Penman No. 22: A Feast of Festivals


Penman for Monday, Nov. 26, 2012

WHETHER BY design or sheer coincidence, November is turning out to be a kind of Literary Arts Month for the Asia-Pacific region, with a plenitude of literary festivals and conferences being held one after the other over the last four weeks.

First off—as I reported on last week—was the Reaching the World Summit held Nov. 5-9 in Bangkok, Thailand, under the auspices of the Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators Association and in conjunction with the SEAWrite Awards, in itself a major regional literary event. Going on at the same time, from Nov. 2 to 11, was the Singapore Writers Festival, featuring Michael Cunningham of The Hours as this year’s big name, backstopped among others by Marina Mahathir, a feisty political commentator who just happens to be the daughter of Malaysia’s famous PM.

And then, from Nov. 14 to 16, we had our own third edition of the Manila International Literary Festival, billed this year as “Read Lit District.” It was put together as usual by the inimitable and irreplaceable Andrea Pasion-Flores and the National Book Development Board, with the generous support of the Ayala Foundation, among other sponsors. And finally, the world’s biggest gathering devoted to nonfiction—the 2012 Bedell Nonfictionow Conference, with several hundred attendees expected—took place just last week from Nov. 21 to 24 in Melbourne, Australia.

I am, in fact, writing this in Melbourne as I await the opening of Nonfictionow, where I’ve been privileged to be asked to deliver one of the four keynote addresses. You’ll get a report from me very soon on how this conference turned out—and why, as I suggest in my keynote, there’s an even greater necessity for good nonfiction in this age of Facebook and Twitter, when almost any event is deemed newsworthy five seconds after its occurrence. More on this in the coming weeks.

Right now I’d like to focus on the MILF (something about that acronym keeps distracting me, and it has nothing to do with southern secessionists), the youngest of its kind in the region and perhaps necessarily the most modest, compared to its long-running forebears in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sydney, Singapore, Bali, and Jaipur, among other places. But even at age three, it’s already shown both strength and precociousness, and the ability to attract both big-name writers and SRO audiences—many members of whom pay quite a bit of money just to listen—over its three-day run.

I’d have to admit that years ago, when Andrea first mentioned the NBDB’s plans to start an international literary festival in Manila, I was less than convinced that we could pull it off, having been spoiled rotten by the many others I’d attended abroad. How were we going to bring in world-class international authors? How many locals would turn up? Where were we going to hold the event?

As it turned out, all my misgivings went for naught. Practically since the beginning, the MILF has been a resounding success, attracting the likes of Pulitzer prizewinners Junot Diaz and Edward Jones last year and prizewinning Nigerian poet and novelist Christopher Abani this year, as well as international literary agents and editors, not to mention the usual suspects from the local literary community.

This time around, I sat on two panels—one on “Making the First Page Count” with New York-based author Tim Tomlinson and Soho Press senior editor Juliet Grames, and another with Chris Abani on “The Writer’s Demons.” Both sessions proved deeply instructive even for me, reinforcing the value of encounters like this even among old pros—just when you think you’ve heard everything, you haven’t.

Most instructive of all was a session I attended on literary editing, featuring the prolific and versatile Australian author-editor Ken Spillman, the Hong Kong-based poet and editor David McKirdy, and again Juliet Grames. The session drew a full house—and a good thing it did, because literary editing remains a great unknown to most Filipino authors and publishers, leaving us with unpolished texts if unbruised egos. (Since Soledad’s Sister was picked up by an agent some years ago and subsequently by publishers and translators in Italy and France, aside from a US edition, I’ve had the good fortune—and the humbling experience—of dealing with literary editors, whose comments and suggestions proved insightful and helpful. No pain, no gain.) Here are some outtakes from what they said:

Ken Spillman: “The best writers respond well to criticism…. In my hands, on the average, the manuscript would be reduced by 10 percent…. I see editing as a partnership, helping the book become the best book it can be…. (In a good book) I suspect a lot of hard work has gone on behind the scenes but it is never evident in the reading.”

