Penman No. 234: A Glimpse of Interesting Manila

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Penman for Monday, January 16, 2017

ASIDE FROM the fountain pens which I’ve recently stopped collecting, I’ve long nursed another, quieter passion, albeit on a much more modest scale. Since my grad-school days in the American Midwest in the 1980s, I’ve been drawn to old books from and about the Philippines. Sadly I can’t read Spanish—one of the great regrets of my college life, a casualty of our generation’s sweeping rejection of everything that smacked of colonialism (except, ironically, English)—so my pickings have been confined to books in English, largely from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

I stumbled on the first of these books—and began to be conscious of their significance—while I was poking around antique and thrift shops for pens. The Midwest, with its many universities and industries (not to mention pen companies like Parker and Sheaffer), was a cornucopia of all things old and wonderful, and inevitably my eyes would drift to the dusty bookshelves that typically carried cookbooks, old Bibles, local lore, and Western novels.

Now and then, however, I’d get lucky and come across a book with some Philippine connection, usually from around the early years of the American occupation. With titles like Uncle Sam’s Boys in the Philippines and Our New Possessions, these books celebrated American imperialism, the novel fact that it now had a colony across the Pacific that deserved to be introduced to curious readers in Kansas and Missouri.

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I remember finding the massive two-volume Our Islands and Their People for $10 in a Milwaukee antique store, only to have to leave them behind when I flew home from graduate school in 1991. But I did bring back a small trove of similar material, and have added to them since then, largely via eBay.

My Holy Grail had been a first edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (I would acquire one later locally in the most interesting circumstances—I’ve told the story here—and would give it to my daughter Demi as a wedding present), but another precious book I was relieved to have saved from the Faculty Center fire by foolishly leaving it in my car is a first English edition from 1853 of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s The Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines, an eBay pickup from the UK.

I’m not an antiquarian by any means; I lack the vision, the resources, and the scholarship for that. To be honest, I haven’t even read everything I’ve collected, a pleasure I’m saving for my impending retirement. I just like salvaging these well-worn volumes from the scrap heap, or from some dark corner where they can’t possibly be appreciated. They’re neither particularly rare nor valuable—only two or three have cost me more than $100—but they all contain very interesting, if sometimes horrifying, stories about America’s imperial project.

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It’s difficult, even for a Filipino, not to be entertained by the descriptions in these early travelogues, revive as they do the nostalgic charm of a vanished era. Take, for example, Interesting Manila by George A. Miller, first published in Manila in 1906 by E.C. McCullough, a $10 purchase from a bookseller in Massachussetts.

Its evocation of the past reminds us that Manila was already old even then: “Beautiful these old churches were in their scars and moss and vines. Many have been spoiled by fresh coats of paint. But who can sit silent in their vaulted aisles without hearing from those stained and mellow walls, whispered prayers of priests who long since have vanished, and shadow chants of acolytes who have joined the choir invisible?… My first experience in a Manila church was at High Mass in Santo Domingo at the early hour. There were sixteen hundred candles shining in the gloom of the old sanctuary, and a thousand worshipers were kneeling on the polished floor. Among the high arches gathered the smoke of the incense, and way up in the dome the morning sun streamed red and gold through the colored glass.

“The chanting of the priests reverberated through the aisles like the noise of a cataract, and the answer of the prostrate people was like the murmur of many waters upon the sand. Then the great organ with its thundering reeds made the old pile ring and shout like some strong giant in sport, and in the succeeding silence the people waited in awe for what might follow. What did follow was the chanting of the boys’ choir without accompaniment, and the effect from the high gallery was as if the voices came from everywhere, the very stones had suddenly become vocal and joined in the acclamation.”

In a voice we might be hearing today, Miller laments the thoughtless “restoration” of these old buildings: “The present Malate church has been restored until it is of little interest. The old tile roof, the hole in the west gable made by American shot, and the walls with shrubs and trees growing in their crevices made a building worth going to see, but now it is all paint and corrugated iron.”

The vividness and vigor of the experiences described can be exhilarating: “One of the really delightful experiences that many people have never discovered is that of a trip up the Pasig at sunset. We took the car to Santa Ana and at five-thirty stood by the river and were besieged by a dozen vociferous banqueros, who contended for the distinguished honor of carrying our lunch basket to the landing. The bancas all looked alike, but there must be the preliminary diplomatic stunts as to distance and price. Tagalog, English, and bad Spanish were mixed in a verbal storm for five minutes and then we were aboard and off for Fort McKinley.”

Sometimes these colonial reports afford us a priceless glimpse into our prewar treasures, likely long gone: “There are about twelve thousand volumes on these shelves,” Miller notes of the Franciscan library. “The library of the Recoletos contains about nine thousand volumes; that of the Augustinians eleven thousand, and the Dominicans have eighteen thousand. Most of the collections contain several copies of the celebrated ‘Flora de Filipinas’ by Fr. Blanco and his co-laborers. This work is in six volumes and an index and is a remarkable piece of scientific research. The best edition contains two volumes of colored plates of the flora of the archipelago, and the press work done, in Barcelona, is of the best.”

And then again quite often the interest doesn’t come out of the narrative itself but in the perspective, which almost inevitably involves some triumphal trumpeting of America’s virtues. Miller’s assertion of the Westerner as a man of action and of the Oriental as a laidback soul is typical of these white male observers’ musings:

“The West is known by its deeds, the East by its dreams. The Anglo-Saxon lives in the concrete, the Oriental in the shadows. The American, having found a ‘proposition’ in a field, makes haste and sells all that he has and buys that field that he may dig therein and get ‘results.’ The Oriental inhales the drowsy fumes of some far-off good that was, or is, or is to come—it little matters which—and is content.”

Interesting Manila, indeed—but even more interesting was what these books said of their linen-suited writers.

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Penman No. 233: A Ray of Filmic Sunshine

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Penman for Monday, January 9, 2017

AS SOMEONE who wrote about 25 full-length screenplays for various film projects and directors in another life between the late 1970s and early 2000s, I really should be more interested in the remarkable developments that have taken place since in local cinema, especially on the indie scene.

But I have to confess, with some guilt and shame, that I haven’t kept up with what our younger, post-Brocka and post-Bernal directors have produced, except for the occasional viewing of a Brillante Mendoza or a Lav Diaz film, or outstanding documentaries such as last year’s Curiosity, Adventure and Love and An Open Door: Jewish Rescue in the Philippines. There are some personal reasons for this estrangement (not worth getting into at this time), but I do realize that I’ve missed out on a lot of good material while bingeing unpatriotically on Hollywood and Netflix.

I must say that the Metro Manila Film Festival and its seemingly bottomless decline from its glory days ages ago to the inevitable iteration of Enteng Kabisote contributed to my dismay. This most recent MMFF, however, seemed open to letting a ray of filmic sunshine through, with new criteria and a new selection process that put a premium on quality over commercialism. When I saw the list of the people involved and when I noted that their final selections were fresh titles by new directors, my expectations rose and I told Beng, after Christmas, “Let’s go see a movie!”

We’ve managed to see only two MMFF films as of this writing, but in both instances, our hopes were well rewarded.

