My own private Kilometer Zero
Writing personal essays is not easy. But in this Facebook Age, almost everyone has posted personal essays of a sort, aka statuses, divulging family secrets, longings, hatred, rants, and so on. It is now easier to say your innermost thoughts for the benefit of our likers and haters. One can be a Facebook sensation for a day or two. Personal essays are a different. The transcend creative-non-fiction, academic and the technical writings
Not all personal essays are engaging. Most are downright boring, making the reader wonder why someone would think that his/her feelings are important to read.
Wilfredo Pascual, an award-winning essayist based in San Francisco, posted on Facebook on February 3, 2018:
“Alam niyo ang problema natin sa pagsusulat ng personal essay? Ang struggle to tell the truth (Our problem in writing personal essays is the struggle to tell the truth”).
On January 20, 2018, I met Wilfredo “Willi” Pascual in Bangkok; he wa en route to the Philippines for a series of workshops and talks about his latest collections of personal essays, Kilometer Zero.
When he approved my friend request a few months ago, I had been chatting with him, or rather disturbing him. I knew that he had worked in Thailand for ten years, holding various positions in international organizations such as SEAMEO (Southeast Asian Ministers of Education) and SEA Regional Center for Archeology and Fine Arts. In short, I feel a certain affinity to him because we had tasted the same Thai food, walked on the same streets in Bangkok and had my adopted city, Nakhon Ratchasima. We both came from a town called San Jose, and when he introduced me to his mom, I almost fainted (“Mommy, she is also a Plaridel Awardee!”) Willi was a 2017 Plaridel Awardee for his essay “How to Remember Larry.” That ended our similarities. He speaks Thai better than I do and, of course, he can bargain in Thai.
Although it was a quick meet-up in Pratunam (known for its bargain clothes), Willi patiently waited for me and my sister, Eirene, who was visiting my family. I recognized him immediately with his curly hair in a tight bun, his laughing eyes, and his voice. I wondered how I recognized his voice just by reading his essay. Maybe because his essays speak loudly and leave an imprint in your heart.
I hug people to feel a connection. I hugged him tightly like a long-lost uncle. I realized later that did it because I wanted to know if he was a real person and not some character I just read. Later, I connected it to his experience as a Nora Aunor fan who later became his close friend. I was an adoring fan who wanted a piece of him because I believed his success would rub off on me; that I would be popular because he had accepted my friend request and later on had a picture with me.
Willi handed me the Kilometer Zero. Although it was launched in the Philippines last year, people were still craving for more; hence, it was discussed again at Mount Cloud Bookstore in Baguio City on March 5, 2018.
While walking along the isles of RTW shops, his mother trying on gowns, and the salesclerks cajoling us to buy, we talked about his life in Thailand and the series of workshops that he would do in the Philippines. Then we both said goodbye with a promise to meet some other time because he needed to catch up with another friend in Bangkok.
Starting from Zero
Pascual’s essays startfrom the beginning – San Jose, Nueva Ecija and Bangkok, Thailand. His kilometer zero.
The 155- page book is an easy read devoid of highfalutin words, not pretentious and never in a hurry. Pascual is in front of me. He is weeping, praying, asking for forgiveness and understanding, telling me private jokes and at the same time asking me to reflect on the life/lives I’m leading. He is guiding me to a pilgrimage, to a familiar ground, my kilometer zero, where all my journeys to distant lands and to self-discovery began.
Kilometer Zero is Pascual’s life. He lets us dissect him and his family. It is a privilege to hate and love him the same way we hate ourselves for our shortcomings and for not having the chance to choose what we really want in life.
His essays bring me back home to my own childhood and wildness. The tattooing of his back in Cambodia reminds me of when I got tattooed on my right arm. It is not merely a body art, but a meaningful consecration of our bodies to higher purposes, which includes fighting our own demons and differentiating ourselves from others.
Like most writers, we have our own rituals before we write, or when the inspiration leaves us. But some chores help us to get back into writing, like washing dishes. For me, it’s handwashing clothes. Both involve cleansing: of the dishes from traces of food; of the clothes of grime, dirt, and sweat.
“Nothing beats washing dishes in the sink, to me, one of the most comforting household chores, very contemplative, a lot of unclogging, outpouring and cleansing taking place, an extremely beneficial time to scrub my memories through running water and soak my stories.”
I cannot put down the book. It is on my nightstand. I put it on my table when I’m at work. It always comes handy when I miss the dusty roads of my childhood, its houses and people. I will not put it down until I have absorbed each word. By then, I would have come back to my own Kilometer Zero.