Susan at Luneta Park
In Part 1 of this interview, Susan Quimpo talks about her family’s activism during martial law and the initial impetus for the memoir. In Part 2 she continues with a description of writing the book and her own life afterwards. In Part 3, Susan discusses her book tour in the United States and her interactions with the audience of mostly Filipino-Americans.
At first I wrote two chapters. Then I went for two master’s degrees, one in Asian Studies and the other in journalism. For my journalism class I wrote about the family and martial law. I thought if I could make my narrative comprehensible to Americans, who knew little about the Philippines under martial law except the name Marcos, if I could write so everybody understood, then maybe my children and my brothers’ children and their children would understand despite the passage of time. With each story I brought to class, my classmates were really interested, and they’d say, “When is the next chapter coming? What happened to this character?” A journalism professor said, “You know that there’s an option to do a writing project instead of a research thesis. You could do this.”
I did a book outline of sorts and submitted it to her, and we worked on ten chapters. That became my thesis. My teacher suggested submitting it to her literary agent so the agent could find a publisher. Nothing came of that. By that time I was already married, organizing among the Filipino-American (Fil-Am) groups in New York. I put the manuscript on the shelf. Without a publisher what was the use of writing it up? We went home to the Philippines, I got into other things. I had kids.
Years later, I think in 1997, I was talking about Fil-Am programs with Vicente Rafael, a professor from the University of Washington. He said, “Oh, I heard about this activist family of Quimpos. Do you know them?”
I told him I was the youngest of that family of Quimpos. He said, “Well, someone should write that story!”
I said I’d tried, but no publisher was interested. He asked to see the ten chapters I had written for my graduate school requirement. I handed him my manuscript and forgot about it.
A year later, he came back, we had lunch, and he said, “You know that manuscript you gave me a year ago, the one about your family? Anvil Press wants to talk to you next week. You have a meeting with a publisher.”
“But I haven’t touched it in ages.”
So I met with the publisher, and they were interested. Karina Bolasco of Anvil Press was very supportive. Later, when I talked to Vince, I said, “I don’t know where to take the book.” I’d gotten to the part about the armed resistance against Marcos, but I hadn’t been part of the Communist Party of the Philippines. I didn’t want to assume things. That wouldn’t be history. Vince suggested asking my siblings to contribute. My brother Nathan liked the idea, and we started talking to the others. There were varying reactions. One sister said, “Why do you want to wash our dirty laundry in public?”
“What dirty laundry? This isn’t dirty laundry. This is history.”
She didn’t speak to me for two years. I persisted. I said if she didn’t want to write her story I’d write it for her. I wanted to respect her, so I wrote around her. I consulted with people who were part of that scenario or human rights reports about her arrest. So when she saw I wasn’t going to stop she said, “Okay, I’ll do my bit,” and she did.
The family had serious fights over the book. I wanted it to be a tribute to young martyrs. A brother who’d been deep into the revolutionary movement wanted to critique it. I said, “No, this isn’t about the dialectics of the movement. This is a memoir.”
It took a long time for the book to come out. In fact, Karina Bolasco said in her twenty-five years of publishing it was the most difficult book to get published because of the fighting among the Quimpos. Finally we got to the point where we knew if we kept retracting, rewriting, re-angling we’d never finish it.
After the book was published a whole new life started for me. I started receiving invitations to speak at schools, and these haven’t stopped. I was horrified at how little people knew about martial law history. At first I just went and told my story. Then I realized young people didn’t understand me. At that time there were only a few small rallies, maybe one every six months. They couldn’t imagine the First Quarter Storm with daily rallies of 5,000 people in front of Malacañang. In 2013, a rally would draw maybe a hundred. Even now, at the one in Luneta Park [a demonstration against the burial of Marcos in the heroes’ cemetery] there were three or four thousand, but that was so hard to piece together. A few hours before the rally started we were still considering calling it off, thinking no one would come.
It was hard for students to imagine the military being brutal or people getting picked up. They had no concept of a curfew. So I turned to my own children, who at that point were in high school, and I’d discuss it with them. Before the book came out I wrote an article for Rappler to announce the book. (Link)
At that point my youngest was about eleven years old. She said, “Good article, Mom, but you know what? You don’t say ‘underground’ to us. We think that’s the subway or we think Harry Potter’s subway.”
I decided that I’d have to provide images. I started digging out pictures. Then I realized I could only speak from my own perspective. “My brother Ronald Jan was 15, your age, when he started going to rallies, at Malacañang. This boy next to him, who was 15, got his head blown off.”
My children were wonderful. One of my first presentations was at their high school, and my little girl was among the students. When she frowned, it was a sign that I had to explain more. Eventually I was able to reach the audience with actual stories. I kept getting invitations.
