Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — If I must make a confession, the hardest thing in the world right now is choosing to write about a friend in the inevitable past tense.
A certain irresistible kind of denial sets in when someone you respect for his talent and for his limitless capacity for kindness — a comrade in many ways beyond just the literary — passes away at the prime of his life, and you are left to ponder the inevitable questions about the vagaries of life. How could one so young be taken away so soon? What becomes of his promise? And shouldn’t we be able to read more books written by him?
When we last actively corresponded before his diabetes took a turn for the worse, Luis Joaquin Katigbak and I were discussing the possibilities of me writing another piece for the Notes & Essays section of Esquire Philippines, and I was adamant that I write about the Pinoy Generation X and what has become of it. In truth, it was an invitation to examine what had indeed become of us, now that our generation had ceased to be “young,” and we were now approaching the rough and perhaps painful tumble of middle age. This was between September and October in 2014, and Ben Stiller had just released his film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” — it felt like a cold examination of the dashed hopes of people who identify as members of Generation X, but also the possibility of resuscitation. The film had more gravity than it should in that regard: It was coming from the director of “Reality Bites,” which in 1993 was spelled out to the soundtrack of MTV and hit the angst and uncertainties of those coming of age in that decade — meaning Luis, meaning me, meaning everyone who was our contemporary. The angst then was filtered through a romantic lens only those in their 20s could conjure. Two decades later, the reality had more than bit; it had devoured, and our 40s were now all about taking stock of what exactly had happened.
Luis knew this all too well. In his short story, “Sabado, 1995,” he let his characters — remnants of a barkada who were together in college during the mid-1990s — assess the changes in their lives after years of trying to become responsible adults, all done of course to the nostalgic prodding of the music from their youth. (In this case, the music of the Eraserheads.) There have been career misfires. There have been babies and marriages. There has been a death. But the music is still there, pure and unadulterated in their evocations of a certain time, a perfect concoction “to remind themselves of the days before they weren’t bogged down by bills and health issues and regrets.”
How could one so young be taken away so soon? What becomes of his promise? And shouldn’t we be able to read more books written by him?
But nostalgia is a double-edged sword: It is sweet, but it is also a mirage. It is not real. What is real is the now in all its beautiful regrets and ugly becomings. Luis, in one of his essays for the Philippine Star, wrote about this once, and concluded with an exhortation for those who are still young and have no inkling of the hard choices that come with adulting. “Whatever you do,” he wrote, “enjoy being young, free, and relatively unburdened in the early 21st century, and draw both solace and regret from the fact that these days will never, ever, come around again.”
Luis said he was eager to read that piece from me — but I never got around to writing it, simply because the assignment ultimately terrified me. It was a mirror, and I lost heart about confronting something that perhaps I actually didn’t want to see. So Luis said to write a story instead, slated for Esquire’s annual fiction issue.
“I was reading Stephen King’s story from the Cameron Diaz issue of Esquire two months ago,” I told him over Facebook chat. “I was blown away by it. And then I read your story, ‘Sabado, 1995,’ and I was blown away by it as well. So medyo I feel challenged and revved up.”
“Fantastic!” he replied, complete with a grin emoticon. “Can’t wait to read it,” he finished, this time with a wink emoticon.
I sent in a story — and waited for a response.
It took a long time for him to reply. And when he did, it was already May, in 2015: “Hi Ian!” Luis wrote. “Yes I got it, thanks! Apologies for the delayed reply. Been very unwell lately and hard to reply properly. Will get back to you about it soon. Thanks again!”
When he finally did reply properly, it would be several months later — and in retrospect, it was already him saying goodbye.
Story by story
There are things you often come across in the stories of Luis Joaquin Katigbak:
Parallel worlds hidden in shadows, or even postcards.
The assorted boarding houses of state university students with rodent-infested rooms that have definitely seen better days.
The quiet desperation of lives in the advertising world.
Glimpses of strange but alluring girls in the middle of traffic, in the middle of a bus, in the middle of a grocery store.
Girls whose names start with the letter K: Kara, Kaye, Karen, Kami. (There is also a host of other girls’ names: a Jay, an Anya, a Nema, an Anna, a Cristy, an Astrid, an Ada, a Tam, several Doreens, a Rachel, a Tanya, two Christinas, a Jenn — but the girls whose names start with the letter K are somehow instantly remembered.)
Aliens who are decidedly human in their very understanding of what makes us tick.
