Penman No. 163: The Gentler Path

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Penman for Monday, August 24, 2015

FOR THE first time in something like 20 years, I’m teaching two undergraduate classes this semester. I usually teach one graduate and one undergrad class, but thanks to what I’m taking as a glitch in the registration process, my graduate fiction writing class—which is usually oversubscribed—had zero enrollees this term, forcing its cancellation and my reassignment to a course usually reserved for young instructors, English 11 or “Literature and Society.”

I should make it clear that I’ve always insisted on teaching at least one undergrad class every semester, and have done so unfailingly since I returned from my own graduate studies abroad in 1991. The benefits go both ways—young students get to learn from more experienced professors, and senior profs get to know how young people think. With four years of active teaching left before retirement (it’s hard to believe, but I’m getting there), these encounters with some of the country’s brightest young minds will only become more precious, and as with every class I take on, I can only hope that, many years from now, my former students will remember something useful that they picked up from me.

I haven’t taught English 11 in ages, so it was with some trepidation that I entered the classroom on our first day a couple of weeks ago, under UP’s new academic calendar. Students don’t realize this, but professors can be just as full of anxiety at the start of the semester as they are. As I scan the roomful of faces, I’m already wondering who will likely give me problems and who will make it worth the effort of preparing for every day’s lesson as if I myself were taking an exam. Thankfully, most of these mutual apprehensions soon retreat as I reassure my students that I know what I’m talking about—and that I won’t scream at them if they don’t—and as I begin to understand what exactly I’m working with, which is always a welcome challenge.

This semester, I was glad to discover that my English 11 class of about 30 students was composed of mainly science and engineering majors. You’d think that teaching the humanities to them would pose problems, but I see it as a unique opportunity to lead smart people on an adventure they might have missed out on otherwise. Of course, UP’s General Education program makes sure that our graduates acquire a balanced outlook on life, so my students didn’t really have any choice, but I see my job as making them see Literature as much less an imposed subject than a welcome relief from everything else—in other words, fun. When you disguise labor as discovery, and emphasize incentives over penalties, the students—and you yourself—can feel more relaxed.

English 11 is what used to be English 3 in my time—an introduction to literature—and while some teachers see this as a chance to pile on the heavy stuff like The Brothers Karamazov (and I can understand why), I prefer to take the gentler path to literary enlightenment, and begin with things the students know or can apprehend. That way you can lead them to stranger and more intriguing discoveries about the way language works to convey human experience.

Last week, for example, one of the first poems we took up in class was “Southbound on the Freeway,” a poem published in 1963 by the American poet May Swenson. We could’ve done something like T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” but unless you train lay people to look at poetry a certain way—to see it as a puzzle or a riddle to be solved, for example—it’s often very hard for them to get a handle on what some poets do on a high and abstracted level of language and idea, much like the way Picasso’s departure into Cubism (think of his women-figures with their eyes looking this way and their noses pointing that way) can be better appreciated if you first consider what goes into a traditional portrait like the Mona Lisa.

“Southbound on the Freeway” reads like a rather simple and even funny poem, in which alien visitors on a spaceship look down at the Earth, and see creatures “made of metal and glass…. They have four eyes. / The two in the back are red. / Sometimes you can see a 5-eyed / one, his red eye turning / on the top of his head.” It doesn’t take much for the student to see that the aliens, hovering above a freeway, have concluded that the cars themselves are Earthlings, and even that some cars—like the “5-eyed” police car—are more special than others.

In literature, this is a familiar device we call “defamiliarization,” by which poets and other artists take something we see everyday and present it to us in fresh and unexpected ways, revealing facets and insights we never really thought about before. The Swenson poem seems like all it does is show us how perspective can change our perception of things, but it goes beyond that eye-trick and asks a very intriguing question at the end: “Those soft shapes, / shadowy inside / the hard bodies—are they / their guts or their brains?”

At this point, I ask the class, what’s this poem really about? Is it just about aliens and humans, or about cars on the road? Inevitably, someone spits out the magic word: technology! So what is it about technology that’s so important, I press on, and what does it have to do with our lives? Why, everything, the class exclaims in a chorus—we’d die without our cell phones and iPads!

We go into a brief and engaging discussion about what exactly technology means, and whether it has benefited human society—or not. We talk about mechanization, automation, better and easier ways of doing things, products that were invented to improve human life, and inventions that did the opposite. We talk about armaments, and about Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and how it actually helped to encourage more slavery in the American South. I tell them that at some point, later in the semester, I’ll talk to them some more about the legend of Dr. Faust and how it led to the stereotype of the mad scientist, all the way to Dr. Strangelove, Lex Luthor, and Doc Ock. I can see that the class is listening, and I’m happy.

I ask them what the real question is that the Swenson poem is posing, and they get it. It’s been a good day in school for Literature and Society.

Penman No. 162: To Be a Journalist (2)

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Penman for Monday, August 17, 2015

LAST WEEK’S look back at my early days as a journalist brought back a flood of memories that hadn’t crossed my mind in ages, so I’ll beg my reader’s indulgence with this extended reminiscence of what it was like to be a young newspaper reporter just before martial law was declared in September 1972.

Come to think of it, that first stint in journalism didn’t last too long, from April to September of that fateful year. (I keep saying “first” because I would return to newspapering more than 20 years later in 1993, as an editorial writer and then Lifestyle columnist for the late, lamented newspaper TODAY.) To recap, I was 18, and my bosses at the Philippines Herald had taken a chance on a college dropout who barely knew a thing about professional newspapering but who seemed to be able to string sentences together decently enough—and fast.

Man, was I fast—I was so eager to impress my editors that I jumped at assignments the way a dog goes after a ball, and when my editors found out about the new boy in the room, they assigned me to fill up half of Page 5—the features page—every day. The topic was up to me. That sounded like the most wonderful thing in the world—imagine, my own corner of the newspaper, all mine to fill up!—for about three days. I took stories out of history books and turned them into features; I wrote about the latest crazes like fun houses and pool halls; and when, inevitably, I ran out of ideas, I took a bus out to Tagaytay, got off, and looked around for anything that I could weave a feature story from (I saw a drug rehab center in the distance and got a story out of that; I did the same thing in Muntinlupa another day and interviewed a Death Row convict).