When Bongbong Marcos, Ferdinand Marcos’ son and namesake, ran for the vice presidency, strangers on Facebook wrote me to ask what could be done. I took chapters of the book and posted them on Facebook. Some went viral. I was getting more “friend” invitations and more questions. I said, “I don’t know what can be done. Don’t ask me, I’m not an organizer.”
After a while I agreed to meet with people who wanted to do something about the Bongbong Marcos’ candidacy. When we got 15 people, we decided to launch a campaign against revisionism. Our little group created four short online videos targeting millennials. These went viral. That wasn’t enough. So I went back to our funders and asked if we could get a team of people to talk to schools. For three and a half months, we reached people from Baguio to Zamboanga with one speaker per place. Bur once there, we’d contact other schools. That way we were able to maximize. We also gave interviews. Our audiences ranged from 20 to 800. Soon we got invitations from churches, barangays [local districts] and factories. I went to a sweets factory in Bulacan because the owner was horrified that her staff was thinking of voting for Marcos.
After the elections I said, “Okay, enough already.” Then the burial issue came up, and I found myself helping to organize the rallies against that. At the same time I was still trying to pay my bills. My husband is amazingly supportive. Whenever I get an invitation and I’m free, I say yes, but add, “Can you pay for my transportation?”
It’s been hard but also strangely encouraging. For example, on September 8, when the Supreme Court decision was announced [allowing Marcos’s burial in the Cemetery of Heroes], I was in Cagayan de Oro facilitating a group therapy workshop. Someone who’d heard me speak messaged me on Facebook, saying how dismayed she was about the court’s decision. I looked at her profile and saw she was from Cagayan de Oro and asked whether there was a rally I could attend. They were doing a nine-day rally for the nine justices who voted for the burial. At the rally, total strangers were coming to me, hugging me and crying, sobbing. They said, “We’re here because you spoke to us.” They arranged for me to speak the following week at a church, and a thousand students turned up.
So things like that are very encouraging. I’ve found that young people were not apathetic at all, but very affected. They understood the lie in having a dictator buried in a hallowed place. They knew this affected history. That’s why we saw millennials marching from the University of the Philippines, to Ateneo, to the People Power Monument last Friday.
When I picked my 15-year-old up from school, I told her about Marcos’ being brought in by helicopter and buried. After a silence, she said, “Today?” Then she put her bag in the car, got in, and after a few minutes she was sobbing. Weeping, sobbing and shaking. I asked, “What happened? Did you get in a fight? Did you have a problem with an exam?” She couldn’t speak for a full hour. When she could get the words out, she said, “The Marcos burial. How dare they?” Now she’s got her friends and their mothers going to rallies with us.
These high school kids are so wonderful. Despite the fact that we’ve supposedly losing the burial issue, I think we’re actually winning the hearts and minds of young people.
Personally, I’m committed to the cause for the next six years. I was devastated by the Supreme Court vote. Nine to five? One Justice abstained. Something is really wrong with this court. I’m hoping for a snowball reaction. We talked about the nation, all the way from the Katipuneros, the fight against Spain and America, then the Japanese and Marcos. We have to learn to take these things seriously, or history will just keep repeating and repeating and repeating.
I said to a Buddhist friend of mine, “Spiritually, I don’t understand. Is God’s justice not available to us?” She said, “It’s all karma because we haven’t learned.” I agreed, that was the whole point. If I can be part of the instrument of learning, so the next generation won’t repeat our mistakes, then I think I’ll have done justice to the martyrs of martial law.
I’ve been trying to mediate between anti-Marcos burial protest groups these past weeks. And some people asked me suspiciously about my ideological affiliations. In my head I answered: I belong to the group which believes in the martial law martyrs’ sacrifice. I used to be red, I’m no longer red; I was never yellow [pro-Aquino]. Now I’m more pink. But come on. We have to learn our lesson sometime; we need a united force to overcome a dictator.
I have one more question for you. I was amazed at the amount of detail in your book that went into names and dates of this meeting, and this and that group. During martial law you had to be careful about not keeping records around because they could be found. So my question is where did all the detail come from?
My brother Nathan was writing his own memoir at the time Vince Rafael suggested that we do a family project. I think he’d been writing it for years, so he’d already researched the times and dates and places and things like that, while I’d gone into the files of the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, a human rights group, for information on my siblings’ arrests and detention.
Then, as I said, at the age nine or ten I knew I was going to write this memoir, so I consciously remembered. I could draw Ronald Jan’s detention cell right now. I know where the guard sat, and where that corridor was and where the bathroom was because I committed it to memory.
When Jun was killed, we really didn’t know who killed him or what the circumstances were. In 1991 when I came back from New York, I looked for members of his old guerrilla squad. Two members were still alive, and they brought me to a place very close to where he died. They gave me the story and the descriptions and other details.
