Flotsam & Jetsam No. 49: Penmanship

In solidarity with fellow artists sharing their work to entertain others over the lockdown, I’m happy to present this copy of “Penmanship,” a short story I wrote in 1994 at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, where I was on a fellowship to write a book. As some readers know, there’s a story behind that story having to do with my serendipitous acquisition of a “grail” pen, a 1938 Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy that figures centrally in the story.

Here’s the back story, from a column I wrote in 2009:

In 1994, on a writing fellowship in Scotland, I visited the Thistle Pen Shop in downtown Edinburgh, whose address I had found in the phone book. (Every time I travel to a new city, I look over the yellow-page listings for pen shops, resale shops, and antique stores.) On a lark, I asked the lady behind the counter, “Would you happen to have a 1930s Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy red?” That pen, at that time, was my “Holy Grail” pen, something I had been fantasizing about since seeing its picture in a catalog. The lady beamed at me and said, “As a matter of fact, we do!” And then she whipped the pen out from under the counter, much to my great surprise, disbelief, and grief—grief, because I was sure I couldn’t possibly afford it, unless I went deep in debt via my credit card. And that, of course, was what happened. I carried that pen home with as much care and wonderment as I would have accorded a newborn baby, but I was almost immediately stricken with buyer’s remorse. “Oh, my God,” I thought, “how could I have spent a whole month’s salary—the rent, the groceries, the bills, etc.—on a single pen?” To soothe my throbbing conscience, I resolved to write a story about—guess what—a fountain pen. That was the story “Penmanship,” which later won a prize that made up for my precious Parker’s purchase price.

So here we go, and pleasant reading.

PENMANSHIP

THERE WAS nothing better on the earth that could write, he had often thought, than his Parker Vacumatic fountain pen, a brown-striped, gold-nibbed model made in 1938. It wasn’t him but the pen, gliding across the foolscap, filling in the vastness of the page with words that may not have meant all that much but which looked beautiful because of the personality and the infinite variety of their shape. 

            He was in love with his pen and his penmanship, and he exercised that love in letters to old friends and schoolmates, casual acquaintances, even anonymous business addressees—such as his memorial-plan company, when he missed a premium payment—surprising them with an old-fashioned grace that had long lost out to the perfunctory mechanism of typewriters and computer printouts. The typesetters had swirling fonts that looked elegant enough to most people in need of script for wedding invitations and that sort of rare emergency, but it still seemed too regular, too measured, for him who valued the spontaneity of wet ink insinuating itself into the barely visible fibers of the paper, like so much blood into so many veins. It was the only art he knew—he spent his days as a senior clerk at a government institute for blind and handicapped people, housed in a decrepit mansion along Harrison Street in Pasay—and now, close to retirement and facing not much more than an awesome blankness of years, he applied himself to it with a vigor that his recessive frame belied.

            “Dear So-and-So,” he would begin, “I was browsing through my books today, thinking to toss out some mangy paperbacks to free up space on the shelves, when I came across the copy of Salinger’s Nine Storieswhich you borrowed about eight years ago. What caught my attention was the receipt that you’d stuck in it, a restaurant bill (at the Selecta), for the dinner that we must have had when you returned the book—two soft drinks, a salad (for you), a chicken sandwich (for me), three cups of coffee (yours and mine) and a slice of cheesecake (yours), all for the glorious bargain of P69.50. And it all came back to me, how depressed you felt then about losing J. after all those years, and how someone like Salinger perked you up in the strangest ways. You’ll remember that he writes about depressed people all the time, but he manages to save some of them, usually with the entry of a child into the picture….”

            And he would go on and on for a few pages, not caring too much if So-and-So wished to be reminded of the darknesses of his or her distant past. The pen pushed him on to one word and another, creating a sudden and inescapable intimacy less between himself and So-and-So but between him and the paper, and he mailed these letters off almost as an afterthought, and at that with a twinge of sorrow, because he would never see them again.

            He was no calligrapher—his script was somewhat crabbed, and his terminal g’s and y’s had a tendency to spill over onto the next word—and he thought nothing of crossing out an offending word or line and writing on the margins. That was part of the whole game: to explore, to retreat and retrace one’s steps, to leap here and tiptoe there, to fall into a pit and crawl out grinning. The finished page was a record of his ventures, mishaps and all; perhaps he wanted them to see how he had triumphed in the end, to his very-truly-yourses.

HE MIGHT have become a writer, but never did. In his twenties, when things were better and his physician-father had given up on turning his son into another scribbler of prescriptions, he had come out of college with an English degree, thinking to teach and to write novels in his spare time. He taught for a while in a downtown university, preaching the timeless virtues of Joyce’s “Araby” to brown pug-nosed faces intent on becoming engineers and chemists, and resigned—or, some said, was kicked out—when he fell in love with an older, married co-teacher, who did not return his blathering affections and had complained to their superiors. Besides, he felt ill at ease with masses of people, who scratched their toes and dreamed aloud of Sundays while he tried to impress upon them the nuances of Joyce’s play with light and shadow. He found another job as a librarian for another college, staying there for years and revelling in the solitude of his corner desk in a quiet hall, until the school went bankrupt and closed down, disposing of all its books to the second-hand dealer, and of its employees to their various fortunes. He had begun a few stories at his desk, perhaps a novel even, but the towering proximity of the greats on the shelves humbled him—a modest man, otherwise—into incompletion, and he took to writing letters to newspaper editors in long, handwritten essays, paragraphs from which would get printed now and then in severely truncated form. His prose, he knew, was too quaint and longwinded for the papers, but it pleased him to flex his hand and to leave a record, somewhere, of his thoughts in passing, of his passing.

            “Dear Sir,” he would say—in a frame of mind that would admit no women to editorships—”Anent your editorial of June the 21st, it strikes me that the Guadalupe area might be better served by a bridge spanning the Pasig at a point helpful not only to the traffic overhead, but to river transport itself, the possibilities of which, I feel, have sorely been neglected since Rizal’s time….” Several paragraphs later, he would sign his name with a flourish, blow lightly over the hardening ink, wipe the Parker’s nib clean with a tissue, and screw the cap back on slowly, as if he were slipping a ring onto a woman’s finger, so as not to crush the thread.

            He took the utmost care of this pen. It was unusual in its design, even for fountain pens of its time, without a lever or a bladder; it was filled by unscrewing a nearly invisible cap in the rear of the barrel, and unlocking a pump that, with a diaphragm, drew a week’s worth of ink into the translucent cavity of the barrel itself. He had taken it in for servicing only twice in more than thirty years—there was still a shop on the Escolta that did repairs on such old pens, now run by a Chinese woman who inherited the place from her father. He sometimes wondered what would happen if that shop were to close down, as well; everyone was using ballpoints and rollerballs, and the shop’s business now consisted mainly in such garish conveniences. Or perhaps he would die first, and take his Parker with him, tucked into his breastpocket, unless the funeral-parlor attendant stripped its nib and clip off for their gold. It was one of his most distressing nightmares—not to die, but for the pen to be so savaged after him.

            The pen had been a gift from his father upon his graduation from high school—an heirloom, practically, as it had been used both by his father and his grandfather, who had been an accountant for a shipping firm in Binondo. His grandfather’s name was still imprinted faintly on the barrel, a three-part, Spanish-sounding name. That, and a magazine advertisement for a stationer’s company that he chanced upon in the stacks of the college library, told him exactly how old it was: 1934, a few years before he was born, when the large and airy house on Donato Street must have been spanking white, and his mother would have been swishing about in a terno, minding the lilies in the vases. All that was gone, but for the pen—his parents, the family wealth, the breezy mornings perfumed by hot chocolate and talcum powder. The house had long been torn down to make way for a grocery, and when he passed it by in a jeepney, the last time, he could barely recognize the lot, but for the ancient fire hydrant on the corner. 

            He had a few friends from college, mostly members of large, comfortable families and getting on in years themselves, with whom he kept up a lopsidedly unilateral correspondence. There was one phone in the office, but few would call, and he didn’t appreciate that as much as the occasional postcard from Paris, or Crete, or Jogjakarta, when they remembered him at all. So-and-So had been a woman who had lost her husband to a 19-year-old singer; she had been a bright young thing in college and he might have gone for her himself, but for his shyness. He had given her books of poetry, with lavish dedications, but she had not taken—or had refused—the hint. When he fell for that co-teacher, all caution, for once, flew out the window.

            “My sweet, my lovely Alice,” he would write, with all the ardor of his mid-twenties, “The mere sight of you in the cafeteria this morning warmed my cooling coffee, and I wished that I had been younger and been one of your students, not that Avogadro’s number interests me so much as your own child-bearing figure….”

