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REVIEW: John Bengan’s ‘Armor’ pokes the reader in the eye

(Remarks of Maria Karina Africa Bolasco, Director of the Ateneo de Manila University Press, during the lau\ch of John Bengan’s book, Armor, in Davao City on 21 April 2023. Ms Ria Valdez, secretary of the Davao Writers Guild, read her remarks at the launch

Our world today is hurtling down. I have not seen this in my lifetime: where the absurd is regular, and the unreasonable quickly becomes real, and the horrible is commonplace. We are helpless, voiceless, falling with it, in it, being turned this way and that, and so even artless. So we deliberately turn to art, and hope that if there are millions of us who will take control of our bodies, we might stop the descending momentum.

They call it resistance art, and literature is one such battlefront for struggle.

John Bengan’s Armor of stories is not just the solid protection we need in these crazy times of Mongol pencils, wooden sword tips, penises, guns, discrimination, and all manner of inhumanity, but is also the weapon to wield against the horror of absolute abuse and the escalation of violence, both institutionalized and random. “Armor” is right smack in the middle of a collection of 13 stories, and aptly, is the title story.

Its main character, Ronnie, is a gay petty drug user whose dream is to win in the town fiesta’s Miss Gay pageant, and occasionally takes shabu to help her lose weight. When told she is in the Tokhang target list, she prepares to die but only after she becomes Miss Gay of Mintal. She is a hairdresser and beautician, and designs her national costume inspired by what she caught from a fashion show on cable TV: a flowing shimmering gown with a gold armored right sleeve as if she were part knight. 

John doesn’t simplify resistance as between good and evil, the easy binary. Instead, he cleverly and creatively builds tension through a contrast in imagination, death squads and beauty pageants, shimmering gown and a gold-cased armored sleeve, which at the end, ceases to be metaphor when he throws it at the killer chasing a younger boy in the neighborhood, a friend who helped her mold the armor. 

John Bengan, author of “Armor,” at the book launch on April 21, 2023 at the 6th Republic Cafe in Davao City. Photo by BECA VINE LINOY

The stories are haunting and powerful—they deftly intensify our realities, those stark and grotesque we refuse to look at, but at the same time, undermine them. 

Davao City, where the author grew up, is intimately familiar to him, with its dark alleys, motor-riding vigilantes, rivers where bodies are dumped into or fished out, and a cast of characters from a land-grabbing pastor to a gun-toting mayor who prowls the city in a taxi cab, from death squads to drug pushers, and many ordinary people in between who pop in and out of the stories as they do in one’s neighborhood. Davao was the microcosm that became the nation.


John Bengan is disciplined yet inventive and versatile, the ultimate craftsman yet poignant and empathetic.

As his first reader said, and I quote: “The fictionist not only unveils the truth but seems to dig his pen again and again into the gaping wounds of the nation, using it to probe and pull at the bullets and toxins festering there in the hope of drawing them out.”

And like Raquel, in the story “At the River,” who pokes Christopher in the eye, John pokes the reader in the eye to make us feel the hurt, reflect on the circumstance, and eventually move toward healing. The long journey of the cover design from beginning to what now holds the collection is by itself a story. I love the cover which while based on a sequined fabric for the shimmering gown in Armor, it is also like eyeballs all over, everywhere, all at once.

At this point, I wish to quote Barbara Harlow in Recontextualizing Resistance 
“When knowledge is exploited by powerful interests to distort historical records, immediate intervention into the historical record is urgent. To interrupt 
the present agenda of those writing history by encouraging the creation of works that are historically specific and material, thereby confronting writerly and scholarly issues in a meaningful way.”

“Armor” author John Bengan (center) at the book launch on April 21, 2023. Photo by YOSHI DRILON
At the book launch of John Bengan’s “Armor” at the 6th Republic Cafe in Davao City on 21 April 2023. Photo by BECA VINE LINOY

It is not mere synchronicity that Bro. Karl Gaspar in his review of John Bengan’s Armor: Stories in MindaNews has this to say: 

“Decades from now, it can be referred to as historical narratives. While this is a work of fiction, the stories here are not fake news… this is ‘history from below,’ written from the margins.
These stories should haunt the citizens of this city and the country towards admitting that we have been complicit to the ‘crimes against humanity.’”

On behalf of Ateneo de Manila University Press, I congratulate John Bengan for this excellent collection of stories, layered, diverse in the telling, and extremely teachable.

As a writer of a great time of tempest, what he does is to remember the history of story and song, and to remember the reasons that troubled people have looked toward story and song to relieve their pain, and to organize, with other sufferers, in resistance.

Thank you.

Karl M. Gaspar’s review of Armor
A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Through a glass, darkly

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