Thankfully my editors pulled me out of Page 5 and designated me a general assignments reporter—meaning, I would report for work every morning and take on whatever odd assignment they tossed me. But before I could do that, and to give me some training, they had me spend a few weeks each on a specific beat—police, sports, and City Hall. On each beat, a senior Herald reporter took me under his wing, and while they may not have been too happy to babysit me, I soaked up their streetsmarts and tried not to be a nuisance (not always successfully—we were covering a MICAA basketball game when Jun Pantig saw that I was cheering for one team at courtside. “Stop cheering!” he shushed me. “You’re a reporter, you shouldn’t be taking sides!”)

Of all the beats I was assigned to, the most exciting and instructive was police. I took the graveyard shift at the old Manila Police Department headquarters and from there covered mayhem at its worst—an 18-year-old American girl who shot herself in the mouth at the Dutch Inn; a nighttime fire that razed a hospital in Dapitan (I can still recall the sickening thud of falling patients who jumped off the roof in desperation; my specific task, early that morning, was to count all the bodies in the morgues); demonstrations at the US Embassy where I could see the police preparing for an assault on the rallyists, many of whom happened to be my friends (prompting me, again, to break journalistic protocol by picking up the injured in our service jeep and bringing them to the hospital).

I grew inured to the sight and smell of blood, and I can say, today, that I had no better preparation for the kind of realist fiction that I would come to write than those weeks on the police beat, confronting death by the day (which didn’t make me feel any braver, but rather more aware and respectful of the finitude of life).

It was all very exhilarating, even in the most difficult and trying of moments; sometimes the toughest tests took place in the newsroom itself—once, for example, I was driven close to tears by having to rewrite a story half a dozen times to please an editor who, I now realize, was teaching me a valuable lesson in verbal economy.

Coming off the beats as a general assignments reporter, I looked forward to and did get some assignments that no other teenager would have experienced. At the onset of the biblically catastrophic July-August floods of 1972, I was put on board an amphibious ship that sailed in the night from Manila to Lingayen Gulf, and I covered rescue operations in Pangasinan, riding rubber rafts and flying out in a US Army helicopter that dropped us off at Clark Air Base, then still busy with the Vietnam War. Also at about that time, I volunteered to go to Isabela to cover the reported landing of a shipload of arms by the CPP-NPA, convinced (wrongly—it turned out to be the MV Karagatan episode) that it was a military hoax that I could heroically unmask; sensibly, my bosses told me that I was too young—they didn’t say too foolish—to undertake the mission. Instead, I stayed in Manila, and interviewed Mrs. Marcos in Malacañang about her relief efforts in front of a mountain of Nutribuns.

Like I said last week, I soon resigned in solidarity with a union strike at the Herald, and was half-surprised when management accepted my resignation. I finagled my way to a spot at Taliba (in the Manila Times organization that it had been my dream to join one way or the other) as suburban correspondent, and it was in that capacity—albeit outside my assigned zone in Makati—that I filed, or at least called in, the last story of my brief reportorial career. It was the night of September 22, 1972, and I was on the UP campus, not as a journalist but as an off-hours activist hanging out with comrades and fraternity brothers to denounce the imminence of martial law.

I should’ve sensed something when I saw my brod Bobby Crisol, son of the Defense Undersecretary, suddenly being spirited away by his dad’s security men. Shortly after, we heard gunshots in the distance. I ran for the nearest phone and called the night desk: “I have a scoop!” I said breathlessly. “I can hear gunfire—UP is under attack!” (It later turned out that the Iglesia ni Cristo radio station was being taken over by the military.) What should have been the biggest story of my young life fizzled out with a laconic reply on the other end of the line. “So are we,” said the fellow I spoke to. “There are soldiers in the office. It’s martial law!”

Within four months, I would be in prison, still aged 18. Another year later, I would get married, on my 20th birthday. Life seemed terribly short, and I was in an awful hurry, hardly imagining I would last on to seniorhood.

Today, I tell my Creative Writing majors that they may think of themselves as God’s gift to literature, but until they’ve spent a week or two as a reporter, sniffing out a story, they should shut up and be happy they can write odes to the moonlight without an editor screaming at them for a tighter rewrite.

Penman No. 161: To Be a Journalist

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Penman for Monday, August 10, 2015

I WAS very sad to hear of the recent passing of an old colleague from my first foray into journalism—Nemesio Dacanay, who was then the City Editor of the Philippines Herald, one of the pre-martial law period’s smaller but pre-eminent newspapers. A relative of his texted me about his death and interment, but I was out of town and felt bad that I couldn’t even pay my respects in person, so I’ll do it here.

Five years ago, in this column, I had to issue an apology—and I was happy to do so—having inadvertently suggested in a previous piece that “Dac” had passed on to the hereafter. As it turned out, he was still very much alive, as his daughter Christine reminded me. This time, unfortunately, the news was real.

The story of my connection to Dac and of how I got into the newspapers is something I may have told before in bits and pieces, but here it is in full. The time was early 1972, and I had just turned 18. I was already a full-time activist, having dropped out of my classes in UP, a lanky, chain-smoking lad who was already a veteran of many a Plaza Miranda march and of the Diliman Commune.

In UP, I hung out with a group of older Journalism majors who were close to graduating and who would, very shortly after, begin to make a name for themselves as reporters—people like Wilson Bailon, Rolly Fernandez, Jun Engracia, Efren Cabrera, Rod Cabrera, and Val Abelgas, among others. I had great respect and admiration for these guys, but at the same time, it annoyed me to know that they were soon going to find and land jobs, while I—technically still a freshman, with but 21 completed units to my name (3 of them good for a “5.0” in Math, the consequence of absenteeism)—was going to be left behind.

I should explain that at 18, I had no greater ambition than to become a journalist. I’d written some stories, poems, and plays, but I had no plans of becoming a creative writer, and might even have thought journalism superior to poetry (and why not?). I had been editor in chief of the school paper at Philippine Science High (following in the gargantuan footsteps of Rey Vea, Mario Taguiwalo, and Rodel Rodis), and I found that I savored the romance of printers’ ink and hot lead (that’s “lead” with a short E for you young ones, the molten metal that magically turned into letters in reverse).

As soon as I stepped into UP, at 16, I did the three things I’d put on my agenda, after enrollment: join the Nationalist Corps (and later the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan, or SDK), join the Alpha Sigma Fraternity (to which high school heroes like my Physics teacher Vic Manarang and firebrand Gary Olivar belonged), and join the staff of the Philippine Collegian.

