Childhood in the Philippines involves two separate worlds: there is outside, and there is inside. You’re outside during the day, and at the first hint of darkening orange in the sky, your mother calls you home, and you should be inside by the time the cicadas chirp their deafening welcome to the night. And if you’re still not inside, the slipper comes off your mother’s foot and, using your full name as an invective, she chases you back into the house. Rules were rules.
None of these rules applied to me, because of where I was not.
I was not at the wooden bench in front of the corner store, sipping Royal Tru-Orange through a straw from a plastic bag. I was not playing siato in the dusty road with the other boys willing to get their eyes accidentally poked out by a flying stick. I was not in neighbors’ living rooms, eating potato chips and watching Japanese robot cartoons. I was the boy who wasn’t there.
By process of elimination, it became easier to believe that I was the neighborhood invalid, bundled off to a sanatorium in the mountains when the summer heat became too intense. Stories about me spread. Only tuberculosis, eczema, or some Victorian disease could explain my absence. I imagined the mothers of our subdivision, their eyebrows knotted with concern, as they hung their faded flowery dresses on clotheslines, talking about the Vergaras’ sickly eldest son, wrapped in sheets to coax the unholy fever out from him. If I ever appeared outside, I would be the boy in the plastic bubble made flesh, stepping out of the blue glow of the television set, blinking my eyes in the sunlight, staring at the astonished faces of my neighbors, their clothespins frozen in mid-pinch.
I wasn’t an invalid. But I was afflicted by the itch to read, the condition that kept me from emerging into the day. I found excuses to come home from elementary school as soon as I could, choosing not to linger with the other children, and preferring instead the company of my books waiting for me at home. No one saw me, a mere rumor of a boy.
So there was inside, and there was outside, and outside was my younger brother. He would come in through our metal screen door, basketball in hand. My mother would remind him not to bounce it on the newly-mopped kitchen floor. I would be at the kitchen table, and maybe look up from my book, if I even noticed him at all. “They were asking about you again,” he would tell me. “They wanted to know if you were getting better.”
This was, in retrospect, a touching reminder of neighborliness. His basketball friends, even after a sweaty bout of shoving and trash talk, would come up to him after the game and offer their sympathies. “How is your brother doing?” they would ask in a low voice, trying not to embarrass him with their broaching of the family secret. I was that missing kid talked about in hissed whispers and behind cupped hands.
He didn’t tell me how he answered, because it didn’t matter to me yet — not to an eleven-year old, anyway. I would give my brother a blank look, and continue reading. He would shrug his shoulders, his apathy matching mine, and dribble the basketball on the floor out of habit, and my mother would wheel around from the adobo simmering on the stove and scold him.
I never got scolded from reading a book, unless it was past midnight, or dinner was already in front of me, steam lifting from the rice on my plate. “Can I finish this chapter?” I would ask, hoping that this time my mother would relent because I only had two pages, just two more pages, left.
My book-loving genes apparently came from my mother’s side of the family: my mother was a librarian and English literature major, and I had a poet, an art critic, and a painter among my uncles. Supposedly I was the only child in the history of Maquiling Elementary School, circa 1977, to skip a grade, and that reputation followed me all through grade school. I was told this must be hereditary, for my parents had American graduate school degrees. This was my inheritance: I was “gifted,” the “bookworm,” the “nerd,” “the smart one.” Yet I wondered whether these badges of honor were, in the world outside, more like cheap little tin stars.
I imagined that writers worked in rooms with bookshelves up to the ceiling, and big armchairs, the kind that swallowed up small children. We had no such room. Our library was a series of bowed shelves running along the wall of my childhood bedroom. My parents threw nothing away, so anything with a spine ended up there: photo albums; agricultural journals and bound issues of Mad magazine from the sixties; Agatha Christie novels, organized by detective; an incomplete Encyclopedia Britannica ending two volumes shy of Z; the Hardy Boys, a cool band of blue on the shelf; my Richard Scarry picture books held together with Scotch tape.
When my sister got bigger, she claimed the room for herself, and I moved into a smaller bedroom with my brother. The entire collection, swelling with my own books, was hauled downstairs into the indignity of a cobwebbed storeroom, next to Christmas decorations and folding chairs. That didn’t stop me from spending hours inside the dusty and airless room anyway, tiptoeing to peek at the titles on the top shelf. Everyone called it the storeroom, but to me it was our library.
Our living room had no proper chairs in which to read. My mother retreated to the bedroom to read on hot weekend afternoons; my father, his shirt off, wrote his articles in longhand on the dining room table. I would read lying on my bed, hoisting a hardcover above me, until I would doze off and drop the book on my face and wake myself up and start over.
Our kitchen was the most brightly lit room in the house. Fluorescent tubes hung from the ceiling next to lizards, their tongues flickering, waiting for insects to eat. Despite the heat and the daily racket, the kitchen was where I read, with the clanging of pots, my mother muttering at her chopping board, and the smell of vinegar and soy sauce mingling with the new worlds into which I had entered.
None of these distractions mattered, for I had retreated into the den of my own head, furnished with its own cozy armchair. I had already disappeared.
