If there’s anything that made me pick up Isang Napakalaking Kaastigan by Vlad Bautista Gonzales, it was its size and title – the same things that allow me to pick up books by Milflores Publishing more often than I would any other publishing house. There’s something easy and light about the way their books are packaged, something that calls out to you as you browse through the Filipiniana section of any bookstore. And with prices that are almost always only equivalent to the price of a large cup of coffee in your neighborhood Starbucks, it’s easy to shell out for their seemingly endless set of new releases.
Gonzales’ book of essays though also had the word “astig” going for it. A word that the author himself swears to using, but really only has a flimsy because broad description for what it actually is. In the essay with the same title as the book, the word “astig” is allowed a life all its own: “Kahit saan ako pumunta may astig. Sa bahay, may astig. Sa eskuwela, may astig. Sa TV at saka sa DVD, may astig. Minsan may nagtsismis sa’kin, astig daw ako. Hindi ako naniwala (102).”
And yet, it is this instability of definitions that allows for the book itself to bank on the notion of the “astig” – whether it means to or not. Particularly to a female reader, it is the one thing that allows for the book of essays to be digestible at the very least, and downright enjoyable at most.
This is of course not to say that Gonzales’ essays are politically incorrect as far as gender issues are concerned. In fact, what he employs as male essayist, obviously talking about Pinoy male experiences, is a self-conscious – if not self-deprecating – tone. Usually beginning to tell a sexist joke by precisely saying it is sexist; more often than not speaking of male experiences (such as Military Science, or issues with other males in the family, or conversations with friends) and noting that it is precisely Pinoy ka-macho-han that is the point.
But beyond the male-female dynamic that this self-conscious Pinoy macho voice dares deal with – rare enough on this side of patriarchal Philippines – Isang Napakalaking Kaastigan has much more to offer.
For the generation to which Gonzales belongs, there is familiarity in the book’s nostalgic turn towards the lives we lived in the 90s. We are reminded by these essays that the shows we watched, the music we listened to, the roads we traveled, were by and large the same; we are told that the lives we lived then were intertwined by the technology we had (TV and cassette tapes), and learned to get used to (pirated DVDs and computers); we are made to imagine that we are bound together by the malls we started to frequent, and the changing landscape of consumerism that we began to live and believe.
It is here that Gonzales’ writing becomes even more integral to his telling of the lives he has lived, and continues to do so. In the throes of neo-coloniality and its contingent effects on contemporary culture, the form that Gonzales uses to keep his readers interested is as important as what it is he actually says.
Gonzales’ use of the essay as form, is in fact a reclaiming of a space that in recent years has come to be equated with the woman writer. Through the non-fiction narrative, the woman has been allowed her own voice and experiences – a writing back against the patriarchy that has oppressed her. With Gonzales’ self-conscious, gender-correct, use of the form in telling the lives he has lived within the expectations of becoming a full-blooded Pinoy macho, he himself may be seen as someone who writes back against this patriarchy.
It becomes clear throughout the essays in the book, that the Pinoy male is also as much oppressed and repressed by patriarchy’s expectations of its own self. That the length of the essays is sometimes as short and as experimental as blog entries is telling as well of how these experiences are dependent on memory – selective as that may be. That the experiences are almost always funny, if not downright hilarious, is telling as well of the things that memory keeps, and the ways in which we cope with the things that oppress us.
Another aspect of form that can’t be left unsaid is the language that Gonzales chooses to write in. Using a Filipino that’s easy and comfortable to read, that shifts to English when it must, Isang Napakalaking Kaastigan is representative as well of a generation grappling with the issues neo-coloniality in the forms of available technology and the changing urban landscape. What Gonzales ends up treating readers to is a language that’s urban vernacular at its best – the kind that we use everyday, but which we are told, isn’t the kind of language we can write in. Because it’s too informal, or is just not done.
But Gonzales proves it can be done. In fact, through Isang Napakalaking Kaastigan, he proves many things to be possible for the Pinoy male writer: the use of a perspective that’s critical of his “macho” self, and that’s self-conscious about the sexism that his culture allows him; finding affinity with the form of the essay and its recent function as response to patriarchal literary production; the unapologetic use of a Filipino language that disregards academic notions of acceptable writing.
In the end, and probably without knowing it, Gonzales has in fact defined what it is that makes his writing astig. And as a full-blooded female reader, I can only agree and say: “Astiiiiig!”