Penman No. 362: Writers in Progress

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Penman for Monday, July 15, 2019

 

I’M ALWAYS happy when people who were my students rise up in their careers and begin to find their own voice and footing—especially as writers, good ones among whom remain few and far between. Each year, the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing gathers the best of these young writing talents under one roof and around one table for the UP National Writers Workshop, the 58th iteration of which took place last week in its traditional venue in Baguio City.

Two of the 12 fellows—each of whom qualified for the advanced workshop by publishing at least one book—were Francis Quina and Sarah Fernando Lumba, both of whom had studied withme at one point or other, and whose thesis defenses I had sat at; both now teach at UP Diliman’s English department.This year’s batch was formidable, with some well-established names on the roster, but I kept an eye out for Francis and Sarah, to see how they were doing after all these years.

All workshop fellows were required to send in a short essay discussing their poetics (what, why, and how they write) along with short excerpts from their works in progress.

Francis said: “Recently, when my first short story collection was picked up by a publisher, the reader who had endorsed my manuscript to be published noted that I wrote about strong female and queer characters…. I’ve only known strong women in my life. And strong queer men and women, too. So I only write what I know. This also is true of the fallible male characters that I write about.

His project Window on the World brings two sisters together—each of them trapped and unhappy in their respective situations—on a plane for a holiday in Korea.

 “I’m scared,” Janine confessed, after they had stowed their bags in the overhead compartment and found their seats. She fumbled with the buckles of the safety belts. Maya knew what Janine meant. She had never been a good flyer, and perhaps because of what had happened to their mother, she never would be.

 “We’re going to be okay,” Maya said, feeling her heart beat faster as the plane began the pre-flight sequence. In front of them, two stewardsa man and a womandemonstrated how to deploy a life jacket in case of emergency landing at sea.

Maya fell asleep before the demonstration ended. She didn’t feel Janine take her hand and squeeze it nervously as the plane roared and slowly tilted upwards as they began their ascent. She didn’t feel the sensation of falling, as her mother did, the moment they left the ground and fate took hold of their future.

Somewhere between the 1,623 miles between Seoul and Manila, Janine nudged her sister awake and told her to look out the window just once, to see how endless the world was. Maya, groggy from her medication and nervousness, obliged and got up from her seat. With her sister, she finally looked at the world the way their mother used to.

Sarah, on the other hand, is working on a comic novel titled Twisted Sisters about martial law and revisionism (our dismaying tendency to forget history and repeat it all over again) set in her hometown of Marikina. “There are two main points that I wish to explore in this novel,” she says. “First, the reasons behind the significant support that Ferdinand Marcos continues to enjoy despite empirical data showing that much oppression had been committed by his regime; and second, the extent to which comic and humorous writing could help a people come to terms with—and even come together after—a collective trauma such as martial law.

She writes: “Metro Manila traffic is a hundred ways to die. You can get hit by a car as you cross the crosswalk. Be dragged to death by a motorcyclist careening through the sidewalk. Squished by two bullish buses. Knifed by a strangler as you wait for a jeep. Knifed inside a UV Express by a smartphone snatcher. Have a heart attack just by watching the taxi meter running continuously even if traffic hasn’t budged in the last thirty minutes. Drop dead just waiting for your Grab ride to arrive. Get choked by fumes inside your car because it’s summer and your AC’s busted and you kept your windows up just so you wouldn’t look poor. Get choked in your car by your husband who snaps because of, well, the traffic. Get choked by a druggie whom you meet in prison after you snap and kill your wife in the car because of, well, the traffic. Drown inside your car because flood levels in the streets rise faster than your speedometer. Get squashed by a derailed train coach overhead. Get assaulted with that mandatory lead pipe under the driver’s seat. Assaulted with an empty My Shaldan Lime canister. Shot by a policeman. By a car owner with a licensed gun. By a car owner with an unlicensed gun. Beaten to death by a pack of heat-stroked, smog-coated, PNP-wannabe MMDA enforcers. By a pedicab driver whose ride you scratched. By a congressman because, wala lang, he’s bored and has clout, and you’re there. Metro Manila traffic is death by asphyxiation. By exhaustion. By utter frustration. You can have an aneurysm just by staring at license plates or the sunburned napes of other passengers for two hours straight. You have become a human pipe bomb, a government imprimatur-ed minefield of nasty. One tiny fuse, one small misstep—ka-boom! Road rage. You are better off taking up smoking as your vice.”

Francis and Sarah, you’re well on your way to authorhood.

