Penman No. 98: On Tour with Serendipity

Penman for Monday, May 26, 2014


MAYTIME IN Europe, particularly in Spain, is a festive season; Madrid has the same patron saint and feast day as many Philippine towns such as Lucban—San Isidro Labrador, on May 15—and so it was a fine time to be there these past two weeks. We missed the actual feast days, and in France all the buzz was going on in Cannes while we were in Paris, but it was just as well because the crowds were a bit smaller but the experiences no less interesting at the periphery.

As I mentioned last week, doing six cities—Madrid, San Sebastian, Barcelona, Venice, Florence, and Paris—in 12 days is murder for sexagenarians, and maybe not the best way to get to know places, but the intensity of this “amazing race” approach has its own advantages and surprises.

I’m usually an obsessive planner when it comes to travel, going digital as much as I can, months in advance—from consulting TripAdvisor to making plane and hotel bookings to reconnoitering possible spots to visit and downloading street maps, subway guides, and travel apps. (I’ll do a separate piece on this madness, one of these days.) This time, aside from some basic planning, we left many things to chance, going by such general interests as “museums and flea markets” or “art galleries and food” to guide us though a city. Serendipity (informed, to some extent, by a limited budget) proved to be the best tour guide, as we allowed one street to lead to the next, and open up to unexpected delights.



San Sebastian, or Donastia in Basque, was the wild card on our itinerary. The place doesn’t figure in most visitors’ travel plans, and frankly, as global-savvy as I pretend to be, I had to look it up on a Spanish map when our daughter Demi and her husband Jerry mentioned it to me. The two had met Anthony Bourdain at an event in California, and had asked him where in the whole world he would retire if he had his choice, and Bourdain didn’t take two seconds to answer “San Sebastian,” obviously because of the food.


That answer stuck with Demi and Jerry, and when the four of us started planning our European sojourn early this year—we made all our bookings in mid-January—San Sebastian was firmly on the list, although we knew very little about it. For me, the appeal was that it was up in Basque country, on the coast of the Bay of Biscay close to the French border, so it promised an atmosphere different from central Madrid, or Barcelona in the Balearic-Mediterranean south. I also relished the thought of taking the five-hour train ride cross-country; train travel is one of Europe’s most relaxing treats.


The Basque language, I’m sure, has its poetic charms, but to the untrained eye and ear (like mine) it might as well be Klingon, with a surfeit of X’s, K’s, and T’s. Many words have absolutely no relation to their Spanish or Latin counterparts; a restaurante in Spain or a ristorante in Italy is a jatetxea in Basque.

That said, food is a universal language, and while I’ve maintained a stubborn and silly pride in calling myself a culinary philistine (as usual, I brought six packets of ramen in my suitcase), I had to yield to the majesty of Basque cuisine, particularly their pintxos—the local version of the more familiar tapas. Laid out on the bar of every jatetxea we entered, and selling for a little over a euro each, the pintxos were scrumptious combinations of such staples as shrimp, crab, mushroom, asparagus, anchovy, jamon serrano, and bread.


Good, affordable food would be our constant on this tour, often found in rather unlikely places (no Michelin guide for us, just our budgets and our noses): the best pasta we’d ever had, in a nondescript restaurant in Florence; a roast chicken, rice, and salad dish at the Doner Kebab place beside our airport hotel in Madrid; a dish of stewed mushrooms in Madrid and then also in Barcelona.


Our next high came from shopping—albeit more with our eyes than our wallets. Beng and I are incorrigible flea and weekend market addicts, and we’ve been to a few of the world’s better-known ones, from Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan and Portobello Road in London to Chatuchak in Bangkok and Panjiayuan in Beijing. Providentially, our European schedule coincided with the Mercat del Encants in Barcelona and the Marche aux Puces de Saint-Ouen at Clignancourt in Paris. Hundreds of stalls and tons of glorious junk met us in both places, from century-old magazines and posters to ‘20s flapper dresses and hats and erotic postcards of nubile maidens long vanished.


I did find quite a few fine fountain pens—only to realize, alas, or perhaps fortunately, that I should be happy with my present collection, and that looking without buying can be pleasure enough. I came home from Europe with a new panama hat from Madrid (where, I would find, it was quite the fashion) and a 4-euro, 1960s bottle of Pelikan ink in royal blue, still almost full and certainly usable, from Barcelona. Beng and I kept looking at marvelous pieces of décor and sighing, “If we had a larger house…” or “If we were younger….” and then taking a picture for the memory before walking away.


