BOOK REVIEW: For their stories are also ours

TITLE: O Susana! Untold Stories of Martial Law in Davao
AUTHOR: 34 authors, edited by Macario D. Tiu
Book design by Shaun Bonje
Artwork by Nonoy Rodriguez
Published by the Ateneo de Davao University Publication Office

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/20 Feb) — I must start this review with a confession.  I was not able to finish reading this seminal book. The galley proof was handed to me just last weekend amidst our year-end assessment and planning session in the office and while holding the fort in the household and doting on my three daughters.

But I have read enough articles to offer a few thoughts, some feelings with perhaps a few insights to boot. Thus, forgive me if I will mostly propose a general impression and skip citing details — save for a few.

15book_webTo paraphrase a famous line in a movie: O Susana! Untold Stories of Martial Law in Davao “had me” in the title alone.  It immediately conjured in my mind that ubiquitous building in Acacia that housed the crème de la crème of development workers of that era; that sheltered the elders and mentors of our time (of course my eldest Sister Agnes, Goodfriend, Brother, Ninong Karl and one of my mentors whom I considered an elder brother cum second father: Freddy Salanga. (If he was still alive today, he would have made a robust—pun intended– contribution to this book). Thinking of Susana would also take you back to that space and time when we were bolder, more daring, creative, braver, assertive and loving. Indeed we throbbed with commitment, selflessness, passion and compassion. Martial Law after all brought out also the best of us even as it was the worst of times.

After reading Mac Tiu’s Introduction, I was smitten. And the first articles that I perused: the entire “In the Beginning” section, quickly hooked me like a salivating mutt as memories of those heydays rushed back to flood my mind and heart.  I could no longer put the copy down even as I struggled to keep my tired eyes open — while my daughters were watching “On the Wings of Love” in the room with me —as the stories I was reading accompanied me back to that terrific period when most of us in the thick of struggle against a brutal and unjust regime felt a common bond of both dread and courage. Of course, I must posit that most of us felt the latter.

The stories of O Susana! are not just stories of the authors themselves. They are not just about a unique chapter in their respective and collective lives. They are also, if not, mainly the stories of our beloved people, of individuals — who were — as the great poet Eman Lacaba called: the “faceless, nameless, voiceless” masses- women, laity, indigenous leaders, priests, nuns, activists, development workers, peasants, workers, urban poor and the occasional transformed middle-class bleeding heart. All of them heroes in my book.

The stories easily grab you as they are written from a first-person account. One can feel the gut, the emotions, the pulsating of life and in a lot of instances—the electrifying brush with death. Be it in a safehouse while being interrogated, in front of a motley band of paramilitary CHDF’s (Civilian Home Defense Force) or in the vortex of two-story high waves about to engulf a puny banca one was riding.

I feel humbled reading these inspiring written pieces of the storytellers a lot of whom I’ve been honored to know personally. I cannot name each one of you, but you all know who you are. Reading O Susana! affirms my belief that anybody can write, and write beautifully– be it penned in one’s own dialect or a foreign language that we have colonized ourselves. This is especially true if the story is about one’s own experience. So reading story after story after story, I was at the same time mesmerized, engaged, empathizing, nodding my head, feeling my heart flutter, my innards growling or about to shed a tear or two.

Reading O Susana! – even if I have not finished it yet– is a journey of learning and discovery. It is also like taking a veritable his/herstory lesson. Indeed, it chronicles that dark chapter of Martial Law while it also pays tribute to the quiet martyrs who have gone before us like those who perished in the MV Cassandra to leave us with the possibility of a brighter tomorrow

Then there are bits of new information that suddenly jumps at or grabs you.

For example, now I know who was responsible for the turning point of good friend and my cohort in setting up Kulturang Atin Foundation (KAFI) Jeje Honculada’s life from being a careered stable agriculturist to a full-time creative dramatics artist. It was no other than my “ex-future lover” Machucha (Malou Tiangco)!

Then there are other snippets that awed me. Like how one can belong to the Christians for National Liberation but also remained steadfast to not becoming a Communist Party member. How someone who is a prominent businessman and personality in the city sheltered underground activists. How a capitalist entity inside the Susana became the hub of the activists working in the other offices within the building, where perhaps some revolutionary strategies, tactics and plans could have been ironically hatched.

But I cannot end this incomplete review without saying something about my sister Pet. Sa walay pa dapig dapig, reading her two stories made me realize that there are some fundamental things about her that I never knew about. Knowing the genesis of her passion for the Lumad, the probable reason for her perennial panuhot, how she almost lost her life in a turbulent black sea in Sarangani, how she could expertly mount a vehicle’s tire to clamber into a truck or bus and how she weaved her life-story in a poignant letter to her two sons — somehow makes me rediscover her.

And knowing that now sort of goes beyond completeness. And if only for that, the writing, nay, the birthing of O Susana! Untold Stories of Martial Law in Davao “completes us”. For their stories are also ours. We are all Susanistas after all.

I cannot wait to resume reading and finishing the book and unearth and discover new stories, new lessons and afterwards perchance to also rediscover myself. (Gus Miclat is Executive Director of the Initiatives for International Dialogue, read this piece at the launching of O Susana! Untold Stories of Martial Law in Davao on February 19).