Literature. Lots and lots of literature. From J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” to Haruki Murakami’s “A Wild Sheep Chase” to Paulo Dizon’s “Twilight of a Poet” to Douglas Adams’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Words, Wide Night.”
Science. Lots and lots of science. From the destructive nature of chlorofluorocarbons to Turing’s universal machine to robotics to chemical engineering.
Music. Lots and lots of music. From Tchaikovsky to The Dawn to R.E.M. to Right Said Fred to the Eraserheads to The Cure to A-ha.
And most of all, the evocations of distance — be it geographical or emotional — and endings.
It’s an understandable thing to have stories threaded with similar motifs and tropes. James Baldwin, after all, once famously said, “Every writer has only one story to tell, and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer, until the story becomes at once more narrow and larger, more and more precise, more and more reverberating.” He didn’t exactly have only one story to tell — in the short story “Tell the Sky,” the protagonist is blessed with exactly eight stories to tell — but Luis might have been a perfect demonstration of the refinement of themes Baldwin spoke of.
Luis was, truth to tell, not just the voice of my generation. He was a prophet.
In Luis’s first collection, “Happy Endings,” we were introduced, story by story, to what would prove to be the enduring themes in his fiction, although we didn’t know that quite yet. “Happy Endings” was an introductory volume that gave us a chance to sample a very distinct voice, distilled from 10 stories that were in essence juvenilia of the highest order. When it was first published by the University of the Philippines Press in 2000, it announced the arrival of a major talent — and with that came expectations of more books and other stories to come.
The follow-up, “Dear Distance” from Anvil Publishing, came 16 years later, and was, by Luis’s own admission, something he had been working on for eight long years. (In the interim, he came out with a book of nonfiction titled “The King of Nothing to Do: Essays About Everything and Nothing,” in 2006.) By then, the themes first explored in “Happy Endings” had deepened, taken on a deeply philosophical reach, and combed the farthest possibilities of their narratives to give us a wry and wistful judgment of what it is like to be young in the chaos and promises of the 21st century — and the subsequent alienation that can happen in a world that deepens the distances between us and others, and between us and ourselves .
Luis was, truth to tell, not just the voice of my generation. He was a prophet.
Our friendship started in 2002 — in a solicitation for stories, in a chance to connect with a writer of one’s age.
The thing was, Luis Joaquin Katigbak was probably the first in my generation of writers to come out of the door swinging, his promise fulfilled in the form of a first book — and whose voice was unmistakably ours and was something completely different from what came before. “Happy Endings” gave us permission to pen down our stories flavored by the beautiful dread and dastardly delights of having come of age in the 1990s — and it was empowering.
In 2002, I had cobbled together a website dedicated to Philippine Literature, which for a time became the mother lode of everything Filipino and literary, until I abandoned the project in 2006 because I had fallen in love. “Happy Endings” was a big thing even then, its influence only now being understood as my contemporaries piece together the heritage Luis left with his body of work. It came out at a time when there was much ado about collecting the fiction of this shiny new generation of writers.
Luis was very much in the thick of ferment that this generation of writers was stirring, and so, when I decided to edit an anthology of works by these writers, titled “Future Shock: An Anthology of Writers and New Literatures,” it was Luis whom I first emailed, asking for advice although he didn’t know me from Adam, and also to ask if he could provide me with a list of young writers I could invite to write for the anthology. He sent in his story “Passengers.”
There was a time, indeed, when we were very young, and tempests had yet to stir and drive us all apart. The future was here, and it promised to be an electric shock, and it was bright — and its mayor was Luis Joaquin Katigbak.
At the very end of “Document,” nestled deep in the middle of “Happy Endings,” the unnamed narrator ponders on the missives of a girl, a casual acquaintance who lives in the same complex where he resides. She has taken to using his ancient word processor, apparently with his consent, to churn out essays and term papers for school and the occasional surprising pieces of fiction, saving all of them in one of the directories in his IBM XT, complete with 8-character file names that used to be a source of our endless bafflements in those early digital days of the 1990s. Reading through them, he has begun, he thinks anyway, to get under her skin, to wonder whether all these words he is reading are enough to understand everything about her.
