Penman No. 209: Coming: An American Museum of Philippine Art

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Penman for Monday, July 25, 2016

 

AS YOU read this, I’ll be winging home with my wife Beng from California where we’ve spent the past two weeks engaged in a pioneering project that should bring the best of Philippine art to a broader American audience, if ongoing plans work out over the next few years.

Have you heard of the American Museum of Philippine Art? Probably not, since it’s still something of a pipe dream, but some people on both sides of the Pacific are blowing very hard on their pipes to make it happen. Those people include businessman Raffy Benitez, president of the Quezon City-based Erehwon Arts Center, and University of the Philippines professor and art expert Dr. Reuben Cañete, who developed the idea late last year after Erehwon’s successful involvement in a binational mural project at Chicago’s Field Museum sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation through Dr. Almira Astudillo-Gilles, a Chicago based Fil-Am writer and cultural advocate.

I reported on that project in this column last November 25, noting the warm response received by the participating Filipino and Filipino-American artists for their works—two murals, one at Erehwon and another at the Field—depicting the flows of Philippine culture and history from pre-Hispanic times to the present.

That positive experience encouraged Raffy and Reuben to conceive of a bigger and more enduring project that would bring Philippine art even closer to Americans—not just the huge and broadly dispersed Filipino community in the US, but the American public at large. Raffy and Reuben noted that the Mexicans and the Chinese, among other immigrant groups in America, both had their art museums, but that Filipinos—among the largest and fastest-growing minorities in America—did not.

Reuben recalled the long tradition of Filipino artists going over to the US to study and to work—such as Guillermo Tolentino, Victorio Edades, and Alfonso de Ossorio, among others—and observed that while strong cultural ties remained between the two countries, the connection was overwhelmingly one-way, with Philippine art (and music and literature, for that matter) being little known and appreciated in the US.

“In this age of globalization, art is now a global commodity that is exhibited and collected by various international venues, such as Art Basel Miami. Philippine Art, both in its historical as well as contemporary manifestations, must now be aggressively promoted in the United States, which is a major area of collection and promotion of global art,” Dr. Cañete would say in a concept paper on AMPA.

Karlota I. Contreras-Koterbay, a prizewinning Fil-Am sculptor and Director of the Slocumb Galleries at East Tennessee State University, agrees, writing that “There is a rich and dynamic art practice by Filipino-Americans in the US. However, there is a huge discrepancy in the visibility and recognition with regards to the idea and form of ‘Philippine Art’.

“The Philippines is the second highest Asian country whose citizens migrate to the US. The Filipinos have a long, complex history of immigration and residency in America, yet ‘Philippine Art’ is not as accessible nor recognizable in popular culture nor in the global art world. This statement does not claim that there is lack of talent nor creativity; on the contrary, there are thriving communities of artists, art groups and cultural workers who are making a difference in their respective locales, as well as receiving recognitions for their work in the field of arts.”

To take the first steps toward turning vision into reality, Raffy, Reuben, Beng, and I flew to LA to meet up with some prominent Filipino-American community leaders and artists to set up a foundation that would start the spadework on the museum. The American Museum of Philippine Art Foundation, Inc. (AMPAFI) was formally launched July 12 at the Holiday Inn in Diamond Bar, California, in a day-long meeting attended by a couple of dozen participants from all over the US.

Raffy Benitez will serve as chairman and president, and Reuben and I are joining him on the board, but we know that this project can’t be run from Manila, so the directors will also include art curator Karlota Contreras-Koterbay, physician Jose Botor Regullano, and engineer Ricardo Real Almonte. The officers include Fil-Am standouts Rafael Maniago, Art Zamora, Sal Budz Floriano, Rosie Vinluan Muñoz, Connie Buenaventura, Daniel Gutierrez Bassig, Dennis Martinez, Bobby Halili, Jess Española, Jun Sison, Ninette Tenza Umali, Ernan Ebreo, and Bernadette Escalona-Cooper. During the launch, a group of Fil-Am Artists headed by Paeng Maniago also rolled out a mural that they had executed to celebrate the occasion.

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We all realize that this project will take many years, enormous resources, and tremendous effort and optimism to realize. (Being Filipinos, we expect a lot of naysaying, and I’ve been Raffy’s chief buzzkiller whenever I think someone needs to pull his feet back to earth, but I have to admire the man’s guts and what he’s done at Erehwon, which you can preview here: http://erehwonartfoundation.org.) The museum as Raffy and Reuben envisage it is a mini-CCP, with enough spaces for exhibitions and performances (and even classes in Pinoy cooking), and the renowned architect Conrado Onglao was motivated and generous enough to contribute a prospective design for the building. That may be years down the road, but in the meanwhile, AMPAFI is taking early and doable steps toward building a countrywide arts community—a virtual museum, as it were—in cooperation with other groups such as Bernadette Escalona-Cooper’s Silicon Valley-based Global Artists’ Creative Collaboration for Empowerment (GACCE), whose leaders also attended the launch.

Karlota reports that “Our first two official projects are: ‘Nandito N Ako’ by 11 emerging Filipinx artists from the School of Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and possible community mural headed by NY-based artist Art Zamora with the Phil-Am organization and ETSU organized by Slocumb Galleries in the Northeast. This will be early October 2016 in time for Filipino Heritage Month. Also on the same month on the West Coast is the proposed Indie Film Showing in LA by special committee on fundraising head Ernan Ebreo. Both are curated programming for awareness campaign and fundraising efforts.”

(Wait a minute, did I read “Filipinx?” Indeed I did—and this trip was the first time I encountered the term myself, which seems to be gaining currency among young Fil-Ams, who define “Filipinx”—which I’ve heard pronounced as “Filipinics”—as an effort “to make the community more inclusive—we changed the O in ‘Filipino’ to an X to remain gender-neutral and recognize all genders that exist in the Filipinx community. There’s apparently been a lot of debate on this issue, which we’ll deal with some other time.)

The AMPA website is up at http://www.ampafi.org. Contributions and donations are, of course, very welcome, but more than that, we need goodwill, prayers, and strength of spirit to see this vision through. Mabuhay at salamat sa lahat!

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Penman No. 208: Back to the Basics

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Penman for Monday, July 18, 2016

 

 

I’M VERY happy to report that on this my last three-year term as director of the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW), a number of key improvements in our programs will be taking place very soon that should bring creative writing closer to both its producers and its audiences. Much of this is made possible by support from UP’s Emerging Interdisciplinary Research Program (EIDR), a visionary fund initiated by UP President Alfredo E. Pascual and implemented by the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs headed by Dr. Gisela P. Concepcion.

Most significantly, we will be expanding our workshops to include an annual Basic Writers Workshop aimed at developing new and younger writers, and offering, every other year, a seminar for teachers and another for translators. We will also be holding, every semester, an Interdisciplinary Book Forum to bring together experts from various disciplines in a discussion of vital Philippine issues.

These new projects will supplement our regular flagship activities—the National Writers Workshop, held every summer for mid-career writers; the Likhaan Journal, an annual publication that showcases the best of new Philippine writing; the Akdang Buhay series of video interviews of Philippine literary luminaries; and panitikan.com.ph, the website we maintain as the world’s portal to Philippine literature. The UPICW also oversees the annual Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award and supervises the Gonzalo Gonzalez Reading Room (where our office has been temporarily housed since the Faculty Center burned down last April), and runs the Panayam lecture series featuring our fellows, associates, and advisers.

