Penman No. 370: A Collection and a Collaboration

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Penman for Monday, September 16, 2019

 

YOU KNOW that you’ve reached the hilltop, just in time to view the sunset, when they start compiling your works into hefty one-volume collections that could take a very long vacation on a very lonely island to plow through. Apparently I’m at that point, because Anvil Publishing has just released Voyager and Other Fictions: The Collected Stories of Jose Dalisay, a 500-page compendium of 43 stories written and published over four decades from the 1970s onwards.

I had been quietly at work on this collection these past few months with Anvil general manager Andrea Pasion-Flores and her team, and I was elated to see it being sold at the recent Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, and later at National Book Store, Anvil’s parent company. Let me just share what I said about the project in my brief preface to the stories:

“These stories span forty years, from 1975 to 2015, during which I turned from a lanky 21-year-old to a potbellied senior, and everything in between. I’ve chosen to present them in the chronological order of their writing, as best as my challenged memory could manage, hoping that this sequencing will reveal some patterns of growth and change in the way a writer selects and treats material as he himself is shaped by life and time.

“The inclusion of some juvenilia may be indulgent, but my excuse is that it may be instructive and inspiring (albeit by negative example) to the young writer who must be made to believe that better things come with age.

“I came to fiction in English from a background in drama and screenwriting in Filipino. This helps explain my interest in scene-setting and dialogue, in the unseen currents of thought and feeling that cross synapses and much larger spaces between people.

“While creative nonfiction occupies most of my time in retirement, largely for a living, nothing exhilarates me more than writing fiction—not the novel, for which I never mustered anything resembling affection, but the short story, which I find both exacting and exciting in its compactness.

“I’ve lately often argued that the best antidote to fake news is true fiction, because only fiction—not even journalism—has the power to draw us out of ourselves, out of the present, into that chill place where Honesty resides. Fiction redeems and saves the writer as much as it exalts the reader. That realization has been the personal reward of my work for these past forty years.”

After writing so many books for other people—I always say that rather than live to write, I write to live—it’s a balm for the spirit to see and review all my stories in one place, and to be reminded of fiction as my true love, the thing I most enjoy doing although the least materially rewarding. Indeed I’ve often said that my stories—invariably of lower and middle-class Filipinos like me—are the biographies of those people who can’t afford to hire me to write about them, whose lives are often dismissed as “ordinary” but which are in fact eventful and dramatic in their own fashion.

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I had a second reason to rejoice with the launch of my newest book, Why Words Matter, last Saturday at the Vargas Museum in UP Diliman. With lovely and haunting illustrations by Marcel Antonio, the book is based on a TEDTalk I gave last year in UP about why we read and why we write, and how words can kill but can also heal. It’s being published by Gigo Alampay’s CANVAS (The Center for Art, New Ventures and Sustainable Development). Two other books were also launched alongside mine—a children’s counting book by artist Ioannis Sicuya, and one about horror stories from the martial law era that distills affidavits by claimants of martial law abuses into three sentence tales, illustrated by Renz Baluyot.

While this book was produced as a special, limited art-book edition (only 500 copies, all hardbound), CANVAS will allow the free, non-commercial distribution of material from the book, with proper attribution, in any medium, as part of its program for cultural literacy.

I must say that I’m awed by and deeply grateful for Marcel’s exquisite artwork (just as I appreciated Jordan Santos’ delightful cover design for Voyager). Not since I collaborated with Jaime Zobel on an art book titled The Island almost 25 years ago have I had such a visually engaging publication. While I firmly believe that every author—never mind how sharp he or she may imagine himself or herself to be—needs an editor, and even as I’ve welcomed most of my editors’ suggestions, I’ve also sometimes given my publishers and designers a hard time, having stubborn and stodgy ideas about how my books should look. I’m relieved to have had a very pleasant experience with the publication of these two new books, for which again I thank Andrea and Gigo for putting together. It’s a bracing reminder to this old man that, to a happy few, his words still do matter.

(Voyager is available at National Book Store; to order Why Words Matter, please email info@canvas.ph.)

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Penman No. 369: Meaning in the Many

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Penman for September 2, 2019

 

IN MY fiction writing classes, until I recently retired, I often began the semester with what I thought was a generous offer, or actually a challenge: I would give flat 1.0 to anyone who could submit a well-written story with a happy ending—not some contrived finale with God scooping the hero out of harm’s way on the last page, but something the reader could believe in, something that would give reason for hope in the human condition, or at least the human future.

How many students, do you imagine, found their way to that happy ending and to that glittering 1.0 all these years? None, not a single one. It wasn’t for lack of talent—I did hand out a few 1.0’s for other reasons—but it seems that a believably happy story has become the hardest thing to write in these times in which the political has compounded the personal. As my students’ stories keep repeating, people feel trapped in situations and relationships that diminish their self-worth. In the age of the Internet, which is supposed to connect strangers instantaneously across the planet, many feel lonelier than ever, unable to keep up or blend in with the crowd, which always seems made up of happier, smarter, and richer people.

Everyone says they want the truth, which others—including governments and peddlers of this and that—are laboring to obscure, but when they do find it, they can’t deal with the consequences. The only ones smiling are those in power, who feel they can get away with murder, because no one else is strong and whole enough to stand up to them. As someone else sagely noted, despots feed on people’s despair.

In recent conversations over coffee with friends—chats overcast by a spate of deaths in the literary family and by a growing despondency over our political situation—the question was inevitably asked: so what can we do? How can we recover and offer hope, and find some happiness amidst hardship and despair?