It was in the nationalist movement and those long nights of proofreading at Liwayway Press that my desire to become a reporter flourished. Never mind poetry and fiction; I wanted to feel and to record the ground shaking beneath my feet from the steps of a thousand marchers, to trace the arc of tear gas canisters flying across the plaza, to bear witness to what we were all convinced was the forging of a bright new future, with all the sparks and all the smoke that came with the process. To be a reporter at that time was to be in the very womb of history, and I thought nothing was more thrilling and more important than to be there on the frontlines, notebook and ballpoint in hand and a barely stifled battle cry rising up my throat: “Pierce the enemy with your pens!” (That was the slogan silkscreened on my jacket.)

As you can see, as a teenage Maoist, I had no idea of and no patience for “objective” and “dispassionate” journalism. I hadn’t even taken one formal unit of Journalism in UP (I was an Industrial Engineering major, and still plowing through my GE subjects) and had embraced the notion that journalism was and had to be a partisan activity, convinced that Malacañang had bought 90% of the Philippine press, with the notable exception of progressives like Tony Zumel, Satur Ocampo, and Rolly Fadul, and young blood like Roz Galang and Millet Martinez. We were going to be the vanguard of what we called the Second Propaganda Movement.

But I didn’t want to be stuck on campus; it was a wide-open arena beyond Diliman, so when my friends began applying for jobs with the newspapers shortly before graduation in early 1972, I tagged along, hoping to land something, anything. (I’d already written and sold a teleplay to the TV drama anthology Balintataw in 1970, when I was 16, so I didn’t lack in self-esteem.) I remember walking up to the editor of the Manila Chronicle, Amando Doronila, and boldly announcing that I wanted to apply as a reporter. “How old are you?” the man asked in all reasonableness. “Eighteen,” I said. “Come back in a few years,” he suggested, not unkindly.

It was like that, one prospect after another, until my path led to the old Philippines Herald office in Intramuros, sometime in March or April. It was must have been around one in the afternoon, because the only person in the newsroom was Nemesio “Dac” Dacanay, whose name I didn’t even know at that point. He had a groovy look about him: dark shades, a colorful, open-necked shirt, and an impish grin. I told him what I was there for, and I can’t recall how long I begged to be given a chance, but finally, if only to get rid of the pesky walk-in, he said: “Where do you live?” I said, “Quezon City.” He said, “Okay. Go back to Quezon City, then come back in three days with a story. Understood?”

I stepped out of the Herald on a floating cloud—I was positive I would deliver as directed. Over the next three days, not knowing anything about real newswriting, I walked around the Quezon Memorial, waiting for some dreadful accident to happen that I could breathlessly report on. The world remained blissfully peaceful, and the only thing that came crashing down was my dream of becoming a journalist. On the third day, I was so tired and depressed that I took a jeepney to the Delta Theater, and decided to cool off in the moviehouse. I watched the screen. The movie was so awful I can’t even remember its title. When it was over, I went home, collected my thoughts, and pulled out my typewriter.

Then I took a bus to Intramuros, and handed Dac my story—a movie review. Damn—I could hear him mutter, and I could see him sizing me up through his shades—okay ka, kid. “I’ll pass this on to Nestor,” he said, referring to the venerable Nestor Mata, who handled the features page. “He’ll take care of you.”

And so I was hired at 18 as a general assignments reporter, the greenest of greenhorns in a roomful of veterans that included editor in chief Oscar Villadolid, news editor Joe Pavia, reporter Lito Catapusan (who took me under his wing), and a deskman who moonlighted as a songwriter named George Canseco. Over the next few months, I would make the rounds of the police, sports, and City Hall beats, cramming three more years of college into a semester. Thanks to a guy who humored me named Dac, I had achieved my ambition of becoming a journalist. (By July, in a flash of activist fervor, I would resign in solidarity with striking workers, and move over to Taliba as a correspondent right up to martial law, when we all lost our jobs and the press as we knew it vanished overnight. But that’s another story.)

Penman No. 160: Hemingway in Manila

HemingwayManilaPenman for Monday, August 3, 2015

THE LAST time I thought about Ernest Hemingway, it was a few weeks ago when I was teaching his controversial 1927 short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of my all-time favorites for its compactness and subtlety, not to mention its grasp of human psychology.

Coincidentally, when I was giving that lecture, one of the pens in my pocket was an Ernest Hemingway—the first in a series that Montblanc called its Writers Edition pens, issued in 1993. Considered one of the “holy grails” of pen collectors, it had been generously given to me by a fellow member of the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (www.fpn-p.org); we had a small business arrangement, but the cost of my own service was so negligible that the pen was practically a gift, most thankfully accepted.

My pen’s inscribed with Hemingway’s signature, but ironically, I don’t think Hemingway was ever much of a fountain-pen person, and being the practical, outdoorsy person he was, would probably have disdained carrying anything fancier than a Parker Jotter. He was actually known to favor pencils and typewriters—Angelina Jolie bought his 1926 Underwood as a wedding gift to Brad Pitt—and he wrote this down to explain why:

“When you start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none. So you might as well use a typewriter because it is much easier and you enjoy it that much more. After you learn to write your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so that you can better it easier.”

I’ve since located an online sample of Hemingway’s handwriting—likely in pencil—which has him drawing up a list of recommended readings for young writers (among them, Stephen Crane’s short stories, Madame Bovary, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Oxford Book of English Verse). It’s comforting to know that his penmanship is a lot like mine—cramped, stiff, and generally ugly.

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One of the things that I forgot to mention to my audience—a group of English teachers—was that Hemingway once visited Manila, in February 1941, with the clouds of war already hovering above Europe, where the young Ernest had served as an ambulance driver in World War I. (Ambulance driving seemed to be strangely attractive to young men who would soon make a name for themselves in the arts and letters. Aside from Hemingway, these illustrious WWI volunteers included the writers John Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, W. Somerset Maugham, and Archibald MacLeish, the composer Maurice Ravel, and the filmmakers Jean Cocteau and Walt Disney.)

In another uncanny connection to fountain pens, Hemingway and Dos Passos served in Italy close to the factory of the Montegrappa fountain pen company, as Montegrappa continues to recall on its website: “Close to the Elmo-Montegrappa factory was situated the Villa Azzalin, which during the conflict. was converted into a field hospital. Two volunteer ambulance drivers for the Italian Red Cross at that time were the famous writers Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, both of whom spent many happy hours visiting the factory and experimenting and testing various Montegrappa fountain pens, and availing themselves of the Company’s after-sales service.”

But back to Hemingway in Manila.