David McKirdy: “Don’t send a publisher something that’s neither fish nor fowl, and therefore unmarketable—like a combined collection of poems and prose. You should have a clear conception of your work. Don’t try to put lots of different things together—it doesn’t work.”

Juliet Grames, being the most experienced editor of the three, gave the longest and most novel presentation, beginning with the confession that she started off as a writer when she entered the publishing industry, thinking that she could learn the secrets of the trade from within, but soon found her calling as an editor. “Midwifery might be more for you than motherhood,” she said. Her first editing job was no earth-shaking novel—“It was No More Kidney Stones, revised edition,” she said with a wry smile—but it led to many others, and also impressed upon her the importance of the variety of projects a publisher undertakes. “Crime fiction supports the literary fiction that we publish,” she added.

Then like a teacher, she stood up and drew a series of Venn diagrams on the whiteboard: a set of diagrams each for readers, writers, and publishers. (If you’ll recall your high school math, Venn diagrams have to do with circles or sets and their intersections.)

Juliet explained: “For the reader, the three circles to consider are language, or words; story; and morals, issues, or topics. Readers read for these reasons, and my dream book would have all three.” For writers, it was passion, money, and message; for publishers, it was money, cachet, and ideology. Her final bit of advice resonated well with the audience: “Find yourself in these diagrams, and find and approach the right publisher.”

We are, of course, still a long way in the Philippines from having a passel of publishers to choose from, but then again the purpose of an international literary festival is precisely to remind our authors to expand their horizons beyond the local scene. With the right novel or nonfiction opus in hand, we might yet break into the global market of readers as have the Chinese and the Indians, and put Philippine writing squarely on the world’s literary map.

Penman No. 21: Literary Networking in Bangkok

Penman for Monday, November 19, 2012

BENG AND I had hardly stepped off the plane from weather-beaten New York when we were off again to sunny Bangkok, this time to attend a conference of writers and translators from all over Asia and the Pacific. I asked Beng to come along because we hadn’t visited Bangkok in a few years and had always enjoyed the place. Here, again, we were helped by the fact that our unica hija Demi works in the hotel industry, and she was able to find us a nice place in Sukhumvit—the Aloft, Bangkok’s iteration of a global chain of smart boutique hotels. More on the Aloft in a bit.

I was there to take part in “Reaching the World,” billed as Bangkok’s first international literary showcase, under the auspices of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Association (AP Writers for short) and the South East Asian Writers (SEAWrite) Award, hosted by the Faculty of Arts of Chulalongkorn University. I sat on the 2010-2012 board of AP Writers with fellow Filipino professor and STAR columnist Isagani Cruz, who served as its chairman.

A sizeable delegation represented the Philippine literary community in Bangkok, aside from Gani and myself: writer and scholar Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, who now divides her time between UP and UST; UP English department chair and Southeast Asian literature expert Lily Rose Tope; poet and UP professor Isabel Mooney; fictionist and UP Mindanao professor Jhoanna Cruz; poet and DLSU professor Dinah Roma; essayist and UP professor Jeena Rani Marquez; and UST literature professor Timothy Sanchez. Novelist Charlson Ong, this year’s SEAWrite awardee from the Philippines, joined the Bangkok conference in its last couple of days, coming from the Singapore Writers Festival which I had attended last year.

AP Writers emerged out of an earlier organization, the Asia-Pacific Writing Partnership founded by Jane Camens who had also helped establish the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. Jane, an Australian writer who has lived, studied and worked in the US, the UK, China, Macau, and Hong Kong, has been an indefatigable spirit bringing writers from all corners of the region together, and she will now serve as AP Writers’ general manager. The Sri Lankan-born but Hong Kong-based humorist and essayist Nury Vittachi will serve as AP Writers’ new chairman, backstopped by the Chinese-Indonesian-American fictionist Xu Xi, who runs the MFA low-residency program at the City University of Hong Kong, and by the translator Shirley Young-Eun Lee, who has roots in Korea but who read Classics and Persian at Oxford.