Third, next to food and markets, were the sights themselves. With limited time, we focused on museums, landmarks, and gardens. Everyone goes to Barcelona to see Gaudi’s outrageously magnificent Sagrada Familia, and we did, if only from the outside, from where there was more than enough to appreciate, from the strawberries to the scripted verses climbing up the spires. What resonated more deeply with me was a visit to the Castell de Montjuic, an imposing fortress with a tragic past, including the brief incarceration of Jose Rizal in 1896, shortly before his forcible return to the Philippines; an exhibition room in the fortress is named after Rizal.


IMG_4060IMG_402214221967192_1862edc90d_zVenice and Florence were the original reasons we thought of this tour; having visited them three years ago, I vowed to bring Beng along to see them, and we just had time for a long vaporetto ride around Venice in the gathering dusk and a day trip by train to Florence. Both cities offer a surfeit of majestic sights, but again it was less the landmark everybody knows than the accidental detour to a spectacular sunset from a little bridge and a view of steeples in the Tuscan countryside that mattered more.


Beng and I had been to Paris twice before, for very brief sorties like this one. In 1999 we almost literally breezed through Paris on a bus from England, on a 99-pound all-in weekend tour; Beng made the mistake of going to the onboard loo while we whipped past Rodin’s “The Thinker.” In 2002 we spent another couple of days in Paris on our way home from my month-long fellowship in Bellagio, and I was so starved for Chinese food that we ate nothing but Chinese, in the restaurants behind the Galeries Lafayette (we went back there last Sunday for a reprise, but the place was closed, much to our dismay).


We revisited the Louvre, and of course again the Mona Lisa (this time set a little farther back from the public than it used to be, but still accessible enough for the inevitable selfie). The Louvre draws 15,000 visitors a day, most of them, like us, paying the standard admission of 12 euros—a cost you’ll quickly forget the minute you step into the galleries. This time I happily stumbled into a hallway exhibiting three of the most iconic of French paintings: Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, and David’s The Coronation of Napoleon. Somewhere in the Egyptian antiquities section, my knees began to wobble, and I knew it was time to declare an end to our museum-hopping.


What we’ll remember most from this trip is a leisurely walk through the Jardin des Tuileries, across the bridge to the Musee d’Orsay, then back to the big fountain in the park, trying to take in the immense joy and gloriousness of a spring day shared with the one person you’d like to see the world with. It was the gift of a lifetime, for which Beng and I would like to thank Demi, Jerry, and the gods of poker.


Penman No. 97: Museum-Hopping in Madrid

Penman for Monday, May 17, 2014


I’M WRITING this at the airport in Barcelona, awaiting the departure of our much-delayed flight to Venice. Beng and I are at the midpoint of a two-week jaunt through Europe, and we’ve just said goodbye to our unica hija Demi and her husband Jerry, who are going on to Rome and to Sardinia. We spent a blissful week together in Spain—meeting up in Madrid (Demi and Jerry live in California, in San Diego), then spending a couple of days each in San Sebastian and Barcelona.

I’m taking Beng to Venice and Florence in fulfillment of a promise I made three years ago, when I first visited those cities, to share the wonders of those cities with her, the artist and conservator who will surely gain more from the experience than I can; and then we’ll pass by Paris before flying back to Madrid, then home. For us, as footloose as we already are, it’s the trip of a lifetime—largely a treat from Demi and Jerry for our 40th anniversary, and partly realized by my recent poker windfall; I figured the stash was better spent popping our heads into a few museums and cathedrals rather than vanishing chip by chip back across the green felt table.

For reasons I just made obvious, we’re calling this our “Amazing Race,” a breathless dash across three countries in Europe, with layovers in London and Hong Kong, in 14 days. I know, I know—the seasoned travelers among us will say that this is no way to see Europe, and that one’s time is better spent savoring one or two places and their features to the last morsel than hopping like mad rabbits across borders and barely seeing or tasting anything. But while it’s our first time in Spain, Beng and I have been to Europe before, and are used to and prefer this kind of cherry-picking: a little of this and that, much the tapas and pintxos on offer in the restaurants of Madrid and San Sebastian. We’ll happily admit to being shameless tourists than National Geographic correspondents, although, of course, I can’t help taking the notes I’m now sharing with you.

Having gone around the planet quite a bit, we came to Spain quite late. I’d always wanted to see what Jose Rizal saw. Today’s Spain may be a vastly different place in many respects from Rizal’s time, but so much of Europe, and thus Spain, is immutably set in hard rock, and remains impervious to rain, wind, and time.


