Penman No. 184: Degrees and Diplomas

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Penman for Monday, January 25, 2015

 

 

IT WAS with much interest that my eye strayed last week to a story on the BBC website with the headline ‘Penguin scraps degree requirement.” The article went on to report that publishing giant Penguin Random House—presumably one of the world’s most literate employers—was no longer requiring applicants for any job in the company to show college diplomas.

“The firm wants to have a more varied intake of staff and suggests there is no clear link between holding a degree and performance in a job. This announcement follows a series of financial companies dropping academic requirements for applicants. Neil Morrison, human resources director, says they want talented staff ‘regardless of background’,” the article noted. The report went on to say that leading accounting firms such as Deloitte and Ernst & Young had also relaxed their educational requirements, with Deloitte changing its selection process so recruiters would not know what schools its applicants had attended.

It’s a novel idea that sounds fair and makes sense, but I’m sure it will take some time before Philippine businesses catch on, as obsessed as we Pinoys are with college diplomas, especially those that come from certain schools. Just scan the Sunday classifieds in any local newspaper—for jobs of any real economic and social worth, your typical non-equal-opportunity employer will demand a piece of parchment from a “Class A” university, which will count more than any previous experience you may have acquired.

Arguably, that wasn’t always the case. We baby boomers belong to a generation—probably the last one—for whom gutsiness and scrappiness was still the best way forward, rather than degrees and diplomas. Just ask any taipan how many of them have Wharton MBAs. One of them whom I happen to know, because I’ve written his family’s history—Filinvest founder Andrew Gotianun Sr.—didn’t go beyond two years of college at San Beda, and had to drop out because of his father’s unexpected demise. His wife Mercedes, Filinvest’s other dynamo (Andrew was the visionary, Mercedes the executor), graduated from UP with a BS in Pharmacy, magna cum laude—but what led to her success as a banker wasn’t college but streetsmarts. “I made friends with the owners of banks abroad and convinced them to lend me their operations manuals,” Mercedes told me, “which we then adapted to local conditions. That’s how Family Savings Bank began.”

Indeed it used to be that you could get places without a college degree, as long as you had talent and guts (you needed both—just one wouldn’t have done it). Among writers, in particular, a degree was a bonus, maybe even a demerit, in those pre-MFA (Master of Fine Arts, the writing degree of choice) days. The old conviction was that, to know how to write, you had to know how to read, and the serious would-be writer read a lot outside of school without having to be told. The real test of the writer was, well, in the writing—in the quality and the consistency of one’s craft, rather than in the number of English units one could present.

There was no finer example of this than the late National Artist NVM Gonzalez, who never finished college (he did go to National University), but who went on to a distinguished writing and academic career here and in the US. The late journalist I. P. Soliongco was another such titan in his field. My friends Pete Lacaba and Krip Yuson, both dropouts by choice, deserve honorary PhDs for all their work as far as I’m concerned—not that they would care—but more valuable is the fact that they’ve been asked to teach and to share their expertise with younger Filipinos.

My own dad Jose Sr. also dropped out of college—he was the smartest kid of his time in our province of Romblon and could have gone on to become a de campanilla lawyer, but was too poor and also perhaps too confident in his abilidad to go the full distance, and soon fathered me and my four siblings. Seeing him write as well as he did—he was a keen reader of novels and magazines—I grew up believing that I didn’t need a college degree, either, to get where I wanted, so I dropped out of UP in my freshman year to get a job as a newspaper reporter. My younger brother Jess, also a talented writer, obviously had the same impression and did exactly the same thing, dropping out of UP before landing jobs with San Miguel’s PR department and later becoming editor-in-chief of the Mindanao Cross. I went on to work with the National Economic and Development Authority for ten years, even earning a graduate UP diploma in Development Economics as a special student and working on special detail with the United Nations Development Programme, doing project studies. I began writing plays, stories, and screenplays and winning Palancas, and felt that I could have gone on for life with little more than my 21 undergraduate units in English and 30 grad units in Economics.

But one day in 1981—after attending the Silliman Writers Workshop and falling under the spell of Robert Graves—I decided to go back to school as a returning sophomore, at the age of 27. I found school exhilarating, and later quit my job to study full-time, with my wife Beng taking up the slack. To be honest, it wasn’t the fiction that roped me in, but the poetry of Sidney, Wyatt, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, and James Dickey, among others. Having tasted such ambrosia, I craved more, and so I went on to Michigan for an MFA and to Wisconsin for a PhD, both on fellowships, making up for lost time (BA at age 30, MFA at 34, PhD at 37). I told myself that there was nothing more that I wanted to do for the rest of my life but write, teach, and spend time with family. There was, I must say, a great material and emotional cost to these degrees, which had I known it then I might not have been willing to pay. But with the deed done, I can’t regret the fact that these degrees have allowed me to move up the job ladder and gain the respect of people who haven’t the faintest idea what I do.