            Now, in his fifties, he could not tell how and why he had been so brash. All the daring left in him went to his letters and his penmanship. He thought himself bold for suggesting that bridge, or a new way of determining the fitness of people for the civil service, or a theory—which he mailed to the police but which was never acknowledged nor acted upon—about who murdered the young wife, then six months pregnant, of a Bacolod sugar planter. In his thirties, he had sought and paid for the services of a few women—just after his father died and he came into some money—but they meant nothing to him; no challenge nor poetry nor romance there, just cash and urgent venery. Now he was content with occasionally relieving himself, or with nature and nighttime attending to him in bed. He was, in fact, losing his potency, not that it mattered to anyone else. He lived in a room in a boardinghouse on Dos Castillas Street in Sampaloc, two jeepney rides away. The other boarders—all of them men and mostly maritime engineering students—saw him to be a reclusive and mild-spoken bachelor uncle who preferred to wear Chinese-cotton boxer shorts, which he laundered himself and hung out to dry in the space behind the kitchen.

AND THEN, as it so happened, and against his better judgement, the penman fell in love again.

            She was one of the blind people his institute had taken to employing to offer public proof of its sincerity in assisting the disabled. Her name was Nora, and she was thin and pale-looking, and she had been blinded in an accident in her early twenties so that she retained a clear and powerful idea of what colors and figures were like; she had finished high school as a normal, sighted person, and would have gone on to a degree in law or economics, but for that accident. She had taught herself quickly to read Braille, to lose no time in adjusting to her physical circumstances, and now went through daily life without too much trouble. But she armed herself with the forwardness of those unjustly burdened to reclaim and to prove their worth.

            She was assigned to his charge, and when they first met they did not like each other all that much. He thought her an intrusive nuisance, and she thought him an overbearing fool. Her job was to help him organize the office files—very few things were computerized, and the only computer sat idly in the Director’s office—and his job was to train her, somehow, in knowing where everything was by sheer position and feel. The trouble, of course, was that he observed his own idiosyncratic filing system; that was part of his mastery of the place.

            “I know where everything is,” he told her from behind his desk. “Perhaps we can find something more useful for you to do.”

            “But you won’t be here forever,” Nora said, staring in the direction of his voice. “Someone else will need to know the system.”

            He adjusted some papers on his desk to avoid her eyes. “They’ll be giving you my job, are they?”

            “Oh, no—sir,” she answered quickly. “I can’t do that—obviously.” She looked away. An uneasy silence passed between them, during which he noticed that her hair was thick and shiny, and she noticed that his breathing was somewhat labored, although she could smell no trace of tobacco in the room. She heard a scraping of wood and knew that he was rising from his chair.

            “Well, then, let’s get to it. We have three filing cabinets in this room—here, here, to your left—and the files are arranged by subject rather than years. All invoices in the top drawer of the leftmost cabinet, then personnel records—now we’ll need to put tabs in Braille on every file—I wonder what the use of all of this is,” he thought aloud, and immediately felt sorry when he saw her biting her lip. He never meant to be unkind, but his social graces had withered from disuse. “Would you like some coffee?” He kept an old thermos bottle of hot water and a jar of instant coffee behind his desk. 

            She seemed startled by his offer. “No, I—”

            “It’s nearly coffee break, anyway,” he said. “You can leave and come back in fifteen minutes, or you can have some coffee with me.” She heard the bottle being unscrewed and smelled the fragrance of steaming cork, but she remained in her chair. All by herself she would have spent those fifteen minutes sitting in another chair she knew in the lobby, listening to the traffic, to the rush of people and the streetside commerce; the afternoon tabloids would be out, but no one really shouted out the headlines anymore. She heard him making two cups of coffee with identical clinks of the teaspoon. “One teaspoon of sugar?”

            “Two. Thank you.”

            He paused briefly and she knew he was looking at her, surely wondering what misfortune had delivered her to this place, this room, this moment of utter pointlessness. There was a small scar on her right cheek, away from him, where they had made a suture that had healed badly, and her hand went up to it absently.

            “I’m sorry about your—your accident,” he said, depositing a cup beside her on the desk. She felt a whiff of vapor up her sleeve.

            “So am I,” she said, realizing with a great annoyance that he had been glancing at her own file, the papers that came with her and bared her unprotected to this absolute stranger. She went on the offensive and said, before sipping her coffee, “Please tell me something about yourself.”

            He seemed taken aback. “There’s—there’s not much to say. I’ve been working here for—oh, nine years now, and before that I worked in a library. I suppose I like quiet places, and—and quiet people, are you a quiet person, Miss—”

            “Nora. Have you ever gone abroad?”

            “No, why do you ask?”

            “I did, once, when I was young, my parents took me to Hong Kong. That’s all I remember, now.” It wasn’t true; she remembered many other things, but Victoria Peak and a large dark bird darting across the landscape burned in her memory.

            “You’re very lucky, then,” he said, and felt silly again. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll do some work.” He reached for the pen in his pocket.

            “But breaktime’s just begun.” She could hear idle chatter from elsewhere in the building. Someone had opened a window somewhere and the dank heat lifting off the bay, from far off, trailed into her senses.

            “It isn’t really work, I just need to finish a letter.”

            “To whom?”

            “To no one interesting,” he said, to shut her up. He was suddenly glad that she was sightless, and could not know that he had begun a letter to the editor of The Manila Standard, outlining his views on a new plan to contain corruption in the armed forces. He drew the sheet out from his drawer, on which two paragraphs had been written; he needed a strong and witty closure. “… If those we pay to secure our welfare instead secure their own—” That was a neat septameter.

            She heard faint, scratchy motions; she was expecting him to peck away at a typewriter.

            “What are you writing with?”

            “A pen. I—”

            “It doesn’t sound like a ballpoint, it—it doesn’t skip—”

            “It’s not, it’s an old fountain pen—you know, it squirts ink when you press—” He sighed, putting the cap back on halfway, to keep the ink wet on the nib; she was going to be impossible.

            “I’ve never used one,” she said.

            “No, you wouldn’t have. They don’t use them anymore. This one’s older than I am.” Why did he say that, he thought.

            “How old are you—sir?”

            “Fifty-two. And you’re—ah, twenty-eight.” The file again. “You’re nearly half my age. I’ve lived twice as long.”

            “Was it a good life?”

            “It isn’t over, yet.”

            She could feel, almost see, him turn his back to her and scratch away at another table, a smaller one, most likely, where a typewriter might have been, which meant that he had lifted and put the typewriter down on the floor. That explained the soft clatter of metal bones.

            “I can type—perfectly. You’d be amazed. That’s why they sent me here.”

            Over his shoulder, he saw the glint in her eyes. He saw the mended scar. Suddenly he didn’t want to know too much more about her, and gently closed her file.

            “Thank you,” she said.

            “For what?”

            “You shut my folder. I felt the air stir, like a fan.”

            He crossed out a line furiously and put the pen down, uncapped. “It’s nearly three-fifteen,” he said. “It’s time to work.”

THE NEXT few days and weeks, she indeed amazed him with her uncomplaining industry and her prodigious memory. Under his direction, she put title tabs on all the files, and sorted them out by year within the drawers, and could produce a folder that he needed within two minutes. Twice or thrice, he’d tested her just to satisfy himself, and he had learned to rustle the papers afterwards, so as not to be found out. She no longer needled him for details of his private life, nor vexed him with strange, unbidden questions. During the coffee breaks, she sat out in the lobby, and he discovered that now and then she smoked, puffing deeply on Marlboros she kept in a skirt pocket. She wore large, dark-colored, formal-looking skirts and the same cut of blouse in white or beige or some dry pastel shade, and the kind of stubby shoes that nuns and nurses wore to their graves, and he began to wonder where or with whom she lived. There was a Paranaque address in her file, and he knew she took a jeepney in the afternoon, putting on a pair of shades; it was the only time she used a slender aluminum walking stick. He had to cross the street himself to get a ride going the other way, and he made sure not to linger on her side of the street too long, not wanting to upset her. But, having said his gruff goodbyes and crossed, he made sure that she was on a jeepney and safely seated, first, before flagging down his own. In the office, they spoke in low, almost formal tones, and it took a while for him to ask her to stay again for coffee.

            “You’ll be writing letters,” she said. “I don’t want to bother you.”

            “Not today,” he said, quickly and very quietly returning the Parker to his pocket.

            “All right, then—two sugars—”

            “I remember.”

            He made the coffee while she sat in the same chair across his desk. He wondered if she wanted to smoke.

            “You can smoke, if you wish, there’s a saucer you can use for an ashtray—”

            “No, I don’t think I will, thank you. I don’t really want to, it gives me a headache—”

            “Then why do you?” He had bought a special blend, an imported instant, and hoped that she would like it.

