Penman No. 79: Men of Letters (1)

ImagePenman for Monday, December 30, 2013

I’M AN incorrigible pack rat; I keep restaurant receipts and bus tickets from the 1970s, business cards from associates long forgotten or even departed, and notes and memos from various points of my engagement with one bureaucracy or other. These odds and ends molder in a large wooden baul that sits in a corner of my office, a chest Beng and I bought for our daughter’s wedding but which somehow stayed with me (our unica hija Demi will still get that baul, contents and all, on one of her visits home from California). Other old letters I keep in a leather briefcase, itself now an artifact, a souvenir from my first trip to the US in 1980.

I was rummaging through the papers in that chest and that briefcase a few weeks ago, looking for something I could contribute to the benefit auction we were holding for Writers’ Night, when I stumbled on some letters I’d received (and some I sent—I dutifully Xeroxed my outbound mail then) from writer-friends. The most interesting ones were those that opened a window on my friends’ minds as writers and as persons—as young men, really, on the road to emotional, intellectual, and artistic maturity.

One of those friends I exchanged long letters with was the late Bienvenido “Boy” Noriega Jr., very probably our finest playwright, and something of a prodigy who headed the Policy Coordination Staff at the National Economic and Development Authority in his early 20s; Boy went to Harvard in 1978, when he was 26, for his master’s in Public Administration, but cross-enrolled in theater courses at the same time. Another was poet Fidelito Cortes, who beat me out to a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford in the mid-1980s (and who made up for it by greeting me in San Francisco with the gift of a Stanford sweatshirt when it was my turn to come in 1986). I also wrote letters to film director Lino Brocka, who preferred to use the telephone to respond (quite often forgetting, when I was in Milwaukee, that it was 2 am when he was calling from Quezon City).

Boy always hand-wrote his letters in small, fine script; Lito, like myself, used a typewriter; our letters went on for pages and pages, reporting on what we were writing, seeing, and thinking at that time, aware that we were standing on the doorstep of our lives’ great labors.

This week and next, let me share some excerpts from our exchanges, leaving aside more personal references. I’m translating Boy’s from the Filipino original.

Harvard U, 3 Nov 78

Dear Butch,

My drama course is the most exciting of all my subjects. We’re studying all the major dramatists. We’re done with Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Wilde, Shaw… Wagner, Dumas fils and Buchner, and soon to follow will be Brecht, Pirandello, Beckett, Miller, Williams, O’Neill, etc. The best for me are still Ibsen and Chekhov—Ibsen for characterization and Chekhov for his mastery of dramatic devices such as economy in dialogue, choice of moments, verbal counterpoint, and so on. You know, it’s only now that I’ve discovered how Chekhovian my [three-act play] Bayan-Bayanan is. When I get back home, I can return to it and give it a final revision because I know now how I can still tighten and improve it. One more thing I admire about Chekhov is his lifestyle—shy, pensive, self-assured.

I don’t know if I can still write for the CCP [Literary Contest]—I’m too pressed for time. What about you, are you all set for this, or are you working on your Filmfest entry first? My dilemma in joining contests always seems to be that I worry about how to write my play in a way that the judge who’s in a hurry will grasp. If it isn’t well-made (meaning, it has a very clear plot), it could be hard to appreciate or to draw attention. I guess that if Chekhov joined our contests, he’d lose…. His style is so refined compared to mine. Once, for example, he was asked what the “character” of one of his characters was, and he answered, “He wears a yellow tie,” and everything was in that answer.

19 Jan 79

What are the entries to the Manila Film Festival—are they any good? Have they started the songfest? These would be good to get into—I have a lot of ideas for songs, about country and love and life—but I need to look for a good composer and a good singer….

There must be many more good playwrights such as Sophocles, Shakespeare, Racine and Moliere, but I still don’t know them well enough. I’d like to understand them all—because I’d like to teach drama someday (as a sort of sideline in case I become a full-time writer). It looks like I keep looking to [Rolando] Tinio as a model—whatever is in my field, I’d like to know.

…. The more I learn here, the more I’m aware that there’s so much I don’t know. The truth is, I need philosophy, psychology, and more to put everything together in my head. What I’m doing now is crash education. My letter’s getting awfully long. I’m just trying out the ideas I’ve been picking up. That’s because I don’t have any students yet. I remember when PETA asked us to give a lecture about our plays. I feel like I wasn’t able to say anything. The audience’s orientation was also so different. That will never happen to me again. I will also organize my ideas.

…. This will be all for now, because I’m getting sleepy. It looks like both of us keep writing such long letters. I hope we’re not just repeating ourselves. But it seems to me that we’re progressing.

2 March 79

About some of the points you raised in your letter—you’re right about speechwriting there. The Philippines or the world won’t change because of one speech. I’ve tired of this myself. The problem there is, every presidential speech has to be a speech to impress. It would be easier if it were just a speech to inform. Another problem is that we still lack in achievement and vision, so it’s really hard to impress. If there’s truly a lot to show, there wouldn’t be much need for talk, right?

…. The finitude of everything probably remains debatable. Or maybe I’m just being optimistic—I suspect that man will always discover something to overcome natural forces…. In general, I think I’m still optimistic. Maybe this is because I believe there’s a God who guides our actions. The “meaning” of life probably just doesn’t manifest itself in its consequences (in its practical results) but in the way life is used. Could be in some small things (small acts of charity, love, etc.) that we sometimes fail to notice.

…. There was a point in my brief life (before I turned 21) when I asked myself these things—what was the purpose of life? Why are people the way they are? And so on. Every now and then, I still raise the same questions, but I’m no longer dismayed, like I used to be. I’m no longer surprised, either…. When I come home, I’ll write some essays (I’m preparing my topics)—I’d like to be able to contribute to the field of thought. I have so many plans.

Boy Noriega died of cancer in 1994 at 42; I was away on a writing fellowship in Scotland, working on what would become Penmanship and Other Stories, when I heard about it. I later put his letters to me together and gave copies of them to his family. Next week, some fun with Fidelito.

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