Book Reviews / July 2018 (Issue 40: Writing the Philippines)

Witnesses to Haiyan: Tim Tomlinson's Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse

by Jennifer Mackenzie

Tim Tomlinson, Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse, Finishing Line Press, 2015.


In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan, known locally in the Philippines as Yolanda, wreaked horrific destruction upon the city of Tacloban. Established in 1770 and considered to be in “a well-sheltered location,” Tacloban had been hit twice before, in 1897 and 1912. Tim Tomlinson’s Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse—a collaborative project whose complexity belies the simplicity of a chapbook—is a small but significant memorial to the courage, and often dexterity, of those who survived and those who did not.

Amitav Ghosh, in his highly regarded book, The Great Derangement, looks at how the effects of climate change have led in recent years to the increasing intensity of storms and to the widening of their possible locations. He looks particularly at Asia, with its large populations of often impoverished people living in coastal areas, its vulnerability to climatic events and its dubious colonial history of sites being developed as centres of trade without proper reconnaissance. Ghosh makes two observations particularly relevant to Yolanda: the resistance to evacuation tied to the imagined security of “home” and the incomprehension of an alternative, and the recognition which comes with an event of climactic force, as all of what has been previously known is destroyed, as the future is perceived in the eye of the storm. In relation to these points, Ghosh writes that “The experience of New Orleans in the days before Hurricane Katrina … or the city of Tacloban before Haiyan” demonstrates that “large numbers of people will stay behind” and that “very few polities … are capable of implementing, or even contemplating, a managed retreat from vulnerable locations” and that “to leave places that are linked to our memories and attachments, to abandon the homes that have given our lives roots, stability and meaning, is nothing short of unthinkable.” Tomlinson’s Yolanda is a testimony to both recognition and resistance.

The twenty-three poems which comprise Yolanda present the testimony of a number of people of differing ages and backgrounds about the advent of the typhoon and the tsunami which followed. The production of the chapbook, as Tomlinson states in the acknowledgements, involved a significant number of people who provided logistical support, established protocols, made and transcribed field recordings and took photographs. Many of these tasks, including translation from the Tagalog, were performed by Deedle Rodriguez-Tomlinson, without whom “the work could not have been done.”

It seems fitting that out of this density of field reporting and the intensity of responses to death and the loss of home, the poems themselves express direct testimony in simply structured, effective verse, which as Tomlinson stated to me in private communication involved “lifting snippets and episodes and breaking them into discrete, and in some cases, recurring units.” The first poem in the selection, Fishes Jumping on the Stones (Narra Serdina, 73, Barangay 69, Nov 8, 2013), sets up, in Ghosh’s terms, both resistance and recognition, with its stark imagery leading to the powerful last line:

I was born here. I gave birth here.
I prayed the rosary in the morning,
and my niece told me, “Mama, look, the water backed up far away.”

“You’re a liar,” I told her. “Let me see.”

And I saw
the fishes jumping on the stones.
I told her the water will be big.

I went home and the water came with me.

The Storm (Father Hector, San Jose, Nov 8, 2013) introduces the chill of testimony, and a certain ambiguity into the narrative, as this is the first of three testimonies by the speaker:

The water came
the strong winds howling, shaking the whole place,
white mist like needles piercing through my skin.
I’m going to die in this place.

Later our neighbours came
scampering, climbing shouting panicking.
This is okay, this is good-
there’s somebody to tell my relatives

I died this way.

This urge to offer testimony, the apprehension of disaster, is seen very clearly in Evidence (Dulz Cuna, San Jose, Nov 8, 2013) where the house became “a virtual washing machine,” with the “downstairs flooded to the ceiling”:

clutching my daughter, rosary beads—
and a cell phone. I told my daughter
I better take pictures, you know—
of the room … they find our bodies
drowned like rats at least the cell phone—
would show how we died waterlogged

In the deluge that followed, objects became wedged together in often singular and bizarre ways. Take for example Evacuation and Return (Pelegrina Egana, 55, Barangay 69, Nov 8–10, 2013), in which the speaker narrates the difficulty in evacuating home:

that night a vehicle urged everyone to evacuate
mother had difficulty walking so we didn’t go

mother kept saying let’s stay here nothing will happen
early in the morning, half of our house was gone …

so we ran dragging our mother up
on the mountain there wasn’t any roofs or wood flying around …

We make a home out of the wood,
sleeping under there on leaves.

Mother died after two months, scared.

The barge is still on our house.


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