Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pop Stories for Groovy Kids

I wrote this on the request of Tony Joaquin, nephew of Nick Joaquin. I still have to dig up the books again, so I'm piecing all this together from memory. But oh, yes! what memories!

While the rest of the world may know Nick Joaquin for his journalism, his novels, or his histories, I remember him best for a little-known collection called "Pop Stories for Groovy Kids." My sister and I received the set from an aunt who worked in UCPB (and as I recall, the books were published with a grant from the bank.) "Pop Stories" made for several readings and re-readings throughout that summer and several summers after that so much so that the covers fell off and the pages split apart.

It's been close to thirty years since I last read any of "Pop Stories" but the characters are as vivid to me as if I read them yesterday. Without peeking at the books -- the set, minus one volume, still lies somewhere in our shelves -- I can still rattle off the names of some, so memorable are their names: Ellang Uling, Lilit Bulilit, Johnny Tinoso, Juan Tamad, and of course, Mariang Makiling. But the ones that stayed with me best were the three monkeys in Nick Joaquin's rollicking riff on Ibong Adarna; none moreso than the monkey who was deaf, blind, and dumb. Who would have thought that handicaps would turn out to be advantages?

Just why has "Pop Stories" persistently lodged in my memory? On the one hand, the frameworks of the stories themselves are nothing new: they're a retelling of old fairy tale classics and Filipino folklore, and hence so much more deeply ingrained in my story consciousness. But on the other, Nick Joaquin and his artistic co-creators took these stories and made it their own unique dreamscape.

Nick Joaquin, apart from injecting humor into the stories, also invested in them pathos mixed with an unflinching view of humanity. I found hardest to read, for example, his take on the Prince and the Pauper because I couldn't bear to follow the sufferings of the prince-now-pauper (a reflection, perhaps, of my own fears?) Nick Joaquin did not dumb down his stories; and he didn't pull any punches.

Add to all that the fantastic artwork that complemented the words, each and every one of them a painting in their own right, full of whimsy, wonder, and yes, terror. Nick Joaquin and his co-creators put together a veritable dreamscape of stories, one which would sometimes brush against my nightmares.

At a time when we're seeing a resurgence in Filipino speculative fiction and children's literature, I have yet to find any local work which could equal the quality that I remember in "Pop Stories." Perhaps the fault lies with my nostalgia, but I would even go further a-limb to say that "Pop Stories" in many ways preceded and still stands superior to the Gaimanesque fantasies in vogue today.

What's more, I don't think I ever made any overt distinction with "Pop Stories" as Filipino fiction, except perhaps briefly when I first broke them out of their cover. Yes, they were written by a Filipino, and yes, the stories carried Filipino themes or happened in Filipino settings; that I would tell anyone who asked. But to me they had gone beyond that; they had become, for want of a better term, Stories.