Jessica Zafra knocks them down

LODESTAR By Danton Remoto
Philippine Star Art and Culture Section
Monday, June 16, 2008

Twisted 8: the Night of the Living Twisted is the latest reincarnation of the series of books that has made Jessica Zafra famous – or notorious, if you want to put it that way. But hey, along with the books of Ambeth Ocampo, Margie Holmes and, okay, myself, these are the only books from Anvil that get reprinted every year or so. In short, the demand is there, the readers are present – and we met them headlong.

Ige Ramos of Zeus Books co-published this book, and in his wicked intro he writes: “Twisted 8: The Night of the Living Dead is designed like a non-linear novel with the titles of the essays as sub-headings. One can arbitrarily peruse the book, like an iPod in random mode. It contains exactly what one would expect from a Jessica Zafra collection: essays pertaining to cats, books, film, travel, tennis and personal diaries, plus 3 Bonus Tracks of unpublished stories. Zeus Books – the name Jessica and I agreed to call our enterprise – is the fulfillment of our dream to publish the sort of books we want to read. It is our contribution to the campaign to reduce the amount of stupidity in the world.”

The essays read like blog entries — short, sharp, supremely satirical. Nothing and no one is spared, from social climbers to intellectual social climbers. The celebrity set gets a going over in “The hottest bars in hell.” Listen:

"Home is for boozing and bars and clubs are for posing. This got me thinking about those openings and other allegedly A-list events at bars and clubs, the ones we keep reading about in society pages and magazines. First, it’s always the same bunch of people at these parties — what do they do, travel in packs?"

She has a talent for being there at the right place and the right time, just when a strange event is happening, or a source of these events just has to, uh, share the weirdness of it all. Rep. Teddy Boy Locsin of Makati used to publish Today newspaper, where the Twisted columns began. They met each other in a bookstore.

"He hosts an AM radio talk show… The TV news programs were full of images of distraught American refugees (the people CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer referred to as ‘so poor and so black’) at the Astrodome, abandoned by their own government. Teddy Boy was spewing about American violations of international law, the Abu Ghraib scandal, and the general mess in Iraq, when a listener phoned in his comments. ‘A, basta! Bilib pa rin ako sa Amerika! Ang mahihirap nila, puro matataba? (Whatever! I still admire America! Their poor people are all fat!”) No one knew how to respond to that."

This ability to capture dialogue, freeze the telling detail, get the tone down pat -- all of these remind you that Jessica Zafra is a first-rate fiction writer. Her book, Manananggal Terrorizes Manila, served notice that from now on, female characters in Philippine fiction will never be mewling maids anymore. They will be brave and live in congested cities. They will be tart-tongued, their witty ripostes thrown like Frisbees in the air.

Proof positive of this is how she ends a trip to a European museum.

"Fifteen minutes before closing time I found myself sitting on a couch in the Rubens gallery. My feet felt like they would burst out of my sneakers, so I put them up, and soon I was stretched out full-length on the couch, surrounded by chubby, rosy Baroque nudes. No one seemed to think there was anything strange about a semi-conscious visitor lying on the couch. The museum guard nodded as he walked by. From inside their framed universes, the dead people painted by a dead artist looked down upon the living with pity and compassion."

Pity and compassion, plus a deep understanding of the Filipino psyche also animate the three excellent stories that round off this collection. “Lamentations 5:23” has the fluidity and vividness of a short film, with an ending that would have STRAP (Society of Transsexual Women in the Philippines) clapping their soft and perfumed hands together. Kenneth Tabayoyong is a poor worker in a restaurant as tangled as his nerves in the story “Spaghetti.” And “The Starlet Suicides?” It skewers the madness of Philippine show business.

Everyone conceded that Madeleine had no talent. She had a voice like dull scissors cutting a tin can, and when she danced she looked like she was being repeatedly struck by lightning.

It could happen to you, too, while reading this collection. But the lightning is that of revelation, showing that contemporary urban life in the Philippines is both a nightmare — and a dream.

Twisted 8 sells for P250 and is available at National Book Store and Power Books -- my two favorite stores owned by my favorite book seller, Nanay Coring Ramos.

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