I finished college not so I could get a good job, which I already had, or so I could append little letters to my name, which I hardly use outside of work. (No self-respecting writer, as far as I know, has ever flaunted his or her PhD; you’d simply be laughed out of the place.) I did it for love—for the love of knowledge, especially the kind of knowledge for which there exists no practical utility and which is therefore the purest and sweetest, and for the love of my parents, who deserved some payback for all their hard work and sacrifice.

Make no mistake: I do agree with Penguin in broadening their search for good people to those without diplomas from Harvard or Oxbridge to show. You could miss out on a Steve Jobs, a Bill Gates, or a Mark Zuckerberg that way. But you could also always drop out of college, do your thing, and go back when you have the time to finish up—like Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Shaquille O’Neal did. Make that “Dr. O’Neal”—Shaq even went on to pick up a doctorate in Education in 2012.

And what about my brother Jess? He went back to school, too, earning a BA in Journalism at age 49, and a Bachelor of Laws at age 55. A published author, he now practices and teaches law, completing our father’s dream. Sometimes, those degrees and diplomas do count—for all the right reasons.

 

Penman No. 183: Why I Choose to Italicize

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Penman for Monday, January 18, 2016

 

ONE OF the more interesting sidelights in our discussions at the NVM Gonzalez Centennial Workshop in Mindoro a couple of weeks ago had to do with the seemingly small issue of whether or not to italicize Filipino and other non-English words in an English text.

The conventional practice, of course, has been to italicize words like utang na loob, bagoong, kaibigan, and so on. That’s explicitly embodied in editorial stylebooks employed by such publications as The Economist, which hews to the policy that “FOREIGN WORDS AND PHRASES, such as cabinet (French type), dalits, de rigueur, jihad, glasnost, Hindutva, in camera, intifada, loya jirga, Mitbestimmung, pace, papabile, perestroika, sarariman, Schadenfreude, ujamaa, should be set in italics unless they are so familiar that they have become anglicised and so should be in roman. For example: ad hocapartheid
 a priori
 a propos
 avant-garde, etc.”

Not everyone, however, feels bound by this rule. Increasingly, over the past couple of decades, writers of color in both the US and the Commonwealth (and, yes, the Philippines) have chosen to resist and reject italicization, believing that doing so represents a form of acquiescence to the dominance of English, and of exoticizing one’s own language, making it appear quainter and therefore more artificially attractive than it should. It’s a political rather than a mere technical decision, a declaration of independence, as it were, from the strictures of style laid down by the old regime.

One of the most quoted sources for this position is the New York-based novelist Daniel Jose Older, who demonstrates in a YouTube video why italicizing Spanish words and phrases in an English text would sound silly in the real, spoken world.

This was brought up again at the recent NVM Gonzalez workshop, where half of the participants were Filipino-Americans who came over from the US. The workshop leader—the very capable fictionist Dr. Evelina Galang, who directs the creative writing program at the University of Miami—discussed the use of Filipino words in a mainly English text, and why glossaries (and, not incidentally, italics) are better dispensed with, leaving the writer with the responsibility of establishing or at least hinting at their meaning in context.

(Evelina has an essay devoted to this concern, and let me quote an eloquent passage from that piece: “As a girl who grew up hanging upside down on easy chairs with a book in her hand, I often read words—English and other words—that I did not understand. I rarely stopped to define them. Sometimes I wrote them down and looked them up later. (I was a geek, after all.) But more often than not, having stepped into a fiction John Gardner called ‘that vivid and continuous dream,’ and driven to know what happened next, I kept reading. Like Angel, I let the words wash right over me, I watched them working next to other words. I listened to them. I tasted them and felt the weight of them in my mouth. I imagined them surrounded by nothing at all. I followed them as they floated down the page, bumping into semicolons, swimming through parentheses, slapping up against em-dashes, evading italics, and falling right off the page. I read the words in context and, right or wrong, I gave the words their meaning.”

