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Remembering Chinua Achebe: Laurel Fantauzzo

What Remains to Be Done: On Chinua Achebe and Alexis Tioseco

Alexis Tioseco first introduced me to Chinua Achebe. The Filipino film critic kept many blogs, personal, professional, and passionate, and he used Achebe’s name and words in one particular post.

He had started an online film journal, Criticine, with the aim of elevating the public discourse on the films of Southeast Asia. Alexis explained his cinematic endeavor by way of a Chinua Achebe quote from the essay “Colonialist Criticism:”

My people speak disapprovingly of an outsider whose wailing drowned the grief of the owners of the corpse. One last word to the owners. It is because our own critics have been somewhat hesitant in taking control of our literary criticism (sometimes—let’s face it—for the good reason that we will not do the hard work that should equip us) that the task has fallen to others, some of whom (again we must admit) have been excellent and sensitive. And yet most of what remains to be done can best be tackled by ourselves, the owners. If we fall back, can we complain that others are rushing forward? A man who does not lick his lips, can he blame the harmattan for drying them?

“It is in the spirit of this challenge posed by Achebe that Criticine was started,” Alexis wrote on September 28, 2008. “And with renewed fervor that work on it begins again.”

I mulled this quote for some time. I didn’t understand it completely, but I could feel the engine of purpose in its phrases. Most of what remains to be done can best be tackled by ourselves.

Achebe’s quote was, perhaps, a kind of parallel, rallying cry for the Philippines, a country still in development, still steeped in so much postcolonial suffering, both from centuries of invaders and from torturous, self-inflicted mistakes. Criticine was Alexis’ endeavor to bring the creators of Philippine films, and thus the owners of the Philippine story, to light. Cinema, after all, is perhaps the most democratic, accessible art form, even in poor countries; viewers of all backgrounds are capable of enjoying the mediums of movies.

But I cannot claim to understand Achebe’s quote entirely. When I came across it in 2010, I could not email Alexis and ask him to elaborate, to explain what he felt about the owners and the corpse, and how he really felt it connected to his own work in Criticine. Alexis was killed in 2009, at age 28, by three Filipino men who entered his home in Manila. The three Filipinos shot him, shot his partner, film journalist Nika Bohinc, then disappeared.

I imagine I should have come across Achebe sooner than in 2010, when I first read Alexis’ post. But by age 26, I had never read Achebe’s seminal work, Things Fall Apart. My high school English teacher, an idol of mine, taught Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness instead.

In 2002, at age 18, I had not yet developed a critical mind that would burst into racial tension headaches at Conrad’s characterization of Africans: We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.

My teacher did not hand us Achebe’s essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” and so I never read this sentence: “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.”

I knew, of course, that I had a Filipina mother, and an extended Filipino family in California. But I did not know or understand, at age 17, that Americans had occupied the Philippines for half a century—that “gook,” had originated there, a kind of shorthand for the darker denizens of “the other world,” in the archipelago. I never knew that America supported Ferdinand Marcos, a dictator whose brutal officers searched for my activist mother and aunts and uncles. In 2002, at a Southern California high school, I never knew to seek out stories about Filipinos. But by 2010, after two trips to the Philippines on my own, witnessing its attempts to move forward, I knew I must spend my life putting forward stories about this other world. I could not fall back.

By 2002, Alexis Tioseco was the sole child of his five siblings who remained with his Filipino father in Manila. Alexis’ father could be a fierce, inflexible man—his principled rigidity, and his loyalty to his troubled home country, were perhaps not unlike Nigerian leader Okonkwo’s, in Achebe’s bestselling novel, Things Fall Apart. Though Alexis’ mother and four siblings chose to live in Vancouver, the city where he had spent the first sixteen years of his life, it would never be Alexis’ intention to leave the Philippines. He felt an affectionate duty to the country, a call to put forward its undersung stories through film.

His love was a fact that broke the hearts of his friends and family later, when, standing in rudimentary morgues and air-conditioned churches, going from bureaucratic office to bureaucratic office, pleading with apparently indifferent leaders and investigators, they remembered his dual Filipino-Canadian citizenship, the choice Alexis could have made to leave, to fall back and let someone else rush forward for the Philippines.

It is an incredible risk to align yourself with a country wounded by colonialism, to remain and move with aching slowness toward the hope of its better future. To confront its weaknesses and vicissitudes, while too many citizens, too many owners, retreat into shrugs and silence. You face the racist myths and silencing of the ex-colonizers’ canons; you face the complacency and cruelty of your own fellow citizens, ostensibly all free and independent owners, now, of the country’s story. But if your love is fierce enough, you move forward. This is what Alexis did on behalf of the Philippines, with his devotion to its cinemas; this is what Achebe did on behalf of Nigeria, with his devotion to its literature. And this is what I try to do, as I regard my mother’s country and the fractured archipelago of its valuable stories—stories like Alexis’.

Of course, in 2009, Alexis Tioseco was a young, twenty-eight-year-old man, not an abstract symbol. Consumed with his work in Philippine film, and with the work of the trucking and fuel business his Filipino father left behind, Alexis stayed up too late. He dozed upright, during the day, at dinner tables, at meetings, and in movie theaters. He loved McDonald’s chicken nuggets. He loved his girlfriend Nika, and read her anything he found funny or romantic or challenging over Skype. She laughed with him about his lifelong nickname, Eggy, rolled her eyes at his diet, and didn’t think he should use the word “sacrifice” to describe her choice to join him in Manila, from Slovenia. Alexis gave his favorite books and DVDs to friends as gifts, then often changed his mind and asked, half-joking, for them back. In the home he had chosen, he was inspired and happy and frustrated and worried.

On the night of September 1, 2009, moments before he and Nika stepped into the house he had inherited from his father—the house where they would die at the hands of three men, murderers faceless and unpunished for too long in the postcolonial impunity of Philippine society—Alexis handed a Filipina friend his own copy of Things Fall Apart.

Laurel Fantauzzo, Iowa City, IA

“Remembering Chinua Achebe” is a series from Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art that provides a space for writers to offer short reflections on the life and work of Chinua Achebe, who died earlier this year in Boston, Massachusetts.