As you can see from just that small corner of the organization’s membership roster, AP Writers is both as regional and as global as you can get. This reflects an increasingly obvious fact in today’s literary world: international and inter-cultural exposure has become vital for writers, to expand both their perspectives and their networks. By “network” we mean here that web of connections that emanates from the writer and his or her work to the other people involved in the process of literary production and dissemination—agents, editors, translators, publishers, critics, booksellers, critics, reviewers, teachers, researchers, and, of course, students and general readers.

This year, in Bangkok, AP Writers paid special attention (and gave formal recognition, in its full name) to a vital but largely neglected member of that network, the translator. A literary work can’t be read beyond its original market unless it’s translated into another language, and that requires the skills of a very small group of specialists around the world. Literary translation isn’t just the kind of word-for-word interpretation you might get from a software program or even a live person—it involves the understanding and translation of one culture into another, the conveyance of nuances that, paradoxically, will never be perfect but will achieve interesting effects of its own. (I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Salman Rushdie, about the most interesting words of a language being the untranslatable ones.) In Bangkok, we were privileged to be in the company of some of the world’s best translators, including the Australian Henry Aveling, who has undertaken many translations from Indonesian and Malay.

We were also treated to a tour of the stately and historic Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the Chao Phraya River, probably the only hotel in the world where writers are revered. AP Writers held its business meeting there, after being regaled by Harold Stephens, an American expat and raconteur who’s written 30 books on travel and adventure and who also happens to be married to a Filipina, with stories of the old hotel from the days when the likes of Joseph Conrad (then still a ship captain), W. Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, and Graham Greene stayed over. There’s a room and a lounge now maintained in their honor at the hotel—where, fittingly enough, Charlson would receive his SEAWrite Award later in the week from Thai royalty).

Readings and socials are an important part of any literary conference, and while some readings can be interminable (let’s face it: authors love to hear themselves), now and then you come across an entirely original voice. This time around that voice was that of Jang Jin-sung, one of Kim Jong-il’s favorite poets who defected when he could no longer take what was going in in North Korea.

The gut-wrenching hunger and desolation that Jang spoke of in his homeland contrasted, ironically, with the culinary and visual opulence of Thailand, which makes every visit there worthwhile. Beng was landing in the new Suvarnabhumi airport for the first time and was awed by the experience, even more so when the sleek commuter train took us from the airport to the city center for a mere 20 baht (about 30 pesos). We dropped our bags off at the Aloft—a jazzy, upbeat hotel with free wi-fi, a great buffet breakfast, and an iPod stereo player in every room—and dashed off in a cab to catch the weekend market at Chatuchak.

Thailand is a shopper’s and diner’s paradise but Beng and I contented ourselves with a bag for her and an iPhone case for me—and lots of fresh fruit, spicy chicken rice meals, and heavenly foot massages. It may not have seemed too auspicious when the printed menu in one streetside restaurant offered us “Steamed Crap,” but we survived the typo.

We came away much impressed by the Thais’ devotion to culture and literature, good reason for Bangkok to be named the World Book Capital for 2013 by Unesco (a distinction that, I bemoaned, Manila would probably earn by 2053). At the welcome dinner, Bangkok’s urbane and genial governor, M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra, ducked out of his busy schedule overseeing preparations for an upcoming world indoor football championship to break bread and share jokes with writers and translators. I’d like to believe we were well worth his and each other’s time.

