Before I will start this post, please allow me to greet my fellow Cebuanos a happy and blessed Feast of Sto. Niño today. Pit Senyor!
Photo by Alex Badayos/Sun.Star Cebu
Starting January, every third Sunday of the month, I am excited to be engaged in a joint venture with Mel U of The Reading Life whose blog has been an inspiration in my recent book blogging experience. Our joint venture involves featuring Filipino writers and their works. For this month, we have decided to check out Paz Marquez-Benitez’s life and her two short stories—A Night in the Hills and Dead Stars. Mel U already made a comprehensive post on A Night in the Hills. We welcome anyone who is interested to join us in this venture. For me, this is an exciting way of discovering vague-to-me and new-to-me writers who lived and/or are living close to home.
Moving on, let me share first the development of Philippine literature in English, which has been remarkably classified into three stages, the first of which will be, at a certain length, discussed in this post because our featured writer, Paz Marquez-Benitez, belongs to this stage that is otherwise known as the apprenticeship period or the period of imitation.
I think for one to understand art in literary form, one has to study what it is first. Benitez and her colleagues did just that during the apprenticeship period (1910-1935). And thanks to them who studied and taught English literature, more great Filipino writers were born in the succeeding stages.
I must say that the Philippine literature in English is relatively young—just over a hundred years old. You see, much of the commencement of the development of Philippine literature in English is attributed to the U.S., which set up its military government and opened schools in the Philippines shortly after the surrender of Manila in 1898 (this is about 113 years ago). This was a necessary move, according to General Arthur MacArthur (a great figure whose his three-word punchline, “I shall return”, is very popular among children), to set a common culture in the archipelagic Philippines. Hence, the soldiers and their wives became our first English teachers.
In 1900, English became the official medium of instruction in the Philippine education system. Eventually, the U.S. sent 600 American teachers on board the army transport Thomas to be included in this system. These teachers, thankfully, brought with them the knowledge on English and American literature, which they shared with the Filipinos with incredible passion. And so, the story goes that the students at this time studied the English and American literature that is practically dominating their textbooks more than the native literature of the Filipinos. (I personally don’t know if this was a good thing, but somehow, ironically, I’m glad it happened.)
And like students they were, they learned and appreciated English and American writers and their works as well as, to a certain extent, imitated them, seemingly focusing more on form and style rather than substance. Because of this, critics rightly call them “pioneers”.
While the Philippine Normal School became the breeding ground of teachers for elementary education, the University of the Philippines (UP), founded in 1908, became the center of literary efforts. From here, the pioneering and promising writers in English were born, including our featured Filipino writer, Paz Benitez-Marquez.
Benitez is considered as “far ahead of her period” for showing her masterful skill in writing the modern short story. Mel U is right, her story, “Dead Stars”, is very popular, even more than A Night in the Hills. In fact, Dead Stars, which was first published in the Philippines Herald on Sept. 20, 1925, had been praised as “a model of perfection in character delineation, local color, plot, and message”. It is hailed as “the first short story in English written by a Filipino”. And the half-feminist in me is proud to know it was written by a woman. Hey, nothing against male Filipino writers. I have equal admiration for many of them, including Amador Daguio and Vicente Sotto.
Dead Stars is a love story written in rich prose with a heart-warming message. It is told from the perspective of Alfredo Salazar who is in personal conflict with his feelings towards two women—Esperanza, his fiancée of four years, and Julia Salas whom he met while “neighboring”. Esperanza is the embodiment of the ideal wife to the ideal man, and so they make an ideal couple in the eyes of society. Alfredo has pursued her at the start of their relationship with intense courtship, but later on, the feeling seems to subside.
“Was he being cheated by life? Love—he seemed to have missed it! Or was the love that others told about a mere fabrication of fervid imagination, and exaggeration of the commonplace, a glorification of insipid monotonies such as made up his love life? Was love a combination of circumstances, or sheer native capacity of soul? In those days love was, for him, still the eternal puzzle; for love as he knew it, was a stranger to love as he divined it might be.” –Alfredo
Julia is quite different from Esperanza—“a girl striking and vividly alive, the woman that could cause violent commotion in his heart, yet had no place in the completed ordering of his life." The rare-turned-regular neighboring trips lead Alfredo to deep conversations with Julia and hence, develop an admiration for the woman. Sometimes, he would forget he is engaged, continuing his meetings with Julia while thinking that Esperanza “was not prone to indulge in unprovoked jealousies… (for) she was a believer in the regenerative virtue of institutions, in their power to regulate feeling as well as conduct”. Unfortunately, he also forgets the fact that Esperanza is a woman and, being so is already a risk factor for jealousies, provoked or otherwise.
“I do not understand you at all! I think I know why you have been indifferent to me lately. I am not blind, or deaf. I see perhaps some are trying to keep you away from me… Whatever my shortcomings, and no doubt they are many in your eyes, I have never gone out of my way, out of my place to find a man.” –Esperanza
Julia is in love with Alfredo. That much is pretty obvious in the story, especially after learning belatedly that Alfredo is engaged. An unconscious believer himself in the regenerative virtue of institutions, Alfredo still marries Esperanza. Over the years, he becomes an impassive husband. I feel sad for both of them but must I say they brought it upon themselves? Alfredo, for one, does not really know what he wants and so he lives his life as it comes.
He was not unhappy in his marriage. He felt no rebellion: only the calm of capitulation to what he recognized as irresistible forces of circumstance and of character… From his capacity of complete detachment he derived a strange solace… At such times did Esperanza feel baffled and hopeless; he was gentle, even tender, but immeasurably far away, beyond reach. –Alfredo
Eight years later, he still could not forget Julia. So while on business, he makes a side trip to Julia’s hometown to check if he had meant anything to her and her to him. Julia has not married. This implies many things—one of which could be that she is still in love with Alfredo but chooses not to fight for that love because she was taught that the act of giving through self-denial is a good thing and so she turned from a spirited young woman into a boring one living a boring life after she lost Alfredo to propriety and social order.
What did Alfredo find during his meeting with Julia after his marriage? Dead stars.
So that was all over. Why, why hade he obstinately clung to that dream from the weariness of actuality? And now, mere actuality had robbed him of the dream. So all these years—since when?—he had been seeing the light of dead stars, long extinguished, yet seemingly still in their appointed places in the heavens. -Alfredo
The ending—which is the title—is open to a lot of interpretations. For me, Alfredo has been clinging onto something that is unattainable because he is bored with the predictability of his life. Julia was a like a star, brimming his dull life with light and excitement for a short time. Because of the choices they made, Julia and Alfredo (and even Esperanza) become dead stars—they are there living with their appointed places in the society but not actually shining, not actually living their lives.
Very beautiful story. Five stars!
Why not read the whole story of Dead Stars by Paz Marquez-Benitez HERE, so you can derive your own interpretations and share them in this post?
Like Mel, I wish Benitez wrote and published more stories. Please read Mel's insightful post on Paz Marquez-Benitez and her story, A Night in the Hills.
We hope to hear from you. Share with us your experience with Philippine short stories.
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- Nancy -