It’s a lot of work on top of our regular teaching and writing jobs, but it’s what a university-based writing center or institute is meant to do, and the UPICW—established in 1979—is a regional pioneer and leader in this respect, perhaps best known for the UP Writers Workshop that began in 1965 and which has taken place every summer for more than half a century since then. Generations of Filipino writers have gone through this workshop as a rite of passage, and workshops like it have sprung up in other places and universities around the country (the Silliman University workshop in Dumaguete was the first in 1962, and is still going strong).

About ten years ago, the UPICW decided to set itself apart from the other workshops and to perform a unique service to the writing community by focusing our summer workshop on mid-career writers—people with at least one published book or theatrical or film production to their credit—so we could deal with more advanced issues in writing and publishing. It’s been great so far, and we’d like to believe that we’ve helped to sustain the growth of Philippine literature in this time of global challenges and opportunities, but then again we keep remembering how critical the UP workshop’s intervention was in the lives and careers of young writers just starting out, as we all were at one time.

That’s why we agreed to bring back the beginners’ workshop—we’re calling it the Basic Writers Workshop for now, but we’ll think of a better name in the future—to touch base once again with our most promising young authors. And we’re going to do this very soon—over three days, from October 14 to 16, somewhere in the vicinity of the UP campus. Because it’s directed at younger writers—you’d have to be between 18 and 35 years old as of August 15, which is also the deadline for applications.

For our first BBW, we will be looking for works of speculative fiction—a popular genre that can be defined as defined as “a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements.” (Next year, we’ll most likely do young adult fiction). Applicants should submit two original, preferably unpublished stories in the genre in English or Filipino, with each story (which could be an excerpt from a novel in progress) running between 3,000 and 10,000 words. . Applications must be accompanied by a short CV providing the applicant’s contact details, education and employment history (if any), and list of published works and awards (if any). The stories and accompanying CVs must be submitted online to uplikhaan@gmail.com. We’ll be taking in six writers in English and six in Filipino, and successful applicants will receive a modest stipend, as well as board and lodging at the workshop venue.

The Workshop Director is Charlson Ong, with award-winning writers Eliza Victoria, Nikki Alfar, Willy Ortiz, and Vladimeir Gonzales serving as panelists and teaching staff. For inquiries, contact 9818500 (2116) and look for Luna Sicat Cleto, Deputy Director of the UP ICW, or email lcleto9@gmail.com.

We’re still planning out the teachers’ and translators’ seminars—tentatively set for January 2017 and 2018—but they’ll involve upgrading the skills of our high-school and college teachers in teaching new K-12 subjects like Creative Nonfiction, as well as developing more and better translators of texts (not necessarily just literary texts) between Filipino and English and possibly other Philippine languages. These seminars will acknowledge the key roles teachers and translators play in bringing new works and new knowledge to larger and younger audiences,

The UP Interdisciplinary Book Forum, which will start in September and be held every semester over the next two years, is another new project we’re all excitedly looking forward to. The forum will be based on a book recently published by the UP Press on a subject of broad interest, alternating between literary and non-literary titles. What will distinguish the forum will be a panel discussion on the book comprising experts from various fields such as anthropology, law, economics, biology, and medicine.

Our EIDR support runs for two years, possibly renewable for another two, so it’s going to be a very busy and interesting interlude in the history of the UPICW, and by the time we turn 40 in 2019—which is also when I retire from full-time teaching—we should have gone that much farther in realizing our mission of nurturing new writing by Filipinos for Filipinos and for the world.

 

 

Penman No. 207: The Best Student Speech Ever

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Penman for Monday, July 11, 2016

 

 

I THOUGHT that the commencement speech I recently gave before the University of the Philippines’ College of Science graduates (excerpted here last week) was pretty good, but it was the student response given by Isaiah Paolo Lee (BS Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, summa cum laude)—known to his friends and teachers as “Pao”—that blew my socks off. I later emailed Pao to say that it was the best student speech I’d ever heard, and asked him for a copy to share with my readers, so here it is, and I hope this goes viral. (Pao acknowledges that his sister Jillian helped him along with the speech—hurray for sisters!)

My name is Isaiah Paolo Atienza Lee, and I am not your valedictorian. I am not the best, I am not the brightest, and I am here speaking to you right now because all the other summas backed out. I’m somehow supposed to talk to you about honor and excellence, so let me start with my story.

When I was in first year, I almost got kicked out because of Chem 16. I wasn’t even bad at the class. I just had a habit of scribbling on my forearm during exams, which was—in hindsight, understandably—interpreted as cheating. After an unchecked exam and a lot of stress, I ended up with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. On the whole, it was a less than ideal way to get psychological support and an 1.00 in Chem 16, but I didn’t fail the class, I didn’t get dismissed from UP, and I didn’t jump off a bridge. I could have, but I didn’t. That might not sound a lot like honor and excellence to you, but that’s the point.

The College of Science is made up of brilliant people. We can’t deny that. The College of Science is also made up of people who pretend to be engineering majors when questioned about their student numbers and people who tasted their Chem 16 unknown analysis samples out of desperation. We can’t deny that either. And we all answered our exams on bluebooks that might have varied in paper quality and might have shown different scores, but they all had the same message printed on the front: University of the Philippines, 1908, Bird, Honor, Excellence.

Our valedictorian is Mao Leung. He has a weighted average of 1.0375 and a girlfriend. I do not have a weighted average of 1.0375, and most of you won’t either. I’m not going to talk about who doesn’t have a girlfriend, because this is supposed to be a happy occasion. Mao Leung is a great guy, but we can’t all be like him, and that’s okay.

Prodigies are a curse for those who need a curve on the exam to pass and a blessing for the general public; as a whole, people tend to look at the people with the best averages and pin all the country’s hopes on them, leaving the rest of us to wonder what we’re supposed to do. The truth people have difficulty wrangling with is that not only do we not need a messiah, messiahs cannot solve our problems. This country just needs honor and excellence from every single one of us, every single day. Whatever it is you do, do it well, and do it for the people.

Are you going into a career in science? There might be days when you have to run PCRs from 7 to 12. That’s 7 in the morning to 12 midnight, by the way. Do it. There might be times that your graphs would be publication-worthy if only you could get rid of one annoying data point. Don’t do it. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going into medicine despite your teachers’ laments? You might end up spending most of your nights running on adrenaline and Dunkin’ Donuts because you have to stay in the hospital. Stay. There might be an occasional addict suffering from a shabu overdose that you have to tie down to a stretcher because he won’t stop kicking you. Treat him, and treat him again when he comes back. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going to get a girlfriend because studies first no longer applies? She might be angry at you for no easily identifiable reason. Stay calm, listen, and talk things out rationally. After an argument about taking relationship advice from some guy who was supposed to give a valedictory address, you might see a book she would like. Buy it for her. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going to be a full-time parent because you had a successful relationship? You might proudly send your child to UP only to learn that your precious iskolar ng bayan has turned into a class-cutting, DRP collecting, tuition-burning machine despite your warnings. Wake them up in the morning, give them their allowance, and support them without nagging. See to it that they march and that you get to be with them. That is honor and excellence.

