By Kristine Ong Muslim
In 2018, the Ateneo de Naga University Press released Daryll Delgado’s debut novel, Remains. The novel is an amalgamation of spliced recollections by a narrator named Ann, and other characters, about Tacloban City’s devastation in the wake of megastorm Haiyan, locally known as Super Typhoon Yolanda. Tacloban City, the author’s hometown, is part of the province of Leyte, one of the two Philippine islands (the other is Samar) that bore the full brunt of one of the world’s deadliest tropical cyclones, in the catastrophic wake of which roughly ten thousand people died1“Tacloban: City at the centre of the storm,” BBC News, 12 November 2013, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-24891456.
Daryll Delgado’s Remains is the one piece of climate fiction, written by a Filipino, that I’ve been hoping would receive a more sizeable following and critical engagement, especially among Filipinos, not for merely attempting to bear witness—a not-too-impressive undertaking as this normally only entails the ability to write a coherent narrative—but for how it chooses to bear witness.
Remains remains a singular show-stopping force in the Philippines for its refusal to kowtow to the Philippine literary establishment’s privileging of romanticization in fictional reconstructions of catastrophic events and so-called survivor or witness narratives. In the Philippines, one could just as easily come across, for example, a prizewinning novel using the 1974 burning of Jolo and reimagining of a Moro revolutionary’s life as marketing come-ons, as a vehicle of exoticization, which involves, among other things, a titillating dalliance between a Moro girl and a military captain.
Delgado’s Remains offers, instead, a thoughtful aggregation of genuine witness narratives. The reader is led into a memory palace-like exploration—one that dips in and out of nostalgia, paranoia, panic, and rote journalistic reportage—by Ann, self-described “documenter, sometimes a copywriter, mostly collateral provider.” Ann goes on to say:
In fact, it is very rare that I get to provide any essential content or perform any direct service to communities, to clients. I wasn’t trained for that and, hell, I didn’t want to be. My role, as I have always understood it, is to stay out of the way of those who did the important work, and yet know enough about their work so that I could highlight it in my output.
Interwoven in Ann’s central narrative are “transcripts”: other first-person accounts, some of which are unapologetically written in straight Waray language (with English translations provided in collaboration with Merlie Alunan). The insertion of these transcripts imparts grit to the novel, an unevenness in the flow of storytelling. Their disruptive presence helps capture more effectively the collective experience of trauma, its organic buildup, anticlimactic silences, and lack of closure. Something must be said about the transcripts’ found-footage feel, too. I think found literature, when delivered in calculated doses—as in Remains—can be a revelatory power-punch of mixed emotions.
Remains features transcripts from a widow, a married couple, an orphan, nine women conversing in a focus group, a small business owner, a staff member of the city’s administration office, and a prisoner who decided against using the raging tropical cyclone as cover for breaking out of jail. The prisoner’s transcript is one of the novel’s most memorable highlights and ends with the prisoner insisting, “I am a man of honor”: an individual choosing to define himself and his life’s purpose while standing on ground zero of one of the deadliest superstorms in history.
Finally, considering how the worsening effects of the climate crisis make the Philippines singularly vulnerable to more and more powerful storms in the near future2“Country most threatened by climate change? Study says it’s Philippines,” ABS-CBN News, 15 June 2019, https://news.abs-cbn.com/spotlight/06/15/19/country-most-threatened-by-climate-change-study-says-its-philippines, Remains needs to be revisited in haste, its agile fictionalization of post-ecological disaster reckoning serving as an indictment to the Duterte administration, which has made the Philippines Asia’s murder capital for environmental activists and land defenders3Louise Maureen Simeon, “Philippines deadliest country for environmental defenders in Asia,” The Philippine Star, 30 July 2020, https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2020/07/30/2031682/philippines-deadliest-country-environmental-defenders-asia.