We flew into Madrid on a bright spring morning, and quickly discovered, to our great delight, that it was a city of parks, plazas, museums, monuments—and restaurants and bars. The first thing that hits you about Madrid is its architecture, steeped in neoclassical grandeur, the streets all at sharp angles converging in roundabouts capped by marble statues erected to the memory of heroes, not all of them warlike figures but rather also icons of art and literature. You’re never too far from reminders of Spain’s imperial legacy in Madrid. The first museum we visited was the Naval Museum, rich with exhibits from Spain’s colonial exploits, including the Philippines, represented by a roomful of precious artifacts from the San Diego wreck of 1600 and by yet another gallery of native weaponry from Filipino tribes.


Just a few blocks away was the Prado, Madrid’s temple devoted to its most sublime masters of centuries past—Velasquez, Goya, El Greco, and Sorolla, among others. Since visiting the Louvre more than a decade ago, I’ve always been amazed by the freshness and luminosity of paintings 500 years old; some of it, of course, is due to the skill of restorers like my wife (who was incidentally trained by Spanish teachers), but in a world lit by only candles and torches, the masters knew best how work with light and to use it to best effect.


But as enthralled as I was by this encounter with the finest art of the past, it was at the Reina Sofia museum—again within walking distance of most other places of interest in central Madrid—that I nearly fell on my knees as I approached and beheld Picasso’s massive Guernica, his enduring indictment of war. The Reina Sofia is Madrid’s modernist counterpart of the classical Prado, and its stunning façade alone and the plaza before it are well worth the visit. Here, Picasso, Miro, and Dali rule, along with many other less known but no less fascinating champions of new ways of looking at and representing reality and irreality. Here, as I did years ago at London’s Tate Modern, I remembered and understood again why classical art held me in awe, but modernism spoke more directly and more deeply to me—making me laugh, making me think, and making me angry or sad, sometimes all at once.


One more thing I noticed about Madrid’s museums and other attractions like the Botanical Garden and the Royal Palace: you may have to pay a modest fee to get in—it was 3 euros at the Naval Museum—but if you wait until the last couple of hours (6:00-8:00 pm at the Prado) or for special days, you could get in for free. Also, for the first time in my life (and I should add the first place, because nowhere in the Philippines did I get this favor), my university faculty ID gave me free entry. That’s a society that values its teachers.

For all our museum-hopping, my favorite “museo” turned out to be the Museo de Jamon, a chain of restaurants you’ll find on every other city block offering all manner of meat, and a scrumptiously wet seafood paella. I quickly grew addicted to bocadillo de jamon—thin slices of jamon serrano in crusty bread—which was on special at the Museo de Jamon for one euro apiece.


14143188584_c2e4c38bc2_z14153114804_184eeb2d66_z13966312100_835fd44243_zWe did as tourists do: hang out at the Plaza Mayor and Plaza del Sol, watching an anti-fascist demonstration here (like Marcos, Generalissimo Francisco Franco died decades ago but his victims have yet to receive full justice) and a busker there (playing what else but Tarrega—whose Gran Vals many will inadvertently if cavalierly know as the source of the Nokia ringtone). We dipped churros in our chocolate at the Chocolateria San Gines, which has been in the business since 1894; but even this venerable chocolateria seemed a newcomer compared to the Restaurante de Botin, reputed to be the oldest running restaurant in the world, having opened in the same place in 1725. More contemporary-minded diners will prefer a quick bite at the trendy Mercado de San Miguel, an old market converted into a covered food court just off the Plaza Mayor, and neatly organized: all the meats here, all the sweets there, and so on.


The culinary and perhaps even cultural highlight of our Madrid sojourn took place in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant close to the Reina Sofia. Unlike me and even the far more adventurous Beng, Demi and Jerry are gourmets who seek out and relish fine food, but—perhaps out of respect for the philistine papa—we had resolved to eat like the locals on this trip, and so we spent our last night in Madrid feasting on paella, mushrooms, patatas bravas, and chicharrones, washed down with what apparently was Madrid’s if not Spain’s most popular beer—San Miguel. This is our beer, we tried to tell the genial restaurant owner in our best pidgin Spanish, but I don’t think the Empire heard us.




Penman No. 96: A Lovely House, a Lively Conference

Penman for Monday, May 12, 2014


MY WIFE Beng’s profession as an art restorer and conservator brings her into contact with some very interesting people, and one of them is a quiet, unassuming man named Mike Santos, whose arrival at our home always causes the usually calm and cool Beng to groan in distress, not because of anything she holds against the fellow but because she’s sure that, invariably, he’s going to be bringing in another job that will test Beng’s skills as a restorer to the limit.

