6 books to help you understand Mindanao better

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Despite being an enigma to many, it’s a great disservice to assume that these places in the Philippine south are merely characterized by the violence often attributed to its islands. It’s timely, after the historic signing of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, to examine our biases and look at history.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I’m hard-pressed to remember when my love affair with Mindanao began. In the beginning, I was certain that I fell for its remoteness, the allure of the foreign that’s also nearby. I was a doe-eyed romantic then, naïve in most ways and hooked on the possibility of encountering Filipinos outside my comfort zone.

After nearly two decades of moving in and out of Mindanao’s many corridors, weaving my way through dirt roads and learning about the waters that embrace these wonderful islands, I can say that I may have found a love that lasts. Where many men have fallen by the wayside, Mindanao’s many cultures, people, and temperaments have kept me loyal, committed even (how un-millennial) despite an uncertain future. This isn’t the easiest place to love and the kind of turbulence one experiences here is not for the faint-hearted. I’ve come to think of it as dancing: Sometimes we move two steps forward, other times two or three steps back — but we move and that’s what matters.

In the course of falling in love, I’ve found these books to be most soothing and puzzling, reminders that Mindanao is complex but not unlike Manila or the Visayas, or the Cordilleras. Despite being an enigma to many, it’s a great disservice to assume that these places in the Philippine south are merely characterized by the violence often attributed to its islands. I feel it’s timely, after the historic signing of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, to examine our biases and look at history. Many Mindanaos exist and that’s a good thing.

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“Si Amina y El Cuidad De Maga Flores” by Christina Newhard (Sari-Sari Storybooks, 2017)

Our image of Mindanao is shaped by what we are taught and told as children so it’s important that we create and read diverse children’s stories. Christina Newhard and her Sari-Sari Storybooks fill that need. “Amina and the City of Flowers” tells the story of a young Yakan weaver searching for what to render on her loom. She wanders around Zamboanga yearning for Basilan but is also taken by the flowers that bloom in her city. I’m endeared to this book because it’s bilingual. The story is told in Chavacano and English. Amina’s own presence in Zamboanga despite having roots in Basilan tell us about movement, migration, and continuities. Here is a Yakan weaver adapting to change and yet celebrating her culture on the loom.

Available in bookstores nationwide.

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“Children of the Ever-Changing Moon: Essays by Young Moro Writers” (Anvil Publishing, 2007) & “Rays of the Invisible Light: Collected Works by Young Moro Writers” both edited by Gutierrez Mangansakan II (Bidadali Press, 2015)

Racism is alive and well in the Philippines. Narratives of ‘othering’ are no stranger to the Moros who have had to endure our ignorance and the violence it engenders. I grew up in a time when the phrase “A good Muslim is a dead Muslim” could be said without anyone batting an eyelash. Let’s face it. We were taught to believe that they were monsters and there was hardly any mention of being good attributed to being Muslim.

Reading these two volumes edited by Teng Mangansakan shook me to the core because I realized, outside the need to see them as good and bad, Muslims could be just like me. There are essays here about losing parents, shifting identities, growing up, falling in love, losing faith, and I love that majority of the voices are of women. It’s hard to stereotype when stories represented here don’t fit our narrow boxes and when the second installment was released in 2015, I heaved a euphoric sigh and thought, “Finally, someone’s making a fuss and the great writing in this collection is a finger raised at every warmongering politician and their ignorant ilk.” Read it. Love the mess of it and forget coming back the way you were before you started reading.

“Children of the Ever-Changing Moon” is available at National Book Store and Powerbooks. “Rays of Invisible Light” is available at Solidaridad Bookshop, Uno Morato, Coffee For Peace, Inc., Mindanews in Davao City; and the ARMM Regional Library in Cotabato.

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“The Songs of Salanda and Other Stories of Sulu” by H. Arlo Nimmo (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1994)

H. Arlo Nimmo is an anthropologist who did fieldwork in the Sulu archipelago in the mid-1960s. He was able to capture the way of life of the Bajao/Sama people prior to the turbulent 1970s when their lives were transformed by the war that the Marcos regime waged against Muslims in the archipelago.

