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Sylvia L. Mayuga (1943-2019): Journalist, Poet and Lover of Bikol Myths and Politics

It was a brief friendship. But what wise men and women say is true: In brevity, there is the soul of wit. Sylvia proved to be the soul we were looking.

The whole thing started with a simple letter saying she was reading me and she liked what she was reading. She would soon read other Bikol writers, re-discovering the “unusual” magic she would ascribe to things related to literature and myths of our land.

Sylvia Mayuga was one of our major women writers. She wrote about ecology and martial rule. She rhapsodized about Nature and the cultures that gave us identities and corruption. I knew her to be a bohemian, a hippie in the brightest sense of the word.

More than anything, she reminded me of those great women of cultures and societies that sprang from this peninsula: Leonor “May Noning Dy-Liacco, Socorro Federis-Tate, Teresing Ojeda, and Lily Realubit, to name the stellar ones. Sylvia was a nurturer of good writers and good writing without being mushy and demonstrative. She did it with critiques that were trenchant as they were treasured.

She was the Mother of Bikol Literature that we would have loved to have. But knowing her, she would have shrieked and then threw a smirk and a smile at the thought of being called a “mother.”

It would take a few months before I would meet her in person. It was a meeting that deserved the wit and magic of her persona. The “eyeball” took place in a cinema. Some days back, I had informed her that I was performing as “benshi,” a narrator and provider of voices for all the dialogs and all possible sounds and grunts in a Japanese silent film. She was not feeling well, she was almost apologetic in anticipating her absence. But I will try.

The performance was about to begin when I saw her entering the already full-packed cinema in Megamall. I walked slowly to her and half-asked and half-declared: “Sylvia…good evening.”

That night, a heady night, she came with us for the post-performance dinner. All this time, she was gushing over the performance, which included the direction of Noel Volante and the playing of “Tanikala,” a band which included the now deceased Wowie Nabua. In the restaurant, we were a noisy group as we drank and ate. Then, without much of an announcement, somebody started to pluck the guitar, another set of strings joined in, a flute wafted in that cramped space, and the voice – that of Wowie first – sang “Sarung Banggi.”

Sylvia was enchanted. Well, that was how she explained the sudden singing, the choice of a song, and the whole feeling of that night. Ami Takagawa, then of Japan Foundation, took a video of that moment, which seemed to go on and on. It was one of the happiest nights for many of us that year.

When I informed Ami about the passing on of Wowie, she produced that video. We all viewed it once more. Sylvia saw that for the first time. She sent a message describing that night now to be one the saddest nights for her. “For all of us,” I confessed to her.

When Mary Jane Guazon-Uy and I launched our respective books at Solidaridad Gallery, Sylvia arrived. She would have stolen the scene from us but she sat there, quiet but with that glint in her eyes.

One of her last essays, which was published by Rappler, is about this unabashed passion for our region. It was a capsule review but was worth a full critical essay. She gave it the title “Aswang: a strange new energy.”

In that essay, she reviewed other books on the supernatural and the marvelous, like the books of Allan Derain.

Of particular interest to the region, however, is Sylvia’s take on Mary Jane’s book and mine, which she called “pride of the heap,” coming from “the Ateneo de Naga University Press’s new books, designed to be small and slim but packed with original concepts matched by fresh vibrant art by gifted local artists.”

For Sylvia, “Enchantment is real in these two books firmly attached to their native roots. And it seems to spring from their rich volcanic soil, clean waters, sinuous forests, and looming volcanos wedded to artistic imagination.”

She then proceeded to pay tribute to Savage Mind, “a proudly independent cultural hub and ‘creative workspace’. For her, Savage Mind was “reminiscent of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Bloomsbury in early 20th century London.”

The national election was over when she wrote her insight and thus her question: “What is this strange new energy the Bicol region has been sending out throughout this country in crisis? Its latest surprise, if Comelec is to be believed – in-your-face victory only Naga City gave the whole oppositionist senatorial slate Otso Diretso vis-à-vis its national defeat.”

Sylvia remembered our conversation when I told her how one healer found it difficult to deal with me during a field interview. It was because of my “kinaptanan,” a kind of amulet or charm given to me by another healer. It was with the memory of this exchange that she concluded her essay. For Sylvia, myths and magic are sources of “kinaptanan. They would bring us back the memories that we could transmit to the nation, and save the land from destruction.

Dear Sylvia, where you are now, you can understand the entire universe. Never mind its enchantment, back here on this earth, you have lived a life of alchemy and incantation. When you wrote about the universe of Kabikolan, you knew you were standing at one of the greatest portals of enchantment. Dios Mabalos, Manay. Liwat, sa sunod na pagherelingan.

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