Penman No. 383: Crash Landing on Me

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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

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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.)

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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.

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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.”

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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”.)

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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.

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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.

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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 378: My Retirement Library

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Penman for Monday, January 6, 2020

 

I RECENTLY had occasion to reorganize my personal library, which involved trimming down hundreds of books into what could fit into a large aparador and three long shelves running along the wall of my study. Having retired for a year now, I thought that it was time to start bringing my worldly possessions down to the core, down to things I would actually live with in my old age, however short or long that grace period is going to be.

As you can imagine, this was easier said than done. Downsizing a library takes a lot more than a physical effort. It means going over a virtual history of your own mind, every book bought and kept being a marker of sorts of whatever it was you found interesting at that moment.

To force my hand and speed things up, last November I picked out and donated four large boxes of over 150 books to a benefit sale being held by students in my department in UP, mostly literature books and texts only an English major could love. As I was packing them up I remembered how, in my student days, we scoured the sales at Alemar’s and the old PECO as well as the used-book bins along Recto for bargains, clucking like well-fed chickens when we came across a prize catch (for me then, an orange-spined Penguin book by the likes of Graham Greene or John Updike).

Having a fixed space to move my books into also obliged me to choose well and wisely. In the end I decided that for simplicity’s sake my retirement library would contain only books that fell into certain categories: (1) books I myself wrote (around 40) and edited or contributed to (another 60 or so); (2) books signed by fellow authors; (3) books that were good or important to have, including antiquarian books, Filipiniana, Rizaliana, books on pens, machines, art and design, and collecting in general; and (4) most importantly, my personal favorites—the books that, for the past 50 years, I loved to read or would want to re-read, and, for some new ones, will want to read in retirement. It’s that last shelf I’ll dwell on for now.

As a fictionist, my favorite books of fiction are of course represented: William Kennedy’s Ironweed, J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, John Gardner’s Grendel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, which Franz Arcellana told our class was the most disgusting book he had ever read, prompting me to rush out and look for it. (I still have to find my copy of D. M. Thomas’ The White Hotel.) Anthologies and books by my favorite poets include those by Robert Graves, Constantine Cavafy, Philip Larkin, and Federico Garcia Lorca.

There are also books about the practice and culture of writing: Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, Philip Hensher’s The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves, The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, Thomas Larson’s The Memoir and the Memoirist, The Story of English by McCrum, Cran, and MacNeil, William Harris’ Ancient Literacy, and Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading (a gift from F. Sionil Jose, who asked me to pick a book off his shelf).

If my Pinoy writer-friends don’t see their books among my favorites, that’s because they’re on the shelf of autographed books, alongside those signed by John Updike, Edward Jones, Junot Diaz, Romesh Gunesekera, Charles Baxter, Lawrence Durrell, Frank McCourt, Kazuo Ishiguro, and J. M. Coetzee, as well as, of course, the Filipino standouts: Jose Garcia Villa, Nick Joaquin, and even Carlos P. Romulo (who, let’s not forget, was one of five Filipinos to have won the Pulitzer Prize, mainly for journalism).

For fun, I keep books on poker (James McManus’ Cowboys Full and Positively Fifth Street) and books about Apple and Macs (Michael Malone’s Infinite Loop, Young and Simon’s iCon: Steve Jobs and the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business, Leander Kahney’s The Cult of Mac), as well as E. S. Lumsden’s The Art of Etching, which guided and inspired my shortlived career as a printmaker in the 1970s.

Perhaps most surprising is the predominance of history and nonfiction on this shelf, a tip of the hat to what I might have gone into as a profession if not for creative writing, although it’s mostly popular history for the enthusiast: Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and James Burke’s Connections, Yuvel Noah Harari’s Sapiens, the Hakluyt edition of Morga’s Sucesos, Brian MacAllister Linn’s The Philippine War 1899-1902, Alan Moorehead’s Gallipoli, Dava Sobel’s Longitude, David Howard Bain’s Sitting in Darkness, Thatcher Freund’s Objects of Desire, Anna Pavord’s The Tulip, Nick Joaquin’s Manila My Manila (and his Reportage series), Richard Selzer’s Confessions of a Knife and Mortal Lessons, David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ken Adler’s The Measure of All Things, and William Pomeroy’s The Forest (which I often cite as the most influential book of my young life, because it made rebellion sound romantic, and encouraged me to carry a placard).

When I step back and survey what I’ve chosen to put together (perhaps too unabashedly male), I can still see that boy who was fascinated not so much by fiction but by how things worked and by what the world out there was like (Sobel’s Longitude will tell you that). Because (no thanks to poor math skills) I couldn’t become an engineer and make clocks and centrifuges, literature and creative writing became my second choice—to see how words worked, like cogs in a fine machine.

 

Penman No. 377: A Harvest of Singaporean Fiction

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Penman for Monday, December 23, 2019

 

WRITING ABOUT Singaporean short fiction in the Malaysian literary journal Tenggara in 1990, the highly respected Singaporean poet and teacher Robert Yeo observed of his country’s short story writers that “They prefer the relative safety of naturalism or realism and have learned to construct the short story in terms of traditional ways of having a well-defined plot, a single moment, clear characterization, and a resolute or indeterminate end. There are no innovative tales like the surrealism of Franz Kafka, the magical realism of Marquez or the labyrinthine mazes of Borges, writers who have responded to the urgings of their personal visions of the worlds they inhabit and make….” At the same time he remained optimistic, and opined that as poets had lorded it over the previous decades, the time for fictionists had come.

