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Gender Bender

By AA Patawaran

Image by Kevin Tristan Espiritu

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Rajo Laurel brought a scarf with which to wrap his head. “I’m yia yia,” he said, meaning Desdemona, one of the leading characters in Middlesex, the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of Greek-American novelist Jeffrey Eugenides that is at least one part family saga sprawled across eight decades. Pauline Suaco JuanMarielle Santos-PoFarah Mae Sy, and Stephanie Zubiri were each in a casual suit like a man would put it on, Stephanie, along with Jae de Veyra Pickrell, even in buttondowns, like I was, except mine was tent-like in shape because, as I told them, I was channeling designer Rita Nazareno, whose androgynous style to me was legend. Of course, I would fail to try on such a high standard in genderless dressing. First of all, I wore gray skinnies instead of jodhpurs.

I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.’
—Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

It didn’t matter. The theme for the dinner it was my turn to host for our book club, The Very Extra Book Club, was androgyny, but the theme, if at all, was only to extend the experience of the book to be discussed at the dinner, held on a Thursday night in late January at the MacArthur Suite of the Manila Hotel.

Even the table setting, deftly executed by the Manila Hotel style director Rachy Cuna, was at once bold and subtle in its interpretation of the theme—orchids spray-painted in black and left blooming among forests of gold leaves. The menu, prepared by the Manila Hotel executive chef Konrad Walter, was surf and turf, lobster ravioli in truffle cream followed by Australian veal tenderloin in morel sauce. We started with burrata, arugula, and roasted cherry tomatoes dressed in olive oil and ended with tiramusu, plus coffee or tea and French macarons. The libations, I guess, were a little too binary, but they were perfect—the 2015 Brulieres de Beychevelle Haut Medoc and the 2017 Albert Bichot Horizon Chardonnay from Languedoc, courtesy of Jet Quirante of the Cork Wine Bar and Shop. I should have brought a bottle or two of rosé, champagne, or prosecco to start with, but it skipped my mind. Anyway, we started with either the red or the white or both.

Besides, no libation was necessary to get  The Very Extra Book Club going. I don’t know how to describe it. We’re not the type of book club that talks about the book for 20 minutes and moves on to other topics. The entire length of the dinner, from appetizer to dessert, is about the book, although we stray in the end to briefly discuss what book to read next and who among us should host the next dinner, the details of which we iron out in our group chat on Whatsapp the following day or a few days afterward. That was why the night before, I had to cram the discussion notes, preparing the flow, assembling a list of open-ended questions to get us all talking, and then, because I was pressed for time, instead of leaving it to an artist to craft everything together, I designed the pages myself on a Word document, using a classical serif font as well as Greek numerals to introduce each discussion prompt on the list.

The next day, hours before the dinner, Jules Vivas, content producer at Manila Bulletin Lifestyle, took on the task of printing the work on parchment paper. My idea was to present the discussion notes to the group as an ancient scroll, rolled and then tied with a yarn, as if they were recovered from the Great Fire of Smyrna, from which the family saga of Middlesex, which is also part immigrant epic, part medical mystery, part coming-of-age novel, and part LGBTQIA+ romance, essentially began. But Jules had the idea of burning the edges of each page of the discussion notes, all 30 pages of them, using a mosquito coil. It was a tedious process, but the results were worth it, albeit a little too clean for sheets of parchment that had survived a great fire.

I invited Jules to the dinner to film the book discussion, along with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle culture editor Dom Galeon to chronicle the exchange, and Kevin Tristan Espiritu to photograph the occasion. But first I had to secure permission from the members of the book club. Our discussion so far had been, more than sensitive, a bit incendiary, given that the books we chose were of delicate nature—André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name (forbidden love, homosexuality), Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s Naomi and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (child abuse and solipsism), Patrick deWitt’s French Exit (suicide), and, well, Middlesex (incest, intersexuality).

Maybe it’s just me, being otherwise guarded and inexpressive, if not even prudish, but I would say that The Very Extra Book Club is an exercise in expanding the mind, in pushing social, ethical, even moral limits in understanding the human condition.

At the very least, the discussions compel us to confront issues we otherwise would avoid in polite conversation. We have so far tackled mostly fiction, except for Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and Gregory David Roberts’ mock memoir Shantaram, at the dinner for which I was sadly absent, but we get under the skin of the characters by drawing parallelisms between their plights and real life, often our very own, to condemn or to condone their desires, to denounce or to defend their actions, to censure or to champion their causes.

Suffice it to say that the dinner discussion of Middlesex, which “if pressed,” as Eugenides himself put it, “I say… is the story of a family with a genetic mutation in its bloodline,” at the MacArthur Suite was gender-bending, self-revealing, thought-provoking, mind-blowing, maybe even jaw-dropping, especially for our guests Dom and Jules.

Many thanks to Emil Yap IIIKim Tan, and the rest of The Manila Hotel for making all this possible, our first dinner for The Very Extra Book Club in 2020. We missed Rocio Olbes-Ressano and Isabelle Daza at this Middlesex dinner, but it’s Isabelle’s turn to host the next one.



Source: Manila Bulletin

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