Sunday Beauty Queen, which eventually won the Best Picture Award, documents the labors of Hong Kong’s OFW community in putting together a beauty pageant to ease the pangs of loneliness and the drudgery of their work. Directed by Baby Ruth Villarama, the film tracks pageant organizer Leo Selomenio—herself a longtime domestic helper—and the lives and stories of several key participants, all of them hardworking DHs. These girls, clearly, are no Gemma Cruzes or Pia Wurtzbachs, but even those of us who may scoff at the predictable inanities of beauty pageants will appreciate how the idea of “beauty” itself has been turned inward by this film, whose insistent positivity prompted me to tweet, as I stepped out of a cinema, that it was a “beautiful film about truly beautiful people.”

It wasn’t lost on me that I myself had written a novel, Soledad’s Sister, about OFWs, set briefly in Hong Kong, and had more than once observed our compatriots’ festive Sunday gatherings in Statue Square. Novels like mine tend to be morose reflections on human suffering, but there’s nothing like a well-crafted and even-handed documentary to bring out the verve and the tenacity that must accompany and cushion all that sorrow, and Sunday Beauty Queen draws on Pinay resilience in spades. The ultimate crown its subjects wear—and they are all winners—is that of dignity. Bravo, brava!

The other movie we chose to see was Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2, with the irrepressible and hugely talented Eugene Domingo reprising her title role. We hadn’t seen the original movie from 2011 (and are now sorry we didn’t), but had no trouble wading into the premises of this sequel, which has Eugene playing herself as a comebacking star and tormenting her director (Kean Cipriano) with her “suggestions” for “improving” the script. It’s a riotously satirical project through and through, well-acted by its ensemble and well-scripted by the unfailingly sharp Chris Martinez, intelligent without being pretentious.

I may have chuckled more appreciatively than others in the audience, having gone through many of the absurd situations and propositions Eugene’s character raises in the film with her director-scriptwriter. I know I said at the start of this piece that I didn’t want to talk too much about how and why I got fed up with working in the film industry, but I feel like I should share at least one incident, from around 20 years ago, that’ll help explain why I moved from writing film scripts to writing novels and biographies.

Let’s set our scene in the offices of a big film studio, somewhere in Quezon City. I’ve been called to an urgent meeting by the producer because the movie we’re shooting (yes, we’re actually in the shooting stage) needs a new ending. Why? Because the studio’s Big Boss, who keeps track of the bottom line, doesn’t want our hero to die, like we’d originally planned; dead heroes bomb at the box office. So now we have to figure out a new extro, and the producers’ friends and alalays are all generously available and willing to help us think the ending through.

“So Gabby doesn’t die at sea when his banca is run over by a big ship,” one of them suggests, “but of course Sharon doesn’t know that, and in despair, she accepts Eric’s offer of marriage. But on the way to the wedding, she asks the car to stop by the beach, where she and Gabby used to promenade. She’s in her wedding gown, and she walks on the beach thinking about Gabby, until she reaches the tree they used to stand under. So she does some muni-muni, remembering their happy days….” At this point, another alalay interjects: “Ay, you know what, it will be so kilig if she looks up at the tree, and she’ll see the face of Gabby shimmering on every leaf!” I take a huge gulp of water to drown the welling acid in my gut.

“She makes a speech and tells the absent Gabby how much she truly loves him,” the original contributor ventures breathlessly, “and then she walks away… to her marriage and her life with Eric…. But it doesn’t end there! Because… because when she drives away, we see that there’s movement from behind the tree—it’s Gabby! He’s alive!”

There’s clapping and cheering all around the table, until somebody has the temerity to ask, “But why doesn’t he show himself to her?” It’s a question met with profound disdain. “Because—don’t you see?—Gabby is now in crutches, he lost one of his legs in the boating accident, and he loves Sharon too much to make her share her life with a cripple! So, nobly, he lets her go, as the theme song plays to the closing credits…..”

Appreciative sighs greet the revelation, as some of my water sputters onto the table.

Thankfully my director and I found a way to weasel out of that inspired conclusion, and the movie was shot and finished. I collected my paycheck, and resolved to do my best to write just stories, novels, nonfiction, and columns from that moment on.

Penman No. 232: The Other Leni

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Penman for Monday, January 2, 2017

 

PROMPTED BY the rumors swirling around Vice President Leni Robredo and her possible replacement in that post by Sen. Bongbong Marcos in a January judicial coup, my ruminations drifted over Christmas to the Marcos legacy, and how differently Filipinos see it, and why. At my usual poker table, for example—where I face millennials more than fellow seniors—a question I often hear whenever the Marcoses come up in conversation is, “Why, were they really that bad?” I wouldn’t be surprised if it came from a 30-something, but it’ll typically come from someone my age or older, who lived through the same period—or did they?

Those of us who worry about the historical revisionism or amnesia that seems to have overtaken us may be forgetting something else—that, just like in Hitler’s Germany, the dictatorship wouldn’t have lasted that long without some significant degree of popular acceptance or complicity. One of my pet theories about our martial law experience is that those of us who fought it were in a distinct minority, still are, and will be again. Most Filipinos never had the Metrocom or the ISAFP breaking down their doors; most Filipinos never had a son or a daughter shot or raped or imprisoned because of their beliefs; most Filipinos were already too poor to feel they had been stolen from. Many seniors—with understandable appreciativeness, especially at this point of their dialyzed and hypertensive lives—will remember only the medical complexes that Mrs. Marcos built.

If the present administration felt confident enough that it could get away with the Marcos burial, it can only be because it thought this way as well, and gambled on it. It understood that for far too long—and in the increasingly rare instances when it was even brought up in school—martial law, Philippine-style, had been depicted as a war between President Marcos and the communists, not as a systematic campaign of oppression and plunder waged by a dictator against his own people. Now that the CPP-NDF was having coffee in the Palace, what was the problem?

If we’re talking about educating Filipinos—and not just millennials—about martial law, the case will have to be made that it was an economic, political, and moral disaster for all Filipinos—not just for the Left, not just for some businessmen, and not just for some rival factions of the same elite. We were all materially impoverished and morally compromised by it—and continue to be, despite EDSA’s flickering promise. (And if you still don’t know or can’t remember exactly what the Marcoses did, here’s a report from The Guardian to refresh your memory.)

I’ll let that contention simmer for now, because what actually led me to write this column, my very first of the new year, was an essay on another Leni that I was reading online, titled “Fascinating Fascism,” written by the late Susan Sontag and published in February 1975 in the New York Review of Books.

It must have been the image of some black-shirted (but surely well-intentioned?) young men giving clenched-fist salutes in front of the Rizal monument that led me to revisit the Hitler Youth and Nazi iconography—less to condemn it (let’s give the trolls a rest) than to see why it was so effective and appealing. There’s a scene from 1972’s hit movie Cabaret that might suggest why fascism, as Sontag says, can be so fascinating even and especially to ordinary folk, and you can watch that clip on YouTube here. It’s that of an angelic boy singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”—at least it starts that way—and it’s masterful moviemaking, showing within minutes how something so bright can be so chilling.

And speaking of moviemaking, this brings me to the other Leni—the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), who directed the seminal Nazi propaganda films Triumph of the Will, about the party’s mammoth Nuremberg rally in 1934, and Olympia, about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Her work would be hailed as technically brilliant and she herself as “an artist of unparalleled gifts” even by American critics—given especially that she was a woman trying to succeed in a male universe—and after the war, conveniently “de-Nazified,” she became something of a media darling, claiming that she had been politically naïve and knew nothing about the Nazis’ war crimes; she even joined Greenpeace and released a dreamy underwater movie on her 100th birthday.