“Why do you do this to me?” I keep hearing Beng wail at the smiling Mike. One piece I remember him dropping on Beng was a century-old poster or banner of the Virgin Mary, apparently painted or printed on silk, lovely except for the fact that the silk was stained, tattered, and coming apart in places, like a battleworn flag. “Can this even be saved?” I recall thinking. But wonder of wonders, after weeks of careful and well-studied work, Beng was able to restore the piece and to return it to a happy Mike.

Perhaps in appreciation for all her labors, Mike invited Beng and the rest of her family—that meant me, my mother, Beng’s mother, Beng’s cousin Lando, and my sister Elaine and her husband Eddie who were visiting from the States—to merienda in his Antipolo home. But as sumptuous as it was, the merienda was just the climax to the real purpose and pleasure of the visit, which was the ancestral house itself.

The Santos house now stands on a hilltop lot in one of Antipolo’s subdivisions, and what’s remarkable about it isn’t just the beauty of the Spanish-American colonial architecture but the information you soon receive that this house was transported and rebuilt brick by brick and plank by plank from Navotas to Antipolo. It had been built by Mike’s grandfather Roman—the founder of Prudential Bank—for his young wife in 1917.

Over the decades, it withstood all kinds of natural and human challenges—Navotas’ chronic flooding periodically soaked the lower floor, and during the Second World War the Japanese used the house as a garrison and torture chamber, and of course the ravages of time took their toll on the structure and the furnishings—but sheer love of the house and what it stood for drove Mike and his family to save it before it got much worse. But it would have suffered the same fate over the decades where it stood, so the Santoses decided to move the house to high ground in Antipolo, where it now towers over its more modernistic neighbors.

We were delighted with our tour of the house, marveling at how well preserved the furnishings and appointments were, many of them handed down the generations. The merienda, of course, was excellent, with everything from suman to hot chocolate with pinipig and the sweet mangoes that Mike now grows on the family farm in Bulacan. The company and the stories of Mike and his neighbor Eddie Lindenberg made the afternoon even more special. Of course Beng didn’t get away scot-free: she got a glimpse of her next headache, another century-old painting on canvas of the Immaculate Heart of Jesus that had been cut into several pieces, with losses, then mounted on a wooden board. If it’s going to a house like Mike’s Antipolo manse, I’m sure Beng isn’t going to mind. Salamat, Mike!

THIS JULY, from the 17th to the 20th, another big regional conference will take place in Singapore, promising to bring Asia’s best and most active literary practitioners together under the auspices of Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators.

This moveable feast has been hopping around the region—these past two years, it’s been held in Bangkok, but previous meetings have taken place in Hong Kong and Australia, and next year we’ll get to host it in Manila. I’ve been to most if not all of these meetings—they put me on the APWT board last year, probably in recognition of the fact that a sizeable Filipino delegation has always attended these conferences—and they’ve invariably proven to be well worth the expense of going. (APWT is almost totally dependent on membership and conference fees, and many members like myself go on our own; since the annual conference happens somewhere just around Asia, it’s often doable on a budget fare, and members in academia can and do apply for travel grants to cover costs.)

The difference between APWT and other similar literary conferences is that APWT focuses on practice rather than theory; in other words, while it welcomes teachers, critics, and scholars, APWT is intended primarily for working writers and translators, so they can get together to discuss common concerns like publishing, copyrights, digital media, censorship, and various aspects of the craft. No long and abstruse academic papers are read at APWT; instead, writers and translators engage in lively, jargon-free conversation, sharing experiences across the region and the world.

This July in Singapore, the focus will be on “Bridging Cultures,” and the first keynote will be delivered by none other than our recent guest in Manila, the Singaporean novelist Suchen Christine Lim. Another keynote, titled “Border Lover in Uncertain Times: Story-Making Across Cultures, Languages, and Literary Forms” will be delivered bythe amazingly versatile and accomplished Merlinda Bobis, who was born and bred in Bicol but who has been a longtime resident of Australia, where she teaches at the University of Wollongong. I regularly teach one of Merlinda’s short stories, and am immensely proud of how she has been able to interject a Filipino voice into Australian literature.

According to the tentative program, I’ll be involved in at least two sessions. The first will be a roundtable that I’ll moderate on “Twisting the Truth: Truth in Fiction, Lies in Non-Fiction,” an exploration of storytelling as art and why we tell stories, with David Carlin, Lisa Walker, Michael Vatikiotis, and Philip McLaren. The second will be a session on “Writing Under Political Pressure,” moderated by Michael Vatikiotis, where I’ll be speaking with translator Alfred Birnbaum, who translated the work of Burmese novelist Nu Nu Yi, and with our own Menchu Sarmiento, who’ll be giving an overview on the literary work of some political prisoners in the Philippines.