To cut a long and complicated discussion short, I’ve resolved that, at the minimum, my aim will simply be to survive all the bad people and the bad stuff. I shall keep myself healthy and sane, and do things that not only give me personal pleasure—an admittedly selfish but vital element of happiness and well-being—but also help others, which can yield even greater satisfaction, as you find meaning in the many.

I know that that’s easier for me to say and to execute, as a 65-year-old retiree who’s been through enough, has hit most of his life goals, and could croak tomorrow without too much commotion. Easier, that is, than a 22-year-old with a troubled home life, a shaky job that barely pays for gas and fares, and the crushing pressure to conform and be another nobody.

But it’s certainly true that for my generation, we were ever aware that the world was larger than ourselves, and that it didn’t owe us a living, so we had work and fight for everything, and while we bitched like hell about the general crappiness of life, we were thankful for every scrap that fell our way, and prepared to fight and bitch some more the next day. We sought out kindred spirits and sang songs together, finding solace in community and in the sobering realization that many others had it worse. We found relief from our personal troubles by relieving the greater needs of others.

That may all sound peachy and preachy, platitudes that roll smoothly off the tongue forty or thirty years after one’s last rolled papaya-leaf cigarette or shot of watery gin. But it’s true: we tried to be as strong and as tough as we could, individually, but didn’t mind admitting to a soft spot here and there, maybe even turning that into an affectation (dare we say an art) like poetry, or music, or, for others, activism and public service. Whatever we had, we shared with an audience. And if sometimes we didn’t even get so much as a thank-you or a polite couple of claps, well, we could always say we belonged to a cool and tight fraternity of the underappreciated, like Poe and Baudelaire. Misery loves company, but we didn’t just stay miserable—we made something out of it, something even approaching bliss.

So in line with my new mantra of starting local and starting small, Beng and I will devote ourselves to family and community, beginning with our apu-apuhan Buboy, who’ll turn three this month, working with his parents to ensure that he’ll get a good and sensible education while we can help it—not just in school, but around the house and at the dinner table. I’ll be telling him things like “Respect food, and finish what’s on your plate. Eat fish and vegetables. Love cars—toys or real ones—but respect pedestrians. Respect working people, your parents most of all. Do things yourself. Do the right thing even when no one’s looking, and even when everyone else is doing wrong.”

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There’s reason for hope if we each do the right thing in our own lives, and not yield too easily and too soon to the clamors of submission and self-annihilation.(There’s always somebody else who deserves to go before we do.) We are not alone.

Penman No. 368: Scavenging a Smith-Corona

IMG_9518.JPGPenman for Monday, August 26, 2019

 

I HAD the privilege of being mentioned last week in the column of my historian-friend and fellow connoisseur of all things older than ourselves, Ambeth Ocampo, for having facilitated his acquisition of a 1962 Ferrari-red typewriter sporting a rare cursive typeface. Ambeth and I had run into each other at the recent Philippine Readers and Writers Festival in Makati, where we had separate events but both attended the visiting Gina Apostol’s talk on her new novel Insurrecto. Strangely enough, the last time we met was also in last year’s PRWF, where we realized to our mutual amusement that we were both carrying Agatha Christie fountain pens. (For the record, he has also been a lifelong penman.)

Occasionally—like I suppose his legions of fans do—I email him for his professional opinion of my recent antiquarian pickups, like a French book from 1706 about the Jesuits in “Nouvelle Philippines,” which got me all excited until Ambeth burst my bubble by telling me that “Nouvelle Philippines” didn’t exactly mean Manila or even Mindanao but a group of little islands out there in the stormy Pacific. That’s why I always hasten to explain that he’s the scholar and I’m the scavenger, although the things that he himself has scavenged—like Emilio Jacinto’s silver quill pen—are pretty fabulous.

At the PRWF, he asked me if I knew of any cursive (or “script”) typewriters for sale; I said I did not, but would ask a collector-friend, Dennis Pinpin, if he had any. I have about two dozen typewriters (yegads) in my stable, and only one of them has script (that’s it up there, an SCM Classic 12), but Dennis has over a hundred, so he had to have one or two to spare. Indeed, when I asked Dennis, he did—a 1980s Olympia Traveller de Luxe, a sturdy German workhorse on which I had begun my first novel back in graduate school, and an older, fire-red Olivetti Studio. Which one should I get, Ambeth asked me. The Olivetti, I said, will likely have softer keys. The two gents met in a burger joint, had an enjoyable conversation, and a red machine crossed the table for what I knew was a bargain, Dennis being a soft touch for serious writers interested in having some fun with noisy old contraptions.

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But that wasn’t the end of my typewriter week. Like all true collectors, I keep telling myself “Okay, that was the last one,” knowing perfectly well that I’m lying through my teeth. For a couple of days midweek, I got all worked up about acquiring a 1920s Remington that had belonged to a Bulakeño associate of Jose Rizal; I had an agreement with the seller on the price and meeting place, only to be later told that some mysterious stranger had bought it from under my nose. (Ambeth, was that you?) I was beside myself with dismay and disgust, muttering oaths about palabra de honor, but then (like many of you would do, fess up) I sought to soothe my injured feelings by looking for something else to buy. I got lucky over the weekend on a sortie to Bangkal, picking up two lovely paintings by minor masters for the same coin I would have handed over for the typewriter.