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(Photo from kinoimages.com)

But in her powerful essay on fascist aesthetics, Sontag cuts Riefenstahl no slack, painstakingly proving that contrary to Riefenstahl’s later assertion, she was a willing and willful collaborator of Hitler and Goebbels. The essay is a marvel both of scholarship and insight, something many writers today—who wrap themselves up in opaque critic-speak but yet fear or disdain to take a clear moral stance—can learn from. The full text can be found here.

This next leads me to a confession I’ve made before: that as a young screenwriter, I too was complicit in the making of a monumental film which would have been Marcos’ answer to Riefenstahl’s myth-making epics. It must have been around 1978 when I got word from Lino Brocka, with whom I had just begun to work, asking me to accompany him to a meeting called by Mrs. Marcos. It was the peak of martial law, and no one could say no, unless you were prepared to go to the hills or to march in the streets, as we obviously weren’t—not yet.

As it turned out, Imelda had summoned seven other leading film directors and their writers as well, and we were assembled at the Goldenberg mansion in Arlegui near Malacañang. Our marching orders—as Imelda would explain to us over the next many hours alongside her aesthetics of cinema (“No shots of squatter shanties!”)—were to produce an eight-part filmic history of the Philippines from Magellan to Marcos. Lino and I drew the Gomburza episode. We ended past midnight, after a personally guided tour of the premises and their precious artifacts, and were sent home with curfew passes.

The film was shot in pieces and later stitched together by the National Media Production Center—there’s a reference online to a “Kasaysayan ng Lahi” film being entered by the Philippines to an international film festival in Tashkent—but I never saw it and had no idea where the reels were kept until a friend told me a couple of years ago that they were stored somewhere in the offices of the Philippine Information Agency in Quezon City. In a sense I was glad that for some reason the film never hit Manila’s screens (at least not that I know of), as it would only have added to the perpetuation of a fable.

But then again, with a restoration underway (and I’m not referring to crumbling celluloid), it might yet play in your friendly neighborhood theater—and worse, in the blinding daylight. Like I texted a friend, somehow 2017 feels like 1971, all over again.

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(Photo from wsj.com; photo of Hitler and Riefenstahl above from documentary.org)

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 231: A Sortie to Siem Reap

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Penman for Monday, December 26, 2016

 

HAVING MADE a pact to see as much of the world together for as long as our knees could carry us, Beng and I headed out to Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia just before Christmas. It was another booking we’d typically made months in advance (we’d booked our November trip to Guangzhou in February) to avail ourselves of budget fares, and a four-day sortie in mid-December sounded just about right, taking the weather and the crowds (or the lack of them) into account. A few years ago, we’d taken separate December trips to Beijing and Shanghai and had shivered in the snow, but were rewarded with spectacularly desolate views of and from the Great Wall.

At an age when people start talking about bucket lists, we just had to see Angkor Wat and its outlying complex of temples, but as it turned out, Siem Reap was much more than just a location or a jump-off point for Angkor Wat. It had ample charms of its own, and while it would be criminal to go there without visiting the temples, it offered much room for more solitary pursuits. We were there for four full days, spending two days on the road and two just lazing around about town, and it felt just right at our seniors’ pace.

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It takes just under three hours to fly to Siem Reap from Manila; our flight landed close to 10 pm, and we were met by a tuktuk sent by our boutique hotel as a free service, a welcome touch. There’s a long row of big hotels along the national highway but we chose a small one closer to the center of town, about a 20-minute ride away. I exchanged a couple of hundred dollars at the airport, but it turned out to be almost totally unnecessary—in Siem Reap, the US dollar is king, with dollar prices posted or quoted on everything from SIM cards and T-shirts to mango shakes and massages. (Do bring lots of small bills—I’ve never seen so many 2-dollar bills moving around, not even in the US, although curiously signs say that Cambodian banks won’t accept them.) Speaking of SIM cards, a $5 Cellcard SIM gets you 1.5 gigs of data, good for one week.

Aside from dollar bills, the other constant in Siem Reap is the tuktuk, larger and more spacious than its Thai counterpart, with two facing seats in the back and the motorcycle all by itself out front. Ours was driven by an unfailingly pleasant and efficient fellow called Thou (whose name kept me looking for a loaf of bread and a jug of wine); the only drawback to this design is that the driver sits too far ahead of you for any conversation beyond the yelled “Stop!” at points of interest, so I sadly never got to really chat with Thou, even if his English was surprisingly good.

Indeed I was frankly astonished by the facility with which nearly every Cambodian I met—whether driver, waitress, masseuse, or vendor—spoke English. Of course Siem Reap is the country’s tourist capital, and English is now taught in Cambodian schools, but we didn’t see that kind of proficiency in Thailand or Vietnam. Quaint vestiges of French remain—a police outpost still called itself a “gendarmery” (with a Y). I remember last using my pidgin French some years ago with an old silk seller in Hanoi who didn’t speak English, but I never had that problem in Siem Reap. Our foot-massage suki said that she had learned English just by listening to her guests, while our guide at the war museum said that he had been taught the language by an NGO.

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As you can guess, foot massages (widely available for $5 each) were on our daily schedule, mandatory especially after the 10K treks you’ll be making, but Siem Reap is silk-scarf, cotton-shirt, and silver-bangle heaven as well for the casual shopper. Great food—with dishes familiar to the Pinoy palate—can be found all over, and you can easily enjoy a meal for two, including drinks, for $10. Wherever we were, even in the humblest market stall (our kind of fine dining), the rice was consistently good, neither stony nor mushy but with that bounce to the bite that we Visayans call makid-ol. You could even have your massage or your meal with a free daily ladyboys show. If you abhor cheap stuff (I can’t say we do) and want the very best items at corresponding prices, the Artisans Angkor workshop and showroom is in a class all by itself; mid-range, there’s the “Made in Cambodia” market, which also features a free show of traditional Cambodian dance in the early evening.

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Any list of Siem Reap’s attractions will begin with the 12th-century Angkor Wat, and if I don’t say much about it here it’s only because you truly have to be there to appreciate its majesty, along with the smaller but no less wondrous Bayon and Ta Phrom temples. This complex is but a 30-minute drive away from downtown, but what a difference a half-hour makes—seemingly into the jungle, but actually into the heart of civilization itself.

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We had been warned by the guidebooks about the insufferable heat in Siem Reap, especially on the temple tours, but it was cloudy and drizzly—even cool and nippy—for most of the time we were there. Riding our tuktuk around the countryside was thoroughly instructive. Depending on your perspective, it was either reassuring or disconcerting to see so many orphanages and pharmacies along the road. Cambodian People’s Party signs were ubiquitous as well, and a visit to the War Museum proved indispensable in contextualizing the easy comforts of today’s Cambodia.

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Our museum guide Prem was born in nearby Battambang, close to the Thai border, and remembered witnessing battles with the Khmer Rouge as a boy; his parents survived the genocide by feeding on insects. (Angkor Wat is replete with reliefs of battle scenes, a reminder of how often and how strangely beauty and gore come together.) Democracy, Prem said, was a work in progress in his country, and I could only agree and advert to our own situation, although the horrors of the Pol Pot period—with 3 million, half the Cambodian population, killed in just four years—made us, with our mere thousands of largely faceless losses over a few months, appear absurdly civilized by comparison.

