Penman No. 92: Nurturing Our Sense of Nationhood

IMG_3176Penman for Monday, April 14, 2014

AT THE University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing, we were happy to recently welcome into our ranks several new “associates”—UP colleagues who were also accomplished writers whom we felt could make significant contributions to the Institute’s programs. They were Chari Lucero, Luna Sicat-Cleto, Eugene Evasco, and Heidy Eusebio-Abad. Chari is a bilingual—indeed, a multilingual—fictionist and essayist, a very sharp reader of texts; Luna is a playwright and novelist in Filipino; Eugene, a Palanca Hall of Famer, is a writer of stories and poems for children in Filipino; and Heidi writes stories for children in English.

The entry of Eugene and Heidi into the UPICW was particularly timely, since we were severely short-handed as far as our expertise in writing for children and young adults was concerned. Puppetry advocate Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio remains on our board of advisers, but we had lost Rene Villanueva to an early death and Carla Pacis to La Salle. By bringing Eugene and Heidi into our workshops, we wanted to remind ourselves—and the reading public, of course—of the primal importance of children’s literature as a means of nurturing our sense of nationhood in the imagination of our youngest citizens.

This renewed emphasis was evident at the 53rd UP National Writers Workshop, which we held last week in Baguio. At least three of our 12 workshop fellows were writers for children and young adults. Cyan Abad-Jugo, who already has a PhD in Creative Writing, is working on a book of 13 stories in the fantastic mode. Renato “Nats” Vibiesca, a Palanca award winner, teaches at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines; Marcy Dans-Lee is primarily an illustrator and artist, but also writes her own texts, often drawn from the wealth of indigenous lore that surrounds her in Davao, where she teaches at the University of the Philippines-Mindanao.

Cyan submitted what can most easily be described as modern horror stories; Nats contributed a comic piece about a poor kid who dreams of becoming a bossing, an entrepreneur; Marcy presented retellings of native creation myths. The fact that their material and their approaches vary so widely can only bode well for the future of children’s literature in the Philippines. Herewith, some excerpts from their “poetics”—their explorations into why and how they write what they write (I’ve translated Renato’s excerpt from Filipino):

Cyan Abad-Jugo: I wanted to see if I could achieve “a wider lens on ultimate reality” by making a slight detour “from direct representation of the surface of reality;” I wanted to skew it a little or reshape it a lot, and see if I could not arrive at better relevance and social commentary (which is what I thought Scholes meant by returning “towards actual life by way of ethically controlled fantasy”). This does not mean that I wanted to identify an aspect of social reality and then work it into my fiction. I never start out with such clarity of mind, and cannot give myself clear directions; my default mode is “lost mode,” and so must find my way out of the labyrinth I inevitably find myself in.

The project had more to do with finding out whether the fantastic mode inherently contained within it a metaphor for what it was like to live in our own world. I wanted to write first, as always, and see what came of each story in the end (hello, story, do you have a metaphor in you after all?); but I also wanted to limit what I wrote, I wanted to try my hand at writing particular kinds of tales, given their definitions or what I thought to be their definitions. As I clarified in my proposal:

Though stories never adhere to strict definitions of modes or genres, the definitions and characteristics of each kind of tale or story could serve a heuristic purpose; they could serve as guides to the writer who wants to explore the capabilities, flexibilities, and possibilities of the fantastic story, and how it expresses what we are and could become.

Renato Vibiesca: The short story “Sawsawan sa Padyak” deals with the experience of a boy (with the nickname Kadyot) who grows up in Gagalangin, Tondo—specifically, his transition from childhood to adolescence while confronting his family’s poverty. The story raises questions about the self, physical change, initiation, experimentation, confusion, observations about the adult world, vice, and other instances that address this period of transition. The story also illustrates the culture, the exploits, and the strategies employed by the poor to survive and stay in the city. Even as these problems aren’t solved in their entirety within the story, it does offer hope for the protagonist who keeps on dreaming as he moves along this new path in his life.

The story was written from the point of view of the protagonist, using a voice unique to a 12- or 13-year-old; often facing personal problems, tossing questions around in his mind, nudging forward and backward in his decisions…. Though often full of fear, experience and his station in life become drive him to become more creative and resourceful.

The story’s main aim is to give value to how such young persons face life’s challenges. It isn’t very often that the experiences of adolescents are taken up in fiction. This stage is an eventful one, which makes it more important for readers of this age to be given guidance. The author hopes that more works—both short stories and novels—will be written along this line.

Marcy Dans-Lee:Monsters are my personal inspiration
for writing for children, as children can relate
more to monsters than grown-ups. Children
believe that monsters are real; adults believe that monsters are real only in other adults. And because children believe in monsters, they have the ability to embrace “magic” in stories. As a writer for children, I depict magic with gentle care, never underestimating my little reader’s intelligence for they have been known to persistently demand “Why?” And the writer must be prepared to give them valid and reasonable magic, one that has practical logic, delicately balanced by its own breathtaking mystery.

In writing Luis and the Enchanted Creatures, my intention was to introduce children to six fearsome folkloric Filipino monsters. Under the shade of a balete tree, Luis reads about each monster in his grandmother’s old forbidden
book, from which the monsters soon emerge. In
a child’s mind, because the monsters are in the book, it is logical for them to come out of it. This is acceptable magic for children; it is completely reasonable.

Likewise, the adult’s choice of words in talking and writing is inarguably different from that of a child. Simplicity and straightforward narration are encouraged, while expanding a child’s vocabulary is the writer’s choice. Repeating a new word, a phrase or a sentence allows for remembering and internalizing meaningAs a writer, I particularly enjoy dialogues for these provide me the opportunity of acting
out character parts, drawing inspiration from every child’s unforgettable characters, like the pig’s chinny chin-chin and the wolf ’s huff and puff, as well as the nightly read-aloud sessions to become an incredibly angry Papa Bear, a delicately shocked Mama Bear and a whining spoiled Baby Bear when they see their bowls of half-eaten porridge, their chairs mussed up, and their bed sheets crumpled and undone.

The style of putting these words together however may lead a writer to unknowingly
“talk down” to children. Writers for children
are particularly vulnerable to this danger for as adults, we are sadly accustomed to innovating the strangest, most convoluted ways of controlling and negotiating with children in order to restrain their innate curiosity. We tend to be condescending, unaware that we are in fact the primary bullies
in their young lives. When I draft a story, I unconsciously converse with a child—with the same respect I converse with adults.

Simultaneously, my mind’s eye can see the illustrations that will go with the story. This anticipation allows me the luxury of fewer words since the illustrations will speak a thousand words. For after all, does a writer for children need to explain that a monster has a thin face, with big scary eyes, sharp yellow teeth and long unruly hair? Such descriptions are certainly better drawn than written.

In the end, “happily ever after” means that our stories and illustrations for children
must contribute to inspire a child’s imagination
to become real in adult life. For how else can technology, medicine, green urban planning, space and time travel be imagined and made real, if not for stories of monsters and magic?

(That’s Marcy and Heidi in the pic.)

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