Text and photos by Christa I. De La Cruz
Writing is always bittersweet. This sentence has always been used in different variations (and usually with expletives) by people who are on the receiving end of the whipping. Like picking on a scab, the process of writing entails remembering a scene from a distant past—may it be of one’s own or of an entire community, may it be good or bad, may it be bitter or sweet. For award-winning writer and performer Merlinda Bobis, putting together the acclaimed novel Fish-Hair Woman was a tumultuous 17-year process but at the same time, “writing [it] was like a homecoming each time,” sustaining her through the loneliness of migrating. This was a statement she returned to again and again during Harlequin Theatre Guild’s Fish-Hair Woman press conference in De La Salle University-Manila (DLSU) last February 21, 2014.
From Estancia to Iraya, from the Philippines to Australia
Though on the plane of magical realism, the Fish-Hair Woman is based on a period in Philippine history when a total war against insurgents was declared a year after the People Power Revolution of 1986. The reality of failed peace talks, unbridled violence in the rural areas, and militarization of militant hotspots like Bicol and Negros merged with the fantastic tale of Estrella, the Fish-Hair Woman, whose 12-meter hair trawls corpses from a river in Iraya. This village is reminiscent of Bobis’ grandmother’s village—Estancia, Malinao, Albay, which her family would visit every summer for the Easter Mass. In the same way that the novel is peppered with the author’s experiences during her childhood trips to Estancia, true stories of post-EDSA revolutionaries are also hidden between the pages of the novel.
Fish-Hair Woman does not only cross genres and personal stories but also time and space. Estrella falls in love with the character Tony McIntyre, an Australian who disappears in the conflict. His son travels to Manila to find his father after a decade. “From the Philippines to Australia, Hawai’i, to evocations of colonial Spain, this transnational novel spins a dark, epic tale.” (www.merlindabobis.com.au)
From Page to Stage
Fish-Hair Woman was originally written as a short story in 1994, completed as a novel’s first draft in 2001, and finally published in 2012 by Spinifex Press in North Melbourne and Anvil Publishing in Manila. Fast forward to the summer of 2013, a student-actor of Harlequin makes a pitch with much gusto to the Executive Board to adapt Fish-Hair Woman as their next major production. Said student read the novel in a Literature class taught by Dr. Jazmin Llana, who later became the play’s dramaturg.
Approved as the second novel to be staged by the Guild for its 47th theater season–the first being Vicente Groyon’s Sky Over Dimas in November 2013–Harlequin’s Artistic Director Romualdo Tejada pitched the idea to renowned writer Rody Vera. A month later, the first draft of the play Fish-Hair Woman was up for revisions. At the panel discussion during the press conference, Vera humbly disclosed that it took him more than one reading of the novel and a few email exchanges with the novelist to overcome the difficulty of containing a story of different memories into the sole space of the stage.
The result was a memory play which puts into center the novel’s fish-hair woman of different name–Stella. The crisscrossing of memories will be highlighted by the theatre-in-the-round set-up conceptualized by Tejada and to be executed by Joseph Duran. Aside from utilizing the different corners of the stage to portray the interlacing of time and space in the story, the concept of the intimate set-up is also evocative of the pre-colonial practices and community rituals which were always held in the round.
Fish-Hair Woman is about retrieving and honoring bodies that were lost in history. Like Estrella’s manner of fishing out the bodies from the water through her magical hair, the memories lost in time are fished out and transferred from one body to another through Fish-Hair Woman’s transformation from one genre to another, from one storyteller to another, from one reader/listener/observer to another.
After all, literature challenges us to never forget.
Fish-Hair Woman, novel by Merlinda Bobis, play by Rody Vera, and directed by Raffy R. Tejada will be staged on March 20 (6:30 pm) and March 21 & 22, 2014 (10 am, 3 pm, 6:30 pm) at the Teresa Yuchengco Auditorium, Yuchengco Building, De La Salle University-Manila. Ticket price is at Php 250. For more inquiries, contact Janella Gangat at (0917) 500-5708.
The Harlequin Theatre Guild is the premier and only recognized theater organization of De La Salle University – Manila that aims to raise social consciousness and expression. The guild is an epitome of dedication to its craft and commitment to the rigors theatrical discipline.