We motored to the edge of Tonle Sap—the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and another major tourist attraction—but decided against taking the $20, two-hour cruise, having read on half a dozen websites about how commercialized the package had become. I’m sure we would have enjoyed it anyway, as writers and artists should find something noteworthy in the most trodden of paths, but it felt enough to contemplate the vastness of the lake from where we stood onshore. A pretty sight on the way to the lake was the carpet of flowering lotuses being farmed by the villagers.

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Just like its pinkish earth, which it seems any seed you throw into will explode in greenery, Siem Reap is a testament to the insistence of life itself, to the indomitability of the human spirit against all manner of despotism and despair. We flew home much refreshed, from our brows to our toes.

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Penman No. 230: Two Voices from Singapore

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Penman for Monday, December 19, 2016

 

 

DURING THE Singapore Writers Festival last month, I had the opportunity to chat with two prominent poets from that city-state, Aaron Lee and Eric Tinsay Valles, and I’m sharing the highlights of our conversations to give my readers some idea of what Singaporean poets are writing about. Interestingly, both poets, now just in their 40s, were born outside of Singapore, but now feel very much embedded in that ethnic and cultural melting pot.

Malaysian-born Aaron Lee works as a corporate lawyer in the area of regulatory governance and ethics. “I was born in Malaysia to immigrant Chinese,” Aaron told me. “My father worked for Singapore Airlines so he commuted daily from Johor Baru. It was typical of people at the time to send their children to Singaporean schools if they could afford it. I commuted daily for many years with my passport in my pocket, between the ages of about seven to fifteen. My brother and sister did the same. In our mid-teens we moved to Singapore. After five years my parents moved back but the children stayed behind.

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“I feel myself to be 100% Singaporean, but I do have a lot of affection for Malaysia, especially its natural environment, carried over from my childhood. The city can be a soul-crushing place, and this came out in my second collection, where the metropolis looms over you. In my third collection, I rediscover the renewing force of nature. This was also helped by frequent visits to Hawaii, where my wife studies Hawaiian culture. In my 20s, I met senior writers like Prof. Edwin Thumboo who were dealing with the postcolonial condition. I was a law student in college but I had a couple of English literature modules in which Prof. Thumboo lectured. Discovering this whole shared past of English-language literature between Singapore and Malaysia past gave me an intellectual and emotional hinterland, raising my consciousness of Malayan-ness, which is lost on the present generation.

“I began to take my creative writing seriously in my mid-teens, and I was fortunate to have high-school classmates like Alvin Pang who were just as serious about it. I found a community of people who were interested in literature and this was very important to my formation as a writer. After high school I even applied to several universities overseas to study literature and one of them accepted me but it didn’t come with a scholarship, so I decided to take up law instead here in Singapore, which was much cheaper.

“I’m not really conversant in Bahasa except for the kind of colloquial Bahasa you hear in markets. I’ve done some reading in Chinese but can’t write in Chinese. Our bilingual policy has deep flaws that prevent many Singaporeans from acquiring first-language facility with either English or their mother tongue. Many Singaporeans my age will speak English better than their mother tongue.

“My generation came into its own in the 1990s, and there are about a dozen of us poets who have been categorized as third-generation poets in English. Ours was the first generation of non-academic poets. We were lay people, so to speak, professionals engaged in business, journalism, and law. Our poetry is more down to earth. The earlier generations were more concerned with nation-building. We tend to be more personal.

“I’m essentially a lyric poet and I love the way words sound when they’re well put together. I’m concerned with the inner music of words in sentences and lines. As a student, I looked up to poets like Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin. I’m also concerned with common humanity. My first collection was very personal, poetry about being a poet, but my later collections cast their eye on a wider world, even to current affairs in society and on the international stage. I observe that when people come together in the city, they become anonymized, dehumanized, and alienated from one another. I try to resist that by looking for what we have in common as people, for empathy, compassion, and love. My work might be political in a roundabout way, but at the end of it I always move back from the grand narrative to the person. My Christianity is a big part of my identity, my values, my world view. I see myself as a work of art being fashioned by my Maker. I don’t just want to be a poet, but the poem, a work in progress, a song coming out of the mouth of God.”

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Philippine-born Eric Tinsay Valles teaches at the National University of Singapore High School of Math and Science. In 2013, he won a Goh Sin Tub Competition prize, which offers the biggest cash reward for creative writing in the region. Eric was working on his PhD in literature in NUS in 2000, and decided to stay on.

“I was a journalist in Taiwan for six years, and a teacher in Manila before that,” recalled Eric. “It was through Prof. Thumboo that I began to be published in Singapore, through an anthology that focused on the merlion, the very symbol of Singapore. It’s like a rite of passage for Singaporean poets to write about the merlion. Prof. Thumboo has mentored many of those young poets, and he has always been for inclusiveness and for the development of literary traditions in all the languages used here. That’s why the Singapore Writers Festival and the National Poetry Festivals are probably unique in that we have sessions in four languages. Young poets email him, and he responds to them.

“I just feel very fortunate to have met him in NUS. I invited him to speak before some students, and he invited me to attend some poetry sessions, and that was the beginning of a long association and friendship.

“I’m a permanent resident here, but am still a Filipino citizen. I’m the director of the National Poetry Festival here in Singapore and I’m now finishing my PhD in Creative Writing at Nanyang Technological University, working on trauma poetry and on a novella in verse set during the Japanese occupation.

“As a former journalist I got exposed to many human experiences, and some of that has been reflected in my work in terms of empathy for the downtrodden and the marginalized, and faith. My faith is part of my being Pinoy. My second collection is titled After the Fall, and that could allude to the biblical fall and also to the trauma we experience in everyday life. For Singaporean poets, trauma is more domestic, more felt in estrangement from other people such as family. Contentment and complacency lead to boredom, the desire for more wealth brings more tensions, and young Singaporeans grapple with modernity. Much of Singaporean literature deals with this conflict between modernity and tradition.

“I started writing poetry in primary school in Manila. There have been many influences on my work—Elizabeth Bishop, Thom Gunn, Neruda, Lorca, Heaney—but I’ve become very familiar with Singaporean poetry, especially since it’s a very small community.

“There’s about a dozen Pinoy writers working here in Singapore. We even have a couple of Pinoy domestic helpers who participated in the National Poetry Festival, and they read their poems in Filipino. I look forward to my visits home, where I sometimes hold writing workshops.”

[Eric Valles photo courtesy of the SWF.]

Penman No. 229: Our Waking Dream—Why We Need Language and Literature

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Penman for Monday, December 12, 2016

(This is the full version of a Powerpoint presentation I summarized for my Penman column, and I’m reproducing it here to share the visuals as well, culled from various sources on the Internet; if any of these images are copyrighted, I will be glad to take them down on request, thanks!) 

THANK YOU all for this kind invitation to share some of my thoughts with you today on “The Crucial Role of Language and Literature in the New GE Program.”

I could stand here for the next 20 minutes and deliver the standard academic lecture on why we need to put literature on the GE curriculum. But it would be the kind of lecture you would have heard dozens of times before, filled with the kind of platitudes you could recite in your sleep.