And it still didn’t end there, because—idly scanning the online ads while desperately finishing another corporate history (which puts the butter on my bread, and allows me the folly of these pursuits)—my eyes fell on a bright, clean-faced Smith Corona in a crinkle-paint finish they used to call “Desert Sand,” being offered by a seller not too far from me for the price of, shall we say, a couple of dinner-and-movie dates with Beng (sorry, Beng!). I PM’ed the seller, who said the machine had been reserved by someone else. Drat, I thought, but nobly messaged back that I respected dibs, and that if that deal fell through, then I was next in line.

The next day I got a message that the other fellow had failed to show up, and that the Smith Corona was mine to take: destiny! Now I should admit that this was going to be my sixth Smith Corona, the typewriter equivalent of either gluttony or a very unimaginative diet, but as all true collectors know (I really should have an official True Collectors T-shirt made), redundancy is never a problem, except to spouses (and thankfully Beng prefers redundancy in my collectibles to redundancy in spouses). I drove out and picked up the machine, which was being sold out of a Japan-surplus stall in Tandang Sora.

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Back home I gently opened the case, and began drooling at the sight of a near-pristine Smith Corona Standard, whose serial number marked it as having been made in 1941; it had obviously never seen any action, like firing off a desperate message from a bunker in Bataan or Okinawa. After I had wiped and oiled it, the soft clatter of keys striking the platen, probably for the first time in decades, filled the air in my home office like Debussy’s Reverie. (That’s our apu-apuhan Buboy below, trying out the new toy.) How do these beauties, I would later tweet, find their way to ugly old me? I imagined Ambeth across the city, pecking away at his Olivetti, maybe wondering if Rizal had ever used a Hammond or a Blickensderfer.

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(Photo of Ambeth Ocampo courtesy of Dennis Pinpin.)

 

 

Penman No. 367: Revisiting Paeng Salas

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Penman for Monday, August 19, 2019

 

FEW MILLENNIALS would be familiar with the name today, but in the 1960s and 1970s, Rafael Montinola Salas—Paeng to many—was every bit the man a younger person would have wanted to become: smart, accomplished, attractive, very much in the center of things, privy to power and influence and yet incorruptible and prone to poetry. And like many men who blaze an incandescent streak across the dark sky of history, Paeng Salas died young. He wasn’t even 59 in March 1987 when he was felled by an apparent heart attack in his hotel room in Washington, DC, while preparing for a meeting, ensuring no end to speculation on what he might have been—and what the Philippines itself might have become—had he lived longer. At the University of the Philippines, where he studied law, he recruited another provinciano into the Sigma Rho fraternity, and though older than Paeng by five years, that recruit named Juan Ponce Enrile saw Paeng as a mentor and would later call Salas “the best President we never had.”

To the uninitiated, the Negros-born Paeng Salas was one of the first so-called “technocrats,” a bright, idealistic, well-educated young man who found himself roped into and rising quickly within the ranks of government, first as a volunteer for the charismatic Ramon Magsaysay, then as a campaigner and yet later Executive Secretary for Ferdinand Marcos, for whom he led a highly successful rice self-sufficiency program. Disillusioned by corruption within the Marcos regime, Salas gave up any domestic political ambition to join the new United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) in New York, and became known as “Mr. Population” for his impassioned commitment to curbing unchecked population growth, which also led to the creation of the Commission on Population (POPCOM) in 1969. He almost became UN Secretary General in 1981—were it not for the lack of support from Malacañang, which had not forgiven him for his desertion. After EDSA, there was talk of Salas joining Cory’s Cabinet—but just weeks later, he was dead.

I’m writing about Paeng Salas because, last week when he would have turned 92, the POPCOM under its Executive Director Dr. Jeepy Perez launched a new biography of Salas titled A Millennial Man for Others: The Life and Times of Rafael M. Salas, co-authored by me and Carmen “Menchu” Sarmiento (whom I have to thank for doing most of the heavy lifting). In my remarks at the launch, I said that Paeng Salas was a biographer’s dream, not only because of the breadth of his accomplishments but also because of the quality of the man himself and of his life.

Speaking across the decades to our times and leaders today, Salas was the ultimate public servant who was not only learned and refined—among his works are two published collections of finely crafted haiku—but, just as importantly, was honest and humble. He never used his vast intellect (he loved books and left 11,000 of them to his province’s library) to bludgeon others in a display of arrogance; he was devoted to his wife and family; he was a liberal democrat who believed firmly in freedom and deplored rising authoritarianism.

I was a 19-year-old dropout when I joined the civil service under martial law in 1973 (there weren’t too many jobs left for writers), too late to meet Paeng Salas, who was already with the UN then. But I did become a “Sicat boy” along with the likes of the late Boy Noriega, Poch Macaranas, and Chito Sobrepeña, under NEDA Director-General Gerry Sicat.

At the launch at the DFA were our predecessors, who had begun their distinguished careers working with and for Paeng Salas as their boss—the likes of Jun Factoran, Joe Molano, Vic Ramos, Jimmy Yambao, Agustin Que, and company, who would come to be known as the “Salas boys,” indeed a much longer list you’ll find at the back of the book. Also present were former POPCOM Executive Director Ben de Leon, the premier demographer and Paeng’s comadre Dr. Mercedes Concepcion, and Paeng’s widow, the very lovely and gracious former Amb. Carmelita “Menchu” Rodriguez Salas. I would remark that any man who could describe his wife in a poem as a “cattleya in fluted crystal” had my admiration.

