Three good reasons for reading Kerima Polotan’s The True and the Plain

Move over, Charice Pempengco.
Kerima Polotan is here — she’s been here for more than the past half-century actually — and it’s about time an intelligent, sophisticated, accomplished, and articulate Filipina gets some credit, airtime, and probably even some online publicity via this website (however few the page views and visitors).
Sure, Ms. Polotan is already a senior citizen and may not have a botoxed jaw or the promise of worldwide fame.
Except that I don’t care about Charice and I haven’t seen Glee and that may be a major major oversight for someone who carries a Philippine passport.
So pardon me kids, but I’m placing all my bets on Ms. Polotan.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that she’s currently in hermit mode, refusing friends to visit her.
But that’s a choice — and a fundamental right — no one can deprive her of.
In the same way that no right-thinking, literate Filipino should ever deprive himself/herself by choosing to ignore her work.
So if you have the chance to read any two books this year, you better grab Ms. Polotan’s Author’s Choice and the True and the Plain from the University of the Philippines Press.
Sure, she wrote a hagiography of Imelda Marcos and may have been part of the delegation when the Marcos family left in 1986.
Does that mean her essays are worthless?
Absolutely not.
Reading Kerima Polotan will make you proud of being a Filipino more than Venus Raj or Charice Pempengco ever will.
But I talk too much.
And so now, here are my three good reasons why you should read Polotan’s The True and The Plain: A Collection of Personal Essays, which were previously published in Focus Philippines Magazine from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. (Also: thanks to Red Constantino for introducing me to one of my favorite writers of all time.)

1) It will transport you to a Manila that we have never known about — and perhaps never will.

Taken in February 1986 at the Luneta (express000/Flickr.com)

Do you know what a Matorco is?
I do.
But that’s because I read the book and came across the term in her essay entitled “My Misbegotten Christmas.”
Thanks to Google and Flickr, I discovered that a Matorco is a double-decker bus that used to ply Roxas Boulevard.
Polotan wrote that she rode it one December night with her children and husband, Johnny Tuvera, who was an aide of Ferdinand Marcos.
And that bus — and the ride that could have provided special thrills to cynical urban dwellers such as myself — is long gone.
Same goes for the many panciterias and restaurants that have disappeared from the city, eating the dust left over by monolithic fastfood chains, local and otherwise.
Who recalls having lunch at Wa Nam, Moderna, and New England?
How about Texas Cafe in Malate, which catered to colegialas? Or the Waldorf Astoria also in the same area?
No one remembers anymore. (I was just an infant during that time. Yes, seriously.)
It’s about time someone did.
And reading about these establishments through Polotan’s pieces is just one of the many ways by which we can celebrate — and perhaps even express regret over — the little lost treasures of our country’s capital.
Below is her take on Luneta, from The Happy Hoi Polloi:

“In the Luneta, all colors blend ‚ the brown and the white and yellow of people; the green and blue and red of shrubs. Towards the sea, the great sward stretches, and the globes of light hang like huge pearls, are caught in the waters of the lake. People flow by, stop and eddy, break and whirl again. Across the pond, a band plays; a balloon breaks loose from some child’s grasp and floats towards an early star. Here, the land lies flat and green, broken only by stone; there, it rises in a series of small hills that hide the curving tips of a pagoda. The doves come, cooing and beating their wings around a man, dressed in a tiger’s suit, and giving away candy. The lovers try not to be conspicuous. A family spreads the contents of a bag — kropeck, juice, biscuits. One mother lies on a mat, unashamedly nursing her baby. On other mats, men and their wives, kicking their heels at the sky. The park guards  watch when they can but soon grow weary and give up. The sky is like a canvas washed clean, gray along the edges, and you think, looking over the heads around you, how distant the heat of living is — tonight’s dishes, tomorrow’s bundy clock. Joy is a fitful moment, but better that than nothing.”

2) It will make you appreciate literature — especially Philippine literature — better.