To give you an idea of what this talk could have sounded like, let me quote from what one of my alma maters, the University of Wisconsin, says about the need for literary study:

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“Because literary study involves the four processes of reading, thinking, discussing, and writing, its practical pedagogical value lies in its tendency to stimulate these activities and thereby improve the student’s ability to perform them. Careful reading increases one’s vocabulary and general verbal sensitivity and sophistication. In the classroom, the teacher can lead the student to think critically about what has been read. Classroom discussions sharpen reading and thinking skills and increase the student’s ability to express thoughts orally. The teacher can then use these processes to stimulate in students the desire to organize and record thoughts in writing. Thus the study of literature can be seen as practical intellectual discipline. It directly involves the student in the analysis of difficult literary texts, and in doing so it develops verbal skills which are transferable to other contexts. In other words, a person trained in the study of literature will be better equipped than most to read, comprehend, and analyze other kinds of texts (newspapers, reports, briefs, etc.). This is why, for example, English majors make such highly qualified candidates for law school.” (http://www.uwstout.edu/english/lit_study.cfm)

I’m sure this all makes perfect sense—indeed, that’s this whole session in a nutshell. Just to belabor the point, of course we need literature, because our students can’t live by math or physics alone. Besides, teachers of literature need jobs.

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But humor me for a minute and allow me to move away from the ridiculously obvious and the brain-deadeningly pedantic reasons, and return to the roots of why literature is important in the first place—in or out of the classroom, in or out of the GE program.

This will be a very short talk, and if you miss anything, don’t worry—at the end of my presentation, I’ll give a copy to the organizers to share with you. So you don’t even need to take notes; just listen.  I won’t be quoting from Shakespeare, or citing any eminent scholars with hyphenated European names. Begging your indulgence, I will simply construct the argument as I would teach it in my own class, on the topic of “Why are we studying literature?”

To begin with, we’re often told that like the other arts, “Literature is what makes us human.” But what exactly does that mean? How does literature humanize us?

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Literature relies on language, and other animals possess and command a form of language, too. Whales, monkeys, elephants, and birds communicate, presumably for the most basic things—food, sex, danger. We might even call their most basic utterances words and phrases of a kind, performing a clear and practical function. They form sequences of meaning, like saying, “There is food down there” or “I want to make a little baby with you.”

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This is language, but it’s not literature as we know literature. Why not? Because literature requires imagination—dreaming of things beyond the immediate and the practical—and furthermore, a medium of transmission and preservation of the products of that imagination. We’re told that animals can dream, but they can’t record and communicate these dreams like we do.

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Literature is our waking dream, a dream we describe and share through words. These dreams—these stories we make up in our minds—can teach, can delight, can disturb, can enrage, can exalt. They can remember and can therefore preserve our memories—our thoughts and feelings—as individuals and as a race.

As far as I know, no other species—nothing and no one else—can do this. Literature makes us human, because it allows us to tell stories that make sense of our lives, even stories that never happened, except in our imaginations, which also makes belief in things like Paradise possible.

Without literature, we cannot acknowledge and even talk about our inner selves, our inner lives. That’s something math or physics can’t do—at least not in the way of a poet or a novelist. The appreciation of beauty belongs to this realm of the imaginary, the recognition of pleasing and meaningful patterns in the seemingly abstract.

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The magic of literature lies in how it deals with reality and reason through fantasy and the imagination, and approaches the truth through make-believe, or what we might call the artistic lie. Literature can make use of use of things that don’t exist or things that never happened to talk about things that do—because reality is often too painful to confront directly. As one of my own teachers put it, art (or literature) is “the mirror of Perseus.”

That’s because—if you recall the story of the Gorgons—Perseus could kill Medusa, whose fatal gaze would have turned him to stone, only by using his shield as a mirror. Literature is that shield. By deflecting our gaze and seeming to look at other people, we are able to see the truth about ourselves, in all its harshness and unpleasantness.

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At this point, I’m going to backtrack a bit so I can go deeper into another basic argument why we need literature in any curriculum. The point is no longer just to say that literature makes us human; rather, literature makes us better humans, by teaching us discernment and critical judgment.

Literature is a history of the words that have made sense of our lives. Like the Bible or the Iliad or the Noli and Fili, it shows us at our best and worst, so we can choose how we want to live—whether as individuals or as citizens or as a society.

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To do that—to help us use both our reason and imagination—literature uses language, and language uses words.

Through carefully crafted stories, poems, and essays, literature shows young readers that words are supremely important in becoming a better person. This is especially true at a time when words like friend” have been devalued by Facebook,

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and “hero” by those to whom history, and honor and honesty, especially in public service, no longer mean anything.

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Every entry and every post our students make on Facebook and on Twitter is a test of how well they have learned their language and literature. I’m not talking about their grammar. I’m talking about their sensibility—the way they think and express themselves, the way they deal with other people, especially people holding an adversarial opinion. How careful are they with their ideas, with their choice of words?

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And it isn’t so much they as we who are being tested. How well have we taught them? How deeply have we drawn on the wealth of human experience in literature to impress upon them that life is full of difficult choices and decisions, of hard struggles to be fought and won? To a generation of millennials weaned on instant gratification and on tweeting before thinking, the complexity of life can be a profound discovery.

This is the first and the most important lesson of all literature:

Words have meaning.

And because they have meaning, words have power, and words have consequences.

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Words can hurt.

Words can kill.

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But words can also heal.

Words can save.

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Words make law.

Words make war.

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Words make money.

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Words make peace.

Words make nations.

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Words are the songs we sing to our loved and lost ones.

Words are the prayers we lift up to the skies.

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Words are the deepest secrets we confess.

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Words are what we tell our children the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night.

Words are all that some of us—especially those whom we call writers—will leave behind.

Speaking of writers, seven hundred years ago, a Persian poet named Hafez wrote a short but wonderful poem:

Even

After

All this time

The Sun never says

To the Earth

“You owe me.”

Look

What happens

With a love like that.

It lights up

The whole

Sky.

This, my friends, is what we teachers—whether of literature or science—do with our students, with every class and every lesson we teach. We light up the sky of their minds with love—the love of ideas, of engagement with the world.

And that is why we need language and literature—not just in our GE programs, but in our lives.

Thank you all for your attention.

Penman No. 228: A Writers’ Gathering in Guangzhou

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Penman for Monday, December 5, 2016

BARELY HAD Beng and I returned from VIVA Excon in Iloilo when we found ourselves jetting off again, this time to Guangzhou, China, to attend this year’s gathering of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), which has become one of the highlights of the literary year in the region. APWT has indeed grown into the Asia-Pacific’s premier literary network, drawing its strength from the fact that it comprises and is led by practicing writers and translators rather than by academics, critics or publishers, although many members perform those functions as well.

For the past several years, APWT has held its annual meetings in various cities around the region—I’ve been privileged to attend recent ones in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Perth, among others—and last year Manila was honored to host the event, led by the University of the Philippines with the assistance of De La Salle University and the University of Sto. Tomas, with support from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

Accompanying me in the Philippine delegation were Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo and Ralph Semino Galan of the University of Sto. Tomas; Jun Cruz Reyes, Charlson Ong, Jeena Marquez, Randy Bustamante, and Mabek Kawsek from the University of the Philippines; and Hope Sabanpan-Yu from the University of San Carlos. (I happily paid Beng’s conference fee so she could attend all the sessions, given her personal interest in translation.) It was also good to see old Manila hands like the Singapore-based Robin Hemley, the Hong Kong-based Kawika Guillermo, and New Yorkers Tim Tomlinson and his wife Deedle Rodriguez-Tomlinson, who’ll be visiting Manila again soon.