            She laughed, smoothing out a crease on her skirt. “It fills up the time.” She felt for the handle on the cup and brought it to her lips. “You’ve been watching me in the lobby.”

            “I—I was getting water for the heater.” He kept a heating coil in a drawer; it was against regulations, but no one bothered him. “What do you think of, when you’re sitting down there?”

            “Nothing interesting,” she said, remembering. “You’ve changed your coffee—”

            “Yes, do you like it?”

            “Will you write me a letter?”

            “What—”

            “I mean, write a letter for me? With your pen. When you’re not too busy.”

            A drop of coffee had fallen on the sheet he would have written on, had she not stayed, and he put his cup down to blot it with a matted handkerchief.

            “Yes, of course, but—why? You’re a marvelous typist, you type better than me—”

            “I need something personal. I want something personal, like it’s been written by a real person. That’s what your letters look like, don’t they?”

            “I suppose so.” He sat in his chair and looked at the coffee stain, a pale yellow-hearted carnation with irregular brown edges.

            “Is your penmanship like a woman’s, would you say?”

            He thought he should feel offended, but did not. “It’s hard to tell. We were trained in school—it was a subject—we all wrote pretty much the same way.” He wanted to take her fingers and wrap them around his pen, to show her: this is how I write my T’s and B’s and G’s.

            “I’d do it myself but I’m clumsy with pens—”

            “I understand. Do you want me to write it now?” His fingers were poised on the Parker.

            She finished her coffee in a deep gulp that caused her to grimace. “There won’t be time. When you’re free, would you come with me to my place? It’s not too far—”

            “Yes, yes, of course, I’m free this afternoon.” He remonstrated with himself over the haste with which he answered, but it was true: there was only the room on Dos Castillas with its punched-out capiz shell windows and the laundry to do.

            “Thank you, you’re very kind,” she said. I haven’t had a chance to be, he thought, not for so long.

THEY ALIGHTED from the jeepney along a street not too far from where the international airport sprawled; a departing jetplane preened its wings in the sky. He had sat beside her during the ride, and she had not said very much beyond giving the driver instructions on where to let them off. When his forearm brushed hers, she trembled and he shrank away, as if embarrassed, as if it were the last thing in the world he would have wanted to happen. She sensed his discomfort and she nearly called the whole thing off, thinking of some dumb apology to make for having taken his time, but it was too late.

            She measured out the sidewalk, tapping her stick against familiar guideposts, and they stopped in front of a modest four-door, two-storey apartment with an iron gate and a large crack running up the mossy wall that separated it from a vacant lot on the other side, overgrown with grass. Greenish water slid through the crack. 

            “Watch your step,” she said. She knew that he wore leather soles; her own shoes had deep rubber grooves. She slid the key into the last door; another, older woman was sitting at the kitchen table, slitting eggplants. This woman seemed surprised to see him, and greeted him formally, which he returned.

            “Munying,” Nora said to the woman, in a tone he had never heard her use, “bring out some softdrinks, please, and leave us alone.”

            “Yes, manang,” Munying said in a schoolgirl’s voice, and did as she was told. Munying served them two bottles of Coke from a refrigerator on which the enamel had begun to crackle like an eggshell, and went out the door.

            He sat on a broad-armed wooden sofa with large floral patterns carved into the backrest. The apartment’s drab pink walls were bare, but for a painting of a nubile provincial woman bathing in a stream, her shoulders glistening forever. Nora had hung her walking stick onto a nail behind the door, and she lit up a Marlboro from her pack with certain, numbered moves, and when, unthinking, he slid the marble ashtray closer to her on the coffeetable, she said “No, please don’t,” and he understood. She had everything within reach, where she remembered them to be.

            “This is all that’s left,” she said, exhaling. “But I live simply—and there’s the job.”

            “What was there before?” he asked.

            “Property. A life.”

            “It isn’t everything,” he said weakly, remembering his own parents and the big house with the adelfa blooming by the gate. You and I, Nora, he was thinking, we have much more in common than you can imagine.

            For a moment she considered a scathing retort, but held back, knowing he was trying to be kind. She forced herself into a happy recollection of Hong Kong in mid-February, bright and chilly, the milk-glass whiteness of lychees, the seamless blue of sky and ocean. “We used to own this whole apartment building, and that lot next door. They’ll be building an office complex on it, soon. Munying said the architects were there, the other day. I just sold it last month, after all these years.”

            “Then you’re better off than I am. You have savings. You can put them in a time deposit, or in the stock market.” He felt slightly put off by her revelation, as though she had seen him all along to be a scrawny little man, as though she had been spending someone else’s time while hoarding her own.

            “That letter—”

            “Yes?” He would be glad to be done with it quickly, and leave.

            “Promise you won’t ask me any questions.”

            It hardly seemed fair, but yes, he promised.

            “There’s some paper on top of the refrigerator. Munying uses it to write her people in Ozamis.”

            Why didn’t you ask her, he thought, taking the blue-ruled pad of yellow paper. He settled back into his seat, positioning the pad on the armrest, and uncapping his pen. He gave it two taps in the air to let the ink out. He felt like a secretary taking dictation on her lunch break.

            “Are you comfortable?” she asked.

            No, he thought, but let’s have it.

            She took another drag and the smoke swirled around her face like a windblown scarf. She thought of a man, this other man, receiving and reading her letter in the hard, unpolluted light of another country, another season. Would he read it in the open meadow, or in his room, on the table with the gooseneck lamp—Munying had described the picture, many years ago, the very last one he had sent—and would he smile and keep it in his pocket, like a charm against evil and temptation, against forgetfulness and the plangent sorrows of separation?

            “Nora—”

            “Yes. ‘My dearest Mark,’“ she began to dictate, and shut her eyes.

            “‘Mark’?” he asked, involuntarily, and he knew there would be no answer.

            “‘—’You’ll be surprised to hear from me again, after all this time, and to see me writing—yes, with my own eyes and fingers’—” She paused, flinching at what she had brought herself to say, then smiling with the overspilling confidence of the damned. “—’With my own eyes and fingers, although they’ve changed, if you remember anything at all. I’ve changed’—please underline the ‘I’—in the most remarkable ways, since—since my operation in—in Hong Kong…. Oh, yes, I’ve been back there, many times, with Terry and Susan and some friends you never met….”

            “Is that ‘Terry’ with a ‘y’?” he asked, although he had already written it down, to give her more time, to suppress his own rampant disbelief.

            “—’It’s strange how things work out, and they do, they do…. You were afraid to know what would happen, weren’t you, but so was I. I’m sorry about all those letters then, things were so fresh, so confused, I could barely get myself to type your name…. My darkest fear—a bad pun, isn’t that?’—”

            “Are you asking me, or—or Mark?”

            “Please,” she said, and he wrote the phrase down. “—‘Was that of facing a wall or a fence I couldn’t get around. I couldn’t jump over them, you know, not knowing what was on the other side….’” She gave him time to catch up with her. She could hear the furious scratching of the nib, the dashes, the full stops and the commas. “‘I took this jump and here I am, whole and alive and well again, though a little short of breath…. Last summer I joined the girls on a weekend trip to Boracay. I’m sorry I can send no pictures, I gained some pounds where you don’t want them. I can’t show you everything just yet, can I?… A German tourist—an anesthesiologist, he said—flirted with us, but I remembered you. I’m thinking of taking a trip out to Germany, sometime—not to visit this tourist, silly—or somewhere in Europe, just to see the castles and cathedrals, the changing colors of the leaves, maybe Spain, maybe England—should I cross over the Atlantic and see you? Is it pretty in New Jersey? Maybe not just yet, don’t you think?… They say you’re a paralegal now, I suppose that means you’ll be a lawyer very soon like you’d always wanted to be…. That’s good, let nothing’—” She paused to crush the stub of her cigarette on the ashtray, and then lit up another one immediately. “—’Let nothing get in the way of what you want. That’s how I think, I wouldn’t have survived, otherwise. I want you to be happy. I, want, you’—’“

            His pen hovered above the paper like a dragonfly. He could not bear to look at her. She was shrouded in smoke, she willed the smoke to happen, to be there between them.

            “I want you to have a good life, and to think well of me. Always, with love, Nora.”

            He was about to cap his pen when she raised a finger, and he wrote again.

            “Just a short PS, please. ‘I’ve sent something to your account. I hope the number hasn’t changed. The market’s been doing very well, no need to be embarrassed, you’ll need it more than I do. I think I know how paralegals live in New Jersey. I can imagine’—Would you cross out that last line, please?”

            “‘I can imagine’?”

            “Yes.”

            He drew a line across the phrase but it was easy to read through. It seemed a fair compromise between saying and not saying. “Is that all?”

            “Yes.”