Penman No. 20: Report from Lansing


Penman for Monday, November 12, 2012


THANKS TO superstorm Sandy, which shut down nearly all public traffic on the US East Coast, my flight back to New York from Lansing, Mich. was canceled a couple of weeks ago, requiring me to stay for the last day of the International Conference on the Philippines (Icophil), where I had come to read a paper. I’d planned on leaving that Tuesday because our departure for Manila was set for Thursday, and I wanted the extra day to tie up loose ends and do some last-minute shopping with Beng, who was waiting at her sister’s in New York. But Sandy nixed all that, threatening even my flight home.

But Providence must have had other things in mind, because that last day at Icophil turned out to be a most productive one for me, in terms of making new contacts and friends and listening to provocative presentations.

Let me report, first of all, that Icophil 2012—the ninth of this once-in-four-year series—was a resounding success, with about 250 participants signing in, well over the 150 the organizers had been expecting. This means that there’s a lot of interest in the Philippines and in Philippine studies out there, not only from us Filipinos but also from foreign scholars specializing in Philippine concerns and affairs. (And if you’re wondering why, ask instead why not—given how we’re a fairly large country of more than 90 million people, living in one of Asia’s richest cultural crossroads and exporting our labor and talent to nearly every other country on the planet.) Indeed, about half or more than half of all the participants I met at Icophil weren’t based in the Philippines (from where, admittedly, going to international conferences can be quite expensive, especially without university or government support).

What were they interested in? As Icophil’s programme went, everything from archaeological digs, Pinoy boxing, and the Ati-atihan festival to the economy, indigenous peoples, peace building, and electoral reform. There’s never a dearth of subjects to be explored where the Philippines is concerned, and every door at Icophil was an invitation to a new dish at an intellectual smorgasbord. Everyone I spoke to agreed that they had a hard time choosing which session to attend, and I myself ended up walking into session rooms almost at random, imbibing whatever was on offer to get the full range of things.

I learned a lot by listening to Jay Gonzalez—who teaches political science while also serving as an assistant boxing coach at the University of San Francisco—talk about how he used boxing as an entry point to introducing his students to Filipino and Asian values and attitudes. Robert Balarbar of the National Museum explained the intricate process by which he and his team restored Botong Francisco’s “The Progress of Medicine in the Philippines,” a painting now hanging at the Philippine General Hospital. Robin Hemley of the University of Iowa undertook his own investigation of the controversy surrounding the alleged discovery of the Stone Age Tasaday tribe in Mindanao in 1971—a discovery soon denounced by critics as a hoax—and came to the tentative conclusion that the truth was probably somewhere in between the claims of both believers and naysayers. Sharon Delmendo, a professor at St. John Fisher College in New York who has written extensively about Philippine-American relations, shared the early fruits of her recent research on the “Manilaners”—Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution who found refuge in Manila under the auspices of President Manuel Quezon. Her findings were supported by film footage and interviews put together by independent Fil-Am filmmaker Sonny Izon. Speaking of film, award-winning director Nick Deocampo closed the conference with a screening of his brilliantly animated new documentary on American influences in Philippine cinema.

I’m becoming something of a recluse the older I get, but Icophil—and that extra day—reminded me of how valuable and important it was to keep in touch with fellow academics, particularly those engaged in significant and interesting research that very few other people can be expected to undertake. That’s the burden of scholars and scholarship: their concerns may seem obscure if not downright silly and useless to more practically oriented people, but their ultimate service is to help us better understand ourselves.

They don’t do our thinking for us so much as lay out possible ways of thinking about a problem or situation like migration, conservation, or resource management. I’m fairly sure that many scholars would make lousy executives (although this has been resoundingly disproved in some cases), but their insights into human and social behavior, not to mention their understanding of the physical and natural world, help politicians and businessmen make smarter decisions (unfortunately, not always more socially beneficial ones).

At Icophil, over the farewell dinner that I would have missed had I left on schedule the day before, I also had the pleasure of meeting Stephen Feldman and Mario Feir, who together run Asian Rare Books ( from One McKinley Place in Global City. ARB had operated in New York City for over three decades before moving to the Philippines, where Stephen and Mario oversee an incredible, multi-thousand-volume collection of rare books. It’s accessible by appointment only, and I fully intend to avail myself of their kind invitation to visit them one of these days.