Are you just thinking of going to UPTown Center for a celebratory dinner after this is done? You might have a hard time parking because, wow, that is a lot of people. Don’t hog the disabled parking spaces. You might be hungry because the ceremony was too long and parking was nigh impossible because you left the wheelchair spots alone. Be nice to your waiters. They have names. Address them by name, follow up your orders without snapping at them, and say thank you the way you would like to be thanked for doing a good job. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going to do anything at all in your life? Whatever it is, do it well, and do it for the people. Do it well if doing it well is clocking in 70 hours a week at a world-class research institution. Do it well even if doing it well is just staying awake for five more minutes to finish a chapter or a boring lecture. Do it well when it matters, and do it well even when it doesn’t. And do it for the people. Do it for the people even if you don’t like the people. Do it for the marginalized even when they don’t appreciate it. Do it for the privileged even when they cause Katipunan traffic. Do it for the people whether the person in question is a drug addict in the emergency room or your waiter at UPTown Center or a stranger on the internet or even just yourself, because it’s not about the gratitude, or the credit, or the reward, but about the people, and the work. That is honor and excellence.

The unphotogenic, non-headline-grabbing, narratively-unsupported fact is that large-scale change happens in fits and bursts and stops, and often on a scale you can’t see with an electron microscope. We hold ourselves up to unreasonable standards and are subsequently disappointed most of the time, when what matters is the work we do in increments, the lab hours that we log, and the people we encounter.

You might not make your own transgenic crops, but you can disabuse your family of any erroneous notions they may have about Bt talong. You might not eradicate crime in 3 to 6 months, but you can avoid catcalling. You might not make it to the newspaper’s front page, but you can make it to your mom’s proud parent Facebook post.

We often look to larger-than-life figures to celebrate honor and excellence, from Miss Universe to near-perfect-GWA graduates. I’m not saying it’s wrong to do so, but I believe the first place to seek it is within ourselves.

My name is Isaiah Paolo Atienza Lee. I am not the best, but I am good enough, I am not the brightest, but I am a UP graduate, and I am not your valedictorian, but I am going to tell you all to go out there and show the world what we’ve got.

[Photo from the UP Diliman Information Office]

 

Penman No. 206: Keeping Faith with Science

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Penman for Monday, July 4, 2016

 

 

IT’S GRADUATION season, and in a departure from tradition, the College of Science at the University of the Philippines invited a humanist—yours truly—to deliver the commencement speech before its graduates last June 26. In my opening, I adverted to my stillborn ambition to become a scientist at the Philippine Science High School. Herewith, some excerpts from my talk:

This isn’t really about me, but about how people like me once had a dream like yours, of working in a lab wearing a white coat, finding Nobel-prizewinning solutions to global hunger and disease—in other planets if not this one. I never did become a scientist or an engineer, but I like to think that I’m still doing science—through creative writing.

Within my own field, I often find myself arguing for the importance of being able to adopt a rationalist outlook, of grounding our artistic judgments and perceptions on a concrete appreciation of our economic, social, and political realities. I’ve always urged my creative writing students to take an active interest in history, technology, business, and public policy as a means of broadening their vision and enriching their material as writers.

I like to think that I continue to have—as Edward Hubble told the Caltech graduating class in 1938, “a healthy skepticism, suspended judgement, and disciplined imagination.”

To be honest, I didn’t know that quote until I read it in an excellent commencement speech delivered just two weeks ago, also at Caltech, by the neurosurgeon and public-health researcher Dr. Atul Gawande, who reminded the graduating class that despite the demonstrated power and beneficence of scientific thinking, science today is under attack from many fronts—from pseudoscientists, from politicians, from all kinds of pundits claiming that climate change is rubbish, that vaccines are bad for your babies, that all GMOs are harmful, and that guns keep people safe. Dr. Gawande even titled his talk “The Mistrust of Science,” and pointed to the emergence of alternative “cultural domains” eager to advance their own agenda at the expense of scientific scrutiny and analysis.

This is not to suggest that science is infallible—it would not be science if it were—but rather that science, in all of its negotiability, has become a political football, especially among the impressionable and uninformed. In our recent experience, for example, statistical surveys and voting machines were wholeheartedly embraced when they favored certain candidates, and torn apart when they did not.

More than ten years ago, I shared with another graduating class an observation that sadly remains true if not even truer today: a disturbing strain of anti-intellectualism in Philippine politics and society. The vulgar expression of this sentiment has taken the form of the suggestion that we can dispense with brains and education—yes, who needs algebra?—when it comes to our national leadership, because they have done us no good, anyway. And while we’re at it, let’s dispense with values, with decency, heck, with the law itself, because none of those things really worked, did they?

It is easy to see how this perception came about, and how its attractiveness derives from its being at least partially true. Many of our people feel betrayed by their best and brightest—the may pinag-aralan, as we are called in our barangays—because we are too easily co-opted by the powers that be. Ferdinand Marcos had probably the best Cabinet in our political history, well-stocked with prestigious PhDs; but in the end, even they could do little against their President and his excesses.

In a sense, therefore, we are all culpable and complicit in creating this monster of the anti-intellectual. Call it, if you will, the revenge of the flunkers (among whom I suppose I could be counted)—if accomplished academics can be employed by despots and crooks against the people, then the people can hardly be faulted for distrusting them.

For us UP graduates, the seductions of power will always be there. Power and wealth are also very interesting games to play, and few play them better than UP alumni—the power side more than the wealth, as I suspect that Ateneans and La Sallians are better at making money than we are.

But even these can put you out of touch. I have had friends in Malacañang and Makati who seem to have lost all sense of life, thought, and feeling on the street, beyond what their own commissioned surveys tell them. Worse, they seem to have lost touch with their old, honest, self-critical selves. They forgot all about Sophocles and poetry and mystery and music you can’t buy at Amazon. They see politics not as the opportunity to serve the people but to keep themselves in power. They take the law not as a means of dispensing justice, but as an inconvenience, an obstacle in the way of their popularity. Indeed a drug menace threatens our society, but there is still no drug more potent and more dangerous than power and its abuse.

We—scientists and artists—have to work together to find and to deploy an antidote to this creeping cynicism, to this wholesale surrender of sense and sensibility at the altar of political expediency and popularity. We may work in different ways, but we are both bound by our quest for the truth—which you approach by fact, and we approach by fiction.

You graduates of the UP College of Science have an additional responsibility: to keep faith with your mission and to hold true to your dream, not just for yourself and your family, but for your country and your people. Hold fast to science as a means not just of expanding the frontiers of knowledge, but also of using that knowledge to improve Filipino lives.

We know that science is often a long-term investment with no immediate and tangible benefits, and we can only hope that politicians can respect that, and can trust physicists searching for subatomic particles like the Higgs boson simply because, well, they’re there, somewhere, and could help us understand the universe better. We need brilliant young minds like that of a Nima Arkani-Hamed, exploring supersymmetry, or a Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman mathematician ever to win a Fields Medal.

But we also need scientists who can relate more directly and more immediately to society—scientists who can work for peace, for social transformation, for empowering the poor and the weak, scientists in the service of the Filipino. We need scientists with ambition and vision, but also with conscience and humility.

