Finding courage through Lualhati Bautista’s woke, willful women
MANILA, Philippines — A video running on a loop during her wake last week showed award-winning writer Lualhati Bautista in various stages of her interesting life — the wide-eyed child sitting primly, the young woman poised and coiffed, the impish senior dancing, Gangnam style.
She had chosen the pictures herself specifically for her wake, Daya said of her mother, who was buried on Friday at Holy Cross Memorial Park in Novaliches, Quezon City. Here apparently was a woman who, even in her last moments, wanted full control of her life — just like her willful female characters.
It was Nanay, Lualhati’s No. 1 fan, who introduced her to me via Liwayway Magazine in the early 1960s. Immediately, she stood out from other notable Tagalog writers of the time for her forthright and earthy language, the refreshingly frank dialogues of her women characters, and her deep insight into their daily dilemmas that would eventually be acknowledged as the Woman Question in the nascent feminist movement of the early ’80s.
A farmer’s daughter prone to salty language, Nanay must have felt validated by Lualhati’s conversational use of Tagalog that was so different from the flowery and archaic turns of phrase so popular in the day.
To her delight, Lualhati wrote of mothers obsessed with their daughters’ intact hymen who would throw out a crisp “buntis ka?!” (You’re pregnant?!) instead of the ridiculous “nagdadalang-tao” (bearing a child) euphemism that writers of that era inflicted on readers.
Many years later, at an erotic poetry festival, Lualhati earned roaring approval from her audience when she titled her piece, “Dyugdyugan.”
A similar event, this time on love-themed poetry, had her piece opening boldly with: “Tatapatin kita, wala akong suso!” (I’ll be upfront with you. I don’t have jugs.)
The raunchy line addressed to a new lover was greeted with hooting laughter. Even then, the writer was on her way to becoming the slightly revised version of that song: “Madamdamin pero medyo bastos” (Sensitive but quite naughty).
Her readers lapped up her outspoken prose, maybe because in those tightly controlled days of martial law, Lualhati’s feisty characters articulated what many could not say out loud.
Imelda might have hidden Manila’s urban blight behind whitewashed fences for Unctad (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) delegates in the ’70s, but the writer effortlessly exposed them in her Palanca-winning novels.
Lualhati dove headlong into topics that colleagues in the commercial film circuit would rather kick out of sight, deeming them too complicated or even insignificant.
Would moviegoers be able to relate to a single mother coping with the demands of a hungry household, or a conflicted parent grappling with her son’s newfound activism?
The writer thought so, and so did those who made “Bata, Bata, Paano Ka Ginawa?” (How Were You Made, Kid?) and “Dekada ’70” (The 1970s)—both the novels and the movies — among her most popular works.
Life imitating art
Martial law figures prominently in her work, maybe because her former husband was once detained and tortured by state agents.
While stories about the era’s brutality were heavily censored in mainstream media, Lualhati spoke of one that struck her most. It was the massacre of a whole family in the Visayas by soldiers who had sprayed their hut with Armalite bullets.
Neighbors later found a sole survivor, the little girl Marela, who was shielded by her mother’s body.
Lualhati later named her youngest, Joy Marela. Was it to honor that little girl and the memory of her mother’s love and sacrifice?
“Desaparecido,” meanwhile, tells of an underground militant on the run from state forces who was forced to hand over her baby to a fellow activist, only to find years later that her friend would refuse to give her daughter back. The novel about a friend’s betrayal would turn out to be life imitating art for the author, when a writer-friend and a director appropriated the story in their movie, saying many activists have had a similar experience, after all.
In my 2008 interview, Lualhati explained why the incident hurt her so bad.
“The circumstances hit close to home,” the writer confided. “I had very little political consciousness when I got married … but my husband was an activist. I would not say that I joined the [underground Left], only that I joined my husband. It was his life, not mine. But I could not live his life without losing mine in the process.”
It wasn’t an easy leave-taking, she recalled. “Before I left, the other people in the movement offered to take care of my son. Of course, I said no. What if something happened to them? Where and how do I start looking for my son? … I think, in a way, as early as 1973, I was already sowing the seeds for this novel.”
I don’t recall exactly when and how I met Lualhati, only that we instantly bonded because we both grew up in the grimy streets of Tondo, and relished mocking the gangsta moves of the men in that much feared district.
Ironically, her father was the opposite of toxic masculinity, and she wrote of him lovingly, tenderly, in “Sonata.”
The sometime real estate agent, musician, and photographer helped out with the chores and had no vices, except for betting on horses, Lualhati said.
She added: “When I was very young, my father had this telescope and, together, we would peek at the stars. One time I asked him, how can I go visit those stars? And he said, someday I’m going to build a ladder that you can climb all the way to the stars. I asked, and what about you, are you coming with me? And he said no, I’m staying down here to catch you should you fall.”
Was it him she remembered when she spent the better part of the night comforting me at my father’s wake? Death is inevitable, she said as she regaled me with stories about this inescapable fate, the circumstances of which have already been decided in some Council of Eternals, and would merely be played out in a predetermined time.
What I remember most was the story of this young man walking on a sidewalk along a busy street. At some juncture, a huge puddle on the sidewalk made him step down on the street to avoid it.
“At that crucial moment when his feet touched the asphalt, a car careening out of control came straight at him and plowed him down!” Lualhati recounted. It’s a horrible scenario that still haunts me when I walk on streets with little or no access to sidewalks.
Mentioned in a story
At the end of her colorful storytelling, Lualhati stood up to go but not before beckoning me to come closer. I thought she was going to hug me, this normally undemonstrative friend, but she took my hand and pressed a P100 bill in it.
It was a princely sum more than 30 years ago, when she still lived in a small apartment off Tayuman Street in Tondo. But then her limited means had never stopped her from being generous —with her money, her time, her attention.
Once, when we left my office at Jingle Magazine which first published her novel “Dekada” before it became a book, she suggested we take something at a nearby Aristocrat restaurant. As I fished out my wallet, she put out a hand, saying she’d already paid for our meals. Had I known, I would have ordered a lot, I said. “Hahaha, topo-topo barega!” she replied.
I had to ask Nanay what it meant. “Walang bawian” (No going back), she said, feeling thrilled when she learned it was Lualhati who had uttered those words.
“Who knows? She just might write you in one of her stories,” she said. Hah, in my dreams, I thought.
Years later, a friend called to say that my now-famous friend had mentioned me — by name! — in her latest work then: “In Sisterhood, Lea at Lualhati.”
Nanay would have been jealous. But oh, such stories Lualhati would have been telling her now!
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(Editor’s Note: An earlier, longer version of this piece appeared on the author’s Facebook page.)