            “Would you—would you like me to write out the address on an envelope?” He had seen no envelopes where the paper was.

            “No, thank you. I’ll… I’ll type out the address, he’ll be surprised when he opens it.”

            “We forgot the date.”

            “It doesn’t matter…. Do you think he’ll believe it was me?”

            He caught a blob of ink on the tip of the nib with his thumb. Old pens did that, when they were nearly empty, or when you took them up in airplanes, not having been designed to fly. “That depends on how much he remembers.”

            She thought that over and said, “I know he’ll think it was mine.”

            With everything to ask but nothing more to say, he put the Parker Vacumatic back in his pocket, and took his leave. Munying was at the gate, munching on a banana she had gotten from somewhere.

THAT NIGHT he could hardly sleep, wracked by a welling clamor in his chest. It was as if he was growing another pair of arms and hands within—all of them, all of him, wanting to hold her, then to shake her, then to clutch her tightly when she shook. Nora, Nora, he thought, what are you doing to yourself, what are you doing to me?

            He wondered what he would say to her when she came in for work in the morning. She would act, he was sure, as if nothing at all had happened. He would offer coffee, and she would decline, preferring the vacant lobby to his piercing gaze. He might play dumb, and wait until she imploded from the burden of her lie, but he could not. He despaired in knowing that she was stronger than he was.

            He sat up, against the wall, at the head of a tube-iron bed with flaking paint that might have come from a hospital. His shorts and the sheets were soaked in yellow by the 40-watt bulblight. His kneecaps shone like brass knobs, and his skin as well had begun to shine like a carapace. There was nothing much for her to see, and the sheer absurdity of what he was thinking made him want to chuckle, but his throat was too parched for even that. When a trio of boarders marched in past midnight from their post-exam carousing, joshing each other in the hallway about a go-go dancer who came this close to being scarred for life by their fingernails, he banged a fist against the wall, and they simmered down instantly.

            He rose from his bed and sat at the little table, by his books, with people like Eliot and Aeschylus and Fitzgerald at his elbow. Yet he would not have them now; they could not have been more dead. What lived in this night was a filthy hurt.

            He saw his pen beside his wallet on the table and angrily filled it with ink. He would write her a letter she would never read in his own hand, but no matter; he would, one morning, punch it out in Braille, or shout it to her face, or give up his own eyes for her to see what she had caused. He felt overcome with precious feelings.

            The Parker Vacumatic glinted in the room light, poised to strike. It was ringed with bands of gold, and promised a wealth of words. The merest pressure on its nib could deepen an emotion.

            The pen felt heavy, never felt heavier in his hand, but he could not even tell if he should call her “dear.”

(You can find “Penmanship” and 40 other stories of mine in Voyager and Other Fictions: The Collected Stories of Jose Dalisay, published by Anvil Publishing in 2019, and available from Anvil online and at National Book Store.)

Penman No. 387: Wallace Stegner in Manila

Penman for Monday, May 11, 2020

LIKE MANY of you, I’ve spent much of the lockdown opening boxes and sorting out files I haven’t touched in years. As a certified pack rat, I keep papers and other effects going back to my grade school years, so my periodic shakedowns inevitably turn up things I never knew I had, or that I’d completely forgotten about. Last month’s haul included our wedding pictures from 1974, a huge picture book of Paris from 1890, and prints from artist-friends like Orly Castillo, Joel Soliven, and the late Lito Mayo. 

So amusing and engrossing were these finds that I almost missed a frayed copy of The Literary Apprentice1951, published by the UP Writers Club and edited by two young writers, Raul R. Ingles and S. V. Epistola. I had the privilege of knowing both men when they were still alive back in the 1980s, by which time they had become venerable professors in UP. In 1951, Ingles was only 22, Epistola 26, young bucks who were already rendering literary judgment on their peers and seniors (such as Ingles’ estimation of Zoilo Galang, our first novelist in English (Child of Sorrow, 1921) of whom he writes: “The other novel (of 1950) was For Dreams Must Die by Zoilo Galang, who blundered into the literary scene. Galang was a romantic novelist of the 1920s. His mushy prose dates farther back….” That pungent style of commentary was apparently the order of the day, as elsewhere in the issue we find Homero Ch. Veloso, touted to be “UP’s most renowned poet of the past decade,” being hacked at the knees by the expatriate Jose Garcia Villa, who writes that “I think he is completely valueless; however serious he was in his esthetic and intellectual life, his writing is utterly inchoate, unformed, and ill-written….”

But what really caught my eye in this issue (where also, incidentally, Villa’s “The Bashful One” appears, among other, uhm, essentially wordless poems) was a report on the recent visit to Manila of Wallace Stegner, who had been brought over by the Rockefeller Foundation in January 1951 to deliver eight lectures, one of which touched on his impressions of Filipino writing (but only in English, of course).

Very few people, even among writers, would recognize the name these days, but Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) was a renowned American novelist who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1971. His name rang a bell because of two things. First, starting in 1946, Stanford University has offered the two-year Stegner Fellowship in creative writing, among the world’s prize fellowships for writers, whose recipients have included at least three Filipinos: the poets Valdemar Olaguer (1950) and Fidelito Cortes (1985) and the Fil-Am fictionist Lysley Tenorio (2000). Second, as luck would have it, I actually met Stegner when he visited my graduate writing class at the University of Michigan in October 1986; sadly I don’t remember much of that visit beyond an old man in a tan overcoat, as our classes had barely begun and I was still dizzy with loneliness and awe. 

Stegner’s 1951 sortie to Manila also fell in between visits by two other notable writers from America. The first was Ernest Hemingway, who came twice in 1941, in February and May, on his way to and from China with his third wife Martha Gellhorn. I received a note last month from my friend and fellow history buff in Washington, Erwin Tiongson, who found a report from The Tribune of May 13, 1941 about Hemingway being so moved by a huge fire in Tondo that he donated P500 to a fund for the victims.

Another prominent visitor was William Faulkner, who came to Manila in 1955. I recall a small poster commemorating that visit on the wall of the UPICW in the old Faculty Center before it burned down. There are records of what Faulkner did and said then—elsewhere, so I still have to find them. In the library of Stanford University is an 18-page illustrated document from 1956 published by the Philippine Writers Association titled “Faulkner on Truth and Freedom. Excerpts from tape recordings of remarks made by William Faulkner during his recent Manila visit,” but it’s only available on-site. More tantalizingly, there’s an article titled “Faulkner in Manila—1955” in Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962 edited by James Meriweather and published by Random House in 1968.

So what did Wallace Stegner have to say to his Filipino audience in 1951? He deplored the lack of novelists, for one thing. “The situation is understandable because writing a novel requires the investment of about a year’s labor, the loss of productive activity in other directions, and an attendant publishing risk,” noted the article, which went on: “The Filipino short story, Dr. Stegner observed, is more on the side of the sketch: it is a slice or cross-section rather than a well-rounded whole. Sometimes the story ends; sometimes it just stops…. The Filipino writer rushes to print because he has no other alternative. He gets published easily, even on the second draft, and gets paid just the same. The result is an early sense of maturity which deceives the writer: there is nothing more to test him, to give him obstacles to get over and sharpen his writing ability. Thus, currently published stories need to be run ten times more through the typewriter to straighten out the diction and the style, to fill out the sketchiness, to clarify the characters and the moods, to smooth out all the things that make a short story.”

Funny, I thought, finding that in a 70-year-old journal, when I’d been telling my students the same thing.

Penman No. 386: History and Hysteria

i_140h.jpg

Penman for Monday, April 27, 2020

 

IT MUST be part of human nature, in times of disaster or adversity, to seek some consolation or refuge in the past, more specifically in the misfortunes of others. It’s a kind of Schadenfreude across generations rather than distance, although not so much to derive pleasure as reassurance to the effect that, in time, all miseries have an end, all crises can be survived.

I have to admit that—interned for a month with the TV, the laptop, and my books for company—I’ve acquired a rather morbid interest in discovering what other people went through at other times, faced with the enormity of mysterious and murderous disease. We know by now how Covid-19 has brought out the best and the worst in us, stoking our deepest fears even as we marvel at the courage and generosity of a relative few. We—especially those of us in the emotionally vulnerable middle class—cringe at the possibility that desperation will lead to chaos.

History sadly provides little comfort in that respect. Awful things do happen in awful times, chiefly thievery and murder, although not always by the people you’d expect.

w980-p16x9-chevalier_roze_c3a0_la_tourette_-_1720.png

Writing about plague-hit Florence in the 1630s in Histories of a Plague Year: The Social and the Imaginary in Baroque Florence, (U. of California Press, 1989), Giulia Calvi noted that “Up to this point, the most surprising theme is how little fear contagion caused. In overcrowded houses, stinking alleys, and rooms that still held the dead, both actually and in memory, neighbors, relatives, and friends came and went—entering, stealing, taking things at random, and getting caught. They passed items from hand to hand, through windows and doors, wells and gratings; they knocked down house walls, climbed garden walls, and even lowered goods by rope from rooftops. The epidemic appeared to generate every emotion save fear of death.”

