Selected Themes from Caroline Hau’s Demigods and Monsters

Dominic Sy

Or, Occasional, Arbitrary, and Subjective Reflections on Philippine Lit. in English

Caroline Hau, Demigods and Monsters (University of the Philippines Press, 2019)

Theme 1 — The Elite Live On

Theme 2 — Diasporic Alienation

Theme 3 — Woman Consumed

Theme 4 — Internationalism 1: Solidarity Between Peoples

Theme 5 — Internationalism 2: “Chinese” is an Affordance

Theme 6 — Internationalism 3: We are the World

Theme 7 — Historicize Everything!

Theme 8 — Institutional Disillusionment

Theme 9 — Activist Hauntings

Theme 10 — Writing Politically: In Search of Newer Forms

Theme 11 — Et Cetera

Index

— —

Theme 1 — The Elite Live On

[“Harmony,” “Demigods and Monsters”]

The history of our English literature is the history of our educated elite. So we’ll always have at least one or two stories about the rich and powerful.

Why does it seem so unavoidable?

1) Because the elite are unavoidable. Because they have disproportionate power. Because to talk about the elite is to talk about the rotting core of our society.

2) Because satire is cathartic.

3) Because we write about what we know, and we know a disproportionate amount about the rich and powerful.

4) Because we write about what we know, and we often know more about the problem than the solution.

5) Because we write about what we know, and we know that writers are generally more educated and that the educated are generally more well off. Double that for whichever subset of the population feels comfortable enough with the language to write in English.

6) Because not everything that’s helpful is necessary.

Theme 2 — Diasporic Alienation

[“Child A,” “The Girl in the Aqua Dress,” “Moon Bear,” “House-Sitting”]

Sometimes they hate you. Sometimes they love you. Sometimes you meet kababayan. Sometimes you manage to go back.

The dislocation lingers. Home is not what you left behind; it’s what you dream you had never left.

Theme 3 — Woman Consumed

[“The Girl in the Aqua Dress,” “The Love Hospital,” A Portrait of the Artist as Filipina: A Documentary,” “Two Days in May”]

Domestic labor, sexual labor, affective labor, emotional labor. Labor.

Women don’t hold up half the sky. Women hold up most of the sky. Just look at Philippine Lit. in English.

Theme 4 — Internationalism 1: Solidarity Between Peoples

[“The Love Hospital,” “Moon Bear,” “House-Sitting,” “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipina: A Documentary,”]

Internationalism is not the opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is both the mother and the child of internationalism. (Home is not what you left behind; it’s what you dream you had never left.)

There’s a weird disjunction between the pride that some Filipinos have in their use of English — the world’s first “global language” — and the rarity of any serious attempts to render, literarily, the ways in which our struggles are shared.

Perhaps English isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. (The history of our English literature is the history of our educated elite.)

Or maybe we’re just not trying hard enough.

Theme 5 — Internationalism 2: “Chinese” is an Affordance

[“The Love Hospital”]

How do we write about being Chinese Filipino without writing about “Chinese Filipino identity”?

OR: how do we write about identity where “identity” is not a definition but a point of departure, where the question we try to answer is not “Who are we?” but “What are we able to do? What kinds of stories does the specificity of our being afford us?”

He looks Chinese, so he can disguise himself as a Korean tourist.

He speaks Hokkien, so he can solve murder mysteries in Binondo.

She speaks Hokkien, so she can ask elderly Singaporeans about Operation Coldstore.

He speaks Cantonese, so he can tell his friends what the protestors are really saying.

She reads in Chinese, so she can read what Mao actually wrote, not just the bits that were translated into English (and then relay translated into Filipino).

She looks Chinese and speaks Hokkien, so she can stalk her adulterous husband’s Mainland Chinese mistress in a supermarket in Xiamen without anyone thinking that she seems out of place.

And so on.

Theme 6 — Internationalism 3: We are the World

[“Two Days in May,” “At the Museum”]

“Is it true you will build a Rome? Yes, I answered myself. How? I don’t know. In humility, I realized I am a child of all nations, of all ages, past and present. Place and time of birth, parents, all are coincidence: such things are not sacred.”
– Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Child of All Nations

“What is our Argentine tradition? I believe we can answer this question easily and that there is no problem here. I believe our tradition is all of Western culture. . . . We can handle all European themes, handle them without superstition, with an irreverence which can have, and already does have, fortunate consequences.”
– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”

Corollary:

If Bolaño and Volpi and Padilla can write about Nazis, then so can we.