Let me return in closing to some words from Dr. Gawande: “Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation. The thing is, that isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counterintuitive. It has to be learned. Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense. Common sense once told us that the sun moves across the sky and that being out in the cold produced colds. But a scientific mind recognized that these intuitions were only hypotheses. They had to be tested.”

I stand here to attest that even those like me who once dreamed of becoming scientists but chose another path in life know this to be true. In these times, when popular sentiment and demagoguery pose grave threats to reason and to the imagination, we need to remember to keep faith with science, as well as with art, to pursue our work despite and within an environment clouded over by politics, in this hour of great moral confusion. By continuing our work, we assert our freedom and our indomitable humanity.

Science and freedom go indispensably together. Science liberates the mind, and without freedom—without a society and a government open to new and contrarian ideas—knowledge cannot prosper. Science must help light the way forward in the resolution of key national issues. Is there proof that the death penalty really works as a deterrent to crime? Should all mining really be banned? Are nuclear plants and incinerators necessarily harmful? The answers may not always be pleasant or agree with our own beliefs, but only science will yield the truest ones.

 

 

 

Penman No.205: Sojourn in Seoul (2)

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Penman for Monday, June 27, 2016

 

HAVING PLANNED our trip to Seoul months in advance, I made a point of touching base with some local contacts for possible meetings—something I usually don’t do, wary of disturbing people with my unseasonable presence. But with a week to kill in one city and with some longstanding connections in place, I thought it would be even more ill-mannered if I didn’t at least tell them that I was going to be in town.

One of those connections was Dr. Sukjoo Sohn, who teaches English at Dong-a University in Busan, Korea’s big industrial center four hours by train from Seoul. Sukjoo—a specialist in world literature—happens to be married to Catherine Rose Torres, one of our bright new young fictionists who now serves as First Secretary and Consul at our embassy in Berlin. I’d first met Catherine in 2011 when I attended the Singapore Writers Festival and she was with our embassy there, and I was later very happy to write a blurb for her first book, Mariposa Gang and Other Stories (UST, 2015).

It’s really these personal connections that make for global literary networking, the value of which I can’t overemphasize. In 2014, Sukjoo translated one of my stories for publication in Global World Literature, which is put out by some of Korea’s foremost literary scholars and critics in that area. Through Sukjoo, I was also able to contribute an article to the Korea-based journal Asia, in which I wrote about some of our most gifted and exciting younger writers. As a result of that article, one of our best young non-fictionists, Sandra Nicole Roldan, will be visiting Seoul this week to attend the 2016 Asia Literature Creative Workshop.

And so our connections continue and deepen. When they learned that I was visiting Korea, Sukjoo’s organization invited me to a special meeting, so I could tell them more about Philippine literature. That gathering took place at Seoul National University toward the end of our visit, and a very fruitful and engaging encounter it turned out to be. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but their very first question had nothing to do with lyric poetry: “What do you think of your new President, Rodrigo Duterte?”

It will take more than this column to share my answer with you, but suffice it to say for now that we talked about our colonial history, our Catholic predisposition to suffering, the two Joses (not me) by which our literature is best known overseas, class as the key divisor in our literature and society, Korea’s and the Philippines’ shared experience of dictatorship, and the irony of having to deal with a resurgent Park and a resurgent Marcos, and our younger writers’ affinity with Gaiman, Murakami, and Wattpad.

We discussed my translated story, “In the Garden,” which I’d written in the 1980s about militarization in the countryside and the moral duty of a teacher caught in the crossfire. While the topics were unavoidably contentious, our meeting itself was thoroughly pleasant and mutually informative, capped by dinner, shop talk, and, yes, chatter about Lee Min-ho.

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The second highlight of our visit—away from the malls and the flea markets—was a meeting with the Filipino community in Seoul, which had also been pre-arranged by Catherine through her Seoul colleague, the very capable Third Secretary and Vice Consul Ella Mitra.

It was a Sunday—our last full day in Korea—and much to our surprise, the embassy was open and bustling with people, with a wedding taking place right in Ella’s office. (“We can officiate at weddings,” Ella told us, “as long as the two parties are both Filipino citizens. We’re open on Sundays because that’s when most of the community can come.”) There were over 40,000 Filipinos in Korea, Ella informed me, many employed as factory workers in jobs that the locals themselves prefer not to do.

I’d been asked by the embassy to give a reading for the community—something I love to do whenever I’m abroad, as it puts me in touch with ordinary Filipinos striving to do their best in often very challenging circumstances. The Filipino, I like to say whenever the opportunity arises, is the modern-day Ulysses, roaming recklessly to the farthest reaches of the globe, but imbued with an unfailing sense of home. Now here they were, a crowd that filled the room beyond our most generous expectations—professionals, teachers, graduate students, Filipino-Korean couples, even the Ambassador himself, the dapper and articulate Raul Hernandez.

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The embassy had calendared my reading as its second Sentro Rizal activity, and with June 12 coming up, it seemed a good time to remind ourselves of the things that both divided and united us, and of the need to hang together as Filipinos, at a time and in a region of revived nationalisms. Even so I chose to do a very light reading, one that made fun of my own social ineptitude in cross-cultural situations, and thankfully it went over well with the audience. More than the reading, it was the ensuing Q&A and freewheeling chat over pancit and puto that proved most gratifying. I could sense the community’s strength of spirit, its determination to master a new cultural terrain.

I was especially happy to see a former student, Tech Apognol, now doing an MA in International Relations and speaking Korean. She’s hardly alone; the association of Filipino grad students in Korea now numbers 500, I was told, and there were plenty of masteral and doctoral scholarships for those inclined. “We can take classes in English,” one student named Eve told me.

Another grad student named RJ solved a mystery that had been bugging me for 40 years. Back then, I told him, I was a young writer employed by the National Economic and Development Authority, and one of my tasks was to help edit the Five-Year Development Plan, which was thicker than an encyclopedia because of its bloated prose. On the other hand, I recalled, the South Korean development plan that I used as a reference was no bigger and fatter than a paperback novel—and look, I told RJ, where Korea was now. “Ah, that’s easy,” RJ said. “It’s because the Koreans value brevity, and memos are expected to be no more than a page. The higher up the ladder papers go, the more concise they’re expected to be.”

The shopping was fun—just the flea markets for us, please, not the high-end shops—and the streetcorner food delicious, but it was, ultimately, our encounters with the people that added the most value to our visit. Kamsahamnida, Sukjoo, Cathy, Ella, and Tech for these memorable exchanges.

Penman No. 204: Sojourn in Seoul (1)

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Penman for Monday, June 13, 2016

 

 

AS MY regular readers well know by now, I have a habit of taking off to parts unknown with my wife Beng at the slightest excuse, and one such occasion came up three weeks ago when Beng marked her birthday (her 36th, it seemed to me—as it seemed to me last year as well, and the year before). Of course I’d known for months ahead that her birthday was coming up, so as early as January, I booked us a flight to and a hotel in Seoul, for the first week of June. (That’s how Beng and I get our kicks—we jump on early-bird budget fares and commit ourselves to travel months in advance, the better to plot the year ahead.)

