Criselda Yabes has published eight books, including Sarena?s Story: The Loss of a Kingdom, which won the UP Centennial Literary Prize for Creative Non-Fiction simultaneously with Below the Crying Mountain. A journalism graduate of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, she worked as correspondent for the international press in Manila, covering politics and coups as well as other major events overseas.
It?s a humid June night as I step inside La Vie Parisienne for the first time after hearing so much about it over the years. I?m here to meet up (well, ?catch up? really) with Criselda Yabes, published author, journalist, traveler, and vegetarian, whom I first met at the San Agustin Writers Workshop in Iloilo just a little over a month ago, where she was a guest panelist on the first day and a craft lecturer on the last.
?I?m here na, in the elaborate room right after the bakery,? her message reads. I tell her I just arrived. ?Ok I?m seated in the long leather sofa.? I move past the display cases holding various breads and ice cream flavors, and to the back where ?Ms. Cris,? as we fellows called her at the workshop, sits by the big glass window that looks out into La Vie?s iconic pink house and the oft-posted-about al fresco dining area. One of the first things I do after greeting her is apologize that I?m the only Cebuano fellow (there were two of us) who showed up. Joseph couldn?t make it, I tell her, because he works practically on the opposite side of the metropolis. ?But he did ask me if I could take down some notes of our conversation. He wants a profile of you for this online literary journal he runs.? ?What?? she exclaims, almost embarrassed, but eventually agrees, along the way saying I should drop the ?miss? whenever I address her, which is something I do throughout our conversation?but ultimately fail at in our subsequent correspondences.
Perhaps what was most striking to us SanAg fellows about Ms. Cris was the fact that she was a full-time writer?a rarity in the Philippines where literary passions have to be sustained by some sort of income, whether in the academe, journalism, or the freelance industry, to name a few options we have. She considers Manila, at most, a base, as that?s where many of her relatives reside, so she doesn?t have to worry about paying monthly rent. (Her grandfather was renowned UP literature professor, Leopoldo Yabes.)
In the early 1970s, though, she and her family called Zamboanga home, after her father, a bank employee, had been reassigned there. They lived in a bungalow right across a military airbase. Soldiers and refugees moving in and out of the base (recall this was early Martial Law period) were a common sight to her in those days. Incidentally, her book debut, The Boys from the Barracks (1991), would be a journalistic chronicle of the post-Martial Law coup attempts spearheaded by Gringo Honasan, then an influential army colonel, against the Aquino administration.
She talks about Mindanao with a palpable nostalgia, maybe even a hint of sadness?a swathe of contested jungle paradise scarred by military campaigns, media blackouts, and separatist movements. It?s the place where she spent most of her formative years, attending Catholic school on regular days (Social Studies was her favorite subject), spending her spare time flipping through celebrity and fashion magazines and romance komiks to make up for the absence of nearby bookstores, and reading Nancy Drew, whose stories left quite the impression on her, not because of the thrills inherent to the plot, but of the way the titular character obtained information. No surprise, then, that after spending a year in the US as an exchange student, she enrolled as a journalism major in UP Diliman.
It was here where she really cut her teeth as a writer of people and events, not as a staffer for the Collegian as one would expect, but as a reporter for the Associated Press, a job which, in the waning years of an increasingly unstable dictatorship, was pretty exciting. ?There were demonstrations every day,? she remembers of that period. She graduated in 1985, a year before EDSA, and stayed on as an AP reporter.
After publishing her first book, she left for France for a year-long journalism fellowship, where one of their tasks was to cover different stories across Europe and ?come up with a magazine every quarter.? She wrote on the Balkans, where the Yugoslav Wars were tearing up the landscape and fragmenting a diverse population. She then took a three-month sojourn in Greece where she worked on her next book, an essay collection titled A Journey of Scars, which, once published in 1994, ?got me in a lot of trouble,? she says with a wry smile.