Theme 7 — Historicize Everything!

[“A Portrait of the Artist as Filipina: A Documentary,” “Demigods and Monsters,” “At the Museum,” “Obituaries,” “Haunted”]

“Always historicize!”

– Fredric Jameson, whose quote I apparently misremembered

Theme 8 — Institutional Disillusionment

[“House-Sitting,” “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipina: A Documentary,” “A Glossary of Literary Terms,” “At the Museum”]

When artists, writers, and professors write about artists, writers, and professors.

Like writing about the rich and powerful, but with somewhat lower stakes. (Why does it seem so unavoidable?)

To live consciously under capitalism is to live consciously with hypocrisy.

Theme 9 — Activist Hauntings

[“A Portrait of the Artist as Filipina: A Documentary,” “Obituaries,” “Haunted”]

The activist eulogized. The activist mourned. The activist remembered. The subject is always relevant, but the tone is what makes the difference (a haunting melancholy, a pervading sorrow over something lost — something rare and brave and now frequently forgotten).

Most resonant during that period of liberal complacency when the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the fascists are about to sucker punch society in the face. (Historicize everything!)

Still resonant after the fascists have already sucker punched society in the face, but the bulk of the intelligensia won’t get out of their seats.

Theme 10 — Writing Politically: In Search of Newer Forms

[“A Portrait of the Artist as Filipina: A Documentary,” “A Glossary of Literary Terms,” “Obituaries,” “Haunted”]

Our contemporary English fiction is caught between the Scylla of its irrelevance and the Charybdis of its lack of imagination.

(The history of our English literature is the history of our educated elite.)

Once upon a time, the important question was: “Why are you still writing in English?” Now, for better or worse, the more pressing question is: “If you’re going to write in English anyway, who are you even writing to? Who can you write to? Who still reads our fiction in English?”

(Perhaps English isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.)

“Who are your readers anyway, even just the ones in your head, and what conversations are you trying to have with them?”

(To live consciously under capitalism is to live consciously with hypocrisy.)

Every few decades, our English writers manage to radicalize. It happened in the ‘30s and it happened in the ‘70s, though many lagged behind and only caught up in the ‘80s.

(Or maybe we’re just not trying hard enough.)

The time has come again. The fascists are in power. The liberals are hanging on by their fingernails. The capitalists are watching the world burn while somehow still getting richer.

(If Bolaño and Volpi and Padilla can write about Nazis, then so can we.)

The time to think differently is now. The time to write differently is now. The time to forge newer forms, newer stories, newer weapons that can stab into the heart of reaction is now.

(What are we able to do? What kinds of stories does the specificity of our being afford us?)

If we’re really going to keep writing in English, then we might as well make it count.

Theme 11 — Et Cetera

[“Child A,” “The Girl in the Aqua Dress,” “Harmony,” “The Love Hospital,” “Moon Bear,” “House-Sitting,” “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipina: A Documentary,” “A Glossary of Literary Terms,” “Two Days in May,” “Demigods and Monsters,” “At the Museum,” “Obituaries,” “Haunted”]

It’s Caroline Hau. Did you really think there were only ten?

INDEX:

Child A [2] [11]

The Girl in the Aqua Dress [1] [2] [3] [11]

Harmony [1] [11]

The Love Hospital [1] [3] [4] [5] [11]

Moon Bear [2] [4] [11]

House-Sitting [2] [4] [8] [11]

A Portrait of the Artist as Filipina: A Documentary [3] [4] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]

A Glossary of Literary Terms [8] [10] [11]

Two Days in May [3] [6] [11]

Demigods and Monsters [1] [7] [11]

At the Museum [6] [7] [8] [11]

Obituaries [7] [9] [10] [11]

Haunted [7] [9] [10] [11]

[1] The Elite Live On

[2] Diasporic Alienation

[3] Woman Consumed

[4] Internationalism 1: Solidarity Between Peoples

[5] Internationalism 2: “Chinese” is an Affordance

[6] Internationalism 3: We are the World

[7] Historicize Everything!

[8] Institutional Disillusionment

[9] Activist Hauntings

[10] Writing Politically: In Search of Newer Forms

[11] Et Cetera

Dominic Sy is a member of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines Diliman. His first book of fiction, A Natural History of Empire, was published in 2019.

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