I agree perfectly with Evelina as far as contextualization goes. I’ve always taken it as a technical challenge to show what Filipino words like bucayo and manananggal mean without defining them in that direct but clumsy way that glossaries or footnotes provide. Importantly, Evelina went on to emphasize that these choices are, ultimately, for each author to make for his or her own good reasons, and that those choices deserve to be respected by other writers and readers.

As it happens, I’m one of the holdouts in the matter of italicization, and I premise my position on both technical and political grounds. First, in terms of readability, italics may seem intrusive—and if there’s too many of them in the text, that will certainly be true—but my pet theory is that it’s actually easier on the reader’s eye and mind to spot a non-English word coming up in the text and to prepare for it, rather than be surprised by something “foreign”, even if it’s one of our own. (Just imagine the confusion that words like “ate” (older sister), “pain” (bait), and “noon” (then) would make.) Personally, I don’t want my readers—especially in my fiction—stopping to wonder what specific words mean, which is why the older I get, the simpler my vocabulary becomes; I want the reader to grasp whole sentences, paragraphs, and scenes, and not to trip on individual words.

Politically, when I italicize Filipino words in an English text, I also mean to say that these words are special to me and to my culture, and I don’t want them to be diluted by a dominant foreign language, which is English. As far as I’m concerned, the whole book in English is already a translation of Filipino experience; most of the dialogue there was never spoken in English, in the first place.

I suppose it’s different when you’re writing in English as a minority in America, and you feel bound (as I would, in that situation) to claim and establish a parity between your mother tongue and English. And let’s face it—for many hyphenated minorities, especially second- and third-generation writers, English has become their mother tongue. When they write fiction about themselves, their characters will speak in English, and the odd Filipino word will be just that.

Indeed the issue goes beyond italicization; the question of when and how to use Filipino or other non-English words in an English text should be seriously pondered by every Filipino or Filipino-American (and Filipino-Canadian, etc.) writing in English, mindful that there are words and concepts in Filipino without exact translations in English, which might be better used as is. (And as Salman Rushdie once put it, “To unlock a language, look at its untranslatable words.”) However, one also needs to resist the urge to exoticize one’s writing by peppering it needlessly with native words and expressions just to add more “local color,” especially when ready translations are available.

I’ll go at greater length into matters of translation in another column-piece, but I’ll rest my case on this issue of italics for now, hoping that it adds a bit more asim to the global sinigang of language.

Penman No. 182: In NVM’s Footsteps

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Penman for Monday, January 11, 2016

 

 

I’M WRITING this in Calapan, Oriental Mindoro, where I’ve come with a group of writers, most of them visiting Filipino-Americans, for the second and closing leg of the NVM Gonzalez Workshop, organized and led by NVM’s son Dr. Michael Gonzalez. Last year, 2015, marked the centenary of the late National Artist’s birth, and Myke thought that it would be fitting to hold the workshop, now on its sixth iteration, in the place most closely associated with his father, Mindoro.

NVM was actually born in my home province, Romblon (“about 60 kilometers and 40 years away,” I like to say), but he grew up in Mindoro, and wrote most of his works about its hardy people and their way of life, even when he moved to the United States. NVM died in 1999, but his memory remains fresh among his friends, colleagues, and former students on both sides of the Pacific. It was to honor that memory that Myke put this group together for both a workshop and a literary pilgrimage to the Philippines.

This year’s US-based contingent includes Mary Grace Bertulfo, who has written for television and children’s education and who runs a children’s creative writing workshop, Taleblazers, in Chicago; Anna Alves, a PhD student with the American Studies Program at Rutgers University in New Jersey; Chris “Kawika” Guillermo, a mixed-race Asian-American with Chinese, Filipino and Irish roots who has a PhD in English from the University of Washington, specializing in Asian and Asian-American fiction; Lisa Suguitan Melnick, a third-generation Filipina-American, an adjunct professor at the College of San Mateo and a contributing writer for PositivelyFilipino.com; Penelope Flores, a retired mathematician and educator from San Francisco State University; Myke Gonzalez, of course, who teaches Philippine Studies and Behavioral Science at the City College of San Francisco; and Evelina Galang, the workshop director, an accomplished fictionist who directs the Creative Writing program at the University of Miami.