An article by Brown University Prof. George Monteiro in The Hemingway Review (Fall 2010) talks about Hemingway’s short 1941 visit, a stopover on his longer assignment to China as a journalist. Accompanying Hemingway then was his third wife Martha Gellhorn, herself a distinguished writer, a novelist and a war correspondent. (Annoyed by her frequent absences—she would be the only woman to land with the Allied troops on D-Day—Ernest wrote her to ask, “Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?” She led a long and colorful life after her divorce from Hemingway, and tragically, like Ernest, died by her own hand at the age of 89 in 1998.)

Flying to Hong Kong by Pan Am Clipper from San Francisco via Honolulu and Guam, Ernest and Martha stopped by in Manila for a few days and stayed at the Manila Hotel, and managed to meet with representatives of the Philippine Writers League, which was then led by Federico Mangahas. There’s a picture in the Flickr photo gallery maintained by Malacañang’s Presidential Museum and Library (whose Director, Edgar Ryan Faustino, just happens to be a member of FPN-P), taken from A.V.H. Hartendorp’s Philippine Magazine, showing Hemingway meeting with Filipino writers.

Seeing it reminded me of a similar picture of the big white Ernest looming over a small brown young Filipino named Nestor—a picture that NVM Gonzalez himself showed me in the 1990s, which sadly may have been lost in the fire that later razed the Gonzalez home in Diliman. Monteiro’s account mentions that Hemingway shared this bit of wisdom with his Filipino counterparts: “I think a writer’s gravest problem, always, is to write the truth and still eat regularly.”

Unfortunately I couldn’t access the rest of the Monteiro article online (you need membership access to Project MUSE), but I read enough of it to understand that brief as it was, Hemingway’s stopover created quite an impact, enough for the Manila Hotel to use a quote from the big guy as one of its taglines: “If the story’s any good, it’s like Manila Hotel.” The bayside hotel, founded in 1912, has of course hosted other luminaries such as Douglas MacArthur, John Wayne, John F. Kennedy, and the Beatles, aside from another popular postwar writer, James Michener.

As we all know, Hemingway killed himself with his favorite shotgun in July 1961, seven years after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, in a fit of depression. It was a sad ending to a many-splendored life that we were privileged to glimpse, however briefly.

Penman No. 159: Border Insecurity

Penman for Monday, July 27, 2015

I’M NOT as big a TV fan as I used to be—I haven’t seen a single episode of Game of Thrones—but I can’t get enough of certain types of reality shows. I’ve been strangely attracted to Project Runway, and despite being a culinary philistine who hates cheese, I’m a sucker for food shows. I don’t care much for Survivor-type formats, believing that living in Manila beats sharing an island with snakes and monkeys anytime. I reserve my highest praise and deepest fascination for junk-o-ramas like American Pickers and Pawn Stars, being the kind of ukay-ukay addict who flew to Barcelona not for Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia but for the Encants flea market.

But there’s another kind of show I’m fixated on, in the same odd way that I hate even the prospect of surgery—I shrink like a schoolboy at the sight of a needle—but can be engrossed by medical documentaries, where other people get cut up. It’s the airport immigration and customs show, like Border Security Australia and Border Security Canada, where incoming passengers go through a gauntlet of questions and searches meant to find out if they’re drug dealers or food smugglers or people pretending to be tourists but are either (a) jobseekers; (b) international terrorists; or (c) fugitives from justice in disguise.

I cringe whenever a passenger—usually an Asian, sometimes a Pinoy—is loudly asked a dozen times, in clear, slow English, “Are you carrying any food?” The passenger looks stricken and bewildered, but ultimately decides to feign ignorance and/or linguistic incompetence and shakes his or her head, immediately upon which the customs officer opens the passenger’s bags to reveal enough meats, cooked dishes, condiments, and desserts for a wedding feast. The officer points to the customs form in which the passenger has boldly checked “No,” which occasions even more vigorous head-shaking, or the groan of discovery, or the wheezy laughter of surrender. The culprit is then fined, or given a stern warning, and the illegal edibles are confiscated, presumably for incineration (in this country, I think we know where they’ll end up—it’s a bigger crime to waste good food!).

As a frequent traveler myself to places out West, I shouldn’t rejoice at these embarrassing encounters between cat and mouse, but I’d have to shamefully admit that I do, which is why I keep watching these shows, for more of the same thing. I suppose it’s what the Germans call schadenfreude—the strange but delectable pleasure we get from the misfortunes of others, if only because it happens to them and not to us. Or at least that’s what we’d like to think.

I remember how, just a couple of years ago and after having made dozens of trips across the Pacific and gone through countless immigration lines, I foolishly “forgot” that I’d bought a few packets of chicharon—the deadlier bituka version, mind you, not the more innocent-looking rinds—at a planeside shop in NAIA, thinking that I would munch on them on the flight to San Francisco in the long stretch between meals. I must’ve fallen asleep instead, because they were still in my carry-on bag when Beng and I arrived in SFO, and had the misfortune of being singled out for random inspection (I think they read the vibes I must have subliminally emanated: “This guy is carrying chicharon. Arrest him.”) I speeded through the immigration process like the veteran I’d thought I was, chatting up the border agent in my best Midwestern-accented English, only to find myself in a special customs queue for secondary inspection. OK, I thought with a minor shrug of annoyance, no problem, let’s get this over and done with, shall we?

The immigration gods didn’t desert me completely, however, assigning me to a customs agent who was obviously Fil-Am, and who just as obviously knew how to deal with sneaky kababayans like me. “Magandang umaga po,” she said sweetly in Filipino as she took hold of my bag. “May pagkain po ba kayong dala ngayon—bagoong, chicharon, mangga?” I was all set to harrumph and put on my foulest professorial airs when I suddenly remembered—at her mention of the usual suspects—the packets of chicharon that I’d stuffed into the side pocket of my bag.

For a millisecond I toyed with gambling on her missing them—the chicharon bulaklak seemed even more delicious, being forbidden, and now I was never going to get a taste of it—but decided to come clean. Decades earlier (you see how these things have histories), an immigration beagle had sniffed out a stash of dubious comestibles in Beng’s luggage, meant for lonesome me in Milwaukee; now I was sure that they had 21st-century detectors and X-ray profiles of bagoong, chicharon, etc. in some secret room behind a nearby wall.

Ay, may chicharon bulaklak pala ako!” I exclaimed, throwing my hands up. “I meant to eat it on the plane, but forgot,” I added, grinning sheepishly. The agent reached in, felt for, and fished out the offending packets, and tossed them into a trash bin that seemed about to overflow with other people’s confiscated contraband. “I’m glad you told me, sir,” the Fil-Am agent said, with the barest hint of regret. “I would have fined you $300 if you didn’t!” I shuddered at the thought of having to fork over $300—the price of a fancy fountain pen—for three packets of pork innards that I didn’t even get a bite of. There, I thought, but for the grace of a kind Pinay go I.