Abraham “Abe” Cerojano, my former editor-in-chief at GMANews.TV, happened to work under Polotan as a proofreader of the Evening Post, a newspaper she edited and which I remember reading as a kid whenever I visited my mother’s office in one of Escolta’s side streets.
Polotan was a very good writer, said my boss, who is himself famous for writing the news story about the failed assassination attempt against the late vice-president Emmanuel Pelaez, whom he quoted. [See: What is happening to our country, General?]
I don’t doubt my boss one bit.
Reading Polotan allows you to encounter certain gracious turns of phrase that current writers — Filipino and foreign — can only envy.
These phrases include “a carpet of dead leaves,” which she encountered after the vehicle she was on had a flat tire while en route to General Santos City from Davao.
She also writes about “the airy language of fashion [crowding] out the spare idiom of human tragedy,” referring to how the New York Times juxtaposed a story about a fashion show and a rape inside a subway car.
Polotan also mentions “the courage and the strength that can love the imperfect and the maimed,” recounting a visit to the doctor.
And, last but not least, talking about her son’s circumcision, she writes:

“[H]e would be in an elder sister’s skirt, lifting his dark and laughing eyes to me, torn between chagrin and pride, hesitating ever so briefly when I asked to look at the object of his ordeal. He would pull that…skirt open and I would see his possession cradled tenderly in a sling.”

3) Polotan is anachronistic but nice.

The phrase is from the Steely Dan song, Green Book, which is from the group’s Everything Must Go album. [See: Everything Must Go]
It describes her perfectly because her prose is way ahead of her time.
She may have used epithets — Mongoloid, Negro — which were deemed acceptable during her time.
However, her ideas and observations and the way she expresses them are just about the very best examples of modern Philippine writing in English.

From Apartment:

“Apartments invariably mold a kind of person quite hard of hearing and more than a trifle uncaring of the rights of others. His dwelling forces him to be that way. Stifling, airless, shockingly public, the architecture of the pupular three-by-six apartment, though stylized with the latest in doorknobs and light switches…is still oppressive to all that is human in one. The soul must have room to move in, where it is quiet and dark and private, where neighbors don’t intrude with their sneezes and their grunts, where walls protect and not reveal. It isn’t a stray theory that  children who grow up in apartments must suffer some twisting, eventually acquiring much of their elders’ malicious curiosity. Thrown too closely together, separated only by a thin plaster of cement, apartment dwellers pry, listen, peep, keep track of, speculate with more than subliminal interest.”

Read Kerima Polotan

Author's Choice book picture

“I THINK a man begins to lose himself when he forgets he once walked around with holes in his socks. It’s that kind of remembering that keeps us all earthbound, vulnerably human, and vulnerably happy. Frayed socks, empty rice bins, leftovers on the table, second-class movie houses, coffee in cheap restaurants, and so on. Want, or the memory of it, not satiation, keeps our nerve ends sensitive.
And happiness? Life’s innumerable complexities boil down to some cliche, bromidic, ho-hum, but true: money isn’t everything, a friend’s a friend, and God is love. You are what makes you happy—power, pelf, credit cards, custom-made shoes, a doorman’s salute, a hot line to the Palace, but how many of us want nothing more than to lock the doors and close the windows on a cold and rainy night with all the children safely in bed, turn on the radio to listen to an old song and implore the saints to keep love and life safe for a long long time.
Everyone’s trying to write off some ugly memory in his past—breakfastless mornings, jobless days, an untitled past, but if you succeed too well and wipe off everything, you might lose more than you wanted to. The human neck has muscles that one can use to look back; if you look back enough, perhaps it keeps the heart from getting too fibrous.”

—From Call Me Mister, one of the sixty-plus pieces in Author’s Choice, a collection of essays written by Kerima Polotan, the third edition of which is published by the University of the Philippines Press.

YEARS before September 28, 1968, the date when the abovementioned piece was published, Ms. Polotan regularly encountered a certain Sebastian, or Baste, as she called him. A former reporter whose command of the English language barely went beyond the third grade—or so she claims—Baste was public relations officer of a number of congressmen. Always friendly with the members of the media—of which Ms. Polotan was one—Baste distributed news releases of his clients and, using his charm, persuasion, and various other tools available to pulic relations people, ensured their publication.
But in the mid-sixties, when Baste turned big-time and became a Department Secretary, he changed: no longer was he Baste of old, he only responded to his national designation, which was Secretary.
Perhaps irritated by Baste’s newfound and inflated sense of self-importance, Polotan produces an unflattering portrait of an individual who makes it big despite having very little in the way of skills and intelligence.
At the same time, she also churns out an intelligent reflection of how people—especially mediocre ones—go from bad to worse especially after realizing that they’ve overtaken the proverbial Joneses.
While this essay is worth more than the price of the book in which it is included, it is just one of the many gems found in the said collection.
With subjects such as the Lapiang Malaya, political operators in the sixties, and the sugar barons of Bacolod, Author’s Choice is Philippine history, literature, and journalism all in one volume.
Go buy it and read it. It’s worth every word.