Penman for Monday, May 30, 2016
FOR THE first time in ages, the UP National Writers Workshop—a project sustained without fail by the University of the Philippines since 1965—is being held away from its traditional venue in Baguio, this time on the foothills of Mt. Makiling in Los Baños, where UP has another major campus. The UPNWW has risen to become the premier workshop for mid-career writers in both English and Filipino, and by “mid-career” we mean writers who have published or are in the process of publishing their first book. Typically these are writers in their 30s and 40s who may be employed in jobs having little or nothing to do with creative writing, who may be teaching, or who may be simply stuck in a rut waiting for that push or kick to resume a stalled love affair with letters.
Toward December every year, we—meaning the UP Institute of Creative Writing, which runs the workshop and which I head as director—put out a call for applications for qualified writers to join the week-long workshop. No one gets a free pass—no matter how good you are or how many books you’ve published, you have to go through the application process and submit an excerpt from a work in progress and a short essay on your poetics (in other words, why you write what you write).
I could tell, even from the applications, that this year’s batch was one of the best we’ve put together in recent years. In it are Vijae Orquia Alquisola (poetry, Filipino), Celine Beatriz Fabie (CNF, English), Rolly Jude M. Ortega (novel, English), RM Topacio Aplaon (novel, Filipino), Vincent Abejuela Dioquino (poetry, English), Francisco Montesena (poetry, Filipino), Melecio Turao (poetry, English), Ma. Elena Paulma (CNF, English), Mina V. Esguerra (fiction, English), Cheeno Sayuno (children’s fiction, English), Enrique Villasis (poetry, Filipino), and Visconde Carlo Vergara (drama, Filipino).
We’re midway through the workshop as I write this, and already I’ve been impressed by what I’ve been reading and listening to. In particular, three women we brought into the workshop (sorry, guys, but ladies first) ably demonstrated the range and quality of the work at hand.
Celine Beatriz Fabie is an actress and singer by training, but her biography of her grandmother, the actress Mona Lisa, won for her the Madrigal Gonzalez Best First Book Award last year, and her continuing foray into creative nonfiction yielded a poignant recollection of her father’s passing:
“When dad went, a nurse came in and started cleaning his body, a body which hadn’t been moving anymore. I asked her if I could do it. I started wiping him and asked the nurse, my mom, and my uncle if he could be left there for a little while, if it’s okay that they didn’t take him away just yet, if I could just be given a moment to be with him a little more. I crawled in bed with my dad, who clearly wasn’t there any longer. I took his face in my hands, stayed there for an hour that seemed to me a fraction of second, and told him I loved him. Just that I loved him. There were no last promises, no saying goodbyes. I knew for a fact that there was no time and place in this lifetime that I would find myself ready. I was back to being his little girl in an instant, forever, and the little girl, I’m afraid, will never be ready to say goodbye.”
Elena Paulma spent a few years as a Cenacle nun before teaching Literature at Xavier University. I was especially proud when a short story she wrote for my class won First Prize at the Palancas in 2011. For the workshop, Elena submitted a meditation on the Sendong disaster that ravaged parts of Mindanao, which she and a friend also from Cagayan de Oro, Jeena Rani Marquez, are writing a book about. Elena recalls:
“And the raindrops just keep coming, now in torrents sweeping across the land, flowing down from mountains laid bare by chainsaws, waves of it now from the raging river washing onto the darkened houses in the subdivisions, in the main thoroughfares, along the highways, and falling riverbanks.
“Later, there will be hundreds of feet lined on the streets, dangling from trucks, hanging from roofs and treetops. Many of the houses will be no more, the whispered words and laughter silenced by the whirlpooling waters that the rains had become.
“Much later, even years later, there are those who will shiver when a single drop of rain hits the tin roof in the night. They will want to get up from their beds, gather the things that survived the demon floods that devoured houses, cars, friends, dogs, and families, and run far away from the mere sound of rain.
“It will take a long time, a very long time, before the darkness that gathers in every household each time it rains will be cleansed away.”
Mina V. Esguerra comes from a background in Communications, which she has deftly employed to become a pioneer in digital publishing, selling thousands of copies of her romance novels online. She firmly believes that Filipino authors can break through to the global market, and that romance novels offer a viable way forward. Not surprisingly, her novels carry an upscale, millennial vibe. In her workshop piece, two characters find themselves trapped in an elevator:
“We both backed away from the speaker and… had nowhere else to go. It was hard to not look at each other, though, because all four walls of the elevator were reflective surfaces. If I looked one way, I would see his eyes, the nice shape of his lips. The sweep of his hair up and to the left, revealing a worried forehead. The other wall reflected an image of his broad back, straight and rigid because he was looking up, waiting for the display to change. A little lower down that wall and I could check out how his butt curved in his jeans, and…
“No no no, don’t go there, Iris.”
Next week, I’ll share snippets of new work from some other workshoppers, to display the range of material and treatments that we’re dealing with. The important thing is to show and to see that Philippine literature is very much alive and advancing on many fronts, assuming a variety of voices, styles, and approaches.
Another benefit of this reacquaintance with Los Baños is discovering how the campus has changed and grown since I first visited it as a freshman on the staff of the Philippine Collegian to attend the College Editors Guild of the Philippines conference in 1971. Among my most pleasant encounters this week has been that with a former student from way back, Yvette Co, who now runs the Ginhawa Craft Studio Café in a dome-shaped kiosk in one corner of the sprawling UPLB Alumni Plaza.
As its name suggests, it’s a studio, gallery, performance space, and café all in one, a new and natural convergence point for lovers of the arts in Los Baños. Yvette—a Philosophy major who shifted to Interior Design and who now sculpts and paints—leased the space to breathe new life into a campus more known for agricultural studies, and her works and those of other guest artists blend in with that environment, utilizing scraps of wood and other natural objects as might be found in the area.
So thank you, Los Baños, for the warm welcome.