I read Nimmo prior to visiting Tawi-Tawi, now a standalone province but in his book still a part of Sulu. The stories he tells are so captivating. Nimmo built me a world I grew a deep longing for and when I attended the first Badjao conference hosted by MSU Tawi-Tawi, I was floored by the deep admiration and respect people had for his scholarship.

The final chapter tells of the last trip Nimmo makes back to his field site. He has been tagged as a CIA operative and the journey to Sulu has been fraught with difficulty. He had left and returned to see a place he loved completely changed. Bongao, the sleepy outpost, became a city while environmental destruction and military excesses characterized this new landscape. It’s heartbreaking to read his account but also one that affirms the wonder and excitement found in places unfamiliar to us.

The title comes from his meeting with the woman, Salanda, who would sing “sad songs on the sorrow-filled lives of people with no control over their fates.” Salanda, the woman with the beautiful voice is no more but Nimmo suggests that perhaps we must go to Sulu or Tawi-Tawi and listen anyway.

Available at the Ateneo de Manila University Press

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“Out of the Shadows: Violent Conflict and the Real Economy of Mindanao” edited by Francisco J. Lara, Jr. and Steven Schoofs (Bughaw, Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2016)

There are some things I learned about while travelling in Sulu that I could never explain to friends in Manila. How, for instance, it was sometimes okay to have rice smuggled into some ports with law enforcers forced to turn a blind eye on these deliveries. Other times, it was the other way around. I would make a table of uniformed and civilian friends laugh when I told them about PDEA’s drug raid in our middle-class, gated village, where a neighbor set up a drug lab. I could never have understood how these two realities converged were it not for this book.

In seven chapters, the editors Lara and Schoofs, pool together researchers to discuss everything we wanted to know about Mindanao but were too scared (or perhaps lazy, because dominant narratives have a way of dulling our senses) to ask. Guns, drugs, debt, kidnapping for ransom, and every conceivable image of scary Mindanao is put under the microscope through a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis.

One emerges from the reading shadows and discovers that many of the imagined dangers aren’t really to be found in Mindanao. Eddie Quitoriano’s study on the illicit gun trade in conflict-affected Mindanao for example discusses the issue of gun proliferation in the Philippines. It surprised me to see how the number of loose firearms (in contrast to licensed ones) in Luzon accounted for more than half of the total firearms distributed in the Philippines. Imagine that? No wonder mayors are dropping like flies and guns for hire are easy to come by these days.

As for Mindanao and its real economy that consists of both the formal and informal, it’s good to see how the informal economy provides employment and livelihood opportunities for those at the margins, often poor and vulnerable. Until the central state manages to embrace Mindanao’s real economy and stop pretending it has everything in control, I’m pretty sure these informal economies will persist and time and again we will be reminded by studies, such as the ones in this volume, that conflict in Mindanao is a development issue concerning the basic rights people ought to be afforded but aren’t.  

Available at the Ateneo de Manila University Press

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“Colon” by Rogelio Braga (Balangiga Press, 2016)

If there is one novel I read in 2016 that continues to haunt me in the present, it would have to be this one. “Colon” is partly set in the eponymous street in Cebu that serves as the novel’s center, an entry-point for Filipino readers to recognize that this is about us, about our nation and its violent history. It questions the very essence of our nationalist aspirations and bravely asks us to reconsider where we draw nationalist lines: Who is included, who is excluded, and who is eliminated — in both the real world and on the pages of history? The story is told in conversational Filipino and Braga’s way with the language allows for ease in the reading. But don’t be misled into thinking that this is an easy book to read. Everything withheld from the conventional Philippine history courses, especially those that gloss over Muslim Mindanao’s history, is exposed here. Manili, Tacub, Palimbang, Jabidah — these names should not be mysteries to us and yet they are. In following the story of Blesilda, a young call center agent whose life is transformed by the knowledge of her past, we come to accept that she is us. She is Filipino, except she is not or perhaps it is us? Perhaps we are the strangers to our own history and its brutality.

Available at Balanginga Press and Central Books