But a subtler kind of theft was also happening, with the emergence of medical amateurs, charlatans, and quacks offering all kinds of cures, from potions tried out in previous epidemics such as “simple curative roots and coral powder” to a recipe for “three black spiders, three serpents, three deaf vipers, three frogs, ten tarantulas, and fifty scorpions and other poisonous animals—alive, if possible—over a small flame like one used for soap or stew.” A thriving guild of doctors and herbalists controlled and approved the sale of these prescriptions on the street—for a fee, of course, evading which cost the offender a hefty fine.

6860258506_e43aed9186_b.jpg

Hysteria bred by ignorance also led to wanton killing, as in 1820, when cholera and xenophobia led to the “Massacre at Manilla” of English French, Danish, Spanish, and Chinese nationals reported on in my 1822 copy of The Atheneum, a Boston-based magazine. It’s a grisly account echoed by the adventurer Paul P. de la Gironiere in his book published more than 30 years later:

“I had only resided a short time at Cavite when that terrible scourge, the cholera, broke out at Manilla, in September, 1820, and quickly ravaged the whole island. Within a few days of its first appearance the epidemic spread rapidly; the Indians succumbed by thousands; at all hours of the day and of the night the streets were crowded with the dead-carts. Next to the fright occasioned by the epidemic, quickly succeeded rage and despair. The Indians said, one to another, that the strangers poisoned the rivers and the fountains, in order to destroy the native population and possess themselves of the Philippines. On the 9th October, 1820, the anniversary of my departure from France, a dreadful massacre commenced at Manilla and at Cavite. Poor Dibard, the captain of the Cultivateur, was one of the first victims. Almost all the French who resided at Manilla were slain, and their houses pillaged and destroyed.”

1820-Cholera-Epidemic-in-Manila.jpg

But as dramatic as these events were, the real tragedy was that the plague quietly targeted its victims, and more often chose the poor. Early in January 1900, reports of bubonic plague began coming out of Manila, such as this account in a San Francisco newspaper: “The bubonic plague is yet sporadic. There have been six cases and four deaths. Preparations are being made to establish hospitals and quarantine. Great numbers of provincial natives are coming to Manila, with whom the city is overcrowded, the increase in accommodations being inadequate. The rice necessary for foodstuffs is more expensive than at any period during the last twelve years. The plague is dangerous to the overcrowded, unfed and unwashed natives and Chinese.”

A lab report such as the one excerpted below (from The Plague: Bacteriology, Morbid Anatomy, and Histopathology, Including a Consideration of Insects as Plague Carriers by Maximilian Herzog, MD, published in Manila by the Bureau of Public Printing, 1904) may have been clinically precise, but the sadness of a child wasted by the lice (pediculi) common to her station is inescapable:

“The body of a female child, 9 to 10 years of age, well developed. Post-mortem rigidity strong…. Before the body had been opened, three pediculi were picked up from the scalp with sterile forceps and dropped first into an empty sterile test tube and later into three flasks containing 50 cubic centimeters of sterile, slightly alkaline bouillon…. Inquiries were made as to the possibility of the girl’s having been infested with pediculi from someone living in an infected district.”

We learn that disease will ravage and kill the body, but also that, in the long run, disease and even death itself can be defeated—with knowledge, understanding, and willful compassion.

Cholera.jpg

Unknown.jpeg

8095580f1b28ca178b498b13d2d50476.jpg

 

PenmanNo. 385: Energems of Wisdom

3b432d1a0ebc698877d412060714d732.jpg

Penman for Monday, April 13, 2020

 

LIKE ANYONE with access to a TV, mobile phone, and computer these lockdown days, I’ve acquired a new vocabulary associated with “coronavirus” and “Covid-19,” peppered by such words and phrases as “PPEs,” “hydroxychloroquine,” and “co-morbidities.” With time on my hands, I’ve even gone back to dig up the etymology of relevant words like “influenza,” which apparently began—in its Italian form in the 1500s—as a description of a kind of fever brought on by the influence of the stars on the human body. By 1743, the London-based Gentleman’s Magazine was reporting that “AN Article from Rome informs us that a Sort of Plague has broke out there, which destroys Abundance of their People, and they call it the Influenza.” On the other hand, I learned that “cholera” shares a Greek root with “gutter,” so that it “came to mean a pestiferous disease during which fluids are forcefully expelled from the body, resembling a gutter.”

There’s an urge to study and to learn that comes with enforced isolation, and there’s no better place to look for proof than prison, which is about as locked-down as you can get. You could study birds, like the homicidal Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” who even wrote a book on the Diseases of Canaries. Or you could study law, become a first-rate lawyer, and even become a professor of law at Georgetown University, like bank robber Shon Robert Hopwood. If you were more inclined to write behind bars, you could follow in the footsteps of convicted embezzler William Sidney Porter a.k.a. O. Henry, who used his three years in prison to produce 14 stories, or of Jack Abbott, author of the celebrated In the Belly of the Beast, who was let out from prison following his literary celebrity, only to kill again six weeks after his release.

Of course, what we’re calling “enhanced community quarantine” is hardly prison, with which I had some intimate acquaintance as an 18-year-old marched off to martial-law “detention,” Marcosian parlance for what would now be “super-mega-extreme ECQ.” Our Fort Bonifacio brig was probably where St. Luke’s or S&R now stands in BGC, and I was “quarantined” there for more than seven months in 1973. Unfortunately I did and learned nothing brilliant there, although I suppose I was—as some writers explain what they do when they’re doing nothing—“gathering material” for the martial-law novel I eventually published 20 years later.

Our present period of semi-voluntary confinement should be long enough by now to yield some scholarly dividends, which is why I’m happy to report that I have encountered some gems of wisdom these past two weeks—“Energems,” to be more specific. In case you haven’t heard, there are ten of them in as many colors (eleven if you include the elusive Dark Energem), whose “incredible power transcends space and time, good and evil.” That’s according to my source, known only as The Keeper, whose apprentice Zenowing warns that the Dark Energem is compounded of pure evil, and alone can override the powers of the other ten Energems.

maxresdefault-1.jpg

That’s what you learn when you’re quarantined with a three-year-old named Buboy who barges into your room at 7 in the morning and demands, with all the cuteness a toddler can muster, that you turn Netflix on so he can watch Power Rangers Dino Charge. Season 1 has 22 episodes, and he’s been through all of them, so we’re doing the logical thing, which is rerunning Episode 1, 2, and so on.

Buboy—as I’ve written here before—is the son of our faithful housekeeper Jenny, but in the absence of our unica hija Demi (who’s locked in on her own in otherwise sunny California), he’s our adoptive grandson and pet. While he pretty much has diplomatic immunity around the house and can rummage through my possessions for anything resembling or convertible into a “toy” (his favorite word—e.g., a long plastic shoehorn becomes a sword), he’s amazingly well-behaved, knows when to say “please” and “opo,” and takes his elders’ hands in blessing (in this household, that’s a lot of hands to mano po). We’ve sent him to nursery school and have pledged to endow him on to a PhD, subject only to good behavior, but with school out all of a sudden, then Beng and I are his teachers as well, alongside his Mama Jenny and Papa Sonny.

IMG_3573.jpg

So when Buboy jumped into our bed after a perfunctory knock on the door and made a polite but firm request with that impish smile to watch his favorite show (we’ve already seen The Lion King twice, and I’ve heard enough nursery rhymes to recite “No more monkeys jumping on the bed” in my sleep), who was his “Tatay” to say no? I may have had plans of reading my long-neglected copy of Histories of a Plague Year: The Social and the Imaginary in Baroque Florence by Giulia Calvi (U. of California Press, 1989), but with Netflix on, baroque Florence had to give way to the Amber Beach Dinosaur Museum….

And that, my friends, is how I’ve acquired a rather exotic expertise in Energems, Dino-charged Zords, Vivix, the 65-million-year-long engagement of Sledge and Poisandra, and Dr. Runga. Can’t wait for Season 2 for more, uhm, enlightenment—with or without Buboy.

IMG_3758.jpg

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 384: Seeing the “We”

Kids.png

Penman for Monday, March 30, 2020

 

MORE THAN a year ago, on September 3, 2019, I wrote a column-piece titled “Meaning in the many,” in which I thought aloud about why so many young and often bright people were committing suicide or exhibiting a troubling emotional fragility. Was it, I surmised, a generational thing? Were we oldies somehow made of sterner stuff, or was that just an illusion haloed by time?