Aside from myself and Menchu, fellow Filipino writers Christine Godinez-Ortega and Hope Sabanpan-Yu are also already on the tentative program, which can be accessed at There’s still room for Filipino delegates to participate in panels they may be interested in and qualified for, but they’d have to register for the conference very soon, according to APWT’s executive director, Jane Camens, who has been the organization’s busybody all these years, and who’s hoping for another big turnout from the Philippines in Singapore. The full member registration is now S$60, and non-member registration is $$80 (in US$ that amounts to around $45 and $65).

Filipino writers and translators interested in attending the conference should know, again, that the organization has no funds to support individual writers, so they’ll have to book their own fares and lodgings for the July 17-20 event. I got online and booked budget airfares for myself and Beng, and then looked for and found a good, clean, cheap hotel—the only seeming downside being that it’s located in Geylang, Singapore’s red light district. This is going to be an interesting conference.

For more details, please check

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 37: The 2014 APWT Conference Tentative Program


Bridging Cultures: Creative Writing and Literary Translation in Asia Today

17-20 July 2014 

The Art House, 1 Old Parliament Lane, Singapore

Program (Draft@24 April)* 

*Sessions or times are likely to change, so check back before the event.

Our ‘roundtables’ are so-called to encourage audience participation in conversations started by the featured authors.

Speaker biographies can be found here:

Thursday 17 July

08:30     Blue Room           Sign in, collect conference badge and handout.

Tea/coffee, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

09:00     CHAMBER           Welcome and Introduction.

09:15    CHAMBER            Opening Keynote (TITLE TBA) by Suchen Christine Lim.

09:50    CHAMBER            ROUNDTABLE. ‘What is Literature For? featuring the conference keynotes: Suchen Christine Lim with Linda Jaivin and Merlinda Bobis. Moderator TBC.

11.00     Blue Room           Refreshments, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

11:30     LIVING ROOM   ROUNDTABLE. Poetry: Art and Soul of It – This is a free-wheeling conversation about what poetry is and isn’t, led by Alfian bin Sa’at, Martin Alexander, Mani Rao, Menka Shivdasani, and Joshua Ip. Moderated by Jennifer Crawford.

11:30     CHAMBER           ROUNDTABLE. Twisting the Truth: Truth in Fiction, Lies in Non-Fiction. An exploration of story-telling as art and why we tell stories, with David Carlin, Lisa Walker (TBC), Michael Vatikiotis and Philip McLaren (TBC) – Moderated by Jose Dalisay.

12:45    Blue Room           Lunch, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC.

2:00      WORKSHOPS (4 hours) with Martin Alexander (COUNCIL ROOM) and Tim Tomlinson (Green Room). SEE DETAILS.

2:00        LIVING ROOM   ROUNDTABLE. The Art of Remembering. This broad conversation about writing memoir will be kicked off by Sally Breen, Tony Birch), Jessie Cole (TBC), and Victor Marsh in conversation with Francesca Rendle-Short.

2:00       CHAMBER            ROUNDTABLE. The Art of Forgetting. Fiction can take us away from our ‘real’ lives into different ways of seeing the world. Novelists talk about their work, featuring Kathryn Koromilas, Dipika Mukherjee (TBC) and Angelo Loukakis, in conversation with Maria Carmen Sarmiento. 

2:45        LIVING ROOM   Conversation on Writing Today from Pakistan with Iram Shafique and Farheen Chaudhry and Qaisra Shahraz.

2:45        CHAMBER           Changes to the Literary Landscape in Indonesia. A panel discussion led by John H. McGlynn with others (TBC) includingIwan Sulistiawan who will talk about changes ‘From Discrimination to Multiculturalism: Indonesian Chinese in Indonesian Novels’. Moderated by Michael Vatikiotis.

3:30     Blue Room       Refreshment, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

3:45    LITERARY WALK (TBC), organized by the Arts House. Meander through the fiction, non-fiction and fantasy of Singapore with award-winning writer Rosemary Lim (TBC). You will follow in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham, explore locations that inspired Rex Shelley and Edwin Thumboo. Discover Singapore as muse to novelists, playwrights and poets as you travel in time from colonial days to the present day through words and imagination.

4:00       Earshot Café     NEW WORK- Book Launches.