So whenever I watch those poor, guilty souls trudging toward the immigration and customs agents on the TV shows, I silently scream at them, “Confess! Reveal the sausages and the century eggs! Resistance is futile!” Of course they never do, and I feel rewarded with my minute of smug satisfaction at having narrowly escaped the clutches of Western justice. (And it’s just them, right? Nobody but nobody ever asks incoming Americans, Canadians, or Australians, “Excuse me, sir, but do you have hotdogs, burgers, or French fries in your luggage?” Perhaps our immigration people should be better trained.)

SPEAKING OF overseas Pinoys, a fraternity brother in Toronto, Fred Postrado, emailed me to ask for some help in reaching out to his batchmates from the Manila High School Class of 1973, which is planning to hold a reunion during the last week of February 2016. Those interested may contact organizers Zen Alcantara Cabaluna at 0908-8849190 and goldland_zen@yahoo.com, Mario Bulatao at 0917-5215739 and supermcb55@yahoo.com or Virgie Nudalo Calimag at 0932-8615484 and vncalimag@yahoo.com.

Penman No. 158: A Biographer’s Advice

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Penman for Monday, July 20, 2015

OVER THE past 20 years or so, I’ve been privileged to be asked to write the biographies of many notable Filipinos, an unexpected but interesting digression from writing the stories, novels, plays, and screenplays that used to occupy me. As it is, these days, I spend far more time on other people’s book projects than on my own—not that I mind, as it’s become a second career for me, and as it’s also introduced me to some of the most remarkable people in our country and to their life stories, which can be very instructive and inspiring.

To put things in context, I’m in the business (yes, it is one) of writing commissioned (I call them “sympathetic”) biographies, and as I’ve discussed here before, that creates a unique set of impositions on the writer. Commissioned writers might otherwise be dismissed as paid hacks; I’ve never flinched at being called one (which has happened), because I’m aware of my givens and also of what I can achieve within and despite those limitations.

I’ve often been asked by my students and by other writers thinking of going into biographical writing what it takes to get into this line of work—aside, obviously, from the language skills every professional writer should be assumed to have. I might devote a full column to this one of these days, but for now, let me jot down some notes at random.

Know why you’re doing this. Curiosity will be part of it, and that’s always a good thing, and possibly earning a good sum of money will be, too, but you also have to tell yourself that you’re contributing to social and political history by putting new information on the table.

No, you won’t be telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You should make a solemn vow to yourself not to lie or to be a conscious party to a lie, but don’t be under any illusion that you will uncover and reveal everything there is to know about your client. Most clients will either forget, disregard, or downplay the negative aspects of their lives—it’s a natural human impulse. I do advise my clients to be as forthright as possible for the biography’s own good (see below), but the bottom line is, you’re not an independent journalist, so your client will have final editorial approval over what you write. The upside is, even if you’re presenting a half-filled glass at best, it’s still substance for serious scholars and critics to interrogate, so you’re contributing to a hopefully more productive discourse.

You don’t have to like or to admire your client to do a good job. It helps, and I often end up liking and admiring my clients, but I maintain enough distance to allow me to write without gushing, or without sounding like an apologist. I let my clients speak for themselves—especially in instances where I might hold different views; I quote them directly and represent them as fairly as possible, but I also try to raise difficult questions that most informed and intelligent readers will raise anyway.

Be thoroughly professional. Get a signed contract specifying outputs, schedules, and fees. Be prepared to issue official receipts, and pay your taxes.

You can always say no. No matter the money, there are some jobs you just know you have to refuse for one reason or other, and I’ve done that quite a few times.

Clients, too, need some sound advice, even before the project gets off the ground. I get many calls from people planning to have their biographies or that of someone they know written, and this is part of what I tell them.

Don’t go the first-person route. Using the first person (with an “I” talking all the time) gets tiring and tiresome pretty quickly, and almost inevitably sounds self-serving and defensive in its tone. This doesn’t mean that great, honest, and well-modulated autobiographies and memoirs don’t get written; but that takes enormous self-awareness and (ironically) self-effacement. Most people can’t resist thumping their chests. Again, that’s natural, but if you’re truly praiseworthy, it’s best to let others (not your writer, either) point that out. First person limits the number of people who can talk about you to one: you. It blocks out other perspectives—even contrary ones—which can be useful, and which every biography needs for credibility’s sake. You can always be quoted at length, anyway, for more personal insights.

Tell me the truth. Don’t expect me to lie for you. Like a lawyer, I can understand the necessity of nuancing the presentation of certain situations, but I will not deliberately misrepresent the facts. I don’t need or expect to know all your secrets, but I need to be told as much as you can let on, so I can tell your story fairly. If you choose to deliberately leave out entire episodes that could prove embarrassing, that’s your call, but be aware that people will spot the omission, and your credibility will suffer. A biography is your chance to present your side of a controversy, and quite frankly it’s what readers will look for, beyond the predictable catalog of one’s achievements. No one leads a perfect life, and fractures are almost always more interesting than surface sheen.

Be kind, and try not to use your book to settle scores. Like it or not, most big people acquire enemies, and a book’s a tempting opportunity to take potshots at everyone in range. Some of that may be called for, especially when some grave injustice has been sustained, but I counsel my clients to be very sparing with their arrows, which tend to be fired back. I’ve actually walked away from a nearly-finished book project (and from half my fee) when the client insisted on launching a savage attack on a business partner he’d had a recent falling-out with. “Look,” I told him frankly, “you’re XX years old, a born-again Christian, and close to dying. Are you sure you want to be remembered as this vengeful person?” The book never came out, and he died shortly afterward.

Trust me, trust my storytelling. Some clients insist on playing up their virtues to the nth degree, to the point of overwhelming if not nauseating the reader with self-laudatory information. Others want me to accentuate the theatrics of an already dramatic situation. As a fictionist, I rely on the power of selectivity, suggestion, and understatement, and I know how to trigger the desired effect in readers. Trust me; I hardly ever brag, but this is what I’ve won prizes for. If you want a rah-rah publicist, there are many others you can hire for a lot less. Know when to stop, when to let go of the text, and when to say “That’s enough for one book. We can always write another one.”