Prof. Yeo’s self-criticism reminded me that, years earlier, I spotted a remark in the introduction to an anthology of Singaporean short stories that Singaporean writers had much to learn from their Filipino counterparts, who had explored the territory with both talent and audacity.

Two weeks ago, as I attended the awarding ceremonies of the Golden Point Award at the National Library of Singapore, I reflected on those comments and was happy to conclude, on my hosts’ behalf, that those days of cautious apprenticeship were over: Singaporean fiction had fully come of age. Indeed perhaps it had done that much earlier than I had noticed, but this time I was staring it in the face, in the form of the superlative pieces that won prizes in the GPA competition.

Begun by the National Arts Council in 1993—perhaps precisely to encourage the risk-taking and innovation that Robert seemed to be missing—the Golden Point Award is Singapore’s biennial version of our much older and broader Palancas, focused on discovering and encouraging new writers in Singapore’s four official languages (English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil) in the poetry and short story categories. I was the sole international judge in the English short story, a task and privilege I shared with two distinguished Singaporean writers, Meira Chand and Balli Kaur Jaswal (who had also been a David TK Wong Fellow at Norwich, and who lived for some time in Manila).

The judging that we did online over several weeks was exciting but exhausting. Of the 1,200 entries submitted this year to the GPA in all categories, more than half went to the English short story. We plodded patiently through the digital pile, and were pleasantly surprised to find, when we finally met in Singapore for the final deliberation, that our top-six shortlists were practically the same, save for one or two pieces.

The stories submitted covered an astonishing and also very revealing range of themes and concerns that created (especially for me, as an outsider looking in) a comprehensive image of Singaporean society today. They included the following, in no particular order: migrant workers; Chinese grandparents; filial piety; competition and conformity; the generation gap; Western education, the English language (Oxbridge and British accents), and social status; arranged marriages; racial disharmony; sexual liberation; Singaporean history and nationhood; the Singaporean future; utopia and dystopia.

Addressing Robert Yeo’s earlier plaint, the entries also came in full range of genres, from realism to fantasy and science fiction, horror, young adult, even erotica.

In my judging, I looked for the human in the Singaporean, and the Singaporean in the human. While it may not have been explicitly stated in the rules, I tried to see how the works represented both contemporary Singaporean society and also the state of writing in Singapore.

The best stories for me displayed complexity, subtlety, intimacy, and insight; they had a palpable narrative and emotional impact, and took their time to develop their tensions and arrive at their subliminally earned conclusions. I was especially taken by our second-prize winner, “Little Fears” by Lauren Ho, which drew on the tension between a Singaporean mother and her Filipino nanny, who had clearly won over her child’s affections.

The least successful ones bore many of the hallmarks of amateurs, which I see often enough in our own workshops and the Palancas: a plethora of literary quotes and allusions, hurried summaries of situations, essayistic discussions of their subjects, revelatory titles, one-dimensional characterizations, and predictable plots.

Nevertheless, the enthusiasm of all participants—the courage of writing and submitting a story for judgment—should be commended, as I could sense that the GPA was as much about encouraging effort and expression as it was about recognizing excellence.

At the awards ceremony, I also had the opportunity to meet and chat with Singaporean publisher Edmund Wee, whose Epigram (epigrambooks.sg) imprint has been championing local literature and writers. Now Edmund is looking beyond Singapore itself for the best new works by sponsoring the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, which offers the largest prize money in the Singaporean—indeed Southeast Asian—literary circuit: S$25,000 (about P933,000) plus a publishing contract; three other shortlisted finalists will get S$5,000 and a publishing contract. Starting this year, the competition was opened to ASEAN authors, and Edmund made a point of asking me to encourage more Filipinos to join. The next deadline will be in August 2020, with the winner to be announced the following January. Check out their website, folks.

With incentives like the GPA and the Epigram Prize, Prof. Yeo can rest assured that Singaporean fiction will be alive and well for many decades to come.

 

Penman No. 376: The Other Pepe

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Penman for Monday, December 9, 2019

 

THIS COLUMN started out in my mind as an account of a return visit to Dapitan, where my wife Beng and I had first gone eight years ago to pay homage to Jose Rizal, who had lived there in exile for four years between 1892 and 1896, until shortly before his arrest in Europe and his trial and execution in Manila. It was by many accounts a happy and productive interlude, during which he practiced his skills as physician, teacher, poet, and scientist, a period highlighted by his romance with a young woman named Josephine Bracken, whom he would later marry at death’s door.

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Indeed there’s no way you can visit his beachfront estate named Talisay, now a national shrine, without being swept up by the epic drama of Rizal’s last years—a drama wrought not in the theater of armed combat, but in the innermost recesses of his spirit, torn as he was by many loves and longings, successively losing a stillborn son, his freedom, and then his life. Again I looked at his clothes, his letters, and his artworks, trying to see the man beneath the trees, or on the water’s edge pointing something out to Josephine in the gathering dusk. (I keep a plaster bust of Rizal, crafted in 1961 by Anastacio Caedo, in my home office, and often find myself staring at it and asking, “What are you thinking?”)

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We had gone down to Dapitan via Dipolog, where the airport is, to enjoy a weekend with old friends from our time as the elves and acolytes of Dr. Gerry Sicat at the National Economic and Development Authority, back in the 1970s. Our boss at the Economic Information Staff, Frankie Aseniero, and his wife Nanette had graciously invited us to visit them in Dipolog, where Frankie, now retired but not quite, was a gentleman-farmer planting cacao and milling coco sugar and vinegar for the export market. With Beng and me were Medecins Sans Frontieres volunteer-physician Ginny Pineda Garcia and her husband the photographer Oliver Garcia and the poet