Two weeks before Ninoy Aquino’s assassination in 1983, Paeng Salas spoke at UP, where he received an honorary doctorate, and said this:

“To me, freedom is the highest of all values. It makes possible the interchange of ideas, the expression of an individual’s beliefs, the right to disagree, to put forward alternatives and express them even if one is in error. It is the value that must suffuse all technologies and instruments of direction and control since it is at one and the same time both the precondition and ultimate end of our endeavors….

“I should like to take leave with a question: what can the scholars of this university do to solve the problems of the Philippines when it will be a country of 70 million people? Judge your course of action in the light of our country’s historical experience and with the conviction that your judgement is better when your thought is free—always.”

I wish he were still around to say these things again, today.

 

 

 

Penman No. 366: A Little Learning

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Penman for Monday, August 12, 2019

 

I KNOW and can appreciate the effort (and maybe even the talent) that it takes to add two or three little letters to your name, which are supposed to suddenly make you look ten times more learned than you were before. For the record, I picked up my PhD in English back in 1991 when I was 37, a few years after I got my MFA (or Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing).

Why am I parading these academic credentials? Because it’s something I hardly ever do, or need to do—except when… but I’ll get to that in a minute. Let me just say, before anyone gets the wrong idea, that among the real, practicing writers I know (even those with PhDs), a PhD is worth about as much as a flyleaf or an empty page in a book. You can get a PhD in English or Literature or Creative Writing after a lot of patient study and writing a ton of intelligent-sounding papers, but the degree won’t guarantee that you can or will write an outstanding novel or book of poems.

Some of us spend an extra five to six years after the master’s anyway to go after the PhD, basically because nearly every university today requires it if you plan on teaching in college as a career besides writing, and because, well, some of us just want to study and write some more under pressure. You could call it the love of learning, which has become strangely irrelevant to many people in this age of tunnel-vision efficiency. At least that’s how I remember my own time in graduate school in Michigan and Wisconsin, when I would madly read two books in one day, exhilarated more by the obscure and bloody excesses of Elizabethan revenge tragedy than by any kind of practical expectation.

I recalled those heady moments when, a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a post in a forum I belong to, one devoted to collecting vintage typewriters, from a fellow we’ll call Dickie. Dickie shared an interesting note about his icon—the famously abrasive science fiction writer Harlan Ellison (1934-2018; that’s him in the pic, c/o Variety)—who used typewriters well into the age of laptops, and who supposedly asserted, as some typewriter folk are wont to do, that using computers to write was BS, because computers produced bad, lazy writing. Dickie presented himself as a writer—a claim I’m happy to accept and respect, until proven otherwise—and took Ellison’s word as proof positive that, well, people like him who used typewriters were therefore better writers than the rest of mankind (I’m using a bit of hyperbole here, but you get the point).

Maybe I should’ve known better, but I submitted a gentle rejoinder to say that, with all due respect to Mr. Ellison, that was BS, too—good writers adjust to the tools at hand, and I was willing to bet the house that 99% of all the best novels of the past 20 years, going by anyone’s list, were written on computers. I myself had gone through the whole gamut from handwritten manuscripts to typescripts to computer printouts, and while each technique had its advantages, nothing allowed revision—so essential to good writing—as easily as the computer. Tut, tut, Dickie messaged back: I had better rethink what I just said, because “I’m better educated about literature than you.”

That was kinder than what he told another forum member who queried him about the precarious quality of his own prose, which he promptly withdrew from public viewing, remarking instead on his critic’s mammaries. Still, it set off a little explosion in my head—not because it couldn’t possibly be true (I’d be the first to say that I know zilch about literary theory, for example, which went in one ear and out the other, and that I’ll take Maugham over Murakami anytime), but because he could make statements like that with absolutely no idea whom he was talking to. I was on the forum using a pseudonym (to avoid having to deal with “friends”), and even if I had used my real name, I doubt that it would have rung a bell in his insular brain. I could’ve been TS Eliot, Chinua Achebe, or Susan Sontag, and he would’ve said the same thing.

Again, I have an extremely modest estimate of my own erudition, and I’m not given to flame wars, but in this case I just had to let fly a salvo of demurrers to put a presumptuous, uhm, Dickie in his place: “If,” I said, “you took your PhD in Literature before 1991, published more than 35 books, and taught literature and creative writing for more than 35 years, then indeed, sir, you are very likely better educated about literature than I am. Back to typewriters, shall we?” After a pregnant pause, he huffed: “English is NOT my second language.” I imagined a worm retreating into its burrow, but before it could vanish completely, I posted: “Ah, yes, it’s only my second language—but there’s a third, and a fourth.”

I was tempted to ask, “Pray tell, and please correct this second-language learner if he’s wrong, but would ‘puerile asininity’ best describe your attitude?” But I let it go at that—the moderators kicked him off the forum shortly afterward, for more egregious misbehavior.

Once, as an exchange professor in an American liberal-arts college, I attended a welcome party where a kind-looking lady walked up to the obvious foreigner to make him feel at home. “So what are you teaching?” she asked sweetly. “The American Short Story,” I said. Her eyes widened in utter disbelief. I smiled and excused myself.

It really doesn’t mean much, but maybe I should trot out that PhD more often.