This year, our conference host was Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, under the stewardship of the very gracious and capable Dr. Dai Fan, a professor of linguistics and the director of the Center for Creative Writing at the School of Foreign Languages at SYSU. Her university is one of the very few places in China where creative writing courses are taught in English, so it was a perfect venue for APWT, not to mention Guangzhou’s attractions and congeniality, about which I’ll say more in a minute.

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Revolving around the theme of “Ideas & Realities: Creative Writing in Asia Today,” this year’s sessions took on such practical concerns as teaching creative writing in English as a second language and networking from Asia to the rest of the world. At the same time, there was always more room for collaboration within the region. As the Australian author Nicholas Jose observed in his keynote, “Writing is a conversation that often begins with the writer’s own community, including editors, publishers, reviewers, critics and other writers. For Asian and Pacific writers, this can be complicated, with borders of language and culture to be crossed, and barriers to the way work becomes available. We need to expand the conversational community. We are our own best advocates and provocateurs. We can create our own audience.”

The keynotes were especially provocative and informative. Flying in from London, Qaisra Sharaz shared her writing life as a woman with multiple identities living in the West in the age of ISIS and battling Islamphobia. A crowd favorite was the US-born Australian Linda Jaivin’s talk on her becoming “The Accidental Translator,” a remarkable life complete with an amazing chance encounter on a Hong Kong subway train that would eventually lead her to subtitle modern Chinese classics such as Farewell My Concubine and Hero.

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I was glad to moderate a session on “Creative Writing in the Academy,” where panelists from Australia, the US, China, and the Philippines thankfully no longer had to deal with the age-old (and frankly stupid and annoying) question of “Can creative writing be taught?”, but rather discussed the material and moral support (or the lack thereof) that writing programs received in various universities. In this context, it deserves to be noted—especially given how we Filipinos often tend to put ourselves down—that the Philippines clearly leads the region in the field, with full-blown academic programs, writing centers, and writers’ workshops that go back more than half a century.

Aside from the keynotes and the sessions, the APWT meeting also featured special workshops led by experts in the field, such as Robin Hemley who guided both novices and experienced writers on an exploration of “Travel Writing in the 21st Century.” Robin challenged his workshoppers thus: “How do you write about place in a way that makes the place new? How do you write about a place that’s been written about many times before, Venice, for instance, or Paris? In the 21st century, who is the travel writer’s audience and what are the ethical responsibilities of the travel writer? After all, writing about the most unspoiled beach in the world will surely spoil it. Travel literature is not necessarily for the leisure class but for those who wish to have a better perspective on their own sense of the world and place.”

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Revisiting Guangzhou was something of a sentimental journey for me, as it was here, almost 30 years ago, that I went with a posse of then-young writers that included Krip Yuson, Ricky de Ungria, Eric Gamalinda, and Timmy Lim. It was our first trip to China, and we had already visited Beijing and Shanghai before stopping by Guangzhou on our way to Hong Kong and Macau. We had stayed in what was the new White Swan Hotel along the Pearl River, and last week I took Beng there on a stroll down the length of picturesque Shamian Island (actually a sandbar on the river, with colonial buildings favored by wedding photographers).

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We were told that first time that “You go to Beijing for sightseeing, to Shanghai for shopping, and to Guangzhou for eating,” and that still seemed to be true—the best meal we had all week, aside from the closing Yunnan dinner, was an 11-yuan breakfast of dimsum, xiao long bao, and ma chang in a hole-in-the-wall—but it wasn’t as if Guangzhou was lacking in sites worth visiting—starting with the stately, tree-lined campus of Sun Yat Sen University itself.

On our last day in the city, with our flight not leaving until 10 pm, Beng and I took off for Yuexiu Park, a public park sprawling over seven hills and three small lakes. Within this neighborhood, we explored the subterranean chambers of the mausoleum of the jade-shrouded Nanyue King, then climbed the five storeys of the centuries-old Zhenhai Tower for a marvelous view of the landscape. From that vantage point, one could think only of great literature and great art, capturing for posterity the inexorable passage of time.

Next year, APWT will move to Bali; I can hear the gamelan tinkling.

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Penman No. 227: The Southern Lights Shine Brightly

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Penman for Monday, November 28, 2016

 

 

 

A RECENT gallbladder operation and the stitches in four corners of my belly couldn’t stop me from flying down to Iloilo City last week to catch the tail-end of VIVA Excon 2016, which I’d plugged here some time ago but just had to see for myself. The personal reason was that my wife Beng was one of the scheduled speakers, for a session on “Art Conservation and Restoration,” but I’d also heard that VIVA Excon was one of the most successful events of its kind in the country (“probably the only surviving and longest-running Filipino biennale,” VIVA Excon stalwart and chronicler Cecilia Locsin-Nava would emphasize to me). Here’s what I found.

From November 17 to 20, more than 250 artists, speakers, and guests from the Visayas, Mindanao, and Manila gathered at Casa Real in the old provincial capitol of Iloilo to celebrate, interrogate, and propagate art in all its splendorous variety—the important qualifier being that this was new art produced south of Manila. It’s been around since 1990, moving around the major capitals of the Visayas such as Cebu, Bacolod, Dumaguete, and of course Iloilo. Surprisingly, it was only the second time that Iloilo hosted VIVA Excon, after a 20-year hiatus, so the local organizers made up for lost time by mounting one of its most vibrant editions ever.

When it started—spurred by the need to create a southern antipode for the arts, given the emergence of such bright new talents as the Negrense painter-sculptor Charlie Co—VIVA Excon had to be funded by the artists themselves, but this year Iloilo’s provincial and city government pitched in to guarantee the event’s success, with help from a host of sponsors led by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). On top of the local planning was painter Rock Drilon, assisted by a corps of wizards and elves who made sure that the dozens of events on the program went off like clockwork. VIVA Excon originals Ed Defensor, Charlie Co, Peewee Roldan, and Cecilia Nava were also around to lend their wisdom and support.

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As its name suggests, VIVA Excon (the “VIVA” stands for Visayas Islands Visual Arts) was at once both an exhibition and a conference. As someone who has helped to organize quite a few literary conferences myself, I was much impressed by the scope and depth of the topics taken up at the conference and by the expertise of the speakers engaged for the occasion, some of them coming from as far as the US, Singapore, and Hong Kong. I missed most of the earlier sessions, but I would have loved to listen to Ma. Victoria “Boots” Herrera speak on “Museum Practices: What Artists Need to Know”; Silvana Diaz on “Creative Economics: Art Management and Economic Viability”; Elvert Bañares on “Creative Crossover: From Visual Art to Cinema and Back—The Visayan Artists’ Experience”; Rex Aguado on “Art, the Artist, and the Art Collector”; and Patrick Flores on “Art Criticism—Its Value to the Artist and the Artworld.”

Fortunately, I came in time to catch UP art theorist Lisa Ito address issues in writing about the arts—“for what and for whom,” she would say, “beyond the popular writing geared toward the art market, and the academic writing produced by scholars and theorists.” Lisa felt that more writing should be undertaken to “connect artistic production to social contexts and current realities, and developing publics and communities that validate the vitality of art and culture” as well as to “document design practices and projects and to record transient cultural events for future generations—how communities adapt, such as by using tricycles as mobile galleries and by putting up makeshift museums.”

