Surviving the Undertow: A Return to James Hamilton-Paterson’s Playing with Water

November 23, 2018
Emil Hofileña

The Ateneo University Press, in cooperation with the School of Humanities and Areté, launched the 30th anniversary edition of James Hamilton-Paterson’s memoir, Playing with Water­, on November 15 at the Ben Chan ArtSuite. Originally published in 1987, the book documents the author’s time living in two remote communities in the Philippines—namely, Tiwarik island and the village of Kansulay—and gives us an outsider’s candid account of village life during the tail end of Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship. Hamilton-Paterson was present to speak about his work, and to accept copies of the new edition, together with Cristina Cuyugan and Ramon Sunico.

James Hamilton-Paterson reads an excerpt from his book.

Playing with Water at first seems like a curious work to revisit, given how its primary settings have been rendered nearly unrecognizable today, after three decades of supposed progress and development. However, it is precisely the mutability of these places that gives the memoir more power. It now stands not just as a fresh look at our country’s fisherfolk (whose friendships with the author remain unweathered), but also as a lament for a land that has lost its luster. In his new preface, Hamilton-Paterson compels us to revisit Tiwarik and Kansulay with our present knowledge of how unhealthy our oceans are today. “I would never again choose such a blithe title as Playing with Water,” he proclaims. “Something more elegiac would be called for to describe one’s relationship with the sea.”
It is then either coincidence or a result of meticulous design that the author’s two other books about the Philippines—the novel Ghosts of Manila and America’s Boy, a nonfiction appraisal of the international apparatus that allowed the Marcoses to maintain power—have also retained their urgency today. In her foreword for the 30th anniversary edition of Playing with Water, Cuyugan draws just as much attention to these other works. “Both are unsparing reveals of the underbelly of Philippine politics and social dynamics, and of the corruption that long antedated the Marcoses,” she states. With the poverty that continues to befall Tiwarik and Kansulay, it seems that Playing with Water may have finally and tragically formed a thematic trilogy with Hamilton-Paterson’s other books.

The author discusses his work with Cristina Cuyugan and Ramon Sunico.

However, it is important to note that Cuyugan does not necessarily characterize the author as a political writer; Hamilton-Paterson’s career (a term he employs more figuratively than officially) displays such an eclectic style that it resists easy categorization. He can only really call himself a drifter, a journal keeper, and some sort of misanthrope. “I’m adept at making my own personal oddity sound like virtue,” he confessed at the launch of his book’s new edition. Through his dry humor and elegant prose, Hamilton-Paterson becomes capable of engaging complex yet ordinary events with sincerity and an admittedly cynical frankness.
For the students gathered at the Ben Chan ArtSuite, the title of the launch—“The Writer as Misanthropist”—may have created in their minds certain expectations of the writer. But there is no denying that, no matter how Hamilton-Paterson presents himself, his work is charged with a desire for justice and a deep compassion for those whose lives rarely inhabit the spotlight. The author recognizes his status as an alien; he narrates his experiences within these other lives, and not above them.

Hamilton-Paterson signs copies of his books for students.

Playing with Water seems destined to keep its sharpness as the years continue to pile on. There is much to learn from it, whether one sees it as an anthropological text, a political statement, an environmental text, or simply as a piece of travel writing that transcends the usual clichés of the genre. It is as formless as the object of its title, flowing into the shapes we provide for it.

Playing with Water  is available at the Ateneo de Manila University Press.