 

 

Penman No. 361: Intelligence Without Values

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Penman for Monday, July 8, 2019

 

IT’S NOT very often that a writer or artist gets invited to talk to an audience of science people, so I feel privileged to have done that a few times, most notably in 2004, when I spoke before the National Academy of Science and Technology on “The Role of the Humanities in Our Intellectual and Cultural Life,” and these past two years when I addressed the graduating classes of the UP College of Science and College of Medicine.

But I didn’t feel as personally invested in those talks as when, last week, I spoke at the curricular review workshop of the Philippine Science High School, being someone who had dreamed of becoming a scientist and who actually tried to become an engineer and an economist before settling for an English major.

I entered the PSHS in 1966, long before there was a Philippine High School for the Arts for the artistically inclined, but even given the choice today I would have stayed with the PSHS, to which I’m forever grateful for giving me a dry-eyed, rationalist outlook to ballast my more extravagant impulses.

I reminded my PSHS audience that despite the best efforts of our science managers and educators, we Filipinos continue to live in an environment largely indifferent if not hostile to science. Indeed our artists and scientists have something in common—they don’t figure in making national policy in this country, which is lorded over by politicians, businessmen, generals, priests, and even entertainers.

This establishes a special and urgent mission for our graduates—to matter not just in the laboratory, churning out papers for academia and products for industry, but in society itself, to help Filipinos make more intelligent and responsible choices based on truth and reason. They should not only be proficient in the traditional academic disciplines, but should—even and especially at this early stage—be potential thought leaders, citizens of conscience, champions of truth, reason, and justice.

I recall, with both pride and sadness, the kind of such public intellectuals that our first batches produced—the likes of Rey Vea, Mario Taguiwalo, Roberto Verzola, Rodel Rodis, and Ciel Habito; some became scientists, some did not. But their sharpness of mind was matched by a breadth of spirit that saw them engaged in the larger discourses of our national life, addressing with authority and passion the great issues of our time.

I am worried that apart from the fact that we produce scientists who are not listened to and are even manipulated by politicians for their ends, we may be producing scientists imbued with talent and professional zeal but without values—smart people who cannot tell good from bad and right from wrong. Recall Dr. Faustus, the medieval progenitor of Hollywood’s mad scientist whose insatiable thirst for knowledge comes at the expense of his soul.

The most dangerous thing in our world today is intelligence without values. We have geniuses aplenty, many of them employed by those in power, but like their despotic bosses they are moral idiots who have lost their sense of outrage and their fear of God. They laugh at jokes that degrade women, condone if not encourage rape, and betray everything we have been brought up to believe about decency, honor, virtue, and patriotism. There is sometimes no one more corruptible than an intelligent person, because that person believes that he or she can explain and rationalize everything away, including complicity in mass murder and the propagation of falsehood.

Values are a humanist concern; right and wrong, good and bad are established not in the crucible of the laboratory but in the corridors of debate. One of culture’s loftiest functions is to remind us of something larger and worthier than ourselves, something worth living and dying for, like God, family, and country. It will be the humanities that will provide that vision, in all its clarities and ambiguities; and it will be science and technology that will provide the means.

Humanizing the scientist in training, our young PSHS student, involves more than infusing the curriculum with Humanities and Arts subjects, as important and today as imperiled as they may be. Certainly they need to be exposed to poetry, to painting, to music, to philosophy, and to history as we all were.

But humanizing the PSHS student also means treating him or her literally as a human—as a complex, bright but vulnerable being whose life yet stretches far ahead, an unfolding adventure whose most interesting moments are yet to come.

At this point I brought up what I call the stupid, unscientific, and counter-productive contract that incoming PSHS students are required to sign, binding them to take a science course in college. Indisputably the main mission of a science high school is to produce scientists in training, which our country sorely needs. But I’ve also seen how some kids, bright as they are, burn out in college, dejected by having signed away their option to pursue their heart’s desire. You cannot hold a 12-year-old to a contract that will define what he or she will become for the rest of his or her life.

I’m sure my fellow vagrants like the writer Jessica Zafra, the dancer Nestor Jardin, the indigenous people’s activist Vicky Tauli Corpuz, the historian Rico Jose, the film director Auraeus Solito, the composer Joel Navarro, the model Anna Bayle, and the former SGV partner and Accenture chief Jaime del Rosario, among many others, would agree. Our minds were challenged and enriched by our science education, and that training remained with us for the rest of our lives.

Trust the student; trust his or her intelligence to make the best and most responsible decision for himself or herself. Whatever happens, the great majority of them will move on to a career in science, in any case—not because they have to, but because they want to.

