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

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