Penman No. 157: Dandy Doodles

14100168582_2191dbaffc_zPenman for Monday, July 13, 2015

YOU’LL UNDERSTAND if I’m mighty proud of my fountain pen collection, built up painstakingly over the past 30 years. Now numbering about 200, it contains some of the world’s rarest and most desirable vintage and modern pens, and I’m still upgrading it, bringing down the numbers while raising the quality, hoping to downsize it to about 30 of the very best that I can pass on to our daughter Demi not too long from now.

At least that’s the press release. What I’m not saying, and what I’m not too proud of, is how awful my penmanship is, a trail of chicken tracks worthy at best of a Bic ballpoint. We have members in our fountain pen club like advertising executive Leigh Reyes and designer Fozzy Dayrit who can carve out whole new careers as professional calligraphers should they want to, so artfully do they put nib to paper. Oafs like me just wear our pens like others might sport brooches and hats, as body décor to look more substantial and interesting, especially as our other charms wane with age.

The fact is, I can’t write more than half a page of anything with a fountain pen before my fingers start crimping with fatigue, more accustomed as they’ve become to tapping on a keyboard with whispery ease. The saddest part of the story is, the only time my fountain pens get any real exercise is when, joylessly, I have to write out checks to pay for the credit cards and the utility bills.

It’s not as if fountain pens are alien, certainly not to me. We used them as grade-school kids in La Salle, where we also wrote loopy letters for Penmanship class, and where an inkstain on one’s shirtfront was just a blue badge of honor (or so I told myself, to mitigate the embarrassment). But as the world has since moved from writing in cursive to block letters, and from the pen to the computer, our writing muscles have atrophied, and the feathery Fs and coily Qs that garnished our forebears’ documents are a barely legible memory.

So how do I derive pleasure from my pens beyond the sheer, avaricious thrill of ownership? When the day comes to cart away my papers and my trash, they’ll find stacks of well-used notepads in my drawers and cabinets, and the nosy rummager might well imagine discovering some private snippets, or passages from an unfinished novel, among my scribbles. I hate to disappoint the snoops, but they’ll find nothing of the sort; instead, all they’ll come across will be a trail of doodles—page after page of doodles in every color of ink and width of nib. And that’s going to be the big dark secret out of my bag: I buy fancy pens not to craft great literature with, but just to doodle all day, wasting time, ink, and paper on nothing grander than the pursuit of pointless happiness.

My dictionary defines “doodle” as “To draw or sketch aimlessly, especially when preoccupied,” which isn’t too far from Wikipedia’s take on it, which sees a doodle as “a drawing made while a person’s attention is otherwise occupied.”

Here we see that the key idea behind doodling is distraction: you’re thinking about something but don’t really want to think about it, so you do something else, and if there’s a pen in your hand, that pen will have a mind of itself and start making squares and circles and lines that lead nowhere and everywhere. In my case, I know exactly what it is I’m running away from: work! I’m so drowning in book projects that I have no proper business doing anything else—not even writing a column like this—but it’s when things get tough that the doodles get going.

I’m sure that psychologists have a perfect explanation for this, but I’m convinced that there’s a symbiotic relationship between work and distraction, and that doodling actually helps me get my work done by letting me relax while my brain processes headache-inducing conundra like “How can we pass an anti-dynasty bill when 14 out of our 24 senators belong to a dynasty?” You’ll agree that it’s more fun to deal with questions like “Hmm, should I go with the Rohrer & Klingner Sepia in the Montblanc Oscar Wilde or the Diamine Oxblood in the Parker Vacumatic? Heck, let’s do both!”

To some others, doodles are more serious business—or at least halfway-serious, as the Google Doodles illustrate. You may not have heard of them as such, but you’ve surely seen them if you’ve ever used Google, because they’re the quirky, funny, topical drawings that periodically festoon the Google landing page to mark an anniversary, a birthday, or some other cause for celebration.

Googling around, I discovered that there’s actually something called the Doodle Arts Magazine (www.doodleartsmagazine.com), which happens to be Philippine-based. The people behind the website organized Doodle Fest 2015 a few months ago, and you can still catch the artwork online. If you want to see how good doodle art can get all around the world, have a look at http://www.creativebloq.com/illustration/doodle-art-912775.

Me, I’m happy with my squiggles and X’es and endless iterations of “This is a 1928 Duofold” and “This is a Sheaffer Balance” and “This is Carlo Collodi ink” and “This is a fine pen.” Maybe if I wrote something more sensible like “I come from a country without snow and without raspberries,” I could get another novel going and done in no time, but that sounds too much like real work, which apparently was never what these glorious pens and inks were meant to do.

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Penman No. 156: Why I’ll Never Become Ambassador

Penman for Monday, July 6, 2015

IN MY early middle age, around 40, I nursed an ambition of becoming an ambassador, an official representative of the Republic of the Philippines. Some of my friends and schoolmates were on their way to becoming one—Vicky Bataclan, now in Belgium, and Libran Cabactulan, now at the UN, were just two of them—and I imagined that I might carve out a new career in my seniorhood in the grand tradition of writer-diplomats such as Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and our own Manuel Viray and S. P. Lopez. I’ve met a few real and truly worthy ambassadors and have been much impressed by their demeanor—Cesar Bautista, Delia Albert, and Joey Cuisia, for example.

With a background in literature and economics, and having written a slew of speeches for Presidents, senators, and CEOs, I thought that I had acquired enough political savvy and possessed the language to be able to craft an intelligent and suitably tart or nuanced response to any issue from island-grabbing in the West Philippine Sea to the Chinese in all of us. I also happen to like wearing suits and to be driven around, and I can say “Good morning” in six languages, so I have the externals covered. If I were serious about my ambassadorial plans two decades ago, all I needed to do (if I didn’t want to go the career route and take the FSO exams) was to hitch my wagon to some political star, which is apparently how one too many stragglers like me get to be called “Ambassador” for life, their diplomatic skills be damned.

But I suppose I’ve always had at least two strikes going against my being posted to some swanky European capital: my incipient misanthropy, and my culinary incorrectness.

The older I get, the more reclusive I tend to be, shying even farther away from the frenzy of Facebook and the emoji-enabled spontaneity of many online “friendships.” It’s not that I actively dislike people; I think most strangers will find me friendly, and I warm up easily once we get a real conversation going. (With the exception, I must say, of telephone conversations; having grown up without a phone, I have always disliked—loathed would be the better word—talking on the phone, especially for anything longer than three minutes.)

