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Arlene J Chai’s Eating Fire And Drinking Water: The Identity Search In Historical Context
“There is sense… a plan behind everything that happens.”
(Eating Fire and Drinking Water, 1996)
In life, more often than not, we need to make hard choices, to consider people around us for our actions, who are either directly or indirectly connected to us, to shape the kind of world we want to live in, or aptly put, a world we want our children to inherit, and figuratively, be dreamers of a just and humane place where internal and external happiness exist, where people are in close companionship with what they regard as essential and where reverence to the Divine being is evident. Until such time that we feel complete and satisfied in our internal and external quests can we simply relax and anticipate the coming event/s to unfold.
The fundamental premise of finding the essence of one’s existence has been attributed to Plato more than 2,000 years ago and to date, the multitudinous battle cry of situating oneself in the world of varied essences is too loud a cry that it has found its niche in all disciplines and in all respects of life.
From this stance, the student critic anchors her analysis of Arlene Chai’s contemporary historical novel Eating Fire and Drinking Water. In simpler sense, the moral-philosophical underpinnings of the novel vis-à-vis its socio-historical context are given consideration. To underscore the backdrop of the novel, the student-critic uses the highlights of the paper of Alfred McCoy (1999) with his objective presentation of the Filipino’s traumatic experience under the Marcos regime.
II. The Novelist
Chai is a Filipino-Chinese-Australian, who migrated to Australia with her parents and sisters in 1982 because of the political upheaval. She became an advertising copywriter at George Patterson’s Advertising Agency in 1972 and has been working there since. It is there that she met her mentor Bryce Courtney, who continuously inspires her to improve her work. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Maryknoll College. She is famous for her ability to weave the political struggle of the Philippines so well into her fiction, so much that she is often compared with Isabel Allende, a successful magical realist Chilean novelist. She won the Louis Braille Adult Audio Book of the year for her novel “On the Goddess Rock” in 1999. Her first novel, The Last Time I saw Mother (published in the US and the UK) is an Australian bestseller. Although she has produced four novels since 1995, all of them exploring complex and often bittersweet relationships between generations of families and individuals, it is Eating Fire and Drinking Water, her second book that is most absorbing if not thought provoking.
III. The Novel’s Socio-Historical Context and Background
Arlene Chai’s “historicity” in this novel, although not comparable to Tolstoy (in Russia and the world over) in magnitude, scope and breadth maybe dissected in its chronicle of the political turmoil and upheaval in the Philippine political arena while embarking in a larger and better sense of search for man’s existence and its appurtenances, not putting aside its aesthetics and the diverse impact of arts in its entirety to humanity.
The text of Eating Fire and Drinking Water is divided into a prologue and four parts – the first being an appetizer, a teaser and the others the thematic narrative of “… the breezy, breathless saga of revolution and self-discovery.” (The New York Times)
The novel is set against the backdrop of the remarkable Marcos regime specifically the last years of the 1960s and the first two years of the 1970s when the Philippines witnessed the radicalization if not socio-political awakening of the country’s student populace. Students in various colleges and universities held wide and massive rallies and demonstrations to express their grievances on top of frustrations and resentments. On January 30, 1970, demonstrators numbering about 50,000 students and laborers stormed the Malacañan Palace, burning part of the medical building and crashing through Gate 4 with a fire truck that had been forcibly commandeered by laborers and students. The Metropolitan Command (Metrocom) of the Philippine Constabulary (PC) repulsed them, pushing them toward Mendiola Bridge, where, hours later, after an exchange of gunfire, four persons were killed and scores from both sides injured. Tear gas grenades finally dispersed the crowd. The event is known today as the First Quarter Storm.