Whatever, I proposed that the answer to our individual predicaments could often be found in those of others, remembering that “We sought out kindred spirits and sang songs together, finding solace in community and in the sobering realization that many others had it worse. We found relief from our personal troubles by relieving the greater needs of others.”

I don’t pretend or expect to have too many readers, but now and then I post something that goes viral and gets hundreds if not thousands of likes on Twitter (where a version of this column appears a day or so later). That column on “Meaning in the many” got absolutely zero. I wanted to believe it was some kind of digital glitch, that people were getting a blank page instead of seeing what I wrote, but soon the cold reality set in that I had failed to communicate, in which case it was of course my fault.

So let me try again and see if I can get through in this time of Covid-19, which has been with us Pinoys for just about a month but which already feels like a year for many, long enough to spawn a torrent of memes and new buzzwords and phrases like “social distancing” and “shelter in place.” People are drowning in theories and prescriptions, rumors and rants, or otherwise occupied—somewhere between astonishment and anger—by prayers and eulogies.

It’s almost become a cliché to note the irony that at a time when we most need a sense of community (one commentator called it “seeing the ‘we’”), our best defense against disease is isolation and distance. Those of us lucky to have Internet access have formed communities online, through Viber and Messenger, passing on the latest tidbit with breathless anxiety, as if to say, “I’m still alive!” The patently fake news and repetitiveness aside, much of this traffic has been well-meant and benign—pleas for help and donations (almost instantly answered), jokes (not always funny, but better than news of another death), and coping strategies (everything from menus and exercise regimens to reading lists and Netflix favorites). They are, of course, the preoccupations of the living, and if there’s a certain bourgeois banality to them, it’s probably because they’re our most honest attempts at recovering a middle-class normalcy that has suddenly acquired meaning and value—even chores that we took for granted, if not disliked, like driving to work or doing the groceries.

Long.png

But now and then some messages have disturbed and saddened me deeply, almost as badly as the news of friends lost (three of them, at latest count), things which reminded me that long before this enforced lockdown, we had already, in a broader sense, quarantined ourselves and practiced social distancing, class-wise.

Topmost was that alarm sounded by a post—subsequently shown to be fake—claiming that scruffy gangs were threatening to loot a grocery and plunder rich folks’ homes. I have to confess that at first blush it scared me, because I thought it was true; it probably was, because people were going hungry, and when they got hungry, well, they….

And then I remembered how, in the early 1970s, another period of crisis—before I got a real job and wore a tie and went back to school to pick up a diploma and order a box of embossed business cards—my family and I were living in a hovel whose rusty GI roof was held down by a tire. My father had to work far away, my mother was a clerk, my siblings were in school, I was newly married, and we had very little but each other (and a pig that we kept in the bathroom, being fattened for the future). And sometimes there was so little food that Beng once had to sell her nicest clothes to tide us over. One Christmas, the best gift we could bring home was a set of new, cheap plastic plates to replace the cracked ones we were using. We were hard up, but if we were desperate, we tried hard not to show it.

Remembering that, I posted a message: “While all these scenarios are possible, I seriously doubt that these recent posts about the poor plotting to storm groceries and gated subdivisions are based on fact. They seem purposely crafted to sow fear and disunity, appealing to our worst instincts and characterizing the poor as a mindless mob, at a time when compassion and rational thinking are most needed. I frankly don’t know who would benefit from this kind of campaign, and I don’t mean for people not to be careful about their safety, but putting up more barriers, physical and otherwise, between people in common distress seems to me not only un-Christian but ultimately counterproductive.”

I know, that sounds more like the editorials I used to write for another paper. I should’ve just told my story, but I didn’t, because any suffering in the past almost sounds like gloating against the very real and urgent claims of the present. It was, I guess, a reminder to myself (and to our younger family members who never went through all that) that there are things worse than Covid, things worse than quarantine, like the loss of memory, and of our connections to one another beyond the physical and the digital.

Penman No. 383: Crash Landing on Me

crash1.jpg

Penman for Monday, March 16, 2020

 

I SHOULD have better things to do—and Lord knows I do—but I have to admit to splurging an inordinate amount of time and attention last week on a Korean confection strangely titled “Crash Landing on You.”

It was my wife Beng’s fault. I was snug in my La-Z-Boy, pecking away at my laptop on a book project, figuring out how best to explain how iron ore becomes high-grade steel, with the TV open to “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” on Netflix. That’s how I often work, toggling between the job and entertainment, with one foot on the ground and another stepping on the gas, Walter Mitty-like, for Scuderia Ferrari. She came up to me and said, with the sweetest smile she could muster, “Can we watch ‘Crash Landing on You’ instead?”

“Can we watch what?”

She went on to explain that it was currently South Korea’s most popular telenovela, and as soon as I heard that, I knew that my Formula I viewing was done for, at least for the evening. For the past 46 years of our marriage, Beng has endeavored to get me to try things I passionately abhor—like cheese, artichokes, alugbate, and sappy movies—and while she’s gotten nowhere on the food front, now and then I relent on the entertainment, because it gives me a bargaining chip, and I can play poker all I want. Besides, International Women’s Day was coming up, and it seemed like a good present to mark the occasion.

That’s when I remembered that I could’ve scored more points by bringing it up myself, before she did. I was waiting last month for an important meeting with a high university official; on the sofa beside me sat a friend, the director of our Korean Studies Program, whom Beng had met before. We had all once been at a big party to celebrate Philippine-Korean relations, where Beng and I found ourselves seated at the same table with the very affable Korean ambassador and his wife. Beng struck up an instant friendship with the madame, upon discovering that they were both telenovela fans. My friend remembered that, and on the sofa whispered instructions to me that might as well have been a state secret: “Please tell your wife to watch this new show called ‘Crash Landing on You.’ Right now, it’s the biggest hit in Korea.” Of course, I promptly forgot about it—until Beng told me to hit the switch-channels button.

Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that “Crash Landing on You” is about—take a deep breath—a rich and stylish South Korean heiress who somehow accidentally lands in North Korea and who falls in love with her savior, a soldier who also happens to be (aside from a concert pianist) the son of a high-ranking government official, and who follows the heiress back to Seoul, trailed by an assassin and supported by a posse of faithful North Korean friends. Makes total sense, right?

As Beng settled into her show with a bag of chips, I continued working on my steel-industry epic while keeping one desultory eye on the unfolding TV drama. Soon I was sucked in by what I had gleefully expected—absurdity galore, silly coincidences, the ridiculousness of towing a piano dockside for an impromptu concert and of a girl (yes, another Korean on the same lake in Switzerland) on a boat gliding by and memorizing the melody at one pass, and so on.

By Episode 5 I was making snide remarks, like “Why do these Koreans always argue then kiss in the rain?” But alas, by Episode 8, I was laughing like crazy over the five North Korean operatives reconnoitering Seoul like country bumpkins, taking in the wonders of fried chicken, soft beds, and vending machines. Even worse, I got teary-eyed when Ri Jeong-Hyuk told Yoon Se-ri, “I want to see you with gray hair, and wrinkles…. I want to see you grow old.”

I began setting up post-dinner watch parties with Beng, and because we seniors doze off after an hour even if there’s a war or a volcano erupting outside, we’ve been able to hold off watching the two-hour finale for our quarantine treat.

Meanwhile, I had to chuckle when the BBC reported that the North Korean media went into overdrive denouncing “Crash Landing on You” as an attack on its cherished values:  “Recently, South Korean authorities and film producers have released anti-republic films and TV dramas that are deceptive, fabricated, absurd and impure, putting all their efforts into making strategic propaganda. The South Korean government and production houses will pay the price for making and distributing such movies and programs which are full of manipulation and fiction that insult the reality of the bright situation of the North.”

Even some South Koreans were equally unhappy, accusing the show of making North Korea look good: “tvN’s ‘Crash Landing on You’ has been accused of violating the National Security Act for glorifying North Korea. On January 22, Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency revealed that they were reviewing an accusation made by the Christian Liberal Party against tvN on January 9. In a statement released on January 10, the Christian Liberal Party explained that ‘Following the National Security Act, one should not praise or follow any anti-national organizations that compromise the existence of South Korea.’”

Come on, guys, drop the missiles and watch the show! See each other grow old!

 

 

Penman No. 382: Southern Gothic in Sugarlandia

IMG_3337.jpeg

Penman for Monday, March 2, 2020

 

THE LAST time I visited Bacolod was more than a decade ago, when I was writing the centennial history of the De La Salle Brothers in the Philippines and had to look into their work in that southern city, an enterprise that began in 1952. Before that I had made occasional sorties to it, on short ferry rides from Iloilo and once, memorably, on a long pre-martial law ride across the mountains to Dumaguete with a busload of fellow activists, expecting to be stopped any minute by the paramilitary forces then lording it over the countryside.