It’s just that, past 60, I’ve come to seek out human company less and less, preferring to keep to myself and family, and a few close friends who wouldn’t mind not hearing from me for months or years and picking up where we left off, which is my gauge of a true friendship. Over the past five years or so, I’ve become such a homebody (my poker nights excepted) that Beng feels like she has to ask me now and then, “Don’t you have any friends?” She means, of course, people other than herself, because she knows that I’ve been perfectly happy to just have her for company, at home or on the road, and that, in our sixties, our need and desire to socialize as a couple has diminished considerably.

Beng compensates for this by being a Facebook fiend, and aside from her snoring bedmate, Facebook’s the first thing she sees in the morning and the last thing she sees at night. Like I wrote here not too long ago, I’m not even on FB, and obstinately stay out of it, because I think it’s cheapened the meaning of “friend.”

Diplomacy, of course, requires not only meeting with a lot of people, but people you hate, and who very likely feel likewise—sort of like the online world, only it’s face to face. Now, I can fake pleasantness as well as anyone else—except maybe Beng, who’d lose our house and car at poker within five minutes—but I know, from practice, that while they say it takes just 17 muscles to smile and 42 to frown, smiling can be a lot more tiring than frowning, especially if you don’t mean it.

The more important reason I’ll never head an embassy is the mess I would likely make of our foreign relations by my equally boneheaded refusal to acquire a more catholic or at least a more cosmopolitan palate, despite Beng’s entreaties for us to try menus more complicated than Chow King’s. Nothing flusters me more than the prospect of “fine dining.” (I recall how, many years ago, I begged off from joining a very exclusive and epic feast prepared by ten of Manila’s top chefs—much to the dismay of a fellow professor who had wangled the invitation—precisely because all that good food would have been wasted on me.)

That’s also why I’ve declined dinner invitations, especially from people I don’t know or who don’t know me and my curious preferences, to spare us the mutual embarrassment of my shying away from anything with cheese, or oregano (I can sniff out one part in a million), or the aforementioned curry, which effectively leaves out much of Italian, French, Greek, Indian, and Mexican cuisine. No pizzas, thank you! But I’ll take pancit, lechon, adobong pusit, Ligo sardines, chicken mami, and KFC anytime—I’m actually easy to please.

Ambassadors should be able to eat anything with anyone, and not just gorge like a hungry peon (someone called my rice-and-pancit combo “pagkaing obrero”) but dine intelligently, knowledgeably, with the ability to make off-the-cuff remarks like “Don’t you just love the tanginess and the fruitiness of this Dréan d’Auvergne? It’s a bit more complex than the St. Nectaire, don’t you agree?” (Thanks to cheesenotes.com for the technical details.)

The only place I can imagine not having this culinary quandary would be China—where I’ve gone pretty often because, as I told Beng, I was sure to find a lot of yummy Chinese food there—but I’d hate to tell my Chinese hosts what I really thought of the nine-dash line, and I’d hate to have to explain, on the rebound, why bright kids with Chinese names can create such a fuss on Pinoy Facebook.

Penman No. 155: Writing Virtual Reality

Penman for Monday, June 29, 2015

I WAS surprised to receive a text message the other week from a former student, Dada Felix, herself a prizewinning short story writer. Dada told me that she’d just heard from another acquaintance who was now working in Saudi Arabia, and who’d written her about the sandstorms in that country. “It was just as you described it in your novel Soledad’s Sister,” Dada said.

I thanked Dada for the compliment—and I took it as a compliment, because while a third of that novel takes place in Saudi Arabia, I’d never been to that country—not before I wrote the novel in the early 2000s, and not since. In fact, I had to look back at my manuscript—it’s funny how little you retain in your head of your own work after a few years, except perhaps for specific passages—to see what exactly I had written. I found this:

“Seven weeks after Soledad arrived, a sandstorm blew in from the east, a dark, mountainous reddish-brown cloud that rolled over the city with a great cavernous howl, obscuring and blistering everything in its path. She had just stepped back into the servants’ dormitory from giving Amina a bath, and all the girls were rushing to seal the doors and windows with towels. Still unused to the voluminous abaya, Soledad fought with herself to move as quickly as the others…. As the sandstorm blew around them, making the glass in the windows sing but striking terror in the hearts of the foreign maids and workers in the compound as it raked and scoured everything in its path, Meenakshi’s lightness of mood seemed even more out of place. When Soli cowered in a corner near her bunk, holding on to her knees, Meenakshi crept up to her and whispered, ‘He wants me to meet him tonight, in the harbor, near the fountain.’

“.… Around them the wind had miraculously fallen to a hush; the sandstorm had left as quickly as it had arrived, spending its force at the water’s edge, and people began reopening the windows cautiously to look up at the sky, which was still a murky brown but through which patches of blue were beginning to show.”

I remembered that I wrote in that scene to introduce some visual drama, and also to create a contrast between the fierceness of the storm and the almost casual decision the girls make that would change their lives forever.

But what looking back at my own text truly reminded me of was how often, in the course of writing fiction and even nonfiction, I had to recreate factual scenes based on research and my imagination. This will happen quite often to anyone dealing with historical material, or anything that happens outside his or her personal experience.

Research, of course, is invaluably helpful. When I wrote the biography of accounting pioneer Washington SyCip (who incidentally turns 94 tomorrow—happy birthday, Wash!), I chose to start the narrative at a crucial turning point in his youth, when he was returning to the Philippines in mid-1945 after serving as a codebreaker with the US Army, and his ship steamed in to Manila Bay. I had to ask myself, what would Wash have seen, standing on the deck of that ship? I consulted several sources to reconstruct the likely scene:

“In the city’s oldest section, within the stone walls of Intramuros, an entire procession of churches—the Manila Cathedral, Lourdes, Santo Domingo, San Francisco, San Ignacio—had crumbled to the ground; only San Agustin remained. Of the city’s many universities and colleges, only two colleges—Letran and Sta. Rosa—withstood the bombs and the artillery. The City Hall, the Post Office building, and the Metropolitan Theater were all vacant hulks, their bone-white shells pockmarked in thousands of places by sustained bombardment between February and March 1945.”

That kind of factual rendition isn’t too difficult to achieve, so I tried to get beyond the physical into something more internal—Wash had been told, mistakenly, that his father had been killed by the Japanese, and he was brimming with anxiety—so I followed up that description thus:

“The man on board the Navy ship was too far to see these details for himself, but the strange concavity of what had been the metropolitan skyline, the impression of a body supine and overrun by tubercular rot, and the brooding silence that waited across the bay would have encouraged his worst fears.”