Help celebrate the launch of five new books. Menka Shivdasani launches an anthology of women’s writing from India; Eu Yoke Lin will launch her first book of poetry; John McGlynn launches a translation of a classical Malay tale “Krakatau: The Tale of Lampung Submerged”; Victor Marsh launches his memoir that draws on his experiences as a disoriented Australian who is initiated by a young guru; and Mani Rao will launch a Singapore edition of echolocation (Math Paper Press). Details will be available on a separate link.

6:30      Blue Room        Welcome Cocktails (TBC) – courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

EARSHOT CAFÉ (?)     Singapore Outloud (TBC). Poetry and short fiction readings with participating moderators Martin Alexander and Alfian Sa’at.

Friday 18 July

09:00     WORKSHOPS (4 hours) with Tony Birch (COUNCIL ROOM) and Nury Vittachi (Green Room).

09:00    CHAMBER            KEYNOTE: ‘Border Lover in Uncertain Times: Story-Making Across Cultures, Languages, and Literary Forms’ by Merlinda Bobis

09:45     CHAMBER           RoundtableWhat Women in Asia Write About Now, with Merlinda Bobis, Menka Shivdasani (TBC),Mridula Chakraborty, Farheen Chaudhry, and Qaisra Shahraz. Moderated by Judith Buchrich

09:45     LIVING ROOM Roundtable – TBA

10.15     Blue Room           Refreshments, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

10:45    LIVING ROOM   Gender Politics: Forcing the Issue– Victor Marsh, Jhoanna Cruz and Alfian Sa’at speak about issues that brought them out as writers. Moderator TBC.

10:45     CHAMBER           Changes to the Literary Landscape and New Publishing Opportunities (#1). This session discusses new magazines and other platforms with Zafar Anjum, Simon Clews, Martin Alexander, Kulpreet Yadav and others TBC, with participating moderator Kelly Falconer (Asia Literary Agency).

12:30    Blue Room           Lunch, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

1:00        LIVING ROOM   Book launches. Help celebrate the launch of books by Lydia Kwa, Bhavna Khemlani, Bob D’Costa and Farheen Chaudhry. Details will be available on a separate link.

2:00    Workshops (4 hours) with Sally Breen (COUNCIL ROOM) and Merlinda Bobis (Green Room). See

2:00     CHAMBER      Writing Under Political Pressure. ‘Prison Makes Poets of Us All,’ wrote Filipino political prisoner Alan Jazmines. Maria Carmen Sarmiento discusses the literary work of some political prisoners in the Philippines. At the age of 18 Jose Dalisay was himself a political prisoner for seven months under Filipino martial law (1973) and wrote his first novel about that experience (1992). He now writes nonfiction history of that period. Others on this panel include Alfred Birnbaum who translated the censored work of Burmese novelist Nu Nu Yi. Moderated by Michael Vatikiotis.

2:00        LIVING ROOM   How Translation Transforms both Text and Translator with Alfred Birnbaum, Andrea Berrini, Sun Xuefen (TBC) and Linda Jaivin, moderated by Mani Rao.

2:45        CHAMBER           Links and Fragments into Narrative Wholes

What can be done when a novel gets stuck – when the writer just cannot imagine what the next action is?  Tim Tomlinson has suggestions, while prolific author Nury Vittachi adds advice of his own. Cristina Hidalgo who has authored more than 30 books will also offer a few tips. Moderator TBC. 

2:45        LIVING ROOM     IN CONVERSATION. Shirley Lee, translator of North Korean poet Jang Jin Sung’s recently published disturbing memoir Dear Leader, in conversation about the book, its success and the issues associated with its translation, in conversation with her with her agent Marysia Juszxakiewicz of Peony Literary Agency. TBC

3:30        Blue Room           Refreshments, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

4: 00       CHAMBER           Roundtable. On Teaching Creative Writing in English and the Influence of the Mother Tongue. Join this discussion withDai Fan who teaches one of the few English language creative writing courses in China, Jayanthi Manoj who teaches in Trichy, India, Filipino teacehers Hope Sabanpan-Yu and Christine Godinez-Ortega (TBC), and Indigenous Australian author and professor Tony Birch. Moderated by Francesca Rendle-Short.

4:00     LIVING ROOM

5:30        EARSHOT CAFÉ                 Singapore Outloud #2 – Poetry and short fiction readings with participating moderators Joseph Ip and Mani Rao.

Saturday 19 July

09:00     Workshop (4 hours) with Francesca Rendle-Short (COUNCIL ROOM). See details.

09:00        CHAMBER        KEYNOTE: Found in Translation – In Praise of a Plural Worldby Linda Jaivin.

