The Remembered Home in Luna Sicat Cleto’s Typewriter Altar

Author: Luna Sicat-Cleto

Reviewer: Tito Quiling

The house is our space—it is our own universe. An inhabitant’s world is first contained within the confines of their respective domestic spaces. These houses can take on the personalities of its inhabitants, reflecting their aspirations and goals, even holding their pains. But with the tendency to head towards promising dwelling spaces over the course of our lives, one’s consciousness regarding habitation and ownership can wear down with constant relocation. With all the changes which take place, in what ways can we commemorate our experiences and fortify the memories within our homes?

Luna Sicat Cleto’s translated novel, Typewriter Altar, is centered on the series of remembrances by Laya Dimasupil (her given name means “freedom” while their family name translates into “could not be subdued”). Their experiences are mapped out by the houses they dwelt in, as well as their interactions with the neighbors and extended family members. As a narrator, a substantial part of Laya’s memories are linked to her father, Deo, where a significant amount of his world seemingly revolves around his typewriter and his career as an academic. Deo is illustrated as a cold patriarch—to Laya in particular. On the other hand, her father displays perpetual warmth towards his colleagues and students. The personal growths of Laya and Deo are shown to be rather divergent, as the daughter attempts to break away from what she sees as her parents’ individual hurdles, while the father chases after a fictive world. But more than looking at the concrete walls of their bungalow in terms of their physical division, the separation is also defined by their opposing minds. While Laya’s recollections of their mother, Gloria, came in increments, their home could not have functioned without her.

The Dimasupil family resided in a few houses as outlined by Laya. There are snippets of memories from her childhood home in Kamantigue Street in flood-prone Marikina, to their brief stay in Project 6, Quezon City and to the modest chalet inside the university campus. But the bungalow located in the foothills of Montalban, Rizal became the house which forged their consciousness. Relocating from an urban to a pastoral setting entails a ceremonial detachment of sort. For the city dweller, the distinctive chaos found in the inner city gets embedded. This characteristic takes a back seat when one moves to the slower, rustic setting located in the fringes of the urban landscape. In their Montalban home, it is Gloria who runs the Dimasupil household full-time. Raising three girls, Laya, Butuin, and Amor, the former accountant exhibits full patience and devotion to her spouse, who is constantly preoccupied with his writing but participates in their domestic goings on every now and then. Inside their house, Deo’s writing area is a sacred space, with the typewriter as its centerpiece. In time, Laya discovers that there is more to her father’s typical stony demeanor towards them. From what appears to be opposite paths for the father and the daughter, time has steered them in the same lane. And just when Laya finds her footing as a writer, Deo’s health quickly deteriorates.

At times, the intermittent switching of viewpoints can be quite confusing—is it Laya who is talking in this chapter? Or is one reading about Deo’s memories? Does Gloria and her recollections hold a substantial bearing in the narrative? However, as one continues through the pages, their recollections start to ease into one another, looking at the interrelated stories narrated by the characters and remembrances of each other’s idiosyncrasies. Their personal experiences and shared memories in the Montalban home are reinforced by sentient elements such as hearing the water pot whistle in the early morning, the odor of a slow-burning cigarette on the ashtray, and seeing the lone light on their front door—a family member waiting for someone’s arrival.

In a video interview conducted by the University of the Philippines Press, Luna Sicat Cleto shares that the seed for her first novel, Makinilyang Altar, came from a periodic dream featuring an abandoned house containing books with bare pages. This image became the opening paragraph of her novel, whose gripping cadence remained when the book was translated as Typewriter Altar by noted Filipino poet, Marne L. Kilates. It is Laya who recaps this riveting dream sequence which foreshadows the series of events in her life as illustrated by her recollections. Sicat Cleto reveals that the novel is a fictional version of her life, where the characters are gleaned from significant people in her life—in particular, her parents, writers Rogelio and Ellen Sicat. In this vein, the book seems like an autobiographical work, but the author successfully pens a narrative that blurs the edges between a creative nonfiction piece and a novel. As Sicat Cleto treads on the thin line between fiction and reality, imaginings and memory become entangled in the process of writing. In fiction, the difficulty lies in writing from one’s experiences and being dangerously close to reality. There are certain levels of innovation that need to surface in the work, as well as elements of astonishment that are applied to be effective. While some components are intentional, others are accidental.

One of the best payoffs whenever one walks through the landscape of words, is crossing paths with people who contribute to one’s writing life. For the author, finishing her first novel was both [sic] “a creative and an artistic challenge” which made her understand the complexities of this endeavor. According to Sicat Cleto, there are still unanswered subjects concerning the Filipino identity. Centering on the mixture of one’s identity, the persistence of this outlook can be perceived in the writings of Filipino authors. Following this thought, the situations and the characters in the book represents the multifaceted personalities of the modern Filipino, whose desires and fears transcend the personal domain and into the social sphere. Looking at this fragmented quality, these works by Filipino writers turn into an assemblage of remembrances and stories. While the author cannot project how the audience responds to a work, the reader must recognize that despite the authenticity of a story, it remains a work of fiction.

Being noted as perhaps the only contemporary Filipina author with a translated novel, Luna Sicat Cleto’s work contributes to the growth of women’s writing in the Philippines. Apart from numerous literary accolades such as the UP Gawad Chancellor, the Gawad CCP Award for One-Act Play, and the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for her poetry, essays, fiction, and short stories for children, Sicat Cleto’s writing has been anthologized in Forbidden Fruit: Women Write The Erotic (Anvil Publishing Inc., 1992) edited by Tina Cuyugan and in Ang Labintatlong Pasaway (Visprint Inc., 2014) edited by Jun Cruz Reyes. In 2002, Sicat Cleto came out with her novel Makinilyang Altar (University of the Philippines Press) which won the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award in 2005 and her second book, Mga Prodigal (Anvil Publishing Inc.) was produced in 2012. Translated by distinguished Filipino poet Marne L. Kilates, Typewriter Altar (2016) is published by the University of the Philippines Press.

Note: Supplementary information about the author and the book were taken from a video interview by the University of the Philippines Press (released in September 2016).

Tito R. Quiling, Jr.
October 2016