Review | Calling Out the Destruction: Collected Non-Fiction Meditations on Violence and Transcendence by Karl R De Mesa

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John Wayne in True Grit (1969)

Georgina Monk


Calling Out the Destruction


Karl R De Mesa’s collection. despite belonging to a very different genre, reminded me of John Wayne’s classic Western movie True Grit (1969). It places conceptions of mettle, both physical and emotional, under a high-intensity microscope. In examining the nuances of grit, violence and determination, the Filipino author and reporter digs deep beneath the lazy, surface-level musings of an all too modern journalism. His profiles of mixed martial artists (MMA) such as Brandon Vera and Eduard Folayang, and actors Henry Cavill and Rachel Grant, avoid trivial questions about the subject’s charity work or how they ‘got into the business.’ When quizzed about the punishing training regimen Cavill followed to get fit for Superman, he admits candidly to ‘breaking boundaries I didn’t know I could’. On the subject of films, De Mesa’s essays on Arrival and Midsommar are striking and persuasive, offering fresh insights into these complex and controversial productions.

De Mesa’s committed interest in MMA allows him to avoid reproducing the gritty media stereotypes of hardmen possessed of more brawn than brains. His interviewees speak calmly and eloquently of the importance of tradition and loyalty in the sport. Ireneno ‘Eric’ Olavides, a professor of martial arts (yes, there is such a role) at Eskrima De Campo JDC-IO and the author of Out of the Shadows, suggests that when a fighter achieves a certain level of accomplishment ‘the spirituality disappears’.

Other interviewees talk of bringing the sport up to date and re-conceptualising what it means to be a successful MMA practitioner in the modern world. Coach Mark Sangiao says that, when assessing the merits of a fighter, the ‘number one thing that I look at is attitude’ ahead of style, skills, talent, or expertise. The Portuguese fighter Nuno Faria believes that you need to have ‘heart’ when participating in Lethwei, which helps to humanise what is often considered an unremittingly ferocious sub-genre of boxing. But the psychological or emotional strength must be complemented by the physical kind; every fighter needs to be a ‘warrior’, Faria goes on to state.

Mingling with sport and acting personalities are subjects from drastically divergent walks of life. Most intriguing is Iranian former beauty queen, Bahareh Z Bahari, who counterpoises the testosterone elsewhere in Calling Out the Destruction with a particularly feminine flavour of grit. She became, in her words, an ‘unbreakable woman’ after being exiled from her ultra-conservative country of origin. But she also has the humility to claim that other women back home are ‘braver than I am’.

The articles that comprise Calling Out the Destruction are much more than the sum of their parts. Reading the collection in its entirety, you begin to appreciate the thematic gossamer-like threads connecting sometimes seemingly disparate topics and interviewees. ‘Six Swords and Better Living Through Grief’ is a particularly powerful piece that focuses on the ongoing trauma caused by the death of a parent, which offers yet other definitions of grit and fortitude. De Mesa writes that ‘family histories are double sided’ – memories summon both joy and pain. He points to similar contradictions in childhood experiences, during which great mental strength is needed to insulate oneself against the violence of others. When he was young student, De Mesa, a self-professed, bullied, ‘glasses-wearing nerd’, invited two classmates over to his home only for them to steal a picture of personal, sentimental value. They distributed it around his class the following morning. 

‘It was counterproductive to put fiction on a pedestal or to kick journalism in the balls every time it misbehaved’, De Mesa explains of his early career during a ‘self-interview’ in the latter half of the book. This is a compelling attempt to do some soul-searching and test his own resolve in tribute to the Japanese rite-of-passage, the kimodameshi. The theme is revisited in the longer, more personal essays in the collection, such as ‘We Tell Stories in Psychic Defence’ and in his interviews of people about the storytelling techniques of the video game The Last of Us. A unique, diverse and in-depth study, Calling Out the Destruction ranges across both the personal and political to arrive at an understanding of human violence and transcendence.

By Georgina Monk.


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