Their local counterparts were Kat Cruz, a UP Business Administration graduate and company executive with a keen interest in writing; Meeko Camba, a young opera singer now studying Journalism in UP; Sarah Matias, a Creative Writing major who now runs Ant Savvy Creatives, a marketing and events company; Marily Orosa, a prizewinner publisher of coffee table books; Timmy Tuason, an expert in instructional design, materials development and project management; Jojo Hosaka, a surgeon and dog-show judge (and, like Timmy, a fellow fountain-pen enthusiast); Claire Agbayani, a graduate writing student at DLSU and PR practitioner; Judith Castillo, a teacher of English in Calapan; and Raul Manicad, an engineer, businessman, and guitarmaker. Myke and Evelyn were backstopped on the teaching staff by veteran fictionist Charlson Ong and myself.

We held the first part of the workshop from January 4 to 5 at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, where NVM had taught for many years in the 1950s, in the Gonzalo Gonzalez Reading Room of the College of Arts and Letters Library, which my office—the UP Institute of Creative Writing—administers as a repository of contemporary Philippine and Southeast Asian literature. From January 6 to 9, we moved to Calapan, where NVM used to go from their home in Mansalay to type out his manuscripts at the municipio, on paper that, Myke recalls, NVM apparently “borrowed” from the municipal government, whose stamp it bore.

The mixed composition of the group and the diversity of the participants’ backgrounds led to some very interesting discussions dealing with identity, race, language, and representation. While this was a writers’ workshop focused as much on technique as one’s philosophy of writing, inevitably the politics of writing took the foreground, given the Fil-Ams’ engagement with the issues that come with writing as a minority in America.

We talked about how the writer’s political positions define or feed into craft and technique, and how they shape the story itself. Understandably, given the environment they operate in, our US-based friends were keen on discussing the representation of race, of the Other, and the depiction of character in a racially or ethnically charged environment. We agreed that it was important to be accurate and to be fair in creating characters who will inevitably be seen to represent their race, whatever they may be; on the other hand, I interjected, it was just as important to remember that the character had first to succeed as an individual in the story, and that the character could even—and more interestingly—go against type; while we share many beliefs and practices as Filipinos, not all Filipinos think alike, and thankfully so.

The discussions also became a mutual revelation of what it was like to write as a Filipino and as a Filipino-American, and how we could be so similar yet also different in many ways. It wasn’t just the vocabulary, but the sensibility that came into play. In the end, we took the cue from NVM himself, who once famously explained his use of language thus: “I write in Filipino, using English.”

I learned a new word from Myke, who has a background in the social sciences—schismogenesis, promoted by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson in the 1930s, which roughly translates into how groups proliferate by breaking up. The context was the oft-made observation of how Fil-Ams and their organizations tend to fall apart because of personal and political differences (by one account I read, there are more than 3,500 Fil-Am organizations in Southern California alone)—a tendency we uniformly deplore. But Myke’s new word suggests a positive aspect, a way by which a race and its culture propagates itself.

We’d like to thank our hosts—the Madrigal-Gonzalez clan, for the use of the reading room in UP; Myke’s sister Selma, who spread out a very generous merienda for us; the Mother Butler Guild of Calapan, who conducted a charming putongan ceremony for the visitors; Florante Villarica, who has written a history of Oriental Mindoro and who had us over for dinner at his home; Anya Postma and the Mangyan Heritage Center, who made a wonderful presentation on Mangyan life and culture; and Chicago-based Almi Gilles, who lent us her their family’s beach house in Puerto Galera for our penultimate day in Mindoro.

And thanks, of course, to Myke and the Gonzalez family, for keeping their father’s flame alive.

Penman No. 181: A Designer on an Island

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Penman for Monday, January 4, 2016

 

 

ONE OF the side benefits of our recent visit to Bohol was an opportunity to reconnect with an old friend and professional colleague, the prizewinning book designer Felix Mago Miguel, who has chosen to live and work in Bohol for the past ten years with his wife Amel and their five children.

Beng and I had known Felix for a long time, since she saw and bought some of his paintings and gifted the then-newlyweds with her own painting and some plates by the potter Lanelle Abueva-Fernando. (“The plates are all gone now, because we used them and would break one every year,” said Amel apologetically, “but the painting’s still there!”) Felix and I had worked together, as writer and designer, on some coffee table book projects, notably those on Philippine-American relations, the Mt. Apo geothermal project, and the Government Service Insurance System. After my early collaborations with the late, lamented Nik Ricio, it was a relief and a pleasure to find the young and talented Felix, who has rightfully taken over Nik’s mantle as one of the country’s most sought-after book designers.

We invited the couple over to lunch at our hotel and we had a nice long chat about life, work, and what it’s like to keep on top of your profession from an island far from the country’s business and cultural center.