09:45     CHAMBER           RoundtableTranslation Thrills and Spills. Translators speak about their translation process and challenges, and share hilarious moments from their experience translating authors and poets who are too close, too far, and even omnipresent. Linda JaivinKyoko Yoshida, Andrea Lingenfelter and Menka Shivdasani with participating moderator Mani Rao.

09:45   LIVING ROOM   CONVERSATION “ASIAN SAVVY”. Changes to the Literary Landscape and New Publishing Opportunities (#2). Join in this lively conversation led by Nury Vittachi who contends that ‘Asia’ is poised to lead the literary world.

10.15     Blue Room           Refreshments, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

10:45     CHAMBER           How Translation Transforms both Text and Translator with Alfred Birnbaum, Andrea Berrini, Sun Xuefen (TBC) and Linda Jaivin, moderated by Mani Rao.

10:45     LIVING ROOM   Language and Politics: New Dynamics. Has the role of English shifted significantly in a postcolonial scenario? A dominant group can seize, assimilate, domesticate … is it any different when translating from English to vernacular languages? When so-called local, native or indigenous texts present culturally specific contexts, how can they be translated into more ‘universal’ contexts without misrepresentation? What goes into making non-English texts, “world literature”? If translation has now been exposed as colonial discourse, has it changed in a postcolonial context? Mridula Chakraborty, Antonette Talaue, Shafique Iram, Dipika Mukherjee(TBC) and/or Shirley Young-Eun Lee (TBC), moderated by Shelly Bryant.

12:30    Blue Room           Lunch, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC


1)      Re: Joint issue of Griffith REVIEW/ASIA LITERARY REVIEW publishers Susan Hornbeck (GR) and Martin Alexander (ALR), introduced by Jane Camens.

2)      Re: World Readers Award by Nury Vittachi.

3)      Overview of 2015 Meeting in the Philippines with Jose Dalisay (and the Filipino organizers).

1:00        CHAMBER           ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING of AP Writers. All members of AP Writers welcome. Appointment of a new Director and a new Translation Chair, account by the Executive Director of finances, and other matters aimed at improving and expanding AP Writers.

3:00        Blue Room           Refreshments, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

3:30 pm Literary Walk #2 TBC organized by the Arts House.

5:00        EARSHOT CAFÉ     Singapore Outloud #3 Readings, with participating moderators Bernice Chauly (TBC) and Sally Breen.

Sunday 20 July FREE PUBLIC DAY

 Full Public Program to come.

10:00   WORKSHOP Bring Out Your Best at POETRY SLAM with Marc Nair, organized by Word Forward. For poets intending to participate in our closing poetry slam. (Registered conference participants can perform in the Slam without attending this workshop.) Details to be provided soon.

From 10 AM, all day

  • Author conversations with Singapore and visiting authors before a public audience.
  • Readings with a Singapore audience.
  • Children’s session (2 pm) with Nury Vittachi. Other possible authors for this children’s session Bhavna Khemlani? Cris Barbra Pe? Angelo Loukakis? Others?

POETRY SLAM, organized by Word Forward.

Penman No. 95: Return to Hanoi

Penman for Monday, May 5, 2014

I HADN’T been back to Hanoi in 20 years, so last January, when Beng and I thought of a place to visit for the summer on one of Cebu Pacific’s promotional fares, Hanoi was at the top of my list. I’d taken Beng to Ho Chi Minh City a few years ago and we’d had a blast with the food, the history, and the shopping, so a northern sojourn seemed in order. Joining us on the trip last week were my niece Susie and her husband Toto, taking a break from their business chores and eager to be initiated into the cheap thrills of regional travel.

When we arrived past midnight, rain was lashing the city, and the unseasonable weather persisted to the next day. For the rest of our four-day stay the sky was overcast, not altogether a bad thing, as we hardly sweated on our marathon walking tours. Few people realize how far north Hanoi is, as used as we are to thinking of Vietnam in terms of Saigon, nearly as low on the map as Davao. But Vietnam is a very long, thin country, and to fly the three hours from Manila to Hanoi is to actually fly northwest, practically toward China.

While HCMC—the old Saigon—might swelter in the heat, Hanoi is happily cooler. It’s also older, smaller, and quieter than its southern counterpart, which makes for more pleasant touring. At its core, the city is lived in by just around 2 million people, so it’s a city that can still boast of a lot of greenery and free space, with sidewalks wide enough to host the ubiquitous, low-slung food stalls that the Vietnamese would probably starve to death without.