Violent student protests did not end there. In October 1970, a series of violent events occurred on numerous campuses in the Greater Manila Area, cited as “an explosion of pillboxes in at least two schools.” The University of the Philippines was not spared when 18,000 students boycotted their classes to demand academic and non-academic reforms in the State University, ending in the ‘occupation’ of the office of the president of the university by student leaders. Other schools in which scenes of violent student demonstrations occurred were San Sebastian College, the University of the East, Letran College, Mapua Institute of Technology, the University of Santo Tomas, Far Eastern University and the Philippine College of Commerce (now Polytechnic University of the Philippines). Student demonstrators even succeeded in “occupying the office of the Secretary of Justice Vicente Abad Santos for at least seven hours.” The president (El Presidente Marcos) described the brief “communization” of the University of the Philippines and the violent demonstrations of the left-leaning students as an “act of insurrection.” (wikipidia.org)
Also recurrent in the novel is the lifestyle and inclination to arts of prominent personages both in the upper and lower rungs of society. Even the controversial and highly politicized wedding events concerning the Marcos children are given graphic presentation. During the Marcos regime, glamorous first lady Imelda Marcos had a vision to make the Philippines a hub of latest fashion, sophisticated art, and refined culture. She realized this vision through various million-dollar infrastructure projects. Such projects included the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which was meant to promote and preserve Filipino art and culture. It was established in 1966 and was designed by Leandro Locsin, a Filipino architect (who appreciated the use of concrete, as is evident in the facade of the main building.) On its opening day in 1969, there was a three-month celebration with a musical and other series of events. It was such a grandiose occasion that even Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Reagan were in attendance.
The Cultural Center of the Philippines was created in 1966 through Executive Order no. 30. It was formally inaugurated on September 8, 1969, starting a three month long inaugural festival opened by the epic musical ‘Dularawan’. In the novel, the controversy that haunts the construction of this historical infrastructure finds its place amidst the twisting of actualities and the rendering of deliberate artistic manipulation while also down siding its direct and indirect relation to prominent figures in social and political arenas.
IV. The Novel’s Analysis
“I sought to find a pattern, a deeper purpose, for, at the time, the events I am about to recount seemed random and arbitrary. The reporter in me, you see, insists there is order in the universe. And my own life attests to this. Besides, to deny the existence or order means to believe in a world of permanent chaos. And I find such a concept unacceptable.”
(Eating Fire and Drinking Water, 1996)
Exemplifying a style that extrapolates a different sense of fatalism, a rare kind of raw spirituality, and an elevated sense of paradox embedded in life’s mysticism, Arlene J. Chai’s Eating Fire and Drinking Water is a case in point.
The novel tells of an orphaned protagonist, journalist by profession Clara Perez, situating herself in the world of work while struggling in her journey for an identity search. Perez has grown tired of covering trivial subjects and wants to at least be given an assignment with substance to spice up her seemingly dull existence. When she was asked to cover and investigate about a fire that ensued in a small street, which happens to kill an old Chinese store owner, she tracked a web of complicated happenings, flaring up one after the other, leading to her unknown and bitter-sweet past as heightened by confrontation to her parents’ love story.
Set at a time when the people in the Philippines were awakened to call for government’s political reform, the novel capitalized on Perez’ involvement in the increasingly violent student demonstrations. As her involvement in these tumultuous activities deepened as the stories within stories unfolded, we discover that her own life’s history was closely connected to that of her country, that resemblance to what she had been covering as a reporter was to become her shocking force as she delved deeper to the facts of her stories.
“How was I to know that this fire in a street I had never been to would somehow eat away at my life’s invisible boundaries so that into it would come rushing names and faces which until then were unknown to me?”
(Eating Fire and Drinking Water, 1996)
Perez is in a way connected and disconnected physically and socially to other individuals in the novel. It is through these connections/disconnections that we were presented with the essences in Perez’ life. Little did she know and little did we realize that the larger her world becomes as she expands with people and with her involvement in their lives that her world will shrink to become smaller yet laden with bits and pieces to complete the whole puzzle, that of her being Clara Perez, the Don as her father and Socorro, her mother.