Why Seoul? Simply because Beng had never been to Korea, except for stopovers in Incheon, and I’d pledged years ago to take her everywhere I’d ever been. I visited Korea in 2007 on assignment for the STAR, to cover Hyundai’s shipbuilding and carmaking operations, and we stayed for a day or two in Seoul before moving on to Busan and Jeju, but I could hardly remember anything of Seoul except for the stately palaces and the enormous beef-barbecue dinners. I could do with another and more relaxed visit, on my own time and schedule, and Beng’s birthday in early June seemed perfectly timed, with our semester in UP just having ended.

I also suspected that a sojourn in Seoul would satisfy Beng’s yearnings to see, with her own eyes, the locales of her favorite Boys Over Flowers and the birthplace of Lee Min-ho, if not Lee Min-ho himself sauntering down an alley in Myeong-dong.

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The planning was the easy part. Like I always do, I went online—to skyscanner.com for the plane fares and to booking.com and tripadvisor.com for the hotel. AirAsia had a good deal for the period, and I was able to locate a small, affordable hotel at a great location in central Seoul with four-star reviews—the Hotel Kyoung Dong in the Namdaemun/Namsan Park area.

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Because of the fare structure, we signed up for a six-night, Tuesday-Monday stay—a tad longer than our usual four-day getaways. But this would open, as I’ll report next week, more fruitful possibilities beyond sightseeing and shopping. This week, I’ll focus on the personal impressions of a casual tourist, hoping they’ll be of some help when you, dear reader (and dear reader’s husband/wife/partner) make your own plans for Seoul.

Yes, we Pinoys need visas for Korea, but if you’ve done a bit of traveling before or can prove you can pay for your own kimchi, then it shouldn’t be a problem (until the end of this year, and by special arrangement, BPI Gold cardholders practically get a free pass to a three-year multiple-entry visa).

It’s a four-hour flight to Seoul and ours left around 7 am, which was perfect for avoiding the horrendous traffic around NAIA and for arriving at Incheon International Airport at midday (Korean time is one hour ahead). I’d already exchanged my pesos for Korean won at the money changer in NAIA (P1,000=W25,000), so we headed straight for the express bus shuttle to downtown Seoul, a little over an hour away. Immediately Beng was struck by how clean and modern everything looked—no litter, no “informal settlements,” no traffic—and I had to give her a spiel about how it hadn’t always been like that, and how Korea had transformed itself into an economic powerhouse within a couple of generations.

Our bus dropped us off at Namdaemun Market—which was like dropping off Beng at the portals of paradise, shopping-wise. As we would realize not too long after, Namdaemun is like Greenhills multiplied by ten—and it was hardly alone, as there was also Dongdaemun to contend with, among other emporia.

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But first, we had to locate our hotel. I usually roam on my phone, so we would have depended on Waze or Google Maps to get us there, but for some reason, I couldn’t get online, so we had to resort to the old-fashioned way: asking for directions—which, in non-Anglophone Korea, isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. (And as every wife knows, men would rather walk a mile the wrong way before asking for directions, which is why I always bring Beng along.)

And here we made our first pleasant discovery—that contrary to the notion that Koreans are rude, those we met were invariably kind and helpful. Amid a flurry of gestures and grunts, a parking attendant pointed us in the right direction, and an old man took over on the other side of the street and delivered us to our hotel’s doorstep. On the super-efficient Seoul Metro (the arrival of whose trains are heralded by a trumpet flourish you might hear at the Kentucky Derby), we would routinely see younger commuters yielding their seats to their elders, including us (haplessly incontrovertible proof of our visible age).

The last time I was in Korea, everything had been briskly orchestrated by our hosts, with nary a moment for exploring on our own, but now, with a long, lazy week stretching out ahead of us, we had hours to fill with markets and museums, parks and palaces, porcelain-cheeked nymphets in baby-doll dresses (and sometimes even more smartly coiffed young men), impeccably good food, and streetside bargains that gratified our pedestrian desires.

Beng and I didn’t sign up for any tours, nor did we venture out too far from the heart of the city. This vagabond pair of seniors decided that they would go as far as their subway tickets and their feet would carry them, spend an hour on a park bench just enjoying the scenery while munching on a slice of sweet green melon or a cob of corn (each for 1,000 won, or 40 pesos), and save our energy for the flea markets that, truth to tell and next to the museums, are always our prime targets wherever we go, and Seoul has half a dozen of them on the weekends.

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This, Beng and I acknowledged with a sigh and a smile, was tourism senior-style, punctuated by Zantac instead of ziplines, by moisturizer instead of, well, moisture. Some of our happiest moments were the quietest ones—watching the sunset from the peak of Namsan Hill, and the ducks and the carp at Cheonggyecheon Stream.

This brings up one of our small but vital complaints: as wonderful as the city was, Seoul can be hilly in parts, making for long, punishing climbs. Somehow, that doesn’t seem to deter the posses of ajummas—bag-toting Korean matrons sporting broad-brimmed visors—from marching to the markets for their daily dose of retail therapy, or perhaps even just the company of the similarly disposed. Had we lived there, we might have done the same.

Next week, I’ll report on less geriatric topics: culture, literature, and community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 203: Another Filipino Winner at the IPSC

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Penman for Monday, June 13, 2016

 

EVERY MAY, at Dartmouth House in London, about 60 young men and women from all over the world gather to represent their respective countries at the International Public Speaking Competition (IPSC). Sponsored by the English Speaking Union (ESU), the IPSC is the world’s premier public speaking event for young people, bringing together the best minds of their generation to share their ideas about the planet’s most pressing concerns.

The Philippines has been sending representatives to the IPSC since 2002, and was granted International Charter Membership in October 2005. As a country we have performed superlatively, producing two world champions and at least four semifinalists. This 2016, I’m very happy to report that we notched another spectacular achievement, with Marco del Valle being named global first runner-up, after the representative from Mexico.

Just 20 and a Business Administration junior at UP Diliman, Marco is no stranger to competition, having already won six titles in business and marketing competitions, including the Henkel Innovation Challenge in Vienna, where he and his partner represented the Philippines and also placed second. Marco’s success comes as the latest in a long string of stellar finishes for young Filipino public speakers at the IPSC.

In 2004, 17-year-old Patricia Evangelista stunned everyone when she was named IPSC champion, presaging a successful career in print and broadcast journalism. In 2008, Gian Karlo Dapul became our second world champion at the IPSC, besting 57 other participants from 35 countries—an achievement made even more remarkable by the fact that he was only a Philippine Science High School senior then, competing against mostly college students. (The third-place winner that year, Rajab Ali Sayed of Pakistan, turned out to be half-Filipino.) In 2012, Bryan Chua made it to the semifinals, as did Germaine Chuabio in 2011, and Ervim Charles Orbase in 2010. (In 2012, Hong Kong’s representative in the finals, Ramon Joseph Valentin Romano, was actually a Filipino born of migrant parents.)

