In the middle of Riverrun: A Novel, the main character Danilo watches his childhood friend Luis slip into the river. Danilo observes his friend’s body as the first stirrings of desire bob up. Luis calls for Danilo to join him, but Danilo refrains. The river can swell at any moment, he explains. On the one hand, the fear of drowning, the water an unpredictable threat; on the other hand, an undertow of yearning, a throbbing that becomes familiar to our young, gay protagonist.
This scene exemplifies much of Danton Remoto’s novel Riverrun, where simple surface details hint at the tensions simmering underneath. Our protagonist is Danilo Cruz, whose coming-of-age takes place in a Filipino military base under a dictatorship in the 60s and 70s. The usual martial law novel follows a certain trajectory, where the violence of detainment and extrajudicial killings march on for three decades until the dictator is finally overthrown, whisked away to safety by the US military. Instead, Remoto offers us this place and time through the details of a young boy’s life, a bildungsroman by way of vignettes, urban legends, news reports, song lyrics, poems, recipes. Each scene feels small and intimate, the prose sticking to specifics even as it powerfully evokes everything from horror to comedy. We jump from moment to moment, each one with a luminous clarity that can be found in the best poetry.
And this is not surprising, as Danton Remoto is one of the most well-known poets in the Philippines. Of course Riverrun is significant not only because it is one of the first gay novels published in the Philippines, but significant also because there is not a lot of Philippine queer literary content in the first place, much less any that count as #OwnVoices. As a teenager growing up in the Philippines, the only LGBTQ2IA+ books I got ahold of were connected to Danton Remoto; he is one of the editors of Ladlad Poetry Anthologies — ladlad meaning “unfurled, to come out” — as well as the founder of the Ladlad Party List, an LGBT political party that, on occasion, has been denied participation in the Philippine elections on grounds of “immorality.”
The personal is the political, and the political is personal; in Riverrun, Remoto shows how politics can enact great violence over some bodies more than others. The body recurs in many of the novel’s scenes: how it endures the unbearable, how it can be discarded by those in power, how it can be denied and dismissed because it breaks from what’s prescribed by the establishment. In “Of Cakes and Palaces,” the dictator’s wife hurries the construction of the Metro Manila Film Center, and when the workers are swallowed by the shaky foundations, cement is poured on top of their corpses. When Danilo’s cousin dies of cervical cancer a week after giving birth in “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” an uncle dismisses the death as a natural consequence of her getting pregnant out of wedlock, explaining that “God doesn’t approve of such things.” Riverrun asks us what it means to have a body, that we should desire and suffer, in equal measures. After all, even before Danilo can identify as gay, before he can place a name for his longings, there are already so many reminders of how callously easy the world oppresses those who don’t conform.
Remoto often serves these societal critiques with a generous dash of hilarity and witty irreverence, but the novel also shows how easily comedic language can be used in service of mockery and cruelty, particularly in how others have policed Danilo’s body even at an early age. In the section “Freak Show,” Danilo narrates how he doesn’t go near the drag queens in the fair, explaining,
“Papa told me to avoid them because they were freaks. Once, my father even scolded me for walking with my books held close to my chest.”
Later on, as a teenager in “The Initiation,” Danilo sits down and crosses his legs, a pose that makes him the target of ridicule by the men of the town.
Roiling underneath all this surveillance is the nascent upswell of desire. To deny how one holds one’s posture, to deny how one moves and walks through the world, becomes a way to deny what the body wants. It is unsurprising, then, that Danilo tamps down any attempt to connect with the boys he falls in love with. In “Freak Show”, Danilo agonizes over how inaccessible his friend Luis remains though they are next to each other:
“I wanted to touch his hand and not these cold iron bars. But I did not dare. I felt an access of sadness as I sat there, feeling alone in the cold, empty air, even if Luis sat close behind me.”
Wrestling against heteronormative pressures, Danilo’s near-happiness lies close to agony.
Riverrun follows this thread of abjected intimacy as it ultimately transforms into a greater alienation between self and country. Even in a more urban setting, with new friends, reaping writing rewards and academic recognition, Danilo does not confide his feelings to anyone; instead he starts to see the whole of his country as “a big black hole that sucked you in and drowned you.” The closeness that he seeks remains out of reach. Danilo’s longing is almost always ready to reveal itself but shies away at the last minute, unrealized.
I had read this book wanting so desperately for another man to touch Danilo — no, not the lashings of corporal punishment, not the uninvited hand of an older neighbour preying on a child, not the forced contact in a high school hazing initiation, but a touch of reciprocal desire, the kind that can bring tenderness and recognition and belonging. Perhaps the setting of Riverrun is not one where such intimacy can happen yet; perhaps the novel is asking us to imagine a Philippines full of possibilities beyond what it can grant its protagonist. Nonetheless, that at the end I’d simply wanted to read even more updates on Danilo’s life and more pages from Riverrun is a sign of this book’s power.
Check out more titles from Anvil Publishing.
- Read Frankie Cabahug’s interview with the Danton Remoto
- Read an excerpt of Riverrun on Danton Remoto’s Blog
- LGBT Issues in The Phillipines
Title: Riverrun: A Novel
Author: Danton Remoto
Original Language: English
Published 2015, Anvil Publishing. New edition forthcoming by Penguin Random House in 2020.
Reviewer Biography: Frankie Cabahug draws and bakes desserts in Vancouver, Canada. She has previously published reviews in The Pacific Rim Review of Books, Sunstar Daily, and Making Waves: Reading BC and Pacific Northwest Literature.