By: Patricia Denise M. Chiu
AUTHOR, AUTHOR! Susan Quimpo signing her book, “Subversive Lives” during an author’s talk session at Mt. Cloud Bookshop in Baguio.
She was many things to many people—activist, author-editor, healer, street performer, teacher. But for those who’ve heard her speak, Susan Quimpo was first and foremost a storyteller. Posted one friend on Facebook: “She has mastered the art of storytelling—so gentle even in the harshest and bloodiest details.”
And the harrowing details in Quimpo’s life had been many, most of them recalled stoically in “Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years,” that was published in 2012 and won for the author a National Book Award.
There was “a brother’s death in the hands of a kasama [comrade] … [and] the near hallucinatory tales of [another brother who had gone missing and now presumed dead after his] imprisonment and torture at the hands of the military,” wrote history professor Vince Rafael in the book’s preface.
Quimpo died on Tuesday of systemic scleroderma, a rare and painful autoimmune condition that reached her heart and lungs. She was 59.
The youngest of 10 siblings, Quimpo used her family’s experiences to recount the horrors of martial law to a generation largely unaware of what many describe as the darkest era in modern Philippine history.
Sibyl Jade Peña, a medical doctor doing international humanitarian work, remembered Quimpo as being “part of the fight against the Marcos rule” who, until her death, had been active in “ensuring that the youth doesn’t forget that period.”
Recounted Peña: “In one of our reunions (just before the 2016 elections), in the midst of the singing, reminiscing and eating, she stood up and spoke softly—on the need to connect with young people and to learn how to talk with them so that they may understand what the Marcos rule meant and why Filipinos should never let it happen again … I would like to think that those were the seeds sown, which sparked the massive protests among the youth against the hero’s burial given [to] Marcos.”
Gift of empathy
Despite or perhaps because of the violence visited on her family, Quimpo remained a gentle soul, said her husband George Chiu.
“I think her empathy was a gift. She always had it. She was an extrovert to boot so people were easily attracted to her,” he said.
“The specific object of her passion varied over time … but it always revolved around love of country,” Chiu added.
Quimpo, who spent some years in New York as a graduate student, once quit a “meaningless” but well-paying job at the Columbia Law School to organize Filipino-american youth, Chiu said. When the couple returned to the Philippines, Quimpo established Tagalog on Site, a program that brought Fil-am youth to the Philippines, often to her own home, to learn more about their roots.
“She changed the lives of so many Filipino Americans who were given the chance to come home, learn Tagalog and attend lectures on Philippine studies by some of the great professors in our universities,” Chiu said.
Martial law history
In her video tribute to her distant cousin, children’s book author Candy Quimpo Gourlay recalled how Quimpo brought some of the students to the Cordillera and later, had them meet and interact with Amerasians, the Filipino children abandoned in Olongapo by their American servicemen fathers.
Quimpo was among the first to detect historical revisionism in social media, leading her to launch the Martial Law Chronicles Project (MLCP), an all-volunteer collective dedicated to training high school teachers on how to teach martial law history accurately and in compelling ways.
“When Susan rose to speak, she cut a very unassuming manner. But the second she narrated her family’s stories you could see the audience stunned into silence. We were enthralled not just by the scale of one family’s sacrifice but by her steely determination to make sure we never forget,” said Aimee Santos-lyons, a National Program Officer of the UN Population Fund, who became part of the MLCP training team that conducted three-day workshops for educators.
For martial law survivors, Quimpo offered art therapy, coaxing out repressed memories into visual representation.
“She was a healer. During my dark days in chemotherapy, she took me in and she helped me. I became very close to her,” recalled Etta Rosales, former Commission on Human Rights chair and torture survivor. They would laugh a lot during those sessions, she said, mainly because she was no artist.
Quimpo daughters Sarita, a medical student, and Adriana, a political science student and aspiring human rights lawyer, said their mom “cared so deeply” that despite difficulty of breathing in her dying days, she managed to remind them to drink calamansi juice three times a day.
In her story for Verafiles, writer Babeth Lolarga recalled that shortly before her death, Quimpo still attended rallies against impunity and would make the rounds of schools, asking if she could teach martial law history. At one forum, she was asked, “Why blame Marcos for what the country has become in the last three decades?”
Quimpo replied: “I cannot mourn my brother Jan. We do not have a body to bury while Marcos has a body and was buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.”
Quimpo’s story gives her hope, Lyons said. “She was proof and embodiment that a person, a family and a country can survive the darkest of days and emerge as freedom fighters.”