This year’s Philippine participation at the IPSC was made possible by the generous support of longtime partners Pilipinas Shell and Far Eastern University, led respectively by Ed Chua and Lourdes Montinola, who both sit on the board of ESU-Philippines. ESU-Philippines Chairperson Gigi Virata and President Marlu Vilches ably led this year’s selection process, along with ESU-Philippines regulars Linda Panlilio, Krip Yuson, and myself. As elated as we were by Marco’s performance, our joy was overshadowed by the recent and unexpected passing of two ESU-Philippine stalwarts—Ambassador Cesar Bautista, our chairman emeritus, and Loline Reed, who had very patiently and kindly guided our representatives in London, along with her husband Ken.

This year’s theme for the IPSC finals was “Integrity has no need of rules,” and Marco drew deeply on his personal experience to address the topic, declaring at one point that “Too often, we demonize people… who don’t live by our religious or social rules. But moral integrity isn’t about obeying rules. It’s about recognizing the fact that while we all make mistakes, we’re all capable of rising above them.”

He explains further: “Overall, my speech was about my relationship with my family, particularly my mother. In the speech (which is the same speech I gave for the national finals), I talked about the sacrifices my mother made in the face of different social norms, the same sacrifices that millions of people make every day. I talk about how our culture stigmatizes families who don’t fit the norm, and how that makes it harder for these families to function. I conclude, however, that the sacrifices we make for those we love will always outweigh any rules or social norms we might break.

“I’d have to say that my favorite part of the whole experience was getting to know the other contestants and hearing their stories. It’s one thing to place countries on a map, but it’s an entirely different thing to actually be roommates with someone from Serbia, to learn about Moroccan weddings and Estonian startup culture, and to hear stories of African democracy as told by someone from Ghana.

“As we went through the competition, I think the feeling we all got as contestants was that we weren’t competing against each other as much as we were sharing our own experiences. I was really happy to be able to show a bit of my culture to the world and share what makes Filipino culture special. Yet when you hear speech after speech from so many brilliant young minds around the world, you start to realize that there’s really not that much which separates us from other countries: we share the same dreams, the same fears, and the same ambitions. Above all, this is what I think the ESU IPSC really helped showcase: that it’s possible to celebrate our differences as individuals and as nations, while also respecting and recognizing the things we have in common. And in a world where fear and intolerance are rapidly becoming the political weapons of choice, I think it’s a lesson more people should learn.

“When I entered this competition, all I really hoped for was the chance to share my story and talk the causes I believe in. Thankfully, I’ve been given the chance to do so much more. Winning 1st runner-up is, for me, more than just a personal accomplishment. It’s a chance to show the world that the Filipino spirit is capable of anything.”

Marco’s IPSC experience mirrors that of his predecessors, most of whom have gone on to distinguished careers in public service, media, education, and business. Dr. Renzo Guinto of UP Manila, our IPSC representative in 2008, recalls that “I learned to understand, appreciate, and respect cultures and perspectives that are different from my own, which in turn bolstered my sense of empathy. I could say that the ESU contest played a crucial part in preparing me to become the global health advocate that I am today.”

Ryan Kaliph Buenafe, who as an FEU student was our first IPSC contestant in 2002 and who now serves as Global E-Learning Manager for the TelePerformance Group, attests that “The ESU content was about practice, revisions, then more practice and more revisions. Preparing for it meant that I had to tell a compelling story and message in a limited amount of time and engage the audience so they would be inspired by my story. This is not easy when you’re young. There’s no Wikipedia or Google shortcut. I had to work hard, then practice and revise. This is, as I have found out as an adult, a great preparation for life. We practice what we do so we can do it better and allow others to share their greatness (such as Dr. Jimmy Abad and Krip Yuson who helped me improve and revise my speech). It is our small but significant opportunity to share with the world, on a global stage, the story of our people and our selves…. If we are to learn from history and combat terrorism and hate, we need to connect as one people. ESU is a forum where such a connection is made possible and it has been the greatest experience of my youth.”

We can only hope that more young Filipinos like Marco will emerge to speak for the Philippines on the global stage and be heard for what they have to share. Mabuhay!

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(Photos by Giulia Rampinelli)

Penman No. 202: A Workshop on Mt. Makiling (2)

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Penman for Monday, June 6, 2016

 

 

 

AS I noted last Monday, this year’s UP National Writers Workshop—which we held from May 22 to 29 on Mt. Makiling in Laguna—was one of our best in recent years, with a new batch of vibrant literary talents emerging to stake their claim on our attention.

Aside from the three women writers I mentioned last week—Elena Paulma, Mina Esguerra, and Celine Fabie—we had nine other fellows presenting fine, exciting work: new projects in various stages of completion, submitted for review and comment by their peers and seniors for possible improvements in both design and execution. These works were accompanied by a brief presentation of the writers’ “poetics”—their own appreciation of how and why they write what they write. While very few outside the workshop will ever get to read them, those poetics are often gems of creative insight, a rare look into the minds of writers trying to understand their own process of writing.

Poet Vijae Alquisola, for example, grounds his collection titled “Paglasa sa Pansamantala” (which I’ll loosely translate as “Savoring the Temporary”) on painful personal experience (and here again I’ll translate what he wrote, as I will other texts in Filipino): “Temporary was the answer my siblings and I held on to over the long stay overseas of our mother. Even if I didn’t know how many nights of sleep or days of waking temporary meant—and even if it was never clear what stretch of months or days it occupied on the calendar—we had no choice but to accept it. She had to go to Hong Kong to feed us. She had to leave so we could live, just for the time being.”

Novelist RM Topacio Aplaon (Topograpiya ng Lumbay, The Topography of Loneliness): “I feel liberated by the very act of writing because this is the only place where I can be true to myself, the only way I can freely say anything I want, can do anything I may have no right to do in real life, can chronicle moments I wish never to forget: place, feeling, image, sensibility.”

Poet Vincent A. Dioquino (“we never understood proximity”): “Language is that space where the imagined thrives, where the imagined is held closer to the body, saying what the body cannot speak of. It is that consciousness by which feeling and thought are evoked, a mediation from the abstract to the more concrete., or from a plurality of concrete and particular objects (that is to say: texts, or a set of inscriptions aspiring towards the textual). Language is being made immanent and tangible, threatened with decipherment. It is this specific occurrence of language that is rendered visible and visceral in poetry.”

Poet Francisco Arias Montesena (“Iluminado”): “I write poetry as a part of my being, as an attempt at things I cannot achieve in reality. Often I have to find time and space for poetry in the midst of my work as a teacher, but I have to do myself this favor, knowing that I have to share what I have, even if I have much to learn, despite my shortcomings. How can we begin to fill this need if we cannot mine words for love?”

Novelist Rolly Rude Ortega (Rajah Muda): “I write the stories that I want to read, and I want to read more stories about the Moros, specifically the Maguindanaos, and the lumads, specifically the Dulangan Manobos. The Ilonggos of Mindanao, the Maguindanaos, and the Dulangan Manobos are all significant to me because these people had been part of my life even before I decided to become a writer. Growing up in Kulaman Plateau, I saw firsthand that while the Ilonggos and other Christian tribes were poor, the Manobos were poorer still, which should not have been the case, for they had been living in the resource-rich land long before the migrants came.”

Writer for children Cheeno Marlo Sayuno (“Super Boyong Wears a Malong”): “I love writing for children and (writing about) culture. I would like to share with the children the beauty of our cultural heritage. While the advent of modernization is nothing but inevitable and even if cultures change and evolve, I want the children to still see the colorful costumes, dances, and songs from the past, hoping that it would help in developing a sense of nationalism and appreciation for Indigenous communities.”