No surprise that when she met her mother, she confronted her with the statement:
I am Clara. The child you gave away, – and she continued almost dispassionately, – People are always making choices. Choosing consciously or choosing by default, but choosing nevertheless. Why did you choose to do this? What drove you to it? I want to know your mind at the moment of choosing.
(Eating Fire and Drinking Water, 1996)
Comparatively, the larger demand of the students that the government return what belongs to the people and the more gigantic clamor for the right to rule their own country may be seen as Perez’ desire to get hold of a personal identity that had been denied her by her mother at the very least, or of her wish fulfillment to finally get acquainted with her roots if not resolve her identity crisis to end her agony if not her feeling of overwhelming emptiness. Her routine assignment also leads her to find the identity of a father who is missing in her life, the Don who has made her a ‘bastard’ when he put family obligations and prestige above his attachment to a loved one being the first in the first family.
Essentially, the novel relates about relationships, creating an atmosphere which could only be drawn from the backdrop of a culturally, historically and politically diverse country as the Philippines, during Ferdinand Marcos’ (El Presidente) twenty one years of dictatorship. The story capitalizes on many interesting characters and events, which depict if not encapsulate the Marcos regime. Satirically, it chronicles brutal treatments to student activists and demonstrators on the one hand and traces lifestyle of political figures and their eccentricities and innuendos on the other.
Abounding the intricacies that unfold as one reads Chai’s novel is the defamiliarization of prominent personas of the late sixties and early seventies in the Philippines, ‘El Presidente’ and Madam, Judge Romero Jimenez – ‘the Hanging Judge’, the Defense Minister – ‘Butcher of the South’, the senator and his mistress and the more figurative ones such as those of the store-owner, Charlie the Chinaman; Don Miguel Pellicer – the sugar baron and the student activists like Bayani and the countless others. Although one may find it puzzling to figure out whether these characters are typical stereotypes or true-to-life, one may autodidact that there is historical basis in the conception of these names.
Drawing out some implications that go far beyond one’s country, McCoy (1999), professor of History at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and one of the foremost researchers/analysts of developments in the Philippines elucidated the legacies of the Marcos dictatorship in his paper, Dark Legacy: Human Rights Under The Marcos Regime to wit:
1. Looking back on the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, the Marcos government appears, by any standard, exceptional for both the quantity and quality of its violence.
2. Under Marcos, moreover, military murder was the apex of a pyramid of terror-3,257 killed, 35,000 tortured, and 70,000 incarcerated.
3. Under martial law from 1972 to 1986, the Philippine military was the fist of Ferdinand Marcos’s authoritarian rule. Its elite torture units became his instruments of terror.
4. But as the gap between legal fiction and coercive reality widened, the regime mediated this contradiction by releasing its political prisoners and shifting to extra-judicial execution or salvaging.
5. During 14 years of martial law, the elite anti-subversion units came to personify the regime’s violent capacities:
6. Officers in these elite units were the embodiment of an otherwise invisible terror.
7. Instead of a simple physical brutality, these units practiced a distinctive form of psychological torture with wider implications for the military and its society.
8. The Marcos’s regime’s spectacle of terror opens us to a wider understanding of the political dimension of torture-one that is ignored in the literature on both the human rights and human psychology.
9. Instead of studying how torture harms its victims, we must, if we are to understand the legacy of martial law, ask what impact torture has upon the torturers.
10. Between the poles of local impunity and global justice, the Philippines emerged from the first decade of the post-Marcos period with signs of a lingering trauma.
11. Freed from judicial review, the torturers of the Marcos era have continued to rise within the police and intelligence bureaucracies, allowing the pervasive brutality of martial law to persist.
12. Under impunity, culture and politics are recasting the past, turning cronies into statesmen, torturers into legislators, and killers into generals.
13. Beneath the surface of a restored democracy, the Philippines, through the compromises of impunity, still suffers the legacy of the Marcos era-a collective trauma and an ingrained institutional habit of human rights abuse.