Last week I returned on a far more civil mission, on research for another book I’m writing on a sometime icon of the sugar industry. That part of it was interesting enough—interviews with history’s participants and witnesses can be exhausting (especially in the transcription) but always fascinating for me—but as often happens on these out-of-town excursions, the sidelights proved no less engrossing.

Bacolod and its environs, of course, have always offered stellar attractions for visitors and tourists, and indeed my wife Beng and her high-school barkada of four lovely ladies were flying into town with me on their own itinerary. I was there for work, but the women had booked a day tour of the fabled old houses of nearby Silay. (You can find these heritage tours on Klook, among other places online.)

87761369_145210946636117_2602308233536208896_n.jpg

87555380_1522388674582220_1586447076739252224_n.jpg

While Beng’s party enjoyed Silay’s architectural treasures—among them Balay Negrense and the Ramon Hofileña ancestral home—I was many kilometers away in Bago City, treading carefully on the crumbling ruins of the Ma-ao sugar central. Opened in 1919 on a 56-hectare estate, the central was typical of the enterprise that turned Negros into Sugarlandia, creating fabulous wealth for an elite that held sway over the region’s history and politics over much of the 20th century. Over my three days in Bacolod I would learn more than I ever imagined I could know about sugar, its production, and, inescapably, the society it fed and bred.

IMG_3361.jpeg

IMG_3351.jpeg

IMG_3358.jpeg

IMG_3366.jpeg

Indeed, from the airport in Silay on to the fringes of the city, the landscape is dominated by swaths of sugarcane greening at the foot of Mts. Mandalagan and Kanlaon, broken only by the occasional mall or hardware store, the signposts of the new commerce. “This is the best land for sugar in the province right here,” said my guide and driver, “and it’s owned by the Lacson family. There are two main streets in Bacolod, named after two generals of the Revolution: Juan Araneta and Aniceto Lacson, who forced the surrender of the Spanish forces through a clever ruse. They had nipa palms cut to resemble guns from a distance, and the Spanish general surrendered to avoid what he thought would be a bloodbath.”

IMG_3367.jpeg

Unknown.jpeg

Moises_Padilla_Story.jpg

Such stories roll easily off the Negrense tongue, on this land watered by blood and champagne. As we drove on the highway, I recalled a passage in a biography of Rafael Salas—another native son, from Bago—that I had co-written last year with Menchu Sarmiento, about the horrific murder in 1951 of Moises Padilla, who had found the gall to run for mayor against the local kingpin: “They toured from town to town beating and torturing Padilla, displaying him in a public square while one of the boys announced: ‘Here is what happens to people who oppose us.’” At the same time, I couldn’t help recalling the story of that period’s loveliest and yet also saddest bride, the legendary Susan Magalona, at whose star-crossed wedding it was reported that champagne flowed from a fountain. (Millennials who’ve never heard of this story would do well to Google it, if only to learn something about the virtues of “non-consummation”.)

27021948_1893959773996047_8250631721652037701_o.jpg

14612564_1153431258070234_8046207763267529315_o.jpg

In American literature, which I used to teach, these bizarre but also compelling comminglings of decay and grotesquerie on the one hand and beauty and the fantastic on the other took on the label of “Southern gothic,” a genre with such writers as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers among its avatars. Somehow I felt that I was in its presence here, too, in the rusted machinery and the tall grasses, out of which you half-expected some apparition in gauzy white to emerge. In the very middle of Lopez Jaena Street stands perhaps the quaintest cemetery in the country: the mausoleum of the Luzuriagas (photo below from steemit.com), where the traffic of life, you might say, comes to a perfect standstill.

3W72119s5BjVs3Hye1oHX44R9EcpQD5C9xXzj68nJaq3CeSzYksz22SbvK9zUymto17c14J68siTxeCmFUAMj5Gr8xdkZ74yAYZTnoU2R4N7nCpvGnLZP4.jpeg

IMG_3391.jpeg

IMG_3386.jpeg

DecoPainting.png

IMG_3380.jpeg

IMG_3394.jpeg

Inevitably I would hear a story about ghosts, in a place that would have been incomplete without them: the celebrated Daku Balay (“Big House”), Bacolod’s first and largest Art Deco mansion built on Burgos Street by Don Generoso Villanueva in 1936. We were lucky to get a private tour of this exquisitely sculpted home, thanks to our friend the American writer Craig Scharlin and his wife Lilia Villanueva, Don Generoso’s granddaughter, who have taken it upon themselves to preserve it for posterity. Craig told me how visitors who had strayed into the upper floors had found themselves being escorted by a charming couple—none other than the long-departed don and his wife Paz.

These specters were, at least, benign, and if I had lived in Daku Balay, with its helical staircase, nautical motifs, and Scagliola floors, I would have wished to inhabit it forever.

IMG_3390.jpeg

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 381: The Best of New Writing in English

QuietOnes.jpg

Penman for Monday, February 17, 2020

 

ONE OF the things we’ve been proudest of doing at the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW) has been to encourage new writers in both Filipino and English—whether through workshops, grants, or publishing opportunities. Sometimes all writers really need is a bit of recognition from their masters and their peers, some formal acknowledgment of their talent to spur them on in a career with few rewards beyond the smiles and the sighs of their readers.

For nearly two decades now, thanks to the generosity of Atty. Gizela M. Gonzalez, herself a gifted writer, the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award has honored its self-described winners—the best first publication in book form by a writer in Filipino or English for the past two years (alternating between the two languages every other year). A cash prize of P50,000 accompanies the award. Entries are submitted by publishers, for whom victory lies in discovering the next new literary star. It’s a safe bet: previous winners have included such luminaries as Sarge Lacuesta, Luna Sicat Cleto, Ichi Batacan, and Kristian Cordero, among others.

The 19th MGBFBA was given out at Writers Night last December in UP. I was in Singapore for another ceremony but was very interested in who would win (a surprisingly well-kept secret that even UPICW fellows are not privy to until the night itself). Only later did I hear, happily, that the winner was a former student of mine, Glenn Diaz, for his novel The Quiet Ones (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2018), described by the judges as “a tour de force, an awesome game of fictional juggling, mastering multiple narratives that cascade, skim and collide, leaving the reader breathless, wondering if that was a whodunit, a philosophical foray into globalization, or a poignant story of love.” Well done, Glenn! But let’s give a shout out for the other finalists as well.

Jude Ortega’s Seekers of Spirits (UP Press, 2017) “opens up to readers a world of spirits, ancestral yet ever present, unseen yet all too powerful. They are constantly in the lives of humans, offering succor or malice. Yet, these stories suggest that, whatever power these spirits possess, no terror may be worse than that we inflict upon each other.”

Manuel Lahoz’s autobiographical Of Tyrants and Martyrs: A Political Memoir (UP Press, 2018) is “a riveting political memoirof martial law in the Philippines and its many victims… a record of Lahoz’s own apotheosis from priest to social activist to political prisoner and participant in the political underground. In his personal transformation we sense as well the coming of age of an entire generation.”

 Francis Quina’s Field of Play and Other Fictions (Visprint, 2018) displays “the sensibility of a poet as well as the rigor of the literary scholar and writing teacher. He seeks to dissect both the intricacies of the human heart and the manner by which these are re-enacted in art. His is a new, vibrant voice in fiction.”

Christine Lao’s Musical Chairs (2017) is a “small and compact chapbook… (of) stories in the way they were first invented: as lore, as fable, as stories of good and evil but, in this collection, rendered with the complexity of the modern world.”

Johanna Michelle Lim’s What Distance Tells Us: Travel Essays About the Philippines (Bathalad, 2018) covers “twelve Philippine destinations, from Batanes to Sitangkai, from Sagada to Siargao… (and) lures us with language, entices us into the territories of enchantment not always of the exotic but also the local and commonplace. In these peregrinations… she evolves en route: in the various guises of the traveler, artist, and activist she aspires to be, but also the one she was never ready for.”

Sarah Fernando Lumba’s The Shoemaker’s Daughter (Visprint, 2018) consists of “tightly woven tales, narratives sewn together with the deliberate shoemaker’s art, with the rough edges shaved off as if with a leather skiver—these are what make The Shoemaker’s Daughter an important contribution to new Filipino fiction…. (They) take us through Marikina shoemakers’ country, with its achingly familiar small-town complexion and its river changing from a benign periodic visitor to an existential threat.”