A bout of depression led to a couple of light travel stories and collaborative book projects. One of these was a book on the baybayin, which gave her the opportunity to go to a pre-touristy Palawan. ?Puerto then was a scene,? she describes the provincial capital in a way visitors these days will never experience. ?Houses were still made of native materials. You could smell the ylang-ylang on the road.?
She returned to France in 2000 and stayed there for the next six years, where she maintained a vegetarian lifestyle together with her husband and took on a job as an English teacher to French students.
Our conversation then turns to the two other books she elaborated on during her San Agustin lecture, the premises of both I personally found quite fascinating.
Below the Crying Mountain (which I swear I?ll get my hands on once reissued copies of it?courtesy of Penguin SE Asia?arrive in Cebu) was originally published by the University of the Philippines Press in 2010. Two years prior, it won the Gawad Likhaan: UP Centennial Literary Award for fiction. When I asked her if she?d submitted that novel for the Palanca Grand Prize, she said she did but didn?t win. She shrugs it off, telling me the Gawad Likhaan had a greater weight to it anyway, considering UP plans on giving it out only every centennial. (We?ve got about eighty years till the next awardee is declared.) The novel was also longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, the only Philippine book in a field of nine others that year. Crying Mountain (as it?s referred to in its Penguin reissue) tells the story of the Moro rebellion that ignited in Sulu in the ?70s, a region and period Ms. Cris knew very well, thanks to the years she spent there in her youth.
As if one award reaped at the centennial wasn?t enough, her other book, Sarena?s Story: The Loss of a Kingdom, took home the nonfiction prize at the same ceremony (?a surprise double winner,? Krip Yuson wrote of her in PhilStar). The seed of this story came with a visit to the ruins of the palace of the last sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram II. ?It could have been a tourist attraction,? she says, if only the area was more accessible and wasn?t a hotbed for kidnap-for-ransom rebels. (She was with the marines during her visit.) She saw the grave of the sultan and that of a woman right beside?a niece, it turned out, named Dayang Dayang Piandao.
Curiosity over Piandao?s life led her to conduct interviews with descendants of the royal family and those who worked closely with them. (The titular character, Sarena, is based off one of the ladies-in-waiting, whose story Ms. Cris obtained from a daughter.) Another princess she encountered in the course of researching this book was Tarhata Kiram, who was quite the standout in her day for her ?liberal? attitude. First traveling the United States as a pensionada, Princess Tarhata quickly took to Western ways in her manner of dress, her smoking habits, and in her relationships. (She was married and divorced multiple times before eventually settling with a man from Cebu.)
Her latest book, Broken Islands (Bughaw, 2019), is set in Borbon, a municipality in the north of Cebu she visits frequently. It?s about two women, she tells me, from two different classes, one of whom is a Yolanda survivor whose POV Ms. Cris wrote in a different kind of English that even she finds difficult to elaborate on without giving too much away. ?Let me know what you think once you?ve read it,? she teases, promising to send me a copy soon.
I remember she mentioned she was currently working on a book about Marawi, that city that had seen heavy fighting between government troops and ISIS-backed Maute militants throughout much of 2017. She?d been there herself, not to the combat zone, but in the area where the military set up base. (Contrary to much of the propaganda spouted online, it was only a portion of the city that the Maute group had taken over.) She posed to us fellows and those in attendance the question of how someone like her, coming from a journalist background, could even begin a story without having all the information she needed. (Ground zero was absolutely off-limits to civilians.) The answers we gave ranged from ?Talk to the refugees and survivors? and ?Listen in on military briefings and correspondences.?
I pose to her my own question relating to that book on that June evening: ?How far in are you into the writing?? She politely waves off the query, telling me she doesn?t want to talk about it yet. Some projects, especially ones based off fairly recent events, and taken on by creatives with a knack for being here, say, in Cebu today, there in Manila tomorrow, all over Europe the next, are best kept mum about in the early stages.