This reading log is part of a series called Classroom Without Walls, where I come up with discussion questions for books I read and try to answer them too. This is my first entry, and I would love to appreciate your thoughts on the format and the kinds of questions asked here.
Whatever is a collection of essays by renowned Filipino historian and journalist Carmen Guerrero Nakpil. This is one of the 21 books that I planned to read for 2021 in my never-ending effort to read what I already have in my libraries.
The essays in this volume are further grouped into general categories: for example, People includes character sketches and musings on different interactions.
Here are some possible discussion questions and the answers I have to them so far. I’ll update this post once I can think of more!
What are my general thoughts on the book?
“Why do I feel uncomfortable?” is actually the first question I wrote for this post. Listing the rest helped me come to terms with the unsettling feeling that seemed to grow with every page I read. I think it stems mostly from the image of Guerrero Nakpil that I’ve built in my head after loving the piece Where is the Patis?, and that image was not consistent with the rest of her body of work. This book radiates big boomer tita energy, albeit one that’s a bit more progressive than the rest.
That aside, I love how interesting the essays are. They can only be written by someone very observant and witty, and Guerrero Nakpil has both in spades. I feel so naive and small while reading her work, and I’m inspired to be more alert and thoughtful about the life I lead and the circles I’m in.
When were the essays written, and which major historical events did they cover? From which perspective are these events viewed?
They were written from 1976 to the early 2000s, and covered a bulk of the Martial Law Era and post-EDSA Revolutions.
It’s so interesting to read about the Martial Law Era from someone who has actually been part of Imelda Marcos’ retinue and has traveled extensively with her. A lot of what I know about this period come from people who have actively dissented against the administration. Her position reminded me of Primitivo Mijares before he turned on the Marcoses and exposed their conjugal dictatorship. She addressed Imelda as Mrs. Marcos, and it felt very personal and professional and respectful. It’s also curious to see that she was also well-connected with the journalists who were vocal critics.
It’s also important to note the dates when these essays are first written, which are indicated in small print at the end of every article. To her, this is not history. This is current events. Even her reflections on things that happened two decades ago still feel fresh through her writing. Reading her work makes me feel like I’m listening to a lola narrate her life story, though I think she would object to that image.
What are the recurring themes in her work?
Though she grouped her essays into more general categories like People or Places, she falls back on certain perspectives that I think become the hallmark of her work. She likes to write about the forgotten parts of history, such as the longstanding ties between Philippines and Brunei.
She also likes to write about the small-mindedness of men: their preoccupation with elite clubs and other status symbols, their paper-heavy titles that allow them to push their weight around, and their ignorance at how ridiculous it all looks to people who may know better. I really enjoyed reading how, with a few choice turns of phrase, Guerrero Nakpil subtly one-ups these peacocks. What a superpower.
Guerrero-Nakpil travels a lot for her post, and many of these essays are written during those trips. What role does purpose of travel play in perceiving a place?
She has a very strong sense of place. She knows where she belongs and is very secure in her definition of home. She views other places as an outsider looking in: observant of their customs and respectful of their identity, but also clearly draws us and them. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, because she does not have qualms poking fun at how Filipinos try to overcompensate and lose themselves in the international scene.
She is very aware that her experiences of a place stem primarily from a tourist view, albeit one that has access into other government agencies. It doesn’t have the weight of someone who has lived in those other countries, nor does her position reflect the position and discrimination of many OFWs. I’ve resigned myself to this very privileged take.
For place-related themes, I keep subconsciously comparing this book to Skyscrapers, Celadon, and Kimchi by Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo.
What are the author’s thoughts on language? Do you agree with them?
Guerrero Nakpil writes extensively in English, and she subscribes to the idea that English is still the language of the educated. Much of my disagreement comes from the now-established concepts of linguistic prestige and Kachru’s World Englishes. It also pays to consider that my mentors are professors who have been consultants and advocates of the MTB-MLE program. There has been a huge paradigm shift in the way we understand sociolinguistics during the years between Nakpil’s time of writing and my own reading in 2021, and I also have to account for that.
Based on the personal information shared in her essays, what is the author’s place in society? How does it affect her perspective and opinions?
She is rich and privileged, and her access to information–whether acquired through education, connections to high-ranking figures, or work opportunities–is what makes her more thoughful and observant. She has worked extensively in several government projects and is aware od how shifting political allegiances can have deadly effects on implementation and funding for projects like waste management. She was sister to Leon Ma. Guerrero. She was part of an old rich family in Manila. So many things in her background influence her opinions on poverty, elitism, and language.
Does the title accurately reflect the collection?
Definitely. More than having a hodepodge of topics, the word Whatever brings to mind an indifferent shrug. Carmen Guerrero Nakpil knows who she is and where she stands. She does not care about the outrage from inflated egos, nor criticisms from voices she does not deem important. She has sown her oats and reaped all the awards and recognitions available to her. Take it or leave it, she seems to say. I’m not affected at all.
If I were to read these essays separately instead of in a compiled volume like this, how does it affect my understanding?
I read Where is the Patis as a standalone essay, and though it was a wonderful thinkpiece, I think that it is best compared with the rest of her work. It helps me situate each article in its proper historical context, and seeing how she developed these ideas over time–aided by the timestamps at the end of each essay–had made me appreciate her ever-evolving philosophy. Makes me think about my own.
Based on the questions I have, what approach do I have in reading single-author anthologies?
The preface is very important, and whatever thoughts I have are always checked against the editor’s note (or author’s note, if single-author). Being very conscious of editing considerations like being arranged according to a sequence, theme, and such, and adhering to that order–at least in the first run–helps me honor the artistic direction of the text.
I identify the perspective of the author in each article, and check if this is consistent throughout the entire volume (or at least the parts I’ve read). Sometimes I get surprised when there are “inconsistencies”, but at a closer look, these two seemingly mutually exclusive ideas can still be valid at the same time. It makes me wonder about the labels and boxes we assign to people, and how the mere act of open-minded and empathetic listening to some rambles on a number of random topics will always remind me that humans will forever be too complex for me to understand.
- Have you read this book or any of the essays mentioned here?
- Which question or aspect is new or interesting to you?
- Do you like reading essay collections? Any favorites?