I may have been a precocious reader at three, but I had devolved into an indiscriminate one at twelve. Peanuts and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!; books on UFOs, punctuation, palmistry, etymology; horror comic books attacked by silverfish; spy thrillers straight from airport bookstore racks to our shelves: I devoured them all. I loved the feel of a deckle-edge book, the crispness of paper rubbed between thumb and forefinger, or the fragrant chemical smell from repeatedly fanning the pages an inch from my nose, until my puzzled parents would ask, “What are you doing, anak?” I didn’t consume my books; they consumed me.
It was my father, a rice scientist, who got me interested in more challenging literature. But as someone who spent his career in labs and rice paddies, he was the unlikely parent to initiate my literary education.
When I was thirteen, bored with the adventure novels I was reading, I asked him to pick out some books for me. “Something more grown-up,” I remembered saying.
I was at the kitchen table, as always, and my father returned with three paperbacks from the storeroom. “I think you’re ready for them,” he said, handing the little stack to me.
These books looked serious. The covers had no illustrations, just title, author, and blurbs. All three featured the words “unexpurgated” on their covers.
“What does that mean?” I asked, pointing to the unfamiliar word and mispronouncing it with a soft “G.”
“It means they didn’t cut anything,” my father explained.
“Who’s they?” I asked.
The three grown-up books that would blow my innocent mind were William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. They later led me to explore the more formidable reaches of my parents’ library: Siddhartha, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Ulysses, Giovanni’s Room. But it was with those three shady characters that I began my grown-up love affair with literature, and the thrill of engaging with its beautiful complexities — not just with narrative, but with language.
Looking back on this rather reckless act of parenting, I can’t help but think that this was my father’s perverse, comp-lit equivalent of the birds-and-the-bees talk. This was different from what happened later, when my brother turned thirteen, and entered our bedroom with multicolored plastic squares in his hand.
“Why do you have those?” I asked, shocked.
“They’re from Dad,” he said, slipping them into his wallet. He looked uncomfortable but, I imagined, was secretly pleased.
I wasn’t. My brother spent his time outside, and so his social life was very different. With his child-actor looks, he was popular with the girls at a young age, and already had a succession of girlfriends all through high school. This was why he got the condom talk from my father.
I never did. I was neither popular nor good-looking and my parents probably didn’t expect me to be thinking about women until my thirties. It didn’t help that I was, after all, the supposedly frail and withdrawn brother. Not receiving the paternal blessing of prophylactics from my father made me resentful. My brother got a three-pack of condoms. What I got was a trio of dirty old men.
Decades later, I came across a yellowed photograph of our living room, filled with smiling people with drinks in their hands, in fashionable early-’70s outfits — shirt collars the size of pennants, flared jeans, cat-eye glasses. My parents, almost unrecognizable, were among them.
I had no idea they looked so cool. “You were hipsters!” I said, delighted, showing the photo to my 80 year-old mother.
“We used to dance in the living room,” she said — to lounge music coming from the hi-fi and an amp with hot orange vacuum tubes I was warned as a child not to touch — “and invite people to read poetry.”
“Really?” I said, surprised.
“Yes, this was when you were very small,” she said, making the shape of an imaginary football between her hands. “Guitarists played and everyone sat on the floor and listened.”
I was dumbfounded at the idea of my parents hosting these literary salons — with drinking and dancing! — in our living room. “Did you throw these kinds of parties a lot?” I asked, still amazed.
“We did,” she said. “And then you grew up.”
When my parents bowed to the demands of raising children and jobs that required overtime, the parties ended, and so did, I imagined, my parents’ ability to lose themselves in books with the abandon of their younger selves. Their books, to me, were the tangible connection between the bohemian cats in the photo and the seemingly square parents I grew up with. All the dusty books in the library: those, too, were my inheritance, kept for the time when I was ready to claim them for myself.
Books got me through the rest of high school and college and then graduate school, where I had even more freedom to read and write. I ended up writing two academic books of my own, and though I no longer teach, I surrendered after all — willingly, eagerly, as my parents taught me — to a life inside.
For I was in a family where reading was valued and encouraged, where I was taught to succumb to the magic of words, to lose myself in the worlds they conjured, and those worlds were my inheritance.
Perhaps my days of isolation, my years as an invalid, my life inside, made my imagination a little keener. That maybe I got some sort of exercise after all. I never did play basketball outside, but I can close my eyes and hear the cheers and yells of the players jumping and running, and I can see them, too: brown skin burnt by the sun, slippers sometimes left in the dust, the tattered net, the rusted rim hanging precariously from the makeshift backboard, and there was no court really, just the street, where the unwilling players had to stop and move to one side whenever a honking vehicle had to pass.
And I will treasure my memory of those paperbacks, of Burroughs and De Sade and Roth, far more than I would a prophylactic kept years past its expiration date, flattened between my college ID and a few peso bills, in a beat-up wallet curved by my ass.
Benito Vergara is the author of two academic monographs, Displaying Filipinos: Photography and Colonialism in Early 20th-Century Philippines and Pinoy Capital: The Filipino Nation in Daly City. His fiction has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly and the anthology Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 7, and he has been the recipient of a fellowship at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley summer writing workshop. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and blogs occasionally at The Wily Filipino.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative, the coming-into-language story. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.