Penman for Monday, October 22, 2012
LIKE I mentioned last week, I’m in the US to visit family and to participate at the International Conference on the Philippines (Icophil), which is taking place Oct. 28-30 at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.
Dealing with all aspects of Philippine Studies, Icophil happens every four years, and it’s been held around the world—mainly in the US and the Philippines, but also in Australia and the Netherlands; the upcoming conference in Michigan will be the ninth. Icophil’s international reach reflects not only the global Filipino diaspora, but also the growing interest and engagement of non-Filipino scholars in Philippine affairs. While most participants still come from the Philippines, a significant number of speakers and panelists come from foreign universities.
Icophil also provides scholars an opportunity to assess the state of Philippine Studies around the world, in a roundtable organized by Prof. Belinda Aquino of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who is Icophil’s founding chair. Convenors for this year’s conference are the eminent scholars Dr. Roger Bresnahan of MSU and Dr. Bernardita Churchill of UP.
Aside from us Filipinos, this meeting will bring together Filipinists from the US, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Australia, France, Russia, Spain, and the Netherlands. By institutional affiliation, the confirmed Filipino participants will include Jose Buenconsejo, Marilyn Canta, and myself (UP Diliman)); Filomeno Aguilar, Jr., Czarina Saloma-Akpedonu, and Lisandro Claudio (Ateneo de Manila); Paul Dumol and Clement Camposano (University of Asia and the Pacific); Raymundo Rovillos (UP Baguio); Teresita Ang See (KAISA); Nick Deocampo (Center for New Cinema); Genevieve L. Asenjo (DLSU); Hope Sabanpan-Yu (University of San Carlos), Kristian Cordero (Ateneo de Naga); and Prisciliano Bauzon (University of Southern Mindanao).
Icophil 2012’s keynote speaker will be an international expert on climate change, Dr. Rodel Lasco, Senior Scientist and Philippine Program Coordinator of the World Agro-Forestry Centre (ICRAF) and Affiliate Professor, UPLB School of Environmental Science and Management. A recipient of the Outstanding Young Scientist Award in 1997, Dr. Lasco has been a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since 1999. In 2009, he was elected to the National Academy of Science and Technology of the Philippines.
Trailers for two new and interesting documentaries will be shown: one by MSU Prof. Geri Alumit-Zeldes on the two Filipino nurses who were wrongly convicted for murdering their patients in Ann Arbor, Mich. in the mid-1970s, and another, by filmmaker Sonny Izon, about the “Manilaners”—Jewish refugees from the Nazi Holocaust who found refuge in Manila through the intercession of President Manuel Quezon. Filmmaker Nick Deocampo will also be showing a documentary on American influences on Philippine cinema.
The panel discussions cover a predictably broad range of topics, from indigenous peoples, the Pinoy diaspora, and peace-building to economic relations, modernization, and popular culture (one of my early favorites on the program: “Automats, Supper Clubs, Drive-ins, and Quarantined Carinderias: The Contradictions of Restaurant Culture in Post-War Manila” by Peter Keppy of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation).
I expect to be ruffling a few academic feathers with my chosen topic, which just happens to be one of my recent areas of expertise: “The Commissioned Biography: Confessions of a Hired Gun.” I’ll be speaking less as an academic than a professional writer, and I’ll try to keep it light, but I’ll be dealing with some serious ethical and academic questions raised by the practice of biographical writing from a sympathetic point of view, as opposed to the independent and critical stance expected of the unpaid scholar. Aside from payment for the writer and PR for the subject, can there be anything to be gained from the commissioned biographies that have appeared in recent years on Philippine shelves? Can they be of any service to the academic historian, political scientist, and litterateur? My provisional answer is yes, but I’m going to have to prove my case.
I tacked on the official part of this trip to my annual vacation so it’s not costing UP anything, but I have another personal reason for going to Icophil. I’m a proud graduate of Michigan State’s archrival, the University of Michigan (MFA ’88), but it was MSU (the “other” Michigan) and East Lansing that hosted me for more than two months on my first visit to the US (and my first trip abroad) in 1980. I’d never been away from my home and family for so long, and it was here that my 30-year-plus relationship with America took off. I would even write about that first autumn—about a foray into the yellow forest in my backyard called Sanford Woods—in my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (1992):
“Sandbar, Sandfar, Sanford. Sanford Woods. In the shock of autumn, the first of my life, I took a walk in Sanford Woods with Estoy. Estoy himself had arrived in the United States just the previous year to take a Ph.D. in Development Economics on a fellowship, and I took the train up to Michigan the first chance I got to leave the conference in New York. I had never stepped into a forest of red and gold before, and for the first few minutes I trod carefully on the layered ground, as though disturbing it would hurtle me back in a swirl of pretty leaves to prison camp. We let ourselves be taken in and covered by that new season: we watched the squirrels shimmy up the trunks, and, coming into a patch of pure, delirious yellow, I persuaded Estoy to pose for a snapshot he could send home to his wife Marie. He stood stiffly against the color, hands in his jacket pockets, and he muttered an oath about the cold, but his grin was true. On the way back we observed how fat the squirrels were. In Manila, Estoy said, they’d be roasting on a spit, if they ever got that big. I said that there probably was a law preventing people from doing that in this country.”
That fellow “Estoy” was based on a real character, a friend who passed away a few years ago, whose life was marked by both blinding brilliance and consuming darkness. I barely told his story in the novel, and it will be a moving experience for me to retrace our steps into those woods, in another October more than three decades after.
More comic is the memory of my first kitchen disasters in that new country: of how I walked miles to the nearest Asian food store, craving food from home, and then eagerly frying a panful of dilis in my dorm room, only to have people hammering on my door, asking where that awful smell was coming from; and of stashing bottles of Coke in the freezer and forgetting about them, to be greeted by a ragged waterfall of black ice upon opening the fridge.
I’ll have a thing or two to say in East Lansing, but I’m really looking forward to more private conversations with the squirrels and sugar maples of Sanford Woods.