Poet Melecio F. Turao (“The Antimodel”): “I have a soft spot for the outsider, for things on the periphery, the ignored, the unrecognized. In my silent heroic moments, I tell myself that I champion the cause of second fiddles. I remember that Cirilo Bautista gave up writing poetry in 2000, saying we live in a prosaic world. I tend to agree so far as our predictable lives go. But a poet should be able to see through appearances. So I pushed myself to try to understand what compels me to write. And it hit me that I would have been a good student of psychology or cognitive science because I amplify awkwardness, alienation, resentment, loathing, desire and failure. I trivialize the hypocritically serious and structured. Thus, The Antimodel.”

Playwright Visconde Carlo Vergara (“Hula Hoop”): “Since I work in comics and plays, writing description isn’t my strongest suit, but people have complimented me on how natural my dialogue sounds, or reads. This I credit to being used to listening and mirroring, ever since I was a kid, as well as having that stint as a theatre actor in the nineties. I would write my drafts purely in dialogue, and simply imagine what it would look like when played out. In acting out the play in my mind, I would also do the acting myself by reading the dialogue out loud in the personalities of every character, just to test if the words rolled off the tongue well enough, and if the sentences had good rhythm.”

Poet Enrique S. Villasis (“Manansala”): “A solution I saw (for the collection) was to bring the poems closer to the times when the paintings were executed. As historical artifacts, Manansala’s many-layered lights and colors could be seen as signifiers of the disturbances, dangers, sufferings, dreams, and desires of his age. This collection is my attempt as a poet to explore the relationship between an artwork and its period, as well as an attempt of the poet to assume the mask of a critic, historian, and curator.”

It was a pleasure and a challenge taking up these writers on their given premises and seeing how closely their grasp matched their reach. (And it was no huge problem if they didn’t: in a workshop, everything is negotiable, even one’s original design, although no one is under duress to accept alternative suggestions.)

I’d like to thank my fellow panelists—National Artists Bien Lumbera and Virgilio Almario, and fellow UP professors and faculty members Jimmy Abad, Jing Hidalgo, Neil Garcia, Vim Nadera, Jun Cruz Reyes, Luna Sicat, Eugene Evasco, Issy Reyes, and Vlad Gonzales—our hosts at UP Los Baños, the National Arts Center, and the BP International Hotel, and of course the UP Diliman and UP System administration for another worthwhile effort at enriching the future of Philippine literature.

Penman No. 201: A Workshop on Mt. Makiling (1)

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Penman for Monday, May 30, 2016

 

FOR THE first time in ages, the UP National Writers Workshop—a project sustained without fail by the University of the Philippines since 1965—is being held away from its traditional venue in Baguio, this time on the foothills of Mt. Makiling in Los Baños, where UP has another major campus. The UPNWW has risen to become the premier workshop for mid-career writers in both English and Filipino, and by “mid-career” we mean writers who have published or are in the process of publishing their first book. Typically these are writers in their 30s and 40s who may be employed in jobs having little or nothing to do with creative writing, who may be teaching, or who may be simply stuck in a rut waiting for that push or kick to resume a stalled love affair with letters.

Toward December every year, we—meaning the UP Institute of Creative Writing, which runs the workshop and which I head as director—put out a call for applications for qualified writers to join the week-long workshop. No one gets a free pass—no matter how good you are or how many books you’ve published, you have to go through the application process and submit an excerpt from a work in progress and a short essay on your poetics (in other words, why you write what you write).

I could tell, even from the applications, that this year’s batch was one of the best we’ve put together in recent years. In it are Vijae Orquia Alquisola (poetry, Filipino), Celine Beatriz Fabie (CNF, English), Rolly Jude M. Ortega (novel, English), RM Topacio Aplaon (novel, Filipino), Vincent Abejuela Dioquino (poetry, English), Francisco Montesena (poetry, Filipino), Melecio Turao (poetry, English), Ma. Elena Paulma (CNF, English), Mina V. Esguerra (fiction, English), Cheeno Sayuno (children’s fiction, English), Enrique Villasis (poetry, Filipino), and Visconde Carlo Vergara (drama, Filipino).

We’re midway through the workshop as I write this, and already I’ve been impressed by what I’ve been reading and listening to. In particular, three women we brought into the workshop (sorry, guys, but ladies first) ably demonstrated the range and quality of the work at hand.

Celine Beatriz Fabie is an actress and singer by training, but her biography of her grandmother, the actress Mona Lisa, won for her the Madrigal Gonzalez Best First Book Award last year, and her continuing foray into creative nonfiction yielded a poignant recollection of her father’s passing:

“When dad went, a nurse came in and started cleaning his body, a body which hadn’t been moving anymore.  I asked her if I could do it.  I started wiping him and asked the nurse, my mom, and my uncle if he could be left there for a little while, if it’s okay that they didn’t take him away just yet, if I could just be given a moment to be with him a little more.  I crawled in bed with my dad, who clearly wasn’t there any longer.  I took his face in my hands, stayed there for an hour that seemed to me a fraction of second, and told him I loved him.  Just that I loved him.  There were no last promises, no saying goodbyes.  I knew for a fact that there was no time and place in this lifetime that I would find myself ready.  I was back to being his little girl in an instant, forever, and the little girl, I’m afraid, will never be ready to say goodbye.”

Elena Paulma spent a few years as a Cenacle nun before teaching Literature at Xavier University. I was especially proud when a short story she wrote for my class won First Prize at the Palancas in 2011. For the workshop, Elena submitted a meditation on the Sendong disaster that ravaged parts of Mindanao, which she and a friend also from Cagayan de Oro, Jeena Rani Marquez, are writing a book about. Elena recalls:

“And the raindrops just keep coming, now in torrents sweeping across the land, flowing down from mountains laid bare by chainsaws, waves of it now from the raging river washing onto the darkened houses in the subdivisions, in the main thoroughfares, along the highways, and falling riverbanks.

“Later, there will be hundreds of feet lined on the streets, dangling from trucks, hanging from roofs and treetops. Many of the houses will be no more, the whispered words and laughter silenced by the whirlpooling waters that the rains had become.

“Much later, even years later, there are those who will shiver when a single drop of rain hits the tin roof in the night. They will want to get up from their beds, gather the things   that survived the demon floods that devoured houses, cars, friends, dogs, and families, and run far away from the mere sound of rain.

“It will take a long time, a very long time, before the darkness that gathers in every household each time it rains will be cleansed away.”

Mina V. Esguerra comes from a background in Communications, which she has deftly employed to become a pioneer in digital publishing, selling thousands of copies of her romance novels online. She firmly believes that Filipino authors can break through to the global market, and that romance novels offer a viable way forward. Not surprisingly, her novels carry an upscale, millennial vibe. In her workshop piece, two characters find themselves trapped in an elevator:

“We both backed away from the speaker and… had nowhere else to go. It was hard to not look at each other, though, because all four walls of the elevator were reflective surfaces. If I looked one way, I would see his eyes, the nice shape of his lips. The sweep of his hair up and to the left, revealing a worried forehead. The other wall reflected an image of his broad back, straight and rigid because he was looking up, waiting for the display to change. A little lower down that wall and I could check out how his butt curved in his jeans, and…

“No no no, don’t go there, Iris.”

