H. Francia’s “Green Elegy”:

Men endure the world both tropical
and bipolar.
Water, true ruler of our lives,
awaits coronation by the public
that still sings paeans to oil.
 
O dig for gouts of earth’s dark
blood!
O dig the very ground on which we
stand!
O dig, dig, until we die!”

More and more meteorological
events
are becoming increasingly severe due to the effects of climate
change, and Francia shows this devastation through ravaged landscapes and imagery.
As the first section ends, the collected poems work as an anti-pastoral
sentiment toward a world decimated by corrupt industrialization and global
warming.

The second section is called, “A Coda
from Filipin@-American Students.” It is composed of poems written by the Pilipino
Culture Night class at the Kababayan Learning Community, which is affiliated
with Skyline College in San Bruno, California. These poems resemble hope. This
section appropriately closes the anthology with an eye toward future
generations, and yet, though their words are hopeful, its poems still capture
the devastation and tragedy. Natassja Mullen writes:

Little
bird, little bird, how can you fly?

Your wings they are broken, how do you take to the sky

Little bird, little bird, how do you soar?

When nothing but destruction lines along the shore

Little bird, little bird, keep your head high.

Flutter your wings; keep your head towards the sky.

Little bird, little bird, rest your weary

soul.

In its essence, this anthology uplifts a chorus, an elegy, a
lament, and call to Yolanda. It mirrors our community’s will to begin again, to
understand, to know, to reclaim what was lost and what lives on.

Outpouring: Trauma within and outside the diaspora

Outpouring acts as a very different
anthology and yet accomplishes the same embodiment of strength as Verses. The book is composed of 40 short
stories written by 40 diverse writers who also come from the Philippines and the
diaspora. Its collection is extensively inclusive, as the 40 stories do not all
connect to Yolanda, and most of the book’s contents do not associate with the
typhoon. Alfar notes the diversity of the anthology’s stories in his
Introduction and decides to curate the anthology based on charity. However, Alfar
edits the stories with an eye toward human tragedy, whether the story’s
subject matter is the loss of a son to mythical, word-eating creatures; a
woman’s racial awakening in East Coast, white suburbia; or a divorcée losing
her cheating, ex-husband to cancer during Hurricane Sandy. Although the
anthology’s story order lacks a narrative arc, what centers it is the emotional
gravity of characters that grab the gut and the heart. The subject matter goes beyond
encompassing the tragedy of Yolanda and instead mirrors the universal tragedy
of living in a postmodern, fractured world—which includes the devastation of
typhoons and the loss of loved ones.

The book begins with Rochita
Loenen-Ruiz’s world-shifting short story, “The Wordeaters.” What strikes the
reader is the world Loenen-Ruiz creates in the very first sentence: “She began
chewing on the words he left out on the sofa at night. They were little words
he’d written on a napkin, and they tasted of beer and peanuts and the salt of
his sweat.” The magic of eating words and the image of ghastly, earth-walking
Wordeaters intensifies the loss of the protagonist’s child. The story’s
fabulist nature examines tragedy within the realms of language and family life,
and it harkens to Yolanda by reminding us that there is value in “telling your
stories.”

One story that embodies the
importance and vulnerability of confessional truth and witnessing is Laura
McPhee-Browne’s “Ondoy.” Here, we meet an unnamed narrator speaking to her
beloved, who is sick with a virus contracted from the flood water outside. Typhoon
Ondoy, another monstrous storm that surged through the Philippines in 2009, rages
outside. The narrator paints a devastated Manila submerged in water: the
flooded Adriatico Street and Remedios Circle, an empty karaoke bar with
lingering music, and the “still bright 7-Eleven” where the two lovers swim
through muddy waters in search of food. The brief, staccato paragraphs and quiet but
powerfully poetic language reflect the narrator’s fractured self and her
class—she is able to take her lover to the hospital and obtain much-needed
antibiotics for his sickness while countless other storm victims wait in long
lines and receive no medical help. Her awareness is succinct and filled with
complexity as she paints the disarrayed hospital scene: “We walk back out
through the corridors past people waiting and I find I am holding my
breath—some of those waiting look so sick and I am thinking of myself and my
health. There are some children playing and adults talking and many are
laughing. I let this laughing fill me, for surely those who laugh cannot be so
sad.” The narrator knows the storm victims have lost much, while she and her
lover have lost minimally. But their laughter lingers with her, breaks what she
knows of this submerged city in water.

“Ondoy” contrasts sharply with the collection’s
last story, “Tuba Knight,” by Cesar Miguel G. Escaño. This story was the most
difficult to read. Dedicated to Escaño’s parents-in-law, who were swept away in
Yolanda’s storm surge, its emotive truth breaks the clear, precise, and lyrical
language of the narrative. What stayed with me most was the final image: “As
Tito and Beth looked up, their feet left the ground. The last to vanish were
the smiles on their faces.” This powerful image aptly closes the anthology. It
is a subtle closing, a quiet way to quell the loss of two beloved community
leaders. It metaphorically represents the resiliency many Filipinos displayed when
they faced Yolanda and the poor relief operations that followed. The
image’s emotion is lasting—it reminds us to continue on even during times of
loss.

They call us resilient

To end, I want to share this video, “Philippines
after Typhoon Haiyan” by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It
shows the wreckage of Tacloban against the song, “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams.
Filipinos dance among the mounds of trash, broken buildings, and crashed cars.
I invite you to watch this video and try to understand the strength of the
Filipino body: it is not found in the word “resilient,” nor can it be found in the
word “strength.” The power and emotional truth it holds is one that gravitates
around the fabric of kapwa, of kagandahang-loob, of pakiramdam. Try and digest these words
together—kapwa, kagandahang-loob, pakiramdam—and
imagine what they would taste like. Fixate on the texture, the range of salt,
the level of sweetness, the fluidity of bitterness, the depth of will to
continue on. For in the end, these two anthologies are just that:
manifestations of the community’s psychic and collective power to live, exist,
and dance even in ruins, in anger, in song. I was overtaken by the poems’ and
stories’ direct connection to inner strength, a kind of strength shrouded by
darkness and without light. But this strength became the collected voices found
in these two books. They became a surge of shared memory and consciousness. As
vestiges of our gathered voices, these two anthologies reveal the healing power
of the call-and-response against tragedy, grief, and one of the strongest
typhoons the world has seen.

 

***

Melissa R. Sipin is a writer from Carson, California. In 2013, she won First Place in the March Glimmer Train Fiction Open and Honorable Mention in the September Glimmer Train Fiction Open. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Glimmer Train StoriesPANK MagazineFjords Review, Quiet Lightning’s sPARKLE+bLINK580 SplitLantern Review, and Kweli Journal, among others. Cofounder of TAYO Literary Magazine, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012 and 2013. As a Kundiman Fiction Fellow, VONA/Voices Fellow, and U.S. Navy wife, she blogs at www.msipin.com and splits her time writing on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. She is currently working on a novel.

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