I think for my other siblings writing the book was cathartic. My brother Ryan had a lot of friends who disappeared, were tortured or killed, and he kept the memories close to his heart. His first drafts for our memoir were excruciating to read because they were all snippets of painful incidents. Perhaps not literary enough, but nonetheless wonderful. They were so raw and honest that his stories and images stayed in your head for months. I think the book was an opportunity to get it all out.
So there was healing in the family?
I can’t answer for the others, but for me, yes. That’s why I can go to schools and give talks without breaking down—which I did at first when I told my story. Initially, it was so embarrassing when I spoke to audiences and my voice cracked and I held back tears. Then I realized that my role was to speak out. The more I spoke, the more I realized I was getting through to young people. Now I see this is probably part of why I’m here and why I survived martial law. To be able to bear witness. This was how I healed.
A lot of people say, “Why don’t you move on? You’re so full of hatred. You need to forgive.” My response is it’s not about hatred or forgiveness. It’s about truth. You do a disservice to continue to believe a lie about our biography as a nation.
When some people say “forgiveness,” they mean putting the problem in a box and putting the lid on it, you seem to mean more like “acknowledgment” and “acceptance.”
Forgiveness demands justice. The Marcoses have not even acknowledged the grim history of martial law, much less apologized for their father’s brutal dictatorship. In a sense I pity the Marcoses because they’re continuing to propagate the lie their father started, passing it onto the next generation so that they have to live it and defend it. Why keep lying to yourself and rationalizing? What about the Marcoses’ children? Do they wish to continue living this legacy of lies?
I have close friends who are loyalists because of their family and because of the region they came from.
That’s another thing we have to learn. The truth is beyond family ties, friendships, regional loyalty and things like that. You can be friends with the Marcoses but still acknowledge that he was a dictator, a thief and a human rights violator. That’s just stating a fact. People are marching in the streets because they see the truth. For me, I think that’s enough of a reward.
A reader writes:
Carol, really enjoyed the two columns on the Marcos resisters. Good stuff.
Since her death Susan’s husband, George Chiu, made tributes on several occasions where she was honored. I’ve included a passage to show a bit more of this much loved and respected woman and her mission of bearing witness.
I found it remarkable after I knew her better how someone with her painful history could be so self-possessed and emotionally stable. All the attributes we now associate with Susan: her empathy, kindness, artistic intelligence, love of country, the stubbornness to see through difficult tasks to the end, to do so happily and to bring along whomever would want to accompany her on the journey – these qualities were already evident in this young woman of 24. If there was any post-traumatic stress disorder in her at all, I certainly did not see it.
And perhaps this was one of the miracles in her life, surely a gift from our Lord: that despite her difficult childhood, she possessed an equanimity that allowed her to function normally, and to live life joyfully. When I first met her, she was already like that, and throughout our married life, not once did I hear a word of self pity over the tragedies that befell her and her family, and not for one minute was she paralyzed by her history from doing what she felt needed to be done. (I am finding out now, to my great surprise, just how much she had done in the little time that was given her).
But then, I was gently told this morning by a dear psychologist friend that although Susan was not emotionally paralyzed by her childhood traumas, she did need to process them, and that apparently she was doing this all through her adult life. She pointed out that writing is a particularly effective tool to resolve past traumas and that in writing Subversive Lives, Susan (as did her siblings) was able to process cognitively her difficult childhood and tragic family history.
The peculiar thing about Susan, she continued, was that she was able to process her traumas in an even deeper way, because she channeled them into acts of service.
The missions of service she undertook in her younger days Susan continued to do until the end. In the last five years, these often took the form of talks in high schools, and workshops for teachers relating to the country’s Martial Law experience. In these talks, she told stories of the young men and women who were tortured, killed or “disappeared”, including the stories of her brothers. And it is often remarked by her listeners that she would deliver these heart wrenching stories in calm, even tones, with not a trace of anger or hatred. Yet I am told by her co-workers that every so often, she would have to pause and compose herself, even if she’d told the same story many times before. Another friend put it this way: “She died a little in every re-telling.”
Yet it was a kind of dying that gave life. If her works as writer, story teller, art therapist, and activist had as their source the difficult circumstances of her youth, these self-same works, transfigured into acts of loving service, helped her understand and come to terms with her past. The psychologist friend of ours, who’d been Susan’s professor in college, said that she had been observing Susan from a distance for quite a while and saw a transformation in the way Susan related to the world – where early on she had a hard, determined edge to her, it had been replaced by a gentleness and grace in her later years.
I have come to realize that this is true, which is why I have every confidence that Susan’s spirit is at peace. Do please remember her fondly – it was her wish that her friends try to dwell only on happy memories. She believed this will help her on her journey towards the light.