By: Vicente Rafael

A dedicated activist and writer, Susan Quimpo dies on July 14, 2020. She was 59.

Susan Quimpo (1961-2020) passed away after a prolonged and painful illness on Tuesday, July 14, at 8:45 pm. She was 59.

It is difficult to sum up the many facets of Susan’s life. A friend and mentor to many, she was a dedicated activist till the end of her life. As a student at the University of the Philippines, she became radicalized and joined the theater group, Peryante.

After Martial Law, she pursued her own path and became a teacher and mentor to many young students. She went to the United States to study for her Masters in Southeast Asian Studies, living for a few years in Washington, DC and New York City. While in the States, she realized how there was a growing need among Filipino Americans to learn about their ancestral country. With her husband George Chiu, she organized Tagalog On Site, an NGO that took Filipino American students for brief summer trips to the Philippines to learn about the language, culture and history of the country. Susan also became a dedicated teacher, touring universities and high schools both in the Philippines and the US to lecture on the terrible legacies of Martial Law. Part of her activist life also entailed providing art therapy to survivors of political trauma and natural disasters. In short, she was always engaged with struggles for social justice, giving her time to the relief and rescue of others in desperate need. 

Susan is perhaps best known for editing, along with her brother Nathan, Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years. More than a family history, it is also a series of related tales about surviving the horrors of the Marcos regime.

Rhythm of the revolution

The genesis of this book owes something to a series of conversations we had around 2007. While driving around Central Luzon to visit various historical sites, she would talk about the experiences of her family during and right after Martial Law. I marveled at these tales and felt that they should be shared more widely for posterity. It also occurred to us that the memory of Martial Law was fast receding among the younger generation and the stories of her family would be a way of keeping alive the legacy of Marcos for the reckoning of future generations.  

After numerous reminders and elaborate negotiations with the surviving members of the Quimpo family, Susan and Nathan finally published the book in 2012 with Anvil. It has been enthusiastically received as a unique and valuable chronicle of the Marcos years. It won a National Book Award and is now on its 6th printing from Anvil Publishing. It has also been published in the United States by Ohio University Press. Susan often jokingly blamed me for making her life difficult by pushing her to write the book. By way of recompense, she asked me to write the Foreword, part of which reads:

“Written as a family history, Subversive Lives gives us powerful testimonies of the vicissitudes of the revolutionary movement.  Each living Quimpo sibling bears witness to the events they and others did so much to shape. From aborted attempts to smuggle weapons for the NPA to heady times organizing “spontaneous uprisings” and general strikes in Mindanao, from the cruel discovery of the cause of one brother’s death in the hands of a kasama to the near hallucinatory tales of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the military, these stories remind us of the personal costs and the daily heroism of those who joined the movement. But they also bring forth its messy and unresolved legacies: of sons alienated from their father; daughters abused and victimized by the military and deluded by religious cults; brothers lost to the war; friends betrayed, comrades purged and revolutionary affection soured then destroyed by intractable ideological differences. Such stories are much less about the unfinished revolution as they are about an inconclusive one.    

To read these accounts, each so clear and distinctive in their tone, is to hear the rhythm of the revolution. There is the blast of pillboxes so omnipresent in the early days of student activism bursting on streets and hollowing out heads; the sound of fists hitting faces and body parts shocked with electrical wires to the hiss of the interrogators’ demands for more and more and more information that one simply did not have or want to give up; the chants of demonstrations as masses of bodies fill up streets, waving banners, defying cops, escaping tear gas; the sigh of a guerrilla husband writing from a red zone in Bikol lamenting the absence of his wife forced to live underground in the city.”

Subversive Lives marked an important moment in Susan’s life and made a considerable impact on those who read it. In the midst of her painful illness, she was still thinking about the book and its possible afterlives in the last few notes she sent me just a few weeks before her death: 

I’m just glad Subversive Lives is out there. It has affected so many young people (with the school tours as well) so I’m hopeful it will continue having a life of its own. Life has been good and I’m grateful… ok na rin! 

I am writing select friends now to thank them for sharing this adventure called life. I know this must be ‘uncomfortable’ to read and respond to so please don’t feel obliged. You have certainly helped bring my dream of completing Subversive Lives. Actually, it was you who really pushed me into completing the project despite our family squabbles. You contributed a lot to Tagalog on Site as well. Discussing its curriculum points with you was such a creative exercise.

If I survive this, another book project is brewing in my head as well as workshops to prepare for the elections 2022! Ha!Ha! I told you I was in high spirits!

But I have made peace with my version of God and I think I am ready to go either way. Thank you Vince… hopefully the next time you see me will be under better circumstances. Do take care of Lila…autoimmune disease can be a bitch!

Had 4 hospital confinements since I wrote you last. I now have a stunt sticking out from lung to drain fluids for the next 6 weeks! But yes, it’s provided relief. I am writing because Ohio University press is emptying their Chicago warehouse and now selling authors their books for $5 ( kawawa!) so I’m thinking to buy extra copies for you to please give away to where you give talks with substantial Filipino populations whenever/wherever that is possible. Would that interest you? I was thinking of sending you 10-15 books. Sorry for the business tone of this email but texting is still hard for me. I hope you and Lila are well.” 

And to her brother Ryan Quimpo who she was closest to, she wrote that the book  helped shape the views of a lot of millennials. “I believe its task isn’t over.”

We all grieve Susan’s passing. She will be greatly missed.