Marichelle Roque-Lutz’s Keeping It Together (Roque-Lutz Publishing, 2018) “traverses what might be called an intercontinental trampoline that stretches from Manila to Nigeria and America, which need not be only geographic because the memoirist from the start is a soul-in-search, ever moving through time and into herself. Most memoirs are helped by faithfully kept journals. Keeping It Together is directly helped by a copious streaming from the heart, a first book by an able and polished author, a fully evolved, mature soul.”

It was a strong batch, all told, which can only bode well for the future of creative writing in English in the Philippines, fraught as it has always been with political and aesthetic challenges. As the late NVM Gonzalez used to put it, “I write in Filipino, using English”—a formula that seems to be working just fine.

Penman No. 380: Commemorating the FQS

JTorres1.jpg

Penman for Monday, February 3, 2019

 

STARTING LAST January 26 and until early this month, some members of a generation of Filipinos now in their 60s and 70s would have commemorated—or at least noted in one way or another—the 50th anniversary of what came to be called the First Quarter Storm, or the FQS. It was a tumultuous season at the very start of the 1970s, a period that would see deepening disenchantment with the Marcos regime, the rise of student activism, and the subsequent declaration of martial law in 1972. For those of us who were part of that generation, it was also the abrupt abbreviation of our carefree youth and our hastened transformation into missionaries of a kind, idealists fired up by the notion of becoming the Rizals, Bonifacios, and Gabriela Silangs of our time.

It was a political but—as with all politics—also a cultural awakening. We began by reading—not Marx or Mao, but Renato Constantino and, a bit later, Jose Ma. Sison. For me, it was William Pomeroy’s The Forest—a lyrical account of an American GI’s unlikely entry into the struggle of the postwar Huks—that sparked my fascination with rebels and revolutions. I was only in high school when I read it, but I swore that, in my own way, I was going to make a change in society.

8398741572.jpg

I didn’t even have to wait to get to college for that opportunity. On January 26, 1970, I joined the throngs of uniformed students who gathered in Manila to protest against Ferdinand Marcos, who was delivering the SONA at the old Senate building. I can’t recall now what the specific issues were, but we had a sense that there were very large causes involved of which Marcos was only a part. The Vietnam War was still raging and for many young people, “Make love, not war” was the answer; we had watched Woodstock as a movie on the big screen, we had memorized the Beatles, and Mao’s China was still shrouded in mystery. We were somewhere between dreaming of becoming hippies or becoming bomb-throwers.

Indeed, on that day—a Monday, according to the calendar, so we were all skipping our classes—I still counted myself a moderate, marching under the banner of Ed Jopson’s National Union of Students of the Philippines. We filed out of our assembly grounds on the UST campus toward the Luneta, where large crowds had already gathered, some sporting the streamers of more vocal militants like the KM and SDK—whom, at that point, I held in both suspicion and awe. I was too far to listen to the speeches being made by the likes of Gary Olivar, whom my high-school English teacher had held up for me as a bright young man worth emulating. When things started flying through the air, beginning with the mock coffin someone had brought along to exemplify the death of democracy, and the police began wielding their truncheons, I scampered for the life of me, muttering oaths under my breath directed at both the police and the radicals for spoiling what had been a very nice day. I had just turned 16 barely a week earlier, and I was too young to die or even just to get my head bashed in.

image09.jpg

jopson-addressing-the-jan-26-crowd.jpg

As it happened, I did get radicalized; before that year was over, I was a freshman at UP, where I joined the Nationalist Corps and later the SDK. Within just three more years I would become part of the Diliman Commune, witness the killings of Francis Sontillano and Sonny Mesina (both of them my fellow scholars at the Philippine Science High School), drop out of UP to work as a newspaper reporter, lose my job under martial law, and be imprisoned in Fort Bonifacio for seven months. I grew up even faster than I thought I would; shortly after my release, I met and married my wife Beng (with so many people dying around us, we couldn’t wait too long), and I became a father at 20.

IMG_3148.JPG

That’s what a few books and the FQS all led to—a quick but bracing immersion in youthful rebellion and forced maturity, from which I learned quite a bit about myself and about other people, indeed about human nature itself, beyond providing material for the obligatory semi-autobiographical first novel. Today, as a retired professor, I’m often asked (and will be again, this week) about what all of that meant, and I say that it was about taking charge of your own life and taking your people’s interests to heart, and not just yours.

What I once disavowed as my vulnerable and wishy-washy liberal core turned out to be me at my most honest and perhaps my strongest. I still seek and fight for freedom from any kind of despotism, whether from the Right or the Left (and these days, when both extremes have cohabited, when the mouthpieces of the old Left now sing the praises of the Right, you have to trust your own compass to point northward). I commemorate the FQS not by boxing it in the past and putting it away, but by hoping that a new generation of Filipinos, made curious by books and refusing to accept easy answers, will see themselves as part of a larger struggle to be human, and to be free.

JTorres2.jpg

(Paintings by Juanito Torres, courtesy of Jack Teotico)

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 379: Auf wiedersehen, Beetle!

IMG_1633.jpegPenman for Monday, January 20, 2020

 

BEFORE WE get to the truly serious (read: tearful) stuff, let me inform my readers in academia that the deadline for the submission of abstracts to the 11th International Conference on Philippine Studies (ICOPHIL), which will be held from September 21 to 23 at the Universidad de Alicante in Spain, has been moved to January 31. This conference, which happens only once every four years, is the world’s largest gathering of both Filipino and international experts on all things Pinoy, from literature and the performing arts to politics, economics, and history. Having attended the 2012 meeting in Michigan, I hope to participate in Alicante again, to learn far more than my modest contribution to the discussions. For more information, please visit http://www.facebook.com/ICOPHIL11.

* * * * *

SPEAKING OF Filipino culture, there are few things more cherished by Pinoys aside from movie stars and basketball than their cars. I don’t care much about artistas and basketbolistas, but I plead guilty to doting on my four-wheeled babies, the tiniest dent or scratch on any of which can spark a day-long fit. Even in my dotage, I belong to two online chat groups devoted to the Subaru Forester and the Suzuki Jimny, my current rides—the one for daily business and the other as the off-road toy, although “off-road” to me means the service road to the mall. But there was a time when we all had just one car for all seasons and purposes, and for me that was the Volkswagen Beetle.

I must have received half a dozen messages from friends a couple of weeks ago, all pointing to an animated video clip bidding the venerable bug “an emotional goodbye” (you can watch it here). Eight decades and 23 million cars later, Volkswagen had shut down the Beetle’s production line. That touched a nerve in me, because I had said my own goodbye to my Beetle of 38 years just a few months earlier.

That white Beetle was technically my second car (the first, a yellow Datsun Bluebird, had died an ignominious death, riddled with bullet holes after being stolen—another long sad story). I had bought it very slightly used in 1981, a repossessed unit, for the grand total of P36,000 amortized over a few years. While I had learned to drive in the Datsun, it was the Beetle I really grew up as a driver on, using it for almost 20 years until its first demise (like a cat, this Bug has had many lives).

In the early ‘80s, I would pick up our daughter Demi from school for merienda at Ma Mon Luk Cubao, and she slept in the back for the long drive home to San Mateo. It saw the best and the worst of times, getting us down to join EDSA in ’86. A drunken friend once slept and peed in the front seat, fogging up the windows.

The Beetle had a chronic problem its owners soon discovered: its back seat was prone to bursting into flames. If enough pressure (read: a fat passenger, or too many passengers) was put on it, the metal springs touched the battery terminals, literally forming a hot seat. My Beetle caught fire this way at least three times, until I had the good sense (duh) to slip a rubber mat in between. Worse was yet to come: driving off to lunch with a friend, we heard a thud, and the car went dead. Looking behind us, we saw that the battery had fallen through the rotted floor. We gamely picked it up, reattached the battery (cradled by my friend) and drove on. It would continue to host the likes of Franz Arcellana, Bienvenido Santos, and certain less estimable passengers.

For the next few years the Beetle lay fallow on a curb in Project 4, nested and peed in (again) by cats. Coming into some money, thanks to a writing fellowship, I splurged on a ground-up restoration that today could still get me a new car, and the Bug won Best of Show at the VW Club’s powwow in 2000.

It served me for many more years, and in its showroom prime I loved driving it up to five-star hotels and passing the key on to the stupefied valet. And then it began to sit quietly at home again, for far too many days and years, until Beng and I decided that the time had come to find it a new home with someone who could care for it for the next thirty years—a young couple, not too far from us, who had been dreaming of owning a Beetle.

In 2004, on a visit to Germany, I finagled a side trip to the Volkswagen plant and museum in Wolfsburg. At the museum, I ogled the very first Beetle ever made. “Please don’t touch it!” my minder begged. But of course I did. I touched the Beetle, the same way it had touched me. Auf wiedersehen, mein lieber Freund!