Criselda Yabes, Master Storyteller

Author and journalist Criselda Yabes

Author and journalist Criselda Yabes

Cris Yabes was one of the promising campus journalists at UP Diliman in the 1980s, the student writer you just knew would surely have an impact.

And she did.

Yabes went on to become one of the high-profile correspondents for the Associated Press and later Newsweek, covering the biggest stories in the Philippines, from the fall of Marcos to the Mindanao conflict to the tumultuous Cory Aquino years.

I remember seeing her in action at Malacanang in the late 1980s, during one of the coup attempts against Aquino, patiently trying to interview flustered military and government officials moving in and out of the palace.

Eventually, Cris went beyond daily beat reporting. She turned her impressive reporting and writing skills to engaging reportage and literature, broadening her field of vision from what novelist John Le Carre called the “small truth” of journalism to the “big truth” of fiction.

That big pivot marked two key milestones that underscore her position as the master storyteller of our generation.

She just came out with a second novel, Broken Islands, published by Ateneo Press. Her first novel Crying Mountain, (originally titled Below the Crying Mountain), which was longlisted in the 2010 Man Asian Literary prize and won the Gawad Likhaan, the University of the Philippines Centennial Literary Prize, has been republished by Penguin Books.

“Crying Mountain” by Criselda Yabes

“Crying Mountain” by Criselda Yabes

Broken Islands tells the story of a middle class family in Cebu in the aftermath of the Yolanda tragedy, told through the eyes of two women. Luna is the niece who has returned home to live with her uncle, Manoy, who took care of her after the death of her own father. Alba is the help, the kasambahay, who survived the storm that devastated her hometown in Leyte.

Crying Mountain is a retelling of an important, tragic chapter in the decades-old conflict in Mindanao: the burning of Jolo in 1974. It reimagines the rise of Moro National Liberation Front leader Nur Misuari, and the Philippine military’s violent crackdown on the rebellion he led.

Both novels sprang from Cris’s journalism, as well as her travels and personal journey.

Crying Mountain was partly inspired by a declassified copy she obtained of the military’s official report on the campaign in Jolo, a document that also brought back memories of her years growing up in nearby Zamboanga.

“The burning of Jolo turned into fiction when I realized that people I came across reminded me of my life and people who were close to me,” she told me in a 2011 email. The report “brought out all of my childhood memories of Jolo.”

Broken Islands sprang from her reporting in 2013 on the Typhoon Haiyan,  also referred to as Yolanda. The super typhoon devastated huge areas of Leyte, which Cris saw up close as a reporter in the village of Guiuan.

‘Broken Islands” By Criselda Yabes

‘Broken Islands” By Criselda Yabes

“When I landed there a week after the typhoon, I joined a police team that tried to put order by installing themselves at the town hall,” she told me. “I sat there outside listening to people, a group of girls and boys were chatting by the tree, talking in a mix of Tagalog and Waray.”

That reporting trip changed her plan for Broken Islands, which she had originally envisioned as part of a trilogy. Cris decided to take another route, using the typhoon as a backdrop for the novel to explore a story set in Borbon, Cebu. The novel was also her way of exploring a part of the Philippines that she didn’t know much about, the Visayas.

“You know that in journalism, there is the surreal, we see that all the time in covering the news, even political news. And in trying to write fiction, you also want to be closer to the truth. In French, they say, la realite depasse la fiction”  -- reality exceeds fiction -- “and that's how I could play with these two worlds.”

Immersing oneself in these two worlds often means thinking, exploring, investigating both as a journalist and a novelist. She found herself doing just that while interviewing a girl outside a town hall in Guiuan.

“I was aware that I would be writing a news story, that's the immediate. So one part of my brain is getting all the information it needs to tell a [news] story, but there's the other part of my brain that's listening to the tone of her voice, her body language, the way she flirts with the boys -- these things I can't put in a news story, so they're stored for another 'story' so to speak, and I let my imagination go free into what we would later classify as fiction. But really we straddle two worlds, there's little difference for me. The major difference is that first, I have to write a news article and it's immediate and short; the second is that if I'm writing a book, I can take my time and explore these kinds of 'reality' as it were.”

She explored the reality of Mindanao in Crying Mountain, and of the Visayas, in Broken Islands. Cris, who is based in Manila, is already considering her next journey as a journalist-novelist. “I have my Mindanao and Visayas books. If I work on a Luzon book I might have my 'trilogy' after all.”

Benjamin PImentel

Benjamin PImentel

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