For award-winning Filipino book author Rony V. Diaz, power is the “key to relationships with people,” and writing about it “can restructure a whole society.”
The former publisher of The Manila Times and three-time winner of the revered Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature focused on this theme for a collection of short stories he wrote in the updated edition of his book, Death in a Sawmill and Other Short Stories. The launch was held on April 26 at Solidaridad Bookstore in Padre Faura Street, Manila.
Death in a Sawmill is a short story itself within the collection, and meanwhile tackles envy with a tragic ending.
At the launch, Diaz recalled how he wrote the collection for the well-received Death in a Sawmill. Comprised of allegories, he revealed, “My aim was to write about the Philippines from the beginning—from the benevolent society of the Americans, to the end of [the term of former president]Cory [Aquino].”
The stories touch on such themes as landlord-tenant conflicts, historical violence (in particular the events after World War II), and perceptions of corruption in the government.
The first of the new short stories titled, “Old Men Are of Prophets” for example, talks about a man so “greedy for wealth and power” that he took the money of an underling.
When his son discovered the injustice, he tried to return the money only to be blocked by his father who said, “Those who are down must stay down.”
The story, he shared, was inspired by one of Alejandrino Hufana’s poems titled Poro Point, which begins with the line, “All men are of brass and iron.”
“I looked at the line’s meaning, and I discovered that although men are made of brass and iron, there are those who are above or beneath them, and these are what constitute society.”
Another short story talks about fictional plans for the homecoming of then First Lady Imelda Marcos from Persepolis, as told by an aide named Candy.
Returning to the Philippines Imelda wanted to show Filipinos the kind of grand procession she saw on her trip and asked Candy and her team to conceptualize the event.
But as the aides gathered to conceptualize the event, Candy told Imelda that there was no way they could match Persepolis’ grandeur, and instead suggested a plan to base the procession’s theme on Philippine mythology.
Hence, Candy used the myth of “Malakas at Maganda,” which pleased the First Lady as she and her husband were portrayed to be the strong and the beautiful.
Imelda liked the said concept, therefore Candy thought – as Diaz imagined – that her approval would be “her pass to wealth and fortune.”
Also included in this collection is entitled “A Hidden Life,” which was set during the Second World War. This is a story of a wealthy man who deflowered his niece, and throughout his life, was able to keep the disgusting secret from his family and associates. Nearing death, he asked to be cremated and his ashes spread over the lakeside where the unspeakable incident took place.
Diaz is currently finishing another novel set in the island of Mindoro, particularly tackling the “despoliation of forests, disappearance of tamaraws, and enslavement of Mangyans.”
Admired in the Philippine literary scene, Diaz shared that he writes his short stories as an application of what he learned from attending writing workshops at his alma mater, the University of the Philippines-Diliman, and from the essays of the famous American writer TS Eliot.
He specifically cited the workshops conducted by literary luminaries NVM Gonzales and Franz Arcellana during his undergraduate years, where he learned the concept of point-of-view, or the perspective from which a writer narrates his story.
This application is most evident in Diaz’ previous book Canticles for Three Women, where he also presents the theme of power in the Philippine setting, through the points of view of the lead characters Clara, Candida and Pacita. He does so without describing the women, but merely through the way they act in situations throughout the story.
As The Sunday Times Magazine’s literary editor Elmer Ordoñez related, Canticles for
Three Women focuses on the Montt family, “particularly the three women who figure after the death of the patriarch and are left to deal with peasant rebels, cult armed groups, corrupt officials, bankers, compradors, the oligarchs living in guarded villages like Dasmarinas and Forbes Park, and agents of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).”
Meanwhile, it is from TS Eliot’s essays that he learned the formula of the “objective correlative.”
“It is a formula that captures and emotion or a feeling,” said the author of the literary term defined by Wikipedia as “referring to a symbolic article used to provide explicit, rather than implicit, access to such traditionally inexplicable concepts as emotion or color.”
“When you talk about objective correlative, you are talking about a series of events, a situation, a concept, and so on that you can be keen to talk about,” Diaz added.
Besides enjoying his new works, his audience during the launch appreciated Diaz’ openness about his writing style, among them National Artists for Literature F. Sionil Jose and Bienvenido Lumbera; Ordoñez; and The Manila Times president and chief executive officer Dante Ang 2nd.
Meanwhile, Lumbera, who provided the introduction to Death in a Sawmill, said that the themes Diaz discussed in the book are “pure abstractions,” so people, especially the youth, can “keep talking about them.”
“Ang importante ay nadadagdagan ang ideya ng mga kabataan tungkol sa relasyon ng mga tao, institusyon, ng komunidad,” he added.
He stressed the importance of frequent and meaningful discussions among the youth for such ideas to flourish. “Through discussions, ‘yung original ideas ng kabataan ay babago, lalago,” he concluded.