Posts Tagged ‘autobiography’

places in memory

I’ve been writing a memoir for a creative non-fiction writing class, and have had to deal with the nature of memory. It is different for each person, I think. I remember things and incidents as clear snapshots or short running films. Over time they lose sharpness and detail but they remain embedded, the pleasant memories to be played over and over in the wee hours.

The past has very strong associations for me, as does music, and places. There are cities that I love, because of experiences I’ve enjoyed there. There are places I have vowed never to visit again. I suppose all of us draw upon our individual histories when we look at a thing or place, coloring it with our impressions of it in the past.

In mystery writer Agatha Christie’s autobiography (published in 1977), she advises against revisiting a place to recapture a happy memory. Speaking about Cauterets in France, where she stayed one summer as a child:

I have never been back there. I am glad of that. A year or two ago, we contemplated taking a summer holiday there. I said, unthinkingly: I should like to go back. It was true. But then it came to me that I could not go back. One cannot, ever, go back to the place which exists in memory. You would not see it with the same eyes, even supposing that it should improbably have remained much the same . What you have had, you have had. “The happy highways where I went, And shall not come again…”

Never go back to a place where you have been happy. Until you do it remains alive for you. If you go back it will be destroyed.

I wonder if I go to the same places where I was happy, could I recapture that same feeling? Christie says not. “What you have had, you have had.” Perhaps I should leave it at that.

But when I put on my rose-colored glasses, I insist that I will see things afresh, glowing and rosy, and I believe I can go back and create new memories, and they can be happy too, as happy as I can make them.

Book cover image here.

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eggs, ketchup, and “moon river”

In our creative non-fiction writing class this semester, our professor Dr. Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo challenged her eight students to come up with CNF narratives. These could be memoirs, travel writing, or other forms; we had to “pitch” our ideas to her first. If they passed muster, we were told to proceed with writing. PhD students like myself had to write a work no shorter than fifty pages. I pitched the idea of a memoir and have written 53 pages so far, with the work still unfinished.

It’s a work in progress. Here’s an excerpt from my chapter on Bacolod City, where I lived for a year when I was eight:

In Bacolod we ate a lot of chicken because Lola Bennett ran a huge poultry farm in addition to the sugar cane plantation. On a couple of visits the foreman gave me undersized hen’s eggs that didn’t pass their quality control inspections. I kept several of them under the bed in my room, right on the orange carpeting. Some months later one of the maids found them. She called my lola, lifted the bed skirt, and pointed to them without saying a word. My little collection was taken away. “Eggs are not toys,” I was told. Too bad. I liked those eggs, some of them as tiny as quail eggs with pebbly surfaces of calcium carbonate in raised and ridged patterns, random as nature makes it.  I was never taken to visit the poultry farm again after that.

My Bacolod nanny, Mila, was scolded over that incident for not watching me carefully enough to know that I was smuggling home rejected eggs. I don’t think she was with us when we visited the poultry farms; she wasn’t with me all the time, as far as I remember. I usually saw her at bath time, when she’d take me to my white-tiled bathroom off my bedroom, switch on the shower, and try to whip up a soapy lather in the hard water which ran out of the pipes. At first I resented her bathing me because I told her I had been giving myself baths in Manila since I was seven years old. She smiled and said, “Your lola told me to,” and we both knew there was no arguing after that. I came to love the way she wrapped me up in thick white towels and rubbed me dry, giving me a quick hug before letting go.

After the egg episode Yayay Mila whispered to me, “Nugay nga hampang sang pagkaon. (Don’t play with food.) I know other things you can do.”  One night she handed me her notebook, about the size of a pocketbook, hardbound, and filled with smooth creamy pages half-filled with her notes written in flowing cursive with a black fountain pen. She opened to a page and pointed to the title at the top – “Moon River”. “This is a beautiful song,” she said. “Memorize the words and learn it.” She sang it to me in a light soprano. “Moon river, wider than a mile, I’m crossing you in style, some day…” I’ve associated that song with her ever since, although I have forgotten what she looked like. I wonder if she ever did find and cross her own moon river.

I deeply admired her notebook – all I had for school were the usual ruled spiral notebooks with thin cardboard covers and cheap paper – but I never thought to ask if she could get me one. Now I know what it is like – a Moleskine notebook – and the memory of this may explain why my stationery drawer is crammed with Moleys of different sizes.

Another time she took me out into the garden, bearing a basin of soapy water. She made for a gumamela bush, plucked a handful of its glossy leaves, and showed me how to pound the leaves in the soapy water with a rock. Making ‘o’s with our hands, we blew bubbles that were strong and did not easily pop, even when poked by leaves or sticks. I pealed with laughter, and for most of that afternoon blew myriads of rainbow bubbles into being, sending them down the garden path and up into the air to bounce in the light, as Yayay Mila beamed.