 

Penman No. 365: “Tenderness Is Radical”

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A RECENT talk of mine to the graduates of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of the Philippines seems to have gone viral, but what people don’t know is that there were several of us who addressed the graduates that night—it was a testimonial dinner, not the commencement ceremony itself. All the other speakers shared delightfully inspiring remarks, but one impressed me in particular—Hannah Reyes Morales, a young but already globally renowned documentary photographer who graduated with a Speech Communication degree from UP just eight years ago. Hannah has done prizewinning work for the likes of the New York Times and National Geographic, some of which you can find on www.hannah.ph. I asked for and got her permission to share excerpts of her talk.

Today, I want to talk to you about building the possible.

When I left these halls I was a scrawny 20-year-old, putting herself through the last four semesters of school by selling ukay clothes online and photographing drunk people in bars on weekends near Tiendesitas as an event photographer. I couldn’t join my friends in eating out because I couldn’t afford it, I owed rent money to the building in Xavierville where I lived, and my mom was convinced that any dreams I had for a career in the arts and photography were a quirk and a passing fancy, and that after graduation I should apply for a job as a teller in a bank.

I honor this part of my journey. It was during this period that I learned to speak with strangers, to hustle for each paycheck, and what the true necessities were. I learned to be efficient with my time, but I never, ever lost sight of the work my heart wanted to do.

I hope that you figure out how to build a home where your creativity, your curiosity, your sense of purpose, and your wildness can keep growing. Because if there is one thing I am sure of, it’s that the world needs more safe hands working towards better.

As a photographer I’ve had the privilege of being welcomed into people’s spaces. I’ve had the privilege of being able to ask people to help me understand things I couldn’t quite grasp.

Each day that I get to take photographs is a day that I get to confront the world. Each day that I get to take photographs is a day that the world confronts me, and tells me the truth.

I’ve been offered meals by people who were hungry, allowed into moments of great vulnerability. I’ve photographed people swept up in conflicts that they had nothing to do with. I’ve seen people driven from their homes. I’ve witnessed loss and devastation.

And in the midst of horrors I saw how beauty and kindness persist. People with incredible grace, reminding me that the world doesn’t owe me anything. I met Puti, a young girl in extreme poverty, who called herself a queen. I carry her story with me every day, I hold it in my heart.

Their truths have informed my own. I hope when you meet people with a vastly different reality that their truths might also inform yours.

And when you’ve finally built towards freedom, use it to plant gardens around you, to build bridges and safe spaces. Manila can be a hostile place for artists and for dreamers. I don’t know what I would have done without people who make it less so.

My life is only possible because of the love that my friends embrace me with, the safety that enables me to do more, to dream bigger, to imagine all that is possible yet.

My own strength stems from love, my bravery blooms from the tenderness of others.

As artists our hearts and minds are needed by our land. Our gaze, and our ability to think differently are needed in envisioning better for our country, and our world.

Our generation—yes, I’d like to think that I’m still part of this generation—inherits a future that needs visionaries. Climate change, refugee crises, the rise of impunity are all realities that await outside these doors.

When I opened my eyes what I saw brought me to tears. But I always knew that closing my eyes again would not make the adversity stop. There will be those who will tell you to just keep them shut, to care a little bit less. They will tell you that you will be happier if you didn’t give a damn.

It took me a while to own that that was never who I was. It took me a minute to understand that sensitivity wasn’t a weakness. That tenderness is radical.

There is a line from Audre Lorde that I hold on to, very fiercely.  ‘When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.’

So today I implore you to use your strength—whatever form it takes—in the service of your vision. Make your time here count. Pay attention to that which makes you feel awake, and living—the hard work will come.

And lest we forget: the good, the beautiful, the wild, and the miraculous await outside these doors, too. Keep them alive.

 

Penman No. 364: Rediscovering Anselmo Espiritu

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Penman for Monday, July 29, 2019

 

I’M SURE I’m not alone in having some fun tracking the online art auctions held regularly by the Leon and Salcedo houses, if only to daydream about the often fascinating artworks crossing the block. Now and then I dabble in a bit of buying and selling—a chair here, a book there—but mostly I’m a kibitzer enjoying the action from the sidelines.

What I do come away with, even just by poring over the auction catalogues (which themselves will very soon become collectible), is an ongoing education in Philippine art. Going beyond the peso signs, learning about our painters and sculptors and the stories behind specific artworks is a reward unto itself, especially given how the arts media today—driven and sometimes threatened by advertising and PR—devote precious little attention and space to historical subjects.

I love discovering (or rediscovering, since they were already well known to others) masters I never knew about, like Lorenzo Guerrero, Felix Martinez, Isidro Ancheta, and Jorge Pineda—most of them, not incidentally, painters of the kind of traditional, romantic Filipino landscape I personally prefer, as they give me comfort and peace of mind and spirit in my old age. Among their successors who figure prominently in my small collection are Gabriel Custodio (see below) and Elias Laxa, whose pieces I can never tire of looking at across a room.

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For example, just last month, a Spanish auction house featured two remarkable paintings of Marawi by the Spanish soldier and painter Jose Taviel de Andrade (1857-1910), who at one time was assigned to watch over (and perhaps spy on) Jose Rizal in 1887 but who later became his friend, and whose brother Luis served as Rizal’s defense counsel at his trial. The Andrade paintings depict Spanish fortifications and a bridge from the campaign against the Muslim resistance in Marawi—and if not for the auction brief, I would never have learned about and looked up this story of an improbable friendship, and about that campaign. (The two Andrade paintings opened at 8,000 euros and sold for 32,000—way above my pay scale!)