To digress a bit, I had one more reason to be rushing home to the Philippines, notwithstanding Sandy. As a shameless, diehard ‘60s liberal, I’m a big Obama fan, and wanted to see him re-elected. But I seem to have had a personal history with American presidential elections: I was in the United States on my first visit when Ronald Reagan won in 1980, and there again as a grad student when George Bush the Father won in 1988. In 2008, I was also in the US on a family visit, but left just a few days before the election, and Barack Obama won. Call it a voodoo jinx, but I knew I had to be out of there before November 6 if I wanted my guy to win. And that’s what happened—Beng and I managed to fly out of JFK on November 1, a day after the airport reopened. Barack, you owe me a big one.

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 15: One Night in Bangkok

ALMOST AS soon as we got home from New York, Beng and I flew out to Bangkok where I  was speaking at a conference. We stayed in a boutique hotel in Sukhumvit, a lively district that becomes even livelier after dark. I ran into this outdoor “bar” complete with disco lights outside our hotel—a new life for an old VW Kombi. Cheers!

Penman No. 19: Autumn in New York

Penman for Monday, November 5, 2012

I FIRST visited New York 32 years ago, as a young man on his first trip abroad, and I can still remember the convulsive thrill that I felt as I peered out the window of my plane from Detroit and saw Manhattan’s spires rising toward me, to the accompaniment of a Gershwin tune.

At the same time, I looked at New York with not a little dread, both because of its sheer immensity and also its fearsome reputation for harboring mobsters and hucksters. While I marveled at the Christmas lights of Rockefeller Center, I also saw Times Square and Bryant Park at their worst, long before Rudy Guiliani came in with a broom, and 9/11 lent the city the kind of composure that comes with tragedy.

I’ve been back many times since—with my mother, daughter, and sister, and Beng’s sister living in the US, we try to visit every year—and over the years, I’ve slowly learned to trust if not to love this mother and mentor of modern cities, holding my wariness in check just long enough to let New York’s many and unexpected charms seep through and permeate my senses.

It’s a tired cliché by now, but while I go to my sister’s place outside of Washington, DC for rest and recuperation, I go to New York for the energy and the excitement, for the buskers in the subways playing everything from Vivaldi to That’s Amore, for Paul’s Burgers in St. Mark’s Place, for the two lions guarding the library (Patience downtown, Fortitude on the uptown side), for the $6/lb. Chinese takeouts, for the Art Deco flourishes nearly everywhere you look, for the Housing Works resale shops, for the discounted Broadway tickets, for the Sabrett’s hotdogs on the sidewalks, for the muscular subway, for the parks that sprout up amidst brownstone and cinderblock, for the warren of words that’s the Strand, and, of course, for the translucent glass stairway leading down to the reverse-heaven of the Apple Store.

New York can have the newest of the new—think of the iPhone 5 and the iPad mini—but oddly enough, what Beng and I enjoy most on our New York visits is seeking out old treasures (or what might be junk to most other people) in the thrift shops of 23rd Street and the flea markets of the Upper West Side and Hell’s Kitchen. Sometimes these treasures even come free, shamelessly dragged in off the street on my sister-in-law’s block in Forest Hills, like that miniature wooden Christmas sleigh that I salvaged last week off the top of a pile of detritus (the polite Roman word, I think, for garbage).

Inevitably, despite our absent intentions, every visit brings something new. Two years ago it was the magic of dusk in Coney Island, at the very end of the F subway line and, it seemed, of New York itself, so serene was that velvet hour with the amusement park’s fun machines in off-season repose. This year it was a day trip we took by train to a small village called Cold Spring, up the Hudson River, after learning that it hosted a cluster of antique shops and was a good place to catch the fall colors, besides.

