The Joys of Dislocation.

I read the first half of uncommonly prolific scholar Patricio N. (Jojo) Abinales’ new collection of essays on a Philippine Airlines flight from San Francisco to Manila. Unlike myself – I only had a 90-minute ride to the foothills of Mt. Makiling once I arrived at Ninoy Aquino International Airport – some of my fellow passengers had to take dusty jeepney rides to the provinces, to places driven past on the way to Baguio.

The second half of Jojo’s book I read on yet another plane – one from Manila to Tagbilaran (a place I know close to nothing about) and back – and then I’m typing this up in my childhood home in Los Banos, a town from whose everyday life I’ve been long detached.

There’s a reason I’m sharing these particular bits of information, even if it likely comes across as indulgent hand-wringing on my part. But to the Tagalog-speaking, Laguna-educated reader like myself, whose knowledge of the Philippines is embarrassingly parochial and severely restricted to Manila’s egregiously narrow cultural production, the book, as a whole, comes as a sharp and necessary rebuke. I suspect that Jojo would certainly have meant it to be one.

Entitled The Joys of Dislocation: Mindanao, Nation and Region (Anvil, 2008), these uniformly intelligent, wide-ranging essays – laced with bitingly honest wit – are superb illustrations of Jojo’s life as a scholar and a public intellectual. A collection of columns from the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Newsbreak, and UP Forum, among others, the book spans a little over ten years of Philippine political upheaval, and Jojo – both as perpetual and peripatetic outsider and uncomfortable insider – was there to chronicle the events. If anything, this compendium serves as a correction, even (or especially) to academics who generalize about the country as a whole from the Diliman Republic. (Though Jojo may sometimes need to be gently poked in the side and be reminded that UP does not equal Diliman.)

What the book is most concerned about is Mindanao, as should be clear from the book’s subtitle. (An inversion of the traditional “Luzon-Visayas-Mindanao” arrangement would have worked as well, but Jojo, himself happily afflicted by “el demonio de las comparaciones“, instead writes perceptively about Southeast Asia as a region. Abdurrahman Wahid and Lee Kuan Yew probably figure more in this book than do the miscreants in Malacañang.)

One of his primary arguments is about Mindanao’s centrality in the formation of the Filipino nation, forced into both benign and malicious neglect by Manila and its Western enablers by the middle of the 19th century. He writes, pace Warren and Reid, on the incipient “transnationalism” (my words) in Sulu and Zamboanga’s historical role as a Southeast Asian entrepôt. There is a certain repetitiveness in this initial section – the neutralization of Nur Misuari, for instance, is discussed about half a dozen times – but nevertheless the essays display a remarkable breadth.

A column on wild boar meat, for instance, becomes an opportunity for culinary nostalgia and a reflection on business relationships between Christians and Muslims. Reminiscing about his days as a nicotine fiend, Jojo writes (in a gem of an essay, “Smoking and the Pulang Silangan“) about how smoking was de rigueur for members of the kilusan – at least until he discovered that Mao actually preferred British cigarettes and not Chinese peasant cigars. But by then, his diminished lung capacity made outrunning riot policemen a little more difficult anyway.

One might think that, amidst such somber topics as the breakdown of peace talks in Mindanao, or environmental degradation, or an open letter to Hashim Salamat, that the “joys” of the title are meant sarcastically. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, as Jojo’s well-chosen zingers and bon mots alone are worth the price of admission, give or take a belly laugh or two. Abinales pulls no punches: Jose Ma. Sison, the “Filipino Ayatollah” (his words), is singled out to hilarious but deadly serious effect. In fact, one of the collection’s many pleasures is its sometimes subtly scabrous humor. (Full disclosure: I experienced Jojo’s humor first-hand, as we braved the below-zero winters and tinikling-at-gunpoint of upstate New York together. I consider him a mentor and a slightly elder brother, though he would no doubt bristle at being called “Kuya” or worse, “Tito”.)

This very frankness makes the collection a constantly stimulating read, as Jojo, in essay after essay, takes a stand and defends it. He argues, for instance, for the abolition of UP Diliman’s “intellectually deficient” Institute of Islamic Studies – arguing, rightly, for its establishment in Mindanao as it should be – and promptly kicks to the curb a reader who wrote in response, daring to defend the Institute. On the arguments about the burial of Marcos’ “putrid cadaver” in Philippine soil in 1998, Jojo writes about how over 43 percent of military salvaging in a ten-year period were from Mindanao and asks, rhetorically, “How can people ever forget what Marcos did to Filipinos, especially those far from the national center? If there is one reason to oppose Marcos’ burial in the cemetery of dead heroes, it should be the viciousness with which he unleashed state power on us.”

A lingering bitterness (nay, sorrow) at the failures of the radical Left if not its stunning lack of foresight to claim a stake in the EDSA Uprising, then its murderous purges of anti-Sison cadres in the early ’90s – is the topic of many a column. His scholarly knowledge, for instance, of different peace negotiations between communist organizations and the state throughout Southeast Asia underpins an essay called “Peace Negotiations and Peace Processes” and very likely puts Satur Ocampo and Roilo Golez (the putative subjects of his column) to shame.

For all his concern about dislocation, one wonders why there aren’t more essays about migration, or – given his current position as Professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University – at least about his fellow Filipino countrywomen condemned to pouring drinks for Japanese businessmen. I can only hope that he is saving those essays for another volume, but this intelligent collection fits the bill for now. May it shake you out of your provincial complacency as it did mine.