But are the stories we write really a testament to our lives? The story our narrator stumbles upon in his computer is about a woman who finds herself slowly disappearing, fading away to nothingness — and it ends abruptly, and he thinks of the girl who authored it: “While reading it, I find myself wondering something that I suppose all friends of writers wonder: Is this piece somehow autobiographical?” Then this: “If she were to disappear tomorrow, how long would it be before I forget about her? We have no official ties, not even memories of physical contact. No sweat, no saliva, no remembered tingle of skin. All we have are words, words that once flickered across a computer monitor, words spoken during midnight phone conversations, words shared while walking through streets and parks and shopping malls, words that formed comments, quotations, anecdotes, confessions and endless stories.”
It ends right there, the story hanging like that, floating in the air before it came rushing back to me in a hiss of remembrance and perhaps recrimination.
There has been a death, which is just a type of disappearance.
How long would it be before forgetfulness sets in?
I closed the book quickly. I had been reading Luis’s first book again in anticipation of reading “Dear Distance” — and the familiarity of the stories was washing over me, but this time around there was an extra bite to it. I began to feel the dilemma of over-reading. Every elegant turn of phrase that had some emotional import suddenly took on a kind of testament of the man we had just lost.
Inaction is often the choice to make for the characters in Luis’s fictional world, but action itself is defined very much by a wish for escape.
The questions the narrator of “Document” asks — especially the inescapable element of autobiography in the things that we write — are a kind of invitation to this kind of reading. How much of “Happy Endings” is Luis? And “Dear Distance”? Because traces of him do come out: the science geekdom, the love of indie music, the love of indie films, a penchant for Haruki Murakami …
“Dear Distance” begins with “Subterrania,” one of my favorite stories by Luis, which won the Palanca for the (now defunct) Future Fiction category in 2001. In that story, we follow an unnamed narrator as he devotes time to visit a friend named Kaye who has become increasingly reclusive — reminiscent of the Japanese hikikomori, people who have come to a reality of sheer detachment from the outside world, comfortable only in the cocoon of their rooms, entertained by the Internet, music streaming, DVDs, and computer games. Kaye calls this cocoon “subterrania.”
Subterrania was escape — and always a fatal one. The story asks difficult questions such as, What is it about the world that deadens us, that we are made comfortable with an early burial in our cocoons? It offers only the most vicarious pleasures, in television, in CD players, and their ilk. Kaye explains: “I love these things, these stories, these songs — because even the worst of them, in their own way, are perfect. Better than a life of uncertainty. They have beginnings and endings. I get the world distilled, you know, in its purer form.”
Inaction is often the choice to make for the characters in Luis’s fictional world, but action itself is defined very much by a wish for escape. In “Happy Endings,” that escape is made manifest in the titular objects in “Postcards,” where a girl named Anna finds a way to travel to parallel worlds through a magical process of folding these postal items, leaving a humdrum reality behind to “taste of wild fruit on an unknown shore, listening to strange music in a floating concert hall in the sky; riding a long-necked, multi-colored beast across a field of pleasant green.”
The escapes “Happy Endings” offers are almost always escapes from the dullness of young lives being wasted on dispassion. In the title story, the first in Luis’s cycle of First Graphics stories, this means the eventual kowtowing that is done toward a demanding world of bills and ugly responsibilities. Its narrator muses: “I wonder about [everyone and our] little dreams and failures and snatches of happiness. I think about all of us, speeding or lurching or trudging towards our individual endings, catching glimpses of them now and then, planning for the future, wishing, hoping, never really knowing for sure whether our endings will be happy or tragic.”
These tragedies are often small, but they come with a wallop of existential consequences — and sometimes they come in the shape of timid inaction, of missed chances, of unfortunate miscommunication or misreading. For Luis, these are gaping distances between you and me — and nobody really connects.
Connection and disconnection
In the stories of Luis Joaquin Katigbak, people yearn for connection in the disconnection — although sometimes they don’t know it, or perhaps deny it. And sometimes, when the chance for connection does come, rejection is the answer that greets it. We’ve seen this theme in inchoate incarnations in “Happy Endings”; in “Dear Distance,” we find its ultimate deepening.
In “Passengers,” we find a great articulation of the world, which has disappointed the many personas in Luis’s stories. Kaye in “Subterrania” knew this, and the narrator of “Passengers” echoes it — that perhaps the only good thing about this world is its canned stories — in movies, in music, in books, in computer games, the manufactured truer than the real. As in “Postcards,” the characters in this story thinks of the multiverse as a dream of getting away from here. And yet, the final realization: “But what does it matter? Maybe that’s all we’re meant to do, enjoy the trip while it lasts. Maybe luck or faith are the only things that keep us from delays, transfers, fatal crashes.”