She was followed by New York-based Carina Evangelista whose lecture on “When Forces Shape Form” led the audience to where art has gone far beyond and outside the museum, in performative gestures—often deeply and manifestly political—that emphasized process over product, transience over permanence, and repurposing over originality. (One example: the banknotes that Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles stamped with a political message and circulated in 1970 as a form of mobile graffiti, which nervous recipients couldn’t pass on quickly enough, thereby abetting its purpose.) It was truly a semester’s worth of material packed into 45 minutes on new forms of art from body mutilation to sound and video installation, reminding me of Marjorie Perloff’s lecture on avant-garde poetry just a couple of weeks earlier in Singapore; sometimes you learn the most wonderful things in the oddest places.

Of course, I was happiest and proudest to see Beng onstage walking the audience through the various stages of restoring Amorsolos and Botong Franciscos, and it was clear from the flurry of questions she fielded after her presentation that conservation and restoration were two of the least understood concerns of the art world, yet also two of the most vital if not inevitable. (Sculptor and installation artist Martin Genodepa graciously emceed the presentations.)

Outside the conference hall, three art exhibits were held: a curated one on “Contemporary Art of the Islands” at the UP Visayas Art Gallery, the more freewheeling Visayas Art Fair at Casa Real, and a special retrospective of the late Ilonggo sculptor Timoteo Jumayao at the Museo Iloilo.

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The culminating activity of VIVA Excon was the presentation of the Garbo sa Bisaya award to eight outstanding Visayan artists for excellence in their respective fields: painter Antonio Alcoseba (Cebu); scholar and painter Dulce Cuna Anacion (Leyte); film artist Elvert Bañares (Iloilo); film animator Oliver Exmundo (Iloilo); painter Allain Hablo (Iloilo); multimedia artist Manny Montelibano (Negros Occidental); painter Javy Villacin (Cebu); and painter and scholar Reuben Cañete (Cebu).

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But I’m sure that all the attendees will agree if I suggest that the best part of VIVA Excon was, ultimately, the company of fellow artists, a fraternity forged over beer and music as much as over linseed oil and plaster. Even if I was little more than an onlooker at the event, I was glad to meet up with old friends and acquaintances like Rock Drilon, whose Mag:Net bar and gallery on Katipunan Avenue used to be one of our favorite hangouts. He moved to Iloilo years ago to take care of his ailing mom, and found himself drawn inextricably into the local art scene, until he realized that he was truly home. “Viva should last beyond the Excon,” Rock told me, “so an artists’ cooperative has been organized to sustain the energy sparked by VIVA Excon.”

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Two years from now, the event will be hosted by Roxas City in Capiz. Iloilo could be hard to top, but these Visayans are full of surprises.

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Penman for Monday, November 17, 2016

 

 

IT WASN’T on the official itinerary, but I have to report that the personal highlight of our recent participation at the Frankfurt Book Fair didn’t happen at the fair itself, or even in Frankfurt, but about an hour and a half away by train and bus. This was a plan that a few of us had hatched even before we left Manila: we’d do our jobs and put in our hours in the Philippine booth, then take a day off in pursuit of a pilgrimage that any Pinoy in Frankfurt shouldn’t forgo: a visit to Jose Rizal’s haunts in Heidelberg and neighboring Wilhelmsfeld.

I’ve been a lifelong fan of Pepe, not just for his writing skills and love of country (I won’t mention his charming ways with the ladies) but also his wanderlust which made him, in my book, the first truly global Filipino. Considering that he didn’t live very long, he was still able to do more and see more than most of us do in a full lifetime. The intensity of that life and the excellence he sought at every turn have been enduring inspirations for me, and I’ve realized that sometimes by design and sometimes by serendipity, I’ve been tracking his footsteps around the world.

In 2009, my wife Beng and I, along with our daughter Demi and her husband Jerry, had booked ourselves into the Palace Hotel on Market Street in San Francisco, where it took a waiter (a fellow Pinoy, of course) to inform us that Rizal had stayed there during his only visit to America in May 1888, an event commemorated by a marker just outside the hotel, which we had missed.

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Two years later, Beng and I visited Rizal’s well-kept shrine in Dapitan, where he had spent four fruitful years in exile before being transported back to Manila. How poignant it must have been to catch the sunset along the bay with Josephine Bracken, inflamed and torn by two of the strongest passions to afflict any writer—love and revolution.

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And then in 2014, again with Beng, Demi, and Jerry, I sought out some of Rizal’s locales in Spain, from Plaza Mayor in Madrid to the Castell de Montjuic in Barcelona, where Rizal had been detained before being shipped back to Manila for trial and eventual execution. (The castle has designated a room, Sala Rizal, in his honor and in memory of the many political prisoners who had spent time in that place—ironically, one of the best spots from which to appreciate the city’s beauty.)

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There was no question, therefore, that I would make that sortie to Heidelberg, given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Five other sojourners made up our group: National Artist Virgilio “Rio” Almario and his wife Lyn, their daughter Ani and her husband, the geologist CP David, and the poet and Inquirer staff writer Ruey de Vera. Lyn and Ani were attending the book fair on behalf of Adarna House and the Book Development Association of the Philippines, but we all agreed that a visit to Heidelberg was well worth a day off.

Rizal had stayed in various places in Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld for much of 1886, marking his 25th birthday there, studying ophthalmology with tutors like Dr. Otto Becker while improving his command of German. When he moved to Wilhelmsfeld—a 12-kilometer walk through the forest that Rizal essayed and even today a 30-minute bus ride from downtown Heidelberg—Rizal boarded with Pastor Karl Ullmer and his family, and it was there that he completed the manuscript of Noli Me Tangere (a feat that, achieved at 25, still astonishes me when I consider the juvenilia most of us still produce at that age).

Rio Almario had visited Heidelberg once before but not Wilhelmsfeld, and the rest of us were total newcomers to the area (I had traveled around Germany and reported on it extensively in 2004, but hadn’t gone this far). So it was with giddy enthusiasm that we assembled at the Frankfurt Bahnhof and boarded the 9:20 train to Heidelberg. About an hour later, we were in Heidelberg, where we made a beeline for the information kiosk just outside the train station to buy bus tickets to Wilhelmsfeld. “Filipinos?” asked a clerk at the kiosk, apparently familiar with posses of brown-skinned Asians asking about Jose Rizal, and he whipped out a xeroxed guide to Rizal’s known habitations in Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld. There were about six of these sites in Heidelberg alone, so we decided to go for Wilhelmsfeld first, given our limited time.

After a pleasant ride along the Neckar River and the lovely autumn scenery (punctuated only by an unexpected stop during which two European bison appeared fairytale-like out of the woods), we reached Wilhelmsfeld, which announced itself in a most unusual way, with a Filipino flag flying abreast of its German counterpart in front of the Rathaus, or town hall (Wilhelmsfeld and Calamba are sister cities). We were in search specifically of the statue that sculptor Anastacio Caedo had made of Rizal in a special park devoted to him. An initial query led us astray, to the wrong church and into a drizzle of hail (magical story elements we couldn’t have invented to accentuate our pilgrim status), until a kind lady pointed us in the right direction.

Many shuddering steps later, we arrived at a park overlooking the valley, in the center of which stood Rizal’s figure, easily a foot larger than life, as it deserved to be. We celebrated by opening a bottle of Potsdamer beer which CP had brought along for the occasion, and raising a toast to the great wanderer who had preceded us by 130 years but who yet challenged us, as it were, to write a Noli for our own times. After lunch back in Heidelberg, we prepared for another long trek to find his clinic at Bergeimherstrasse, only to realize that we had gotten off on exactly that street, and were only steps away.