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Yet another painter I just recently came to know about was Anselmo Espiritu, whose name and work I was alerted to by an online acquaintance named Wassily Clavecillas, who shares my interest in old books and artworks. Drawing on some scant references to Espiritu from various books and sources, Wassily introduced me to the fact that Anselmo—whose birthdate remains unknown, but who reportedly died in 1918—was a student of Lorenzo Guerrero, along with his brother Manuel (among Guerrero’s other students was Juan Luna). I’ll let Wassily narrate the rest of the story, slightly paraphrased by me:

“According to my research, Anselmo Espiritu was once commissioned by the Observatorio de Manila, then managed by Padre Federico Faura, SJ. In 1892 a great earthquake struck Luzon, decimating churches in Pangasinan. The Observatorio commissioned Anselmo to make paintings of the devastated churches, after which he then made serigraphs or silkscreen prints of those same paintings. Sadly the original paintings and their silkscreen versions perished along with the observatory itself during the Second World War, and the only copies of Espiritu’s depictions of the earthquake’s ravages in Pangasinan, as far as I know, have come down to us in the form of offset prints.” (Wassily has a few of these prints, and sent me digitized copies.)

He raised another interesting question: “One also has to ask why the Observatorio and Padre Faura chose to commission Espiritu to do paintings of the devastated churches when photography was already available and even possibly affordable at that time. Why go through the effort of hiring a painter when photos were more accurate down to the minutest detail? Was it an aesthetic decision, in the way that the engravings in Alfred Marche’s book on Luzon and Palawan are prime examples of the engraver’s art?”

He was, of course, referring to Voyage aux Philippines, which the French naturalist and explorer published in 1887 after six years of traipsing around Tayabas, Catanduanes, Marinduque, and Palawan, among other places. I was lucky to acquire a copy of the original Hachette edition a few years ago, which will take me time to digest, as it’s in French (thankfully, an English translation is also available), but the illustrations (like the one below) are indeed exquisite, tending to support Wassily’s conjecture that an artist’s hand can often be more evocative than a photographer’s eye.

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Espiritu would go on from that commission to become a celebrated painter in his own right, winning medals for his works at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where the likes of Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Fabian de la Rosa, Juan Arellano, and Isidro Ancheta also exhibited. His nephew Oscar (1895-1960) also became an established painter.

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Two paintings of barrio scenes by Espiritu sold last month at a Leon Gallery auction for substantially higher than their opening bids. They came out of a private collection in Spain—or I should say, came home, which is one great service these auctions perform, even as newer Filipino artworks now cross the seas with the growing and well-deserved popularity of Philippine art. I’m happy just to watch this majestic traffic go by.

Penman No. 363: A Singapore Swing

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Penman for Monday, July 22, 2019

I’VE BEEN visiting Singapore nearly every year for one reason or other, usually for a conference or at least passing through Changi on my way elsewhere, but this month Beng and I decided to fly there just to have a little fun.

I did have an official excuse, sort of, for this particular swing—the 3rdSingapore Pen Show held at the Marina Mandarin on July 13, which brought together the country’s and region’s premier sellers of pens and related products. I thought I would drop by for a look-see as the “old man” of Philippine fountain pen collecting, and happily I was accompanied by a small but very knowledgeable Pinoy contingent that included adwoman and artist Leigh Reyes (who also happens to be the new president of our Fountain Pen Network-Philippines), medical executive Joseph Abueg, and avid collector Micah Robles, among others. We were all proud to see two major Filipino companies represented at the Singapore show and generating brisk sales and inquiries: Jillian Joyce Tan’s Everything Calligraphy, which was showing off its new line of Philippine-made Vinta inks, and Arnold Ang’s Shibui leather pen cases, which can easily compete in quality and design with the world’s best.

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I’ve been to many other pen shows around the world, chiefly in America where they happen year-round, and while Singapore’s may be relatively smaller because newer, it also showcased Asia’s strengths as the producer of some of the world’s finest pens—the high-end Japanese Nakayas, for example, which are rarely seen in the West. Eurobox, which has a formidable collection of vintage pens, came in from Tokyo; and André Mora of the renowned Mora Stylos flew in all the way from Paris with a bevy of their coveted Oldwins. Pen shows are as much about people as they are about pens, and I was delighted to see some old friends like Lai Kim Hoong of Malaysia’s PenGallery, as well as make some new ones like Tan Fong Kum of Singapore’s Aesthetic Bay and Ng Lip Sing of Singapore’s Straits Pens.

So did I buy anything? I normally step out of pen shows with a wild man’s stare, clutching four or five precious finds in my fists, but the great thing about having too many pens is that you know when to stop and to just enjoy the scenery, which is what I did. I came to Singapore to talk pens with kindred spirits, and brought a selection of 12 of my most interesting vintage and modern pens, and had lively conversations about a few of them. Unlike our Manila Pen Show—the next one of which will take place November 16-17 this year—which is far busier and which features more side events like lectures and demos, Singapore’s was still more of a market than a community, and I would’ve liked a longer chat over coffee with our local counterparts, but maybe next time.

