by Louie Jon A. Sanchez
Acclaimed writer and teacher Exie Abola’s debut book Trafficking in Nostalgia (2012, Ateneo de Manila University Press) offers creative nonfiction that is pristine and insightful. In essay after heartfelt essay, one could observe the careful craftsmanship of the writer, styling prose in a most lyric form. We say “lyric” here because, after all, the essays in book characterize an inward-moving address, basking in nostalgia here and there, but keeping one’s self—and voice—in the here and now. Rarely do we see this kind of writing, almost shimmering in exactitude and calculated articulation. Reading Abola gifts us with grace and pleasure. In his essays, we look at a life recollected in all its sheltered preoccupations, brazenness, tenderness, confusion, and ardor.
In depicting his growing up years in “many mansions”; in seeking solace despite nocturnal afflictions; in confronting the ghosts of past heartaches and familial concerns; and even in letting readers into that writerly life and mind that are uniquely his own, Abola attempts to redefine Filipino nonfiction narrative as a well-positioned reflection, taking into full account not only the varieties (and verities) of experiences but also the very limitations of perspective. Sincerity, to a fault, has long been considered a value in literary disclosures. What is worthy of praise is the fact that Abola’s nonfiction stands as transcending this literary value by creating prose that attempts to craft the self that is reflexive, aware of its constructed-ness and personal positions.
The book is an easy read, but the ease is merely a trick of artifice. Underneath is a complex internal landscape, navigable only through Abola’s well-mapped memories. The most taught essay of all, “Many mansions,” a Palanca-winning piece, discusses how experiences of various family spaces craft identity. In a Bachelardian sense, the essay proves how houses become our primary universe, our space of being and seeing. “Perhaps that’s what houses are really all about,” the author says. “(T)he fundamental uncertainty of life, the slowly learned fact that the reference points by which we draw our maps and chart our course are ever shifting, and a life’s cartography is never quite done.” Another nostalgic essay, “A soundtrack to the eighties,” taps into aural memory, paying homage to the bands and songs of the writer’s generation. The essays “Behind these dark glasses” and “The sleepless struggle” meanwhile talk about the writer’s maladies, and how he copes with each.
In discussing his bouts of insomnia for instance, Abola uncovers an astounding history of family members sharing this affliction. “It’s true, as I’ve come to see over the years, that we really are the children of our parents,” writes Abola. “Fight it, deal with it, live with it. The truth is that you are the result of a certain genetic recalculation, fate taking the form of inescapable biology.” Abola’s nostalgia too, covers not only the familial but also the familiar, in essays like “On a gray and damp afternoon a mug of ice cream,” a flash nonfiction; “Blind man’s massage,” which narrates the writer’s session with a masseur in an observably fictive manner; and “Notes on an idea for a story,” which spills the beans on a next-door celebrity neighbor’s tragedy, which the writer intends to turn into fiction.
It may also be inferred that the personal is also the political for Abola, considering two essays, “A sort of political life” and “A sort of political life 2”. In both essays, we witness the coming of age of the writer in the midst of a changing history. In the very astute essays, “Interviews,” “Lost Letters,” and “Into the Void,” we witness the writer pushing the nonfictional envelope, taking the crafting of the personal essay to different levels. “Lost Letters,” an abecedary of sorts, is actually the author’s monument to unforgettable moments, while “Interviews” lends a heteroglossic, multivocal experience to the dominant institution of the singular voice of nonfiction. We also see Abola blurring genres, introducing fictional, non-realist elements, such as magical realism, in his homage to his wife’s bibliophilia, “My wife, the book-eater.” The writer also gets to speculatively speak to his 17-year old self in the essay, “A visitation.”
Nostalgia, they say, is a confluence of two words—nostos, which means, coming home, and algos, distress, grief, pain. Nostalgia, in this sense, is painful remembering; a difficult return to what was abandoned. Abola redefines nostalgia in his book, not only by bravely looking at experience, but also by refining the gesture of remembering through careful craftsmanship. The aesthetic distance established by the author brought this crafting into being, and brought to the fore consequent wisdoms peculiar to returning-to-roots motifs, as exemplified in the essay “Pilgrim of the healing hand.” The author resorts to writing in the third person, properly situating his articulations as he re-views his own essays in his “Trafficking in Nostalgia: afterwords”: “It is just as well that he did not write this in the first person. He tried, producing two drafts, one page, three pages. Reading them a day after he feels like a fraud: what right do I have to say these things?”
He may question his right to say these things, but we will not question any longer his mastery, his method in the madness of memories.
First published in the Philippines Graphic Review of Literature.