 Next week, I’ll share snippets of new work from some other workshoppers, to display the range of material and treatments that we’re dealing with. The important thing is to show and to see that Philippine literature is very much alive and advancing on many fronts, assuming a variety of voices, styles, and approaches.

Another benefit of this reacquaintance with Los Baños is discovering how the campus has changed and grown since I first visited it as a freshman on the staff of the Philippine Collegian to attend the College Editors Guild of the Philippines conference in 1971. Among my most pleasant encounters this week has been that with a former student from way back, Yvette Co, who now runs the Ginhawa Craft Studio Café in a dome-shaped kiosk in one corner of the sprawling UPLB Alumni Plaza.

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As its name suggests, it’s a studio, gallery, performance space, and café all in one, a new and natural convergence point for lovers of the arts in Los Baños. Yvette—a Philosophy major who shifted to Interior Design and who now sculpts and paints—leased the space to breathe new life into a campus more known for agricultural studies, and her works and those of other guest artists blend in with that environment, utilizing scraps of wood and other natural objects as might be found in the area.

So thank you, Los Baños, for the warm welcome.

Penman No. 200: Memoirs of a Teenage Maoist

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Penman for Monday, May 23, 2016

 

 

A SMALL item in the foreign news caught my eye last week: a note that the 50th anniversary of China’s Cultural Revolution had gone unnoticed—in China itself, with no parades or ceremonies to mark the historic event. For those of us too young to remember, the Cultural Revolution was launched by Chairman Mao Zedong on May 16, 1966, to consolidate his power and purge his rivals within the Communist Party in the guise of doing away with old ways of thinking. To fight the old, Mao rallied the young—millions of “Red Guards” who turned on their parents, teachers, and superiors, feeling suddenly empowered to reject authority and traditional learning and to see themselves as the vanguards of a new age.

Over the decade that the Cultural Revolution ran its course until Mao’s death in 1976, many millions died—from executions and from famine. While Mao’s legacy would live on, there’s firm consensus both within and outside China that the Cultural Revolution was an unmitigated man-made disaster, something the Party itself in 1981 blamed for “the most serious setback and loss for the Party, the country and the people since the founding of China.”

What did this have to do with us and with me? Well, to put it as simply as I can, I was a teenage Maoist, and for a while back there, I and quite a number of like-minded comrades saw ourselves as the local chapter of the Red Guards. Call it madness, but we saw Mao as a demigod, and looked to his China as a beacon of hope and a model for other countries like ours—also beset by centuries of feudalism and colonial rule—to follow.

How did that happen? I had joined the student activist movement and had gone to my first demonstrations in high school, and as soon as I entered college in 1970, I signed up with the Nationalist Corps. It wasn’t a communist organization, but it was a short step from reading Renato Constantino to reading Mao. Mao’s teachings (in contrast to the heavy-duty theorizing of Marx and Lenin) were attractive in their seeming simplicity, in their pithiness, in their rosy optimism. It was chicken congee for the soul.

Until today, you’ll hear 60-somethings from my cadre recite gems, chapter and verse, from Mao’s Quotations (better known as the LRB, or the Little Red Book) like “A revolution is not a dinner party, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” “Dare to struggle, dare to win,” “Wherever there is struggle there is sacrifice, and death is a common occurrence…. All men must die, but death can vary in its significance.” Among my favorites—music to my 17-year-old ears—was “The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you. The world belongs to you.”

It wasn’t too different from what Rizal or the Desiderata said, especially about the youth as the fair hope of the fatherland, but I think what drew us to Mao at that point and to his brand of Marxism was his emphasis on classes and class analysis, his awareness of society as one divided between rich and poor (with the rich collaborating with foreign powers to keep themselves in place), and the fact (or the fantasy) that in China, things were actually going according to the socialist plan. Very few of us had ever been to China then (famously, of course, three senior activists would get stranded there—Eric Baculinao, Chito Sta. Romana, and Jimi FlorCruz), but we accepted it as an article of faith that Chairman Mao was doing right by his own people.

In Manila, we did our best to copy the flag-waving strokes of Peking Opera (eg, “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy”), learned about obscure heroes like Norman Bethune, and wore the LRB like a talisman in the breast pockets of our army fatigue jackets. (Procured from US military surplus stores in Dau, it was the closest we could get to the Mao—actually the Sun Yat-sen—jackets that the Red Guards adopted as a uniform, with the red star on the matching cap; but we at least wore genuine “Ho Chi Minh” sandals fashioned out of rubber tires.) At dawn, we tuned our transistor radios to the faint and crackly signal of Radio Peking, for our regular dose of socialist top tunes like the “Internationale,” “Sailing the Seas Depends Upon the Helmsman,” and “The East Is Red”—plus, of course, the daily rundown of the news from the global war on US imperialism. An enterprising fellow even then, I corresponded with a Hong Kong bookseller who seemed only too happy to mail me copies of the Peking Review, even if I had no money to pay him.

Only years later did the failings of Mao’s experiment and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution emerge, revealed not so much by Western propaganda as by the Chinese themselves, who had suffered the most from its excesses. It would take time—and, indeed, a personal visit to China—to appreciate this disconnect between our long-distance romance with Mao’s socialist paradise and cold reality.

It was in July 1987 when I was finally able to set foot on hallowed ground—Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where I was doing a cultural exchange visit along with writer-friends Krip Yuson, Ricky de Ungria, Eric Gamalinda, and Timmy Lim. We had been assigned a translator and a minder, whom we’ll call Chang—a tall wisp of a man who spoke decent English and who was working, he said, on a translation of a biography of Elvis Presley in his spare time. (Had he ever listened to Elvis? No. We sent him a cassette of Elvis from Manila.)

Standing just meters away from Mao’s mausoleum—there seemed to be thousands of Chinese visitors waiting in line to go in—I asked Chang if he could help me see Chairman Mao. “What you want to do that for?” he asked incredulously. “He killed my grandfather in the Cultural Revolution!” Ooops—I tried to say that I was sorry to hear about his angkong, but I had to tell him that I was once a Mao fanboy and just had to meet the man, even his current state of embalmed repose. Chang still didn’t seem ready to believe me, so I sang him the first few lines of the “Helmsman” song: “Sailing the seas depends upon the helmsman, life and growth depend on the sun, rain and dewdrops nourish the crops, making revolution depends on Mao Tsetung Thought!” Chang shushed me up before a crowd could gather: “Okay, okay, I bring you inside, but hurry, okay?”

And so I filed past my fallen idol, awash in conflicting emotions; frankly Mao’s waxen face did little to exude revolutionary vitality, and in just two more years that same square would be bathed in fresh young blood.

I would return to China many times since then as both tourist and writer, and at one point I would chance upon a Mao jacket in a backstreet shop in Shanghai—you’ll never find them in the glitzy stores—and some days I wear it to remind me of what people today will surely say was a youthful folly. Sometimes I’ll stick a most unproletarian Montblanc into the breast pocket, but then again, it’s where the real Chinese revolution led—the freedom to shop for baubles on Nanjing Road.

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[Image from chineseposters.net]