Penman No. 360: Mechanical Murmurs

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Penman for Monday, July 1, 2019

 

I’M SURE no more than a handful of us knew about it, but last June 23 was National Typewriter Day—in America, where Christopher Latham Sholes was granted a patent for the new writing machine in 1868. While Sholes had been preceded by many others touting ideas for some kind of mechanical writing, it was he—along with Samuel Soule and Carlos Glidden—who put the first commercially viable typewriter together (in Milwaukee, famous for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Miller, Pabst, and Schlitz beer, and Briggs and Stratton engines, and briefly my home 30 years ago).

The typewriter would go on from that first Sholes and Glidden machine to revolutionize writing, industry, and communication over most of the 20thcentury, and bring forth names like Remington, Smith-Corona, Underwood, Royal, Olympia, Olivetti, and Hermes, among many others. (Remington, a gun maker, bought out Sholes even before his invention came out.) But few of its descendants would show the charm of that first typewriter (then spelled as two words—and would later refer to the person typing, or the typist, as well), its glossy black front and top bedecked with colorful flowers.

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The Sholes and Glidden came out on the market in July 1874, and it must have been such a hit that not even a year later—writing from Hartford, Conn. on March 19, 1875—a man who signed as “Saml. L. Clemens” would claim that it was causing him too much trouble:

“GENTLEMEN: Please do not use my name in any way. Please do not even divulge the fact that I own a machine. I have entirely stopped using the Type-Writer, for the reason that I never could type a letter with it to anybody without receiving a request by return mail that I would not only describe the machine, but state what progress I had made in the use of it, etc. etc. I don’t like to write letters, and so I don’t want people to know I own this curiosity-breeding little joker. Yours truly, SAML. L. CLEMENS”

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(The writer, of course, was better known as Mark Twain, whose tongue-in-cheek endorsements must have been much in demand, because almost 30 years later we find him scribbling again from New York, on Oct. 1, 1903, this time on behalf of Conklin fountain pens and their famous “crescent” fillers, which prevented pens from rolling off the table: “Dear Sirs: I prefer it to ten other fountain pens, because it carries its filler in its own stomach, and I cannot mislay even by art or intention. Also, I prefer it because it is a profanity saver; it cannot roll off the desk.”)

It’s probably safe to assume that hundreds of millions of typewriters must have been manufactured since Sholes and Glidden made their debut, spanning all shapes, sizes, and functions, from steel behemoths to plastic cuties, from manual to electric to electronic, offering all manner of type from all-caps to cursive. Of course, word processors and computers effectively buried typewriters and the industry behind them from the 1980s onwards—except for pockets of enthusiasts and personal users, such as the online Antique Typewriter Collectors group to which I and a few other Filipinos belong. (And many thanks to my friend Dennis Pinpin for his post reminding me of National Typewriter Day.)

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Eight years ago I wrote a requiem for the typewriter—prematurely, as it turned out—when the Indian manufacturer Godrej and Boyce, which was still making 12,000 machines a year in 2009 mainly for the Indian government, announced that it was closing shop. But lately a new manual typewriter (made, where else, but in China) , has been popping up online under the “We R Memory Keepers” brand; one or two young people I know have picked it up—attracted, no doubt, by its cuddly retro profile and its pastel colors—but I have to hasten to add that based on the expert opinion of my ATC friends, your money would be far better spent on a vintage Olympia or Smith-Corona, given the flimsiness of the WRMK’s construction. In other words, you can’t keep memories with shoddy engineering.

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But why even keep using typewriters when computers are so much more available and convenient? For some collectors and enthusiasts, it’s the very isolation of the machine and of the typing itself—removed from email, Facebook, and all such distractions—that recommends it for more thoughtful writing, especially for poems, novels, and personal correspondence. As a professional writer and editor working on half a dozen books at a time, I can’t afford to be that romantic; I love my fountain pens and typewriters, but do all my serious work on my Macs, and typically turn to my Olympia Traveller or my Olivetti 32 to fill out forms and address envelopes.

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But then again what have I amassed over 20 typewriters for (don’t say it—one friend has 70, another a hundred), if not for the romance of hearing a mechanical murmur from the past? As with my Parker Vacumatics from the 1930s, I have to wonder what secrets my typers wrote—especially my current pet, an impossibly thin, all-steel Groma Gromina made in East Germany around 1955.

Sometimes I type a line—a nonsense line, anything—just to hear that reassuring “ding!” at the end of it. Can we say, thereby, that life has no meaning—or that the meaning is in the gesture itself?

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