In his conclusion, McCoy (1999) aptly said that as the Philippines reaches for rapid economic growth, it cannot afford to ignore the issue of human rights and if the Philippines is to recover its full fund of social capital after the trauma of dictatorship, it needs to adopt some means for remembering, recording, and, ultimately, reconciliation. Further, he said that no nation can develop its full economic potential without a high level of social capital, and social capital cannot, as Robert Putnam teaches us, grow in a society without a sense of justice. Chai’s novel, Eating Fire and Drinking Water, is in a way a reconstruction if not creative representation of this great era in Philippine history, a way of recording, of remembering the bitter past while subtly crying for social justice and imposing the necessity of knowing the essences of human existence.
Weaving such a story of individual stories linked up with the protagonist’ (Perez’) discovery of her real identity displays Chai’s craft as a writer. For to weave them all together and triumphantly subsist the characters and the political story of El Presidente’s terrifying regime as apt background and fitting setting to a personal story, that of a bereft young lady in an orphanage run by nuns, is definitely exemplary.
The presence of binary opposites as illuminated by other important personages like Bayani, the student leader, and Colonel Aure, an “artist of suffering whose canvas was the human body” appointed by the government to arrest, torture and eventually murder Bayani worked with Perez to prove some points. These two towering individuals in the novel appeared as symbols of two extreme value systems — Bayani the good, and Aure the evil. It is between these two value systems that the people in the Philippines struggle for their freedom and democracy. We meet characters who were inexplicably linked to the others, both tender and violent as figurative descriptions may seem appropriate. There were subtle, delicate if not dainty moments that bespoke of the metaphysical links between the characters and their link to the unseen entity that helped shape each individual’s destiny, that of the china man and Socorro, that of Socorro and the nuns, that of Socorro and the Don, Perez’ father. This in extreme contrast to the more violent, brutal if not arresting moments like that of the graphic description of Colonel Aure’s violent handiwork, the injustice that the military have repeatedly done to their own people in order to zip their mouths. It is further with Chai’s observations on the impacts of these two value systems upon individual lives in the Philippines.
Chai’s words on the one hand seemed cathartic as she summoned the stains and stench of poverty, the narcissistic political corruption of the time while she also extrapolated on the cleanness of one’s soul albeit the nuances of life, how the chasm between good and bad maybe reconciled by the purity of one’s spirit. Her vision cannot be underestimated.
This embraced what Fred Millett (1950) in his book, Reading Fiction, clearly suggested that, “Every work of fiction implicitly and many works of fiction explicitly, express the philosophical, ethical or religious attitudes of the writer. The writer’s choice of a subject implies that he feels that the subject is worth treating and his preference for this subject implies his rejection of other subjects as less important. And almost no work of fiction is so brief to suggest what the writer regards as good and what he regards as less good or evil.”
Chai has her own ‘historicity” as evidenced by the way she chronicles her accounts of the political upheaval in the Philippines. On the upper hand, she touches a larger social dimension of struggling with the essence of human existence which the student-critic believes to be more transcendental if not moral-philosophical. In life, one’s person is never complete without its clear lineage, its linear direction of kinship and affinity, suffice to say that we holistically appreciate a tree when we take cognizance not only of the leaves on the branches but also the roots that are found underneath. Only then can we claim that we have sufficiently considered a tree in its entirety, a person in his ‘totality’ – that is one who knows and is conscious of his parental lineage, of his glorious or bitter-sweet past and is ready to inherit a world that is never free of surprises, a world whose history evolves as humanity evolves.
Chai, Arlene J. Eating Fire and Drinking Water. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.
McCoy, Alfred W. 1999. (Dark Legacy: Human Rights Under The Marcos Regime) Closer Than Brothers: Manhood at the Philippine Military Academy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Millett, F.B. 1950. Reading Fiction: A method of Analysis with Selections for Study. New York. Harer and Brothers Publishing.
Wellek, Rene. 1963. Concepts of Criticism. New Haven and London. Yale University Press
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