“Honestly, it hasn’t been all that difficult,” said the former Manileño. “In fact, I didn’t tell my clients for a whole year that I was working from Bohol because they might worry about my accessibility and meeting deadlines and so on. But with the help of the Internet and by scheduling my trips to Manila, I’ve been able to cope with the demands of the job. I use WeTransfer and Google Drive to move large files online, on my SmartBro account.”

Amelia Zubiri was born in Bohol, but also grew up and went to school in Manila, where she and Felix met in UP Diliman, where Felix was a Fine Arts major, graduating in 1992. They decided to move to Bohol to get away from Manila’s toxic atmosphere and to raise their children, now aged 16 to 7, in a healthier and more relaxed environment; all the children—the twins Ulan Kalipay and Ulap Namnama, Angin Kalinaw, Araw Naasi, and Langit Biyaya (the only one born on the island)—have been home-schooled. Deeply spiritual, the Miguels have learned to repose their trust in Providence, and their faith has been well placed.

When a huge earthquake devastated Bohol on October 15, 2013—just two weeks before supertyphoon Yolanda ravaged the Visayas—the Miguels and their one-storey home emerged shaken but unscathed, and they shared their good fortune by helping out with relief efforts. “The earthquake was a life-changer for many Boholanos,” Amel reflected. “It encouraged many Boholanos who had left for jobs overseas to come home and spend more time with their families. Seeing the new houses they had painstakingly built crushed in seconds seemed to remind them that nothing was more important than time together.”

Most of these OFWs work as seafarers, an occupation historically favored by Visayans. “It’s not uncommon for a Boholano family to have one or two seamen working on ocean-going vessels,” said Amel. “You can tell the houses that they build with their remittances by little design elements like anchors and portholes,” added Felix, smiling.

Felix Mago Miguel’s own journey to the crest of the book design business is a story of good breaks, sheer talent, and perseverance. Now 44, he started out in 1996 by designing Soledad Lacson-Locsin’s landmark translations of the Noli and Fili for Bookmark. “I’d done book covers before, but this was the first time that the publisher, Lori Tan, let me do everything from cover to cover,” said Felix. Later that same year, another book project, Water in the Ring of Fire: Folktales from the Asia-Pacific, edited by Carla M. Pacis, won for Felix his first design award from the National Book Awards. Since then, he has designed over a hundred books, some of them winning him recognition from the National Book Awards and the Gintong Aklat competition.

It isn’t the awards, however, that drives him to excel in his craft, but the satisfaction that he gets out of seeing a happy client. The project that has given him the most pleasure has been XYZ: The Creativity of Jaime Zobel, which drew on Zobel’s three decades of work in photography and art. “Don Jaime was so ecstatic about the book that he told me he needed to take a Valium to calm down,” recalled Felix. It’s that kind of reception that drives Felix to spend long nights staring at a computer screen, poring over one image after another.

The most technically challenging was Cuaresma, put together by Cora Alvina and edited by Gilda Cordero-Fernando and Fernando Zialcita, and winner of the National Book Award in 2000. “This was before digital photography, and I had to work with a huge box of color slides,” said Felix. But then again, “The technical aspects of book design are often easier to deal with than some people behind the books,” Felix confessed.

Like me, he’s had his share of good book projects that, for some reason or another, went nowhere. He did get paid for work done, as I was, but it’s such a waste of labor and good material when a project that seemed so promising never sees the light of day, because someone in the production process fails to deliver, or because the clients themselves lose interest or change their minds. Thankfully for Felix and me—as I wrote in this column a few weeks ago—coffee table books remain in high demand, and I expect to be working with him again on one or two forthcoming projects soon. One current project he’s excited about is a book on native Philippine trees that he’s doing for the Lopezes.

While he’s based in Tagbilaran, Felix flies out to Manila to personally check on his projects in the press. This used to be done abroad for high-quality printing jobs, but local printers have expanded and improved significantly enough to take on the challenge. “Our best local printers like House Printers can now compete head to head with their counterparts in Hong Kong and Singapore,” Felix said. (House Printers produced one of my most recent books, the biography of former Sen. Ed Angara.)

He misses painting, and spoke wistfully about the last big painting he did, a mural for the Church of Gesu on the Ateneo campus in Quezon City. But the children, the Miguels said, seem to be taking intuitively to art; Felix and Amel have monitored their time online to make sure that they can attend to more active and creative pursuits, and it may not be long before this couple’s decision to forsake Manila for a southern island bears fruit beyond more beautiful books.

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