It did not disappoint on either count; autumn declared itself resplendently for most of the 90-minute ride along the ribbon of the Hudson, and exploded in brilliant yellows and reds on our arrival in Cold Spring. As Beng and Mimi scoured the shops for old buttons, bottles, and trinkets, I strayed into a shop with a small door that turned out to be a huge warehouse of vintage knickknacks—among them, a lovely black hard-rubber-and gold Conklin ladies’ pen from around 1920 and a marbled Parker Vacumatic desk pen from 1935. Having earlier picked up a Waterman silver-overlay pen and a contemporaneous brass inkwell from 1915 at the Greenflea Market on the Upper West Side, I pronounced this trip sufficiently penworthy, and contented myself for the rest of the day with photographing the Hudson’s color-washed banks.

Another novelty on this trip was my first walk into and across the heart of Central Park, which I had somehow never done in three decades of visiting New York. All that time I had contented myself with reconnoitering the fringes of the park, forewarned by a score of movies and CSI New York episodes about the demons and dangers lurking within. On the Saturday that we crossed the park on our way to Greenflea, we met nothing more dangerous than sprightly squirrels and latter-day hippies channeling John Lennon in Strawberry Fields, the corner of the park across the Dakota Apartments, where Lennon lived and was shot dead (a few days after I left New York on my first visit there in 1980). And how can you walk across Central Park without (again) George Gershwin, Simon and Garfunkel, Barbra Streisand, and Liza Minnelli performing in concert in your dreaming head?

We had earlier visited the 9/11 Memorial downtown, where the Twin Towers used to stand; last year it had been under construction—and still was, to some degree, as the museum within has yet to open. But the two large reflecting pools were already in operation, acting like four-sided waterfalls whose constant flow—broken only, when we looked, by an almost unbearably theatrical rainbow—seemed to represent a perpetual dousing of the fires that burned the towers down, a cleansing of the evil and the ill will that came before and after the event. I had also been there in 2001, a few months before 9/11, and had seen the towers—had even gone up to the top of one of them on an earlier visit—but had no personal connection to the place. Still, I paused when I caught a name—one of almost 3,000 names etched deeply into the bronze railings around the pools—that was unmistakably Filipino: “Ronald Gamboa,” who turned out to be a 33-year-old Fil-Am, a manager at The Gap who died as a passenger on UA 175, one of the hijacked planes.

In yet another unintended irony, I’m writing this paean to New York from Lansing, Michigan, where I’m attending a conference and from where I’m supposed to fly back to JFK tomorrow and then back home to Manila on Thursday—but can’t, because New York and much of the American East Coast has been shut down by super storm Sandy, and I’m effectively stranded. If I can’t get back to JFK by Wednesday, I’ll have to rebook my Manila-bound flight, and stay in New York a little longer. That’ll be mildly annoying—but I can’t wait to spend a bonus weekend in Manhattan, poring over heaps of junk at the flea market, in quest of that golden glint that could be the clip of a 1936 Parker Vacumatic Oversize, one that George Gershwin himself might have scripted a tune or two with.

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 14: iPhone 5 Adapter + iPad 1 Dock = :)

A BRAINWAVE hit me a few minutes ago as I was going all the Mac junk in my man-cave and I saw an iPad dock for the original iPad—remember these expensive and practically useless thingies that couldn’t hold up an iPad in its case? I’ve had this dock since i bought my iPad 1 and never even opened the box—I swear, it was that useless!

Well… I came home last night from the US with an iPhone 5 and a Lightning-to-30-pin adapter…. So what would happen if I plugged the adapter on to the iPad dock? Voila—a standing charger for the iPhone 5! There’s just enough stability and clearance to lift up the IP5 (it’ll work even with a thin case or skin—I tried it). So, suddenly, my useless iPad dock becomes a neat bedside accessory! (I should’ve kept more of these to sell right now, ha ha.)

It charges—and, yes, it syncs.