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Weeks later, a totally unexpected bonus followed. I was in Singapore covering the Writers Festival when fictionist Cathy Torres—a diplomat who was serving with the Philippine Embassy in Berlin after a stint in Singapore, and had also joined us in Frankfurt—casually mentioned to me that Rizal had taken note in his letters of the black elephant statue beside the old Parliament House where the festival was being held. As it turned out, Rizal had visited Singapore four times—the first time in 1882, on what also happened to be the 21-year-old’s first trip abroad. The tip prompted me to look up Rizal’s Singaporean connections—immortalized in a marker near the Cavenagh Bridge, beside the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Deng Xiaoping—but what floored me was discovering that he had once stayed at the old Hotel de la Paix at the corner of Coleman and Hill Streets—long gone, but since replaced by the Peninsula-Excelsior Hotel, where I was staying. I felt like I was no longer following Rizal, but he was following me.

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In Dapitan, he had written: “I left, scarcely a youth, my land and my affections, and vagrant everywhere, with no qualms, with no terrors, squandered in foreign lands the April of my life.” If this was squandering one’s youth, what a glorious waste it was.

 

Penman No. 225: Sayang in Singapore

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Penman for Monday, November 11

 

TO US Filipinos, sayang has one meaning and one meaning only: a regrettable loss, something that causes us to shake our heads or hold our palms to our hearts and say, “Oh, that’s too bad.” But elsewhere in the region, from some sultry corner of which the word worked its way up our archipelago, sayang means that and more: the love which may have been that which was lost, love as both a noun and a verb, or even an endearment, depending on the nuances of its intonation. So love and loss—the former all too often trailed by the latter—coexist in this wonderfully complex word, through which we Filipinos can at least claim some vestigial connection to the heart of Asia.

Sayang was very much on people’s lips in Singapore last week—you would have thought a lovefest was going on, and in a sense, it was. But the love was for books and literature, the occasion being the Singapore Writers Festival, which I was visiting for the third time after a hiatus of five years. Sayang had been chosen as the festival’s theme, and the word was festooned against a suitably floral backdrop all over the Arts House area where most of the festival events took place.

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Now on its 19th edition, the SWF began in 1986 as a biennial event, but it has since become a fixture on the regional cultural calendar (alongside the Singapore Arts Festival), cementing the city-state’s reputation—like its iconic Merlion—as the fountain of artistic endeavor in this part of the world. (I know what you’re thinking: “Shouldn’t that be us, the Philippines, with our long tradition of cultural expression and our bountiful artistic talents?” But I’ll tell you what festival director Yeow Kai Chai—himself a poet and journalist—told me over lunch: “I can’t believe you Filipinos have yet to establish a Department of Culture!”)

It was clear, from the minute I stepped out into Changi’s arrival area, that the National Arts Council, under Singapore’s Ministry of Culture, had once again pulled all the stops to guarantee a pleasant and efficiently managed experience for all SWF attendees, expected to number about 20,000. I was here as a journalist on coverage for the Star (I had attended the SWF as a participant in 2008, and returned to cover it in 2011) and I knew what to expect, but like they say, you never cross the same river twice, and this year’s festival offered a steady stream of 300 events spread out over ten days from November 4 to 13. There were over 300 official participants registered, with a hundred of them coming from overseas.

That makes the SWF one of the world’s largest and longest festivals of its kind, if not probably the most multilingual one, with its support for literature not just in English but also in Bahasa, Chinese, and other Asian languages. According to Yeow, the goal was to be as inclusive as possible in the SWF’s programming, going so far as to offer facilities for the hearing-impaired.

The fullness of the festival programme required selectivity, so I cherry-picked my way through the three days of my stay there, paying special attention to literary developments in Singapore itself. I’ve often remarked—most recently at a reading in Diliman featuring authors brought over by Ethos Books, one of Singapore’s most energetic presses—that the Philippines and Singapore have enjoyed a longstanding “bromance” going down the generations: between F. Sionil Jose and Edwin Thumboo, for example, followed by Krip Yuson and Kirpal Singh, then Joel Toledo and Alvin Pang, to name a few. We’ve published books together; not too long ago, Isabel Mooney and Lily Rose Tope worked with their Singaporean academic counterparts to edit a landmark anthology of Southeast Asian writing in English. So I wanted to see where things were at.

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The first session I attended addressed the diasporic element in Singaporean literature—but unlike our exodus of workers and writers to the far reaches of the planet, this diaspora was inbound, and a voluntary one. Moderated by the Filipino expat poet Eric Tinsay Valles, the panel comprised the Eurasian short story writer Jon Gresham, who had come to Singapore via the UK and Australia; the Filipino fictionist and diplomat Cathy Torres, who had moved from her posting in Singapore to Germany; and the American creative nonfiction expert Robin Hemley, who’s married to a Filipina and who now teaches in Singapore.

They discussed how, in the words of Eric, the diaspora could be “a creative space” within which the experience of estrangement could create some positive value. Being away from one’s home, the three agreed, made new impressions and expressions possible. The writer’s struggle to adjust and adapt was in itself the story. Jon spoke about how “It isn’t so much about roots as routes—the journey, the getting there” for the diasporic writer. Adverting to the title story of her debut collection, Mariposa Gang and Other Stories, Cathy observed how “Diasporic stories are like butterflies. They may look alike but no two are truly the same. I try to catch them and send them out into the world.”

But the it was the keynote talk by Farish Noor, a Malaysian political scientist and historian who’s become something of an intellectual rock star in the region, that both charmed and alarmed the packed chamber where the Singaporean parliament used to meet. Dr. Noor introduced his talk thus:

“How a word can have multiple meanings at the same time, and have their meanings change over time, is an interesting mirror to the unfolding of history. This lecture looks at one word in particular, sayang, charting its path of adaptation from pre-colonial and colonial histories to the post-colonial present; and considering how the changes in its meanings and applications—from fables to novels to cinema and pop culture—tells us more about ourselves, like how our own sensibilities and worldviews have evolved, leading to the postmodern present which we inhabit today. The word remains the same, but do we sayang today as our ancestors did?”

Looking back on how concepts of love evolved over time in the region—including love across species in folklore, and love for the colonial master—Farish noted how “Words are what we have left of the past, and the past is far more complicated—more rich, more deep—than the present. Today, in the age of Facebook, ‘love’ has been reduced to clicking a ‘Like’ button.”

During his turn in the chamber, Singapore’s unofficial poet laureate Edwin Thumboo looked back on a lifetime of literature in his country thus: “Young poets no longer write about nation because the nation has been constructed for them. It’s no longer a problem….. It’s so easy now to get published but I don’t think there’s enough revision going on. People are anthologizing like mad. Be patient. Always think you can do better.”

The renowned American critic Marjorie Perloff spoke at the last event I attended, and she closed SWF 2016 for me with a rousing challenge: “Avant-garde poetry has crossed the boundaries between the verbal and the visual, but poetry hasn’t changed in 70 years the way painting and music have. We need another kind of revolution!”

Many thanks again to my hosts and to my SWF friends—it was all sayang and yet no sayang for me this past weekend. In a coming column, I’ll digest two interviews I conducted with Singaporean poet Aaron Lee and our very own Eric Tinsay Valles on what it’s like to be a poet in Singapore.