Few cities around the world can claim to be more than 1,000 years old, and that’s a milestone that Hanoi passed in 2010, to much fanfare. The event is still commemorated by a four-kilometer-long wall of mosaic art that runs along the city’s main avenue. Ranging in inspiration from Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” to comic-book art, the vibrant mural is free of any graffiti whatsoever. Paint, of course, would have a hard time sticking to the tiles, but perhaps more significantly, it’s a reminder of how strongly social order has been maintained by Vietnam’s political managers, despite its exuberant capitalism, manifest on every street and streetcorner, in the thousands of small shops that make up Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

The charm of old Hanoi was in the fact that its traditional center—the “36 Streets District”—used to be devoted to guilds of craftsmen, with each guild occupying a street, the silk merchants here and the shoemakers there, and so on. Some of that remains—the silk shops and therefore Beng and Susie themselves were mostly to be found on Hang Gai street—but modernization, plastic, and mass production have inevitably worked their way into the Old Quarter, rendering swaths of it indistinguishable from other streets in Shanghai, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur. All these are signs of the energetic entrepreneurship that has swept up the Vietnamese; I read that almost 98 percent of businesses in Vietnam are small ones, and it did seem that nearly every Vietnamese person we met was a shopkeeper or a tradesman. “We work from 9 in the morning to 11 in the evening,” said one girl in a souvenir shop, in the same tone she would have used to talk about the weather.


Speaking of shopping, any visitor to Vietnam quickly realizes that you become an instant millionaire the minute you exchange as little as US$50, which is equivalent to just over a million dong, or VND. (Toto devised an easy way to figure out how much things cost in pesos—drop the last three zeroes, then multiply the remaining number by two, so 400,000 dong is 800 pesos.) Costs have gone up a bit, but Tripadvisor recently still listed Hanoi as the world’s cheapest city for tourists: a one-night stay in a four-star hotel, and cocktails and dinner for two with wine plus taxi for two miles averaged just $141, compared to London’s $518.

When I first visited Hanoi in 1994 with a small group of Filipino journalists and artists, we stayed in a hostel in an old French-colonial building; our room had a ceiling fan and a mosquito net, and it cost us all of $5 per day. This time (thanks to our daughter Demi’s employee discount) we were booked at the swanky Sheraton overlooking the West Lake, with free wifi and the kind of sumptuous breakfast buffet that you could just as well find in Hong Kong’s or Singapore’s best hotels. A leisurely walk along the nearby lakefront revealed that a robust industry had sprung up in the construction of modern “executive villas”, presumably for expats and managers. Every now and then a coffee shop broke the succession of leased apartments; Vietnam is one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of coffee, and Hanoi is dotted with virtual temples to the godly brew.

Aside from coffee, the most popular drinks seemed to be fresh coconut water and the local Bia Noi beer—all of which, of course, we joyfully imbibed. Just as naturally, food is one of the best reasons for visiting Vietnam, and Hanoi did not fail to satisfy in this department, with rice noodles, spring rolls, roast pork, and fresh fruit topping the menu.

But for all that they had to eat and drink, the Vietnamese we met remained slim and fit, ready for another long day’s work. Surely there must be poor and even very poor people in Vietnam—you just can’t find them on the streets of Hanoi; not once were we approached by a beggar or a street person; neither were the sellers as pushy with their wares as they might be elsewhere in many an Asian market. Come to think of it, we didn’t meet too many uniformed policemen, and no blue guards stood watch over stores and businesses.

In the museums—such as the military memorial that impressed me the first time I saw it, with its display of scraps from fallen B-52s—grim reminders exist of the horrors of that terrible war by which alone many outsiders know Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum—built in his honor against his express wishes—was closed the day we visited, but even among the milling crowds outside at Independence Park, the affection for the man was palpable; unlike Mao and Stalin, Ho was more a teacher and an uncle than a ruler or despot, and books of his poetry were still sold in the bookstores.

Hanoi is a city of parks and lakes, the most famous of them being Hoan Kiem in the Old Quarter, its centerpiece a temple to which pilgrims cross over a red bridge; I daresay that no one visits Hanoi without having his or her picture taken on that bridge. Nor will tourists miss the famous Water Puppet Theater in one corner of that lakeshore, a cultural institution that draws on the traditional affinity of the Vietnamese to the water, defined as the north and south are by the Red and Mekong Rivers. Playing for at least four one-hour shows every day, the theater was packed with tourists, each one paying just around 200 pesos for truly unique, ingenious, and wholesome entertainment.

The smiles on our faces as we stepped out of that theater pretty much summed up our long Hanoi weekend, and over coffee in a park beside Hoan Kiem, the inevitable question came up: if the Vietnamese can do this for themselves, why can’t we?