Mila also took care of feeding me. I was fed – usually with scrambled or sunny-side up eggs for breakfast, for lunch and dinner fried chicken and rice, no ketchup – in the “clean kitchen” off the dining area, which was furnished with 1950s-style folding metal chairs with red leather seats – a set of four – and a matching table. That kitchen was painted white and was always very very clean, since nothing was actually cooked there. That room glows in my mind, always flooded with light, because a screen door at one end let sunshine in during the day. Through it I could see coconut trees, ornamental plants, and the Bermuda grass of lola’s well-kept lawn. Green and white and brown are the colors I associate with Bacolod – the colors of sun and earth and garden and fried chicken.

Nowadays I can’t get enough ketchup.

Images: Egg in hand here. Ketchup here. Gumamela (hibiscus) here.

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elizabeth gilbert: eat, pray, love

This is another of those books that I didn’t get when it first came out in 2006. I’ve always been kontra-pelo when it comes to trends – going against the flow – and I’m suspicious of whatever’s been declared a “best-seller”.  Who gets to say what’s hot or not?

But, seeing nothing else of interest at the bookstore, I picked up a paperback copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, and Love, without any expectations, and just settled in for a succession of letters forming words and coherent thoughts to imprint themselves on my retinas.

I was surprised that it was good.

There have been many accounts of both men and women – usually Westerners, the Americans and the British – going on journeys to exotic places to “find themselves” or achieve spiritual enlightenment. I find it hard to relate to such stories, though I enjoy reading them for the “travelogue” part. It isn’t in the Filipino culture to spend sums of money on travel for such esoteric reasons. We’re too busy trying to survive.

But that’s what makes multi-cultural interactions interesting. People are a product of their culture. It seems that it’s the Western orientation to go looking for something undefinable, something missing, something they will recognize only when they see or experience it.

Writer Liz Gilbert’s account of her own journey brings it down to a personal level, and the honesty of her story shines true. A failed marriage and a shattered relationship pushes her to put her life on hold for a year as she travels to Italy to learn the language and eat her way across the country; to India to meditate for several months in an ashram; and to Indonesia to make friends, influence people, and find love and happiness.

On a technical level, it is well-written. The net of words that Gilbert weaves is taut and shimmering; it is a pleasure to be caught up in it. From a communication perspective, it’s a look at both intra-personal and inter-personal communication practice, with a hefty dollop of intercultural insights.

On a deeper level, it is an intriguing story of how one woman manages the conflicts in her life in her own way and finds healing. It’s the tale of a Gogirl, empowered, confident, and happy.

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gael greene: insatiable

When I choose books, I go through these steps: first, the cover grabs my attention with its artwork – vibrant, colorful, interesting? drab, dark, morbid? I then check out the title and the author – heard, or never heard?

Next I turn to the back for the blurb. If the synopsis there (written, I am sure, by savvy marketing people who know that the blurb is the quickest and best way to grab the consumer and not let go) tweaks my curiosity even to the slightest degree, I then flip through the pages. The language must jump out, awaken my senses, make me reel in the headiness of the words, the prolixity of thought and verbiage coming together like a potent drug. If the book has this effect on me, then I get it.

Insatiable is one such book, penned by the famous food writer of New York magazine. Gael Greene is witty, intelligent, an unabashed hedonist who enjoys the pleasures of the table with the same sensuality that she explores the pleasures of the bedroom. It is honest and alive with detail; Gael holds nothing back in describing her lovers, her meals, her friends, the delights of the senses that encompass her world and make up her life story.

Be sure to read this book on a full stomach, as the exquisite description of French and Italian cuisine will make you hungry and want to go on your own gastronomic adventures in our food-obsessed Manila.

Excerpts:

“We are going to have a nice salade composeé,” said Julia (Child) in that rolling profundo that promised if she could cook it, you could, too… I must admit I was disappointed. Disappointed? Shocked. What did I expect? Nothing complicated. A lovely cold pork roast. A deviled chicken. I was not demanding a suckling pig turning on a spit or a laborious ballontine requiring birds be boned and gelatin gelled… To be with Julia… it should have been enough. What an ingrate I am to have expected lukewarm loup de mer with a sauce gribiche. Forever the Insatiable Critic. (p. 241)

I remember thinking, Okay, show me. And to my astonishment, she (chef Alice Waters) did. There was something radically daring in the simplicity of every perfect vegetable, the pristine leaves of baby greens that had not yet hit kitchens in New York, the clarity of an oddly shaped tomato. Until that moment, heirloom meant a hideous vase you dare not send to the thrift shop because it had been your grandmother’s. If there were zealots reviving forgotten spieces of tomato or twenty strains of heirloom potatoes on the East Coast, I was not yet aware of it. (p. 172)

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