Our other objective for this Singapore trip was to visit the National Gallery, which somehow doesn’t figure on most tourist itineraries like the Marina Bay Sands or the Gardens by the Bay. Built where the old City Hall and Supreme Court stood, the National Gallery is both an imposing but also welcoming structure, with guides and docents ready to walk you through the exhibits. Aside from Singaporean art, of course, the gallery’s strength lies in its collection of Southeast Asian art, which is breathtaking in its range of styles as well as in its commonality of themes—nation, nature, people. Filipino talent is well represented throughout the exhibit—from the ground floor, where Mark Justiniani’s mind-blowing (and, for the vertiginous like me, unnerving) “Stardust” bridge obliges the visitor to take a literal walk through bottomless space, to the succession of galleries on Levels 3-5 where “Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia since the 19th Century” is on show.

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A trio of less-known 1940s Amorsolos is flanked by the orchestrated chaos of a Purugganan; an early and dark Edades exudes primal energy; elsewhere are exemplary pieces by Galo Ocampo, Arturo Luz, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Napoleon Abueva, Bobby Chabet, Ray Albano, Santy Bose, and Imelda Cajipe. But the piece de resistanceof Filipino modernist representation is H. R. Ocampo’s Dancing Mutants, encountering which made our whole Singapore trip worth it. And the curators themselves must have been aware of the specialness of this stunning work from 1965, according it its very own corner in the gallery, almost altar-like. I’ve seen many Ocampos (with Beng restoring quite a few of them), but this one made me want to fall on my knees in praise of its creator.

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And purely by serendipity, when we stepped out of a mobile-phone shop on North Bridge Road, I noticed that the building across the street was none other than the National Library, which I’d visited as a journalist on a previous assignment. Let’s go in, I told Beng, I want to show you something. So we did, and there on the 11thfloor was a permanent exhibit on “Singapore’s Literary Pioneers”—featuring not only the books of the country’s best writers, but also their pens, typewriters, and even their eyeglasses. This, I told Beng wishfully, is how writers should be revered. Always better than a pen show is seeing what comes out of those pens, at their very finest.

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Penman No. 362: Writers in Progress

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Penman for Monday, July 15, 2019

 

I’M ALWAYS happy when people who were my students rise up in their careers and begin to find their own voice and footing—especially as writers, good ones among whom remain few and far between. Each year, the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing gathers the best of these young writing talents under one roof and around one table for the UP National Writers Workshop, the 58th iteration of which took place last week in its traditional venue in Baguio City.

Two of the 12 fellows—each of whom qualified for the advanced workshop by publishing at least one book—were Francis Quina and Sarah Fernando Lumba, both of whom had studied withme at one point or other, and whose thesis defenses I had sat at; both now teach at UP Diliman’s English department.This year’s batch was formidable, with some well-established names on the roster, but I kept an eye out for Francis and Sarah, to see how they were doing after all these years.

All workshop fellows were required to send in a short essay discussing their poetics (what, why, and how they write) along with short excerpts from their works in progress.

Francis said: “Recently, when my first short story collection was picked up by a publisher, the reader who had endorsed my manuscript to be published noted that I wrote about strong female and queer characters…. I’ve only known strong women in my life. And strong queer men and women, too. So I only write what I know. This also is true of the fallible male characters that I write about.

His project Window on the World brings two sisters together—each of them trapped and unhappy in their respective situations—on a plane for a holiday in Korea.

 “I’m scared,” Janine confessed, after they had stowed their bags in the overhead compartment and found their seats. She fumbled with the buckles of the safety belts. Maya knew what Janine meant. She had never been a good flyer, and perhaps because of what had happened to their mother, she never would be.

 “We’re going to be okay,” Maya said, feeling her heart beat faster as the plane began the pre-flight sequence. In front of them, two stewardsa man and a womandemonstrated how to deploy a life jacket in case of emergency landing at sea.

Maya fell asleep before the demonstration ended. She didn’t feel Janine take her hand and squeeze it nervously as the plane roared and slowly tilted upwards as they began their ascent. She didn’t feel the sensation of falling, as her mother did, the moment they left the ground and fate took hold of their future.

Somewhere between the 1,623 miles between Seoul and Manila, Janine nudged her sister awake and told her to look out the window just once, to see how endless the world was. Maya, groggy from her medication and nervousness, obliged and got up from her seat. With her sister, she finally looked at the world the way their mother used to.

Sarah, on the other hand, is working on a comic novel titled Twisted Sisters about martial law and revisionism (our dismaying tendency to forget history and repeat it all over again) set in her hometown of Marikina. “There are two main points that I wish to explore in this novel,” she says. “First, the reasons behind the significant support that Ferdinand Marcos continues to enjoy despite empirical data showing that much oppression had been committed by his regime; and second, the extent to which comic and humorous writing could help a people come to terms with—and even come together after—a collective trauma such as martial law.

She writes: “Metro Manila traffic is a hundred ways to die. You can get hit by a car as you cross the crosswalk. Be dragged to death by a motorcyclist careening through the sidewalk. Squished by two bullish buses. Knifed by a strangler as you wait for a jeep. Knifed inside a UV Express by a smartphone snatcher. Have a heart attack just by watching the taxi meter running continuously even if traffic hasn’t budged in the last thirty minutes. Drop dead just waiting for your Grab ride to arrive. Get choked by fumes inside your car because it’s summer and your AC’s busted and you kept your windows up just so you wouldn’t look poor. Get choked in your car by your husband who snaps because of, well, the traffic. Get choked by a druggie whom you meet in prison after you snap and kill your wife in the car because of, well, the traffic. Drown inside your car because flood levels in the streets rise faster than your speedometer. Get squashed by a derailed train coach overhead. Get assaulted with that mandatory lead pipe under the driver’s seat. Assaulted with an empty My Shaldan Lime canister. Shot by a policeman. By a car owner with a licensed gun. By a car owner with an unlicensed gun. Beaten to death by a pack of heat-stroked, smog-coated, PNP-wannabe MMDA enforcers. By a pedicab driver whose ride you scratched. By a congressman because, wala lang, he’s bored and has clout, and you’re there. Metro Manila traffic is death by asphyxiation. By exhaustion. By utter frustration. You can have an aneurysm just by staring at license plates or the sunburned napes of other passengers for two hours straight. You have become a human pipe bomb, a government imprimatur-ed minefield of nasty. One tiny fuse, one small misstep—ka-boom! Road rage. You are better off taking up smoking as your vice.”