Strangely enough, this was a scene—steaming into Manila Bay—that I had already rehearsed some 25 years earlier, in a novella titled Voyager, set in the 1880s, when a steamship arrives from Hong Kong, carrying a Spaniard who has just killed a compatriot on the voyage to protect a Filipino revolutionary. An officer of the law, he has seen the best and the worst in men—himself most of all—and projects this duality of vision onto the unfolding panorama before him, in the novella’s closing scene:

“And now, in an afternoon of dolphins and rainbows playing above the water, we return to the wide-open arms of Manila Bay, the home of Spain and the throne of God on this side of the earth, the ramparts of its forts rising proudly into the sky, and yet anchored to the earth by dungeons, tunnels, pipes hissing with the force of sewage seeking to be expelled. Below the great Cathedral are catacombs I have yet to visit. Across the street, in Fort Santiago, is a flight of steps that leads down to a room of solid stone, with a solitary window offering a view of the river through the iron; when the tide rises, both view and viewer go in a muddy froth. This is where and how the City holds the secrets that keep it alive, where God, I must believe, now and then deserts His pigeoned domes to visit.”

I had to imagine much of that, this being the time before computers and Google, and when I had scant time for and access to libraries, as a working stiff outside of academia. Years later I would read a contemporaneous account that pretty much validated what I had made up.

Do I always get it right? Heck, of course not. These forays into virtual reality are inherently risky—you’re guessing half the time, and all it takes is one small but noticeable mistake to ruin the seamlessness of the effect. There’s a long list out there of factual boo-boos poets and novelists have made—not that it matters much to their unsuspecting readers.

But not all readers can be so easily seduced by fluid prose. It took an Indonesian professor who had flown to and from Saudi Arabia to gently, almost apologetically, inform me that I had my time zones all wrong in my opening scene in Soledad’s Sister—the same work that Dada praised for what seemed to be its uncanny accuracy—that a plane flying eastward from Jeddah would have flown behind the daylight clock rather than ahead of it. I thanked her profusely, and made a note to correct that in future editions of the book.

(Image from alarabiya.net)

Penman No. 154: Teaching English to Filipinos

NEU

Penman for Monday, June 22, 2015

I HAD a great time last week with the English faculty of New Era University in Quezon City, who had invited me to speak at their three-day workshop on “Enhancing English Teaching Practices.” For three days, I met with a very lively group of about 30 to 40 college and high school teachers of English, talking about writing, reading, and teaching the language in today’s Filipino classroom.

I was backstopped in these discussions by the young and very sharp Ms. Cyndriel “CY” Meimban, who had taken her high school at New Era before doing an English degree with us at the University of the Philippines and then a master’s in Education at Arizona State U. CY—who also just happens to be the daughter of an old friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Dr. Adriel Meimban—took a break from her teaching duties at Northern Arizona University to help out her fellow teachers at NEU.

It was my first visit to the NEU campus near Commonwealth Avenue, which was rather ironic because we’ve lived on the UP campus just across that avenue for the past ten years. The NEU is part of the Iglesia ni Cristo complex and is run by the church, although I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s open to all faiths. There’s a substantial Muslim population in that very area, for example, and many students from that community attend New Era.

We held our workshop in the new Professional Schools building, which housed NEU’s colleges of Law and Medicine, among others; more prominently, along Commonwealth Avenue, the College of Evangelical Ministry which Dr. Meimban (a former president of NEU) now heads trains young INC ministers, including about a hundred students from overseas—Filipino-Americans and Filipino-Europeans, among many others; I was surprised to be addressed by a young black man from South Africa in perfect Filipino. I was, in other words, in a very rich cultural and linguistic environment, in which language is used not just to express oneself or get jobs but to propagate the faith.

Otherwise, the workshop attendees voiced the same problems I’ve heard elsewhere: a clear decline in English proficiency not just among students but teachers as well; the lack of new materials in the syllabi, particularly in literature classes, as well as teaching guides for these materials; and the persistence of outdated approaches to the reading and teaching of literature and of English itself.

I began my presentation with something I always emphasize when I teach English in UP, especially in my American Literature class: we study and teach English not because we want to be Americans, British, or some other Anglophone people, but to become better Filipinos. We learn English and study other literatures in English to gain insights into and understand how these other societies operate and how certain human values and truths transcend national and social boundaries. Thereby, we should lose our unfamiliarity with and our awe of the foreign, empowering ourselves as citizens of the world.

I did a module on creative writing—focusing on fiction and nonfiction—as a way of showing teachers how writers think and work, so they can themselves become writers or at least understand what writers do and how they do it. In reading and teaching literature, I went over several poems and stories, and asked my audience to draw up a list of questions that could or should be raised about the text beyond “What’s the moral lesson?”

I emphasized the importance of considering and discussing form and technique as much as content and meaning as a way of seeing how language works, on the level of the sentence or even the word. I argued for the enjoyment of language for its own sake—in effect, for the study of literature as an exercise in pleasure as much as in education.

The problem with too many literature classes is that they’re taught as anything but literature—as philosophy, as religion, as politics—rather than as the imaginative play on words that lies at the heart of literature. When teachers march into class and declare, “Class, this is what this poem means, and believe me because I’m the absolute authority on it,” students and even teachers miss out on the fun of discovery, of teasing out sense from seeming chaos.

Inevitably, the question of a “language policy” came up. Would students benefit from the imposition of an “English-only” policy? Was it all right (or was it criminal) for a teacher of English to resort to Filipino when teaching English, or literature in English?

I went out on a limb here—and I’m sure that what I’ll say here will turn many a reader livid with consternation and disgust—but I said that, even as a former chair of the UP English Department, I’ve always been opposed to an English-only policy, because it’s silly and it simply doesn’t work.

We study English—and try to master it—because it serves us well in communication and in business, especially in a global sense, but to deliberately throttle our use of other languages (of which we have an enormous wealth) in the notion that it will somehow make us better users and speakers of English is downright stupid. I’ve yet to meet someone who now speaks and writes perfect English by having paid 5 centavos for every Filipino word he or she used. Most writers of my generation are happily bilingual or even trilingual, and we don’t get our languages or linguistic registers mixed up; what’s key is appropriateness—which language and which register is best for which occasion?

I would even argue that code-switching from English to Filipino can work in the teaching of English, and especially of literature in English, if it relaxes the non-Anglophone student and allows him or her to speak—and even to make a mistake, which should also be encouraged (and gently corrected) without too heavy a penalty. Patience and understanding, rather than force and sheer authority, have always gotten me better results in the classroom. I hope my colleagues in New Era University got a taste of that treatment, and that they enjoyed the experience.