"In the end, distances and surfaces are all we can ever be sure of, and this is no sad thing. In a world that has accelerated almost beyond recognition, it may be the only comforting thought of which I am capable."
In the final story, “Dear Distance,” however, the fulfillment of that distance may be just as simple as the acceptance that distance exists — and must exist, because in the final analysis, it is still very much a part of living. We read this admonition in the end: “Whether you are too young and I am inexcusably older or vice versa, there will always be things we have in common, and things we will never understand about each other. In the end, distances and surfaces are all we can ever be sure of, and this is no sad thing. In a world that has accelerated almost beyond recognition, it may be the only comforting thought of which I am capable.”
The title piece, set in a near future where humans give themselves genetic enhancements to stand out from the crowd, is very much a good summing up of all Luis’s themes. It makes us realize that Luis’s stories come off as ruminations, of the deep philosophical sort — these stories in search of big answers, using the guise of fiction to get a glimpse of what life is all about.
Missives and musings
Things I will miss about Luis now that he is gone:
His obsession with fonts.
His love for hamsters.
The stories he had yet to tell.
Perhaps one of the most chilling stories Luis ever wrote — especially for someone who is, like him, a writer — is “Tell the Sky” from “Dear Distance.” In this magnificent fantasy piece, the protagonist gets a surprising piece of advice from a fortune teller who mysteriously says to him: “You have eight stories … Use them well.”
He then spends the rest of his life doling out, piece by piece, this finite number of narratives — sometimes wasting them away, sometimes forgetting the import of their telling — and finally realizes the truth about writers and writing: “There are stories inside everyone, of course, some are like caged birds of varying hues, some like ripe slimy pods ready to burst at a touch. Most people have no idea how many they contain. Some people think they have limitless tales, when really, they recount the same one over and over with insipid variations… No one ever notices. Some people actually do have a large and wonderful variety of stories within them, and whenever one is released, it sparkles and dazzles and hangs in the air for a slow moment, like a December-sky firework.”
And I couldn’t help but ask myself: Did Luis know? Did he know he would die young, and if so, was he racing to complete the stories he felt he needed to tell before passing on?
Perhaps. Yet I cannot help but think of the possibilities of the stories he is now unable to tell.
I can no longer look forward to the First Graphics novel he kept promising he’d finish.
I can no longer look forward to the quirky anthology of essays about imaginary books, movies, and music that he would have edited and come out with.
I can no longer look forward to future collaborations on stories.
In the last few months before he succumbed to that final stroke, our missives to each other floated around editorial reminders of deadlines to be beaten — and the occasional musings about typefaces and hamsters. I check out our last messages to each other on Facebook, and I come across this chat from Oct. 4, 2015.
“Hello Ian! I hope all is well with you,” Luis began, a smile emoticon immediately following, with the rest of the message telling me that he was professional to the very end. “I must apologize for taking forever to get back to you regarding your story. I liked it right away, of course, and was determined to feature it in Esquire’s annual fiction issue. Unfortunately said issue was delayed and delayed, while my health worsened and worsened. Long story short, due to my deteriorated capacities, I can no longer continue working on the magazine, and the next issue will be my last ... Again, my apologies for these unfortunate circumstances … It is an excellent story.”
“Are you okay?” I asked him.
“Not really, not for a long time now. Every day is difficult for me to get through. I can’t leave my apartment. I can barely walk, and on particularly bad days, I can barely see. I’m working with a doctor though to get better. Luckily she makes house calls.”
“Oh no. I’m sorry, I had no idea!”
“No worries, Ian.”
“Magpagaling ka. And thanks for telling me.”
“I’m just glad I finished my book,” Luis wrote. “It took forever.”
“Yes! Finally!” I replied.
“‘Happy Endings’ was seminal for me. It was the first story collection by somebody from my generation that I read — and it was one of those things that made me want to become a writer.”
“I’m so happy to know that! Glad I played some little part in your becoming [a] writer. Thank you.”
“And that cover was a killer.”
“I had the gall to put my face on the cover of my own book, haha! Well, half my face anyway.”
On Jan. 26, I wrote him again, hoping for one last chat: “How are you?” I typed.
What did I expect?
He never replied.
Luis Joaquin Katigbak died at 41 on April 20, 2016.