Francis and Sarah, you’re well on your way to authorhood.

 

 

Penman No. 361: Intelligence Without Values

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Penman for Monday, July 8, 2019

 

IT’S NOT very often that a writer or artist gets invited to talk to an audience of science people, so I feel privileged to have done that a few times, most notably in 2004, when I spoke before the National Academy of Science and Technology on “The Role of the Humanities in Our Intellectual and Cultural Life,” and these past two years when I addressed the graduating classes of the UP College of Science and College of Medicine.

But I didn’t feel as personally invested in those talks as when, last week, I spoke at the curricular review workshop of the Philippine Science High School, being someone who had dreamed of becoming a scientist and who actually tried to become an engineer and an economist before settling for an English major.

I entered the PSHS in 1966, long before there was a Philippine High School for the Arts for the artistically inclined, but even given the choice today I would have stayed with the PSHS, to which I’m forever grateful for giving me a dry-eyed, rationalist outlook to ballast my more extravagant impulses.

I reminded my PSHS audience that despite the best efforts of our science managers and educators, we Filipinos continue to live in an environment largely indifferent if not hostile to science. Indeed our artists and scientists have something in common—they don’t figure in making national policy in this country, which is lorded over by politicians, businessmen, generals, priests, and even entertainers.

This establishes a special and urgent mission for our graduates—to matter not just in the laboratory, churning out papers for academia and products for industry, but in society itself, to help Filipinos make more intelligent and responsible choices based on truth and reason. They should not only be proficient in the traditional academic disciplines, but should—even and especially at this early stage—be potential thought leaders, citizens of conscience, champions of truth, reason, and justice.

I recall, with both pride and sadness, the kind of such public intellectuals that our first batches produced—the likes of Rey Vea, Mario Taguiwalo, Roberto Verzola, Rodel Rodis, and Ciel Habito; some became scientists, some did not. But their sharpness of mind was matched by a breadth of spirit that saw them engaged in the larger discourses of our national life, addressing with authority and passion the great issues of our time.

I am worried that apart from the fact that we produce scientists who are not listened to and are even manipulated by politicians for their ends, we may be producing scientists imbued with talent and professional zeal but without values—smart people who cannot tell good from bad and right from wrong. Recall Dr. Faustus, the medieval progenitor of Hollywood’s mad scientist whose insatiable thirst for knowledge comes at the expense of his soul.

The most dangerous thing in our world today is intelligence without values. We have geniuses aplenty, many of them employed by those in power, but like their despotic bosses they are moral idiots who have lost their sense of outrage and their fear of God. They laugh at jokes that degrade women, condone if not encourage rape, and betray everything we have been brought up to believe about decency, honor, virtue, and patriotism. There is sometimes no one more corruptible than an intelligent person, because that person believes that he or she can explain and rationalize everything away, including complicity in mass murder and the propagation of falsehood.

Values are a humanist concern; right and wrong, good and bad are established not in the crucible of the laboratory but in the corridors of debate. One of culture’s loftiest functions is to remind us of something larger and worthier than ourselves, something worth living and dying for, like God, family, and country. It will be the humanities that will provide that vision, in all its clarities and ambiguities; and it will be science and technology that will provide the means.

Humanizing the scientist in training, our young PSHS student, involves more than infusing the curriculum with Humanities and Arts subjects, as important and today as imperiled as they may be. Certainly they need to be exposed to poetry, to painting, to music, to philosophy, and to history as we all were.

But humanizing the PSHS student also means treating him or her literally as a human—as a complex, bright but vulnerable being whose life yet stretches far ahead, an unfolding adventure whose most interesting moments are yet to come.

At this point I brought up what I call the stupid, unscientific, and counter-productive contract that incoming PSHS students are required to sign, binding them to take a science course in college. Indisputably the main mission of a science high school is to produce scientists in training, which our country sorely needs. But I’ve also seen how some kids, bright as they are, burn out in college, dejected by having signed away their option to pursue their heart’s desire. You cannot hold a 12-year-old to a contract that will define what he or she will become for the rest of his or her life.

I’m sure my fellow vagrants like the writer Jessica Zafra, the dancer Nestor Jardin, the indigenous people’s activist Vicky Tauli Corpuz, the historian Rico Jose, the film director Auraeus Solito, the composer Joel Navarro, the model Anna Bayle, and the former SGV partner and Accenture chief Jaime del Rosario, among many others, would agree. Our minds were challenged and enriched by our science education, and that training remained with us for the rest of our lives.

Trust the student; trust his or her intelligence to make the best and most responsible decision for himself or herself. Whatever happens, the great majority of them will move on to a career in science, in any case—not because they have to, but because they want to.