Love Trouble

Carljoe Javier

Marina Abramovic Rest Energy with Ulay 1980. Courtesy the Artist and Lisson Gallery

Last Valentine’s Day, I was searching for a book on love. No, it’s not what you think: I just needed a title to promote for the holiday, for my marketing job at UP Press. One jumped out at me: Fourteen Love Stories, edited by Butch Dalisay and Sarge Lacuesta. In its pages I discovered pieces on all aspects of love—except for that most-Filipino aspect of all, without which our love isn’t quite love. But more on that later.

Fourteen Love Stories spans a century, from the classic “Dead Stars,” by Paz Marquez Benitez, to contemporary pieces from the new millennium. As Dalisay and Lacuesta explain:

This selection of Filipino love stories in English came about when we realized how many memorable love stories our authors have written—and yet how inaccessible they remain to Filipino readers, who never get to read enough of Philippine literature to begin with, and whose idea of love is more often shaped by Hollywood than by their own rich experience.

The stories are indeed memorable. I would even say unforgettable. They are rich and varied portrayals of love, with longing, regret, desire, and more than a fair share of raunchiness. By all measures, this is definitely a collection I’d want for my bookshelf. I’d even push it on friends looking for a great book of short-stories.

But it is also a terrible book to give on Valentine’s Day.

If you give a girl this book, she will probably think you’re trying to break up with her.

What else would you think, encountering “Dead Stars” as the lead story? Benitez’s is one that I love, and have studied many times as a student, and discussed as a teacher. The classic telling of a love triangle between Alfred, his betrothed Esperanza, and the alluring Julia Salas, it covers small-town social mores, the pull of attraction, and the hard choice between one’s heart and one’s head. It has its romantic moments, but it leaves us with this:

…he had been seeing the light of dead stars, long extinguished, yet seemingly still in their appointed places in the heavens. An immense sadness as of loss invaded his spirit, a vast homesickness for some immutable refuge of the heart far away where faded gardens bloom again, and where live on in unchanging freshness the dear, dead loves of vanished youth.

Yes, it’s beautiful, staggering, and truly awesome as it inspires one to pause and gape at the power of those few lines. Yes, it’s filled with wonderful imagery and symbolism, the kind teachers such as myself pick apart for hours as students nod away at my effusive fanboy-ing. But it just doesn’t send the right signals to the girl you want to get with on Valentine’s Day.

Another unforgettable story is “The Wedding Dance,” by Amador T. Daguio. It is the heartbreaking story of Lumnay and Awiyao, a married couple whose marriage is ending. It is a familiar story, but this twists a knife in because of the circumstances of the break. Awiyao says to Lumnay: “Who knows but that, with him, you will be luckier than you were with me?” Lumnay replies: “I don’t want any man… I don’t want any more men.” Awiyao says: “You know very well that I don’t want any other woman either.” He later follows with: “Lumnay, if I did this it is because of my need for a child. You know that life is not worth living without a child. They have mocked me behind my back. You know that.” I wiped away a tear and let out a soft sniffle as I scanned the pages to type up those lines, reliving again the couples’ struggle with their feelings, wants, and societal pressures. Daguio’s story sucks you in with its depths of emotion and rawness of expression.

I found myself loving pretty much all the pieces in this book. There is National Artist Kerima Polotan’s “The Virgin”—a heartbreaking story of longing, lust, and desperation. And Aida Rivera-Ford’s “Love in the Cornhusks”—another snapshot of lost love, culminating in one of the most poignant and painful endings I’ve ever read. A favorite is Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s extremely subtle “The Dust Monster,” featuring a neglected housewife who conjures company for herself while her husband is off having an affair.

“Passengers,” by Luis Katigbak, also ranks among my favorites in the collection. It is beautiful, magical and memorable, but predicated on its “I” persona reminiscing on lost love. I read Katigbak as an undergrad, and I counted him as one of those I wanted to write like, because of golden paragraphs like this, from “Passengers”:

There is an endless road somewhere, and on that road speeds a hand-me-down rattletrap bus on an endless trip, and somewhere near the back of that bus, you and I are snugly squeezed into one of the two-seater benches, with you next to the window and me next to the aisle, holding hands like schoolchildren, talking, occasionally smiling at each other, looking like we will never let go.

There is a lot to like about Fourteen Love Stories.Each is expertly written, about deep human truths. They are good Filipino stories, and great love stories. However, each has the same flaw: They’re not romantic—at least not in the Hollywood, lovey-dovey, Lady and the Tramp-eating-spaghetti-scene sense. Each overlooks that vital, very-Filipino component of love: kilig.

Kilig is that phenomenon with no English translation, no equivalent that captures what it is. Could that mean it is uniquely Filipino? Every culture may understand what kilig is, but we are special because we have a word for it, a specific label for what is so hard to express: the butterflies in the stomach, the skip in your step, walking on the moon, head in the clouds, the tingle in your spine, that blush and smile you can’t suppress at the mere thought or mention of your beloved, that feeling that stops time, when every single love song you hear is about just the two of you. Kilig: The magic of being in love.

This is where the disjoint glaringly appears between our great literature and what we’re searching for in a Valentine’s Day story. We look for kilig in our movies and TV shows, books and music, wherever possible—because it appears too rarely in our lifetime.

I think that’s why kilig is usually absent from our literary efforts, because it’s all too often absent from our everyday lives. Our literature is a portrayal of the human condition, the reality of things, the often painful truths and all-too-tangible tragedies of our world. When we are being honest, we admit that the majority of relationships fail, that marriages can fall apart, that love sometimes does not last, that people break up and hurt each other, and that each new attempt at love is a long shot.

What kilig does is surrender to the hope, to the fairy tale. Its magic is found in our Disney princess movies, love-team rom-coms, cheap Tagalog romance novels, and primetime telenovelas. These popular forms show struggle and hardship, too, but not to the level of reality to which literature aspires. The hardships they portray are merely plot devices—obstacles to overcome on the way to happily-ever-after. And for that eventual climax of kilig, there has to finally be a kiss. And maybe even a theme song. (Because, corny as it sounds, real-life couples have their theme songs—chosen from their experiences and pop culture. It’s no coincidence that romantic movies take their titles and music from the sweet songs played endlessly on the radio.)

By not settling for more “truthful” expression—as we see with “literary” writing—we are defining our cultural experiences of love. Buying into kilig love stories, Hollywood sap, and cheesy songs is not denial. Buying into the fantasies peddled to us is actually an act of boundless hope. Despite the heartbreak, rejection, pain, and sadness that attends a life of failed relationships, it is an expression of faith.

From this missed opportunity seen in Fourteen Love Stories, we see a neat spot in Philippine literature waiting to be filled. Perhaps a collection of love stories that doesn’t forget kilig? Or a novel you’d confidently present to your crush on Valentine’s Day? Either would require the literary skill and eye for truth found in the pieces inFourteen Love Stories, but would have to generate that magic that we all know and crave.

It’s a tall order, as I know well, having stumbled myself in attempting to write my own kilig-literary tales. But ours is a nation filled with great stories and great storytellers. I don’t think I will be waiting too long to find that book I am searching for.

Carljoe Javier teaches at the University of the Philippines Department of English and Comparative Literature. He’s the author of three books of nonfiction, a book of critical essays, and the short story collection Geek Tragedies.