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The Sublime Pain of Socorro Federis-Tate

How do you contend with the legacy of a teacher who wrote one excellent story at least each year and had them vetted and published by giant literary editors – from Nick Joaquin to Kerima Polotan?

The writer is Socorro Federis-Tate, and there are two ways of knowing her. First, listen to stories about her by those who were in her class many years ago in the old Jesuit College. Second, read what bothered her when she was writing about the things happening around her or those events she fashioned from memories. The first way is difficult to access unless you know those generations of thinkers and writers who remembered Mrs. Tate (as I would forever refer to her). The second is easier: read her stories.

As a person who taught many how to write and read, she is best remembered by her simple admonition: never, never preach. This ability to let a narrative run unimpeded by mental footnotes or errant judgement characterize her stories.

For a long, long time, the stories of Mrs. Tate have been considered outstanding because of the themes she tackled. She is one of the few and, perhaps, the first Bikol fiction writer who was very interested in the indigene. She dealt with this silenced ethnicity by not letting them be elements of ethnography but as characters whose ordinary traits are made exotic by the gaze of the lowland characters.

It is thus not a surprise that Mrs. Tate’s first published short story is about the Agta. The story carries the title The Sublime Pain. It is here that we first meet this woman who had a name – Banggoy. As if to repeat the colonizing experience of being named, the Agta young girl is also “baptized” by the entire household of Mrs. Ocampo: “Everybody in the house called her Midnight and the name stuck…Of course, she had no idea what it meant, but somehow the sound pleased her.”

In this era of deconstruction, the student of literature should marvel at the ending of this story: “Now Bangoy was ready. She was all set to deliver her first born, and if she had known how to pray, she would have asked God to make her baby just a wee shade lighter.” It is a charming trick, barely noticeable in the 50s but now a fodder for discussion about perspective.

It is in this first story of the writer that we meet Mrs. Ocampo, a woman that would form part of the memory of the Agta and our own remembrance of that world where forests are bigger than any of us, and when darkness is as alive and sometimes as hostile as the light.

Sublime Pain is written in 1954 for the Philippines Free Press. In 1980, Mrs. Tate writes Midnight. Here Mrs. Tate recovers from the colony as she allows human agency in the character. True, Mrs. Ocampo calls her Midnight but this naming is followed by an excuse, “do you mind.” To this, the Agta responds: “That is not my name; I am Bangoy.”

When the Ateneo de Naga University Press asked me to edit a smaller collection of short stories of Mrs. Tate, culled from the huge compendium made by the writer’s family, there was the question of which story should be presented first. Talking with Kristian Sendon Cordero, the Deputy Press Director, we showed first Midnight in the 1984 issue and ended with Bangoy in Sublime Pain.

That decision made sense. The manner of narration in the stories are never linear. In her technique, life is not an unfolding that begins with the birth or the youth of humans but a crisscrossing of time and space. This style cannot accommodate introductions, which the writer eschews for a grim and gritty storytelling that immediately finds the narrator in the middle of an event. It could be a mother worrying about her daughter, now grown up, and herself plunged back to the days when she was her daughter in the throes of passion and first love. Or it can be the grief of a widow who remembers her husband’s passing and now is about to bury her four children who died in the calamity.

Then there is the language, which is served by a technique favoring terse sentences over long-winded ones. In her story of Luis, another Agta character, the amo (the husband of Mrs. Ocampo?) teases the young man whether he takes the women of his village to the bushes every now and then. Almost taking the side of the Agta, she describes the response of Luis to the taunting: “Luis’ silence dripped disdain.” That alliteration between “dripped” and “disdain” is a smirk and a smile.

The characters of Mrs. Tate almost always end alone.

In “An Island Unto Himself,” the husband’s regret for his wife he did not value when she was still alive is ultimately the line that seals his fate: “He stared blindly at the only person who loved and understood him. In a flash he realized the enormous significance of her passing…Now he was really wholly alone.”

Using what we could call simple words, Mrs. Tate is able to create endings that remain with the reader because the words stringed together are already rarefied music. Listen to Midnight, now old and alone, thinking of what she will ask from Mrs. Ocampo: “Just one dress, one pretty, one lovely dress, in brilliant color, the color of sunset through the giant dao and narra trees, a long, long dress, long enough to hide my feet, just one, one frilly dress.”

Midnight and Other Stories by Socorro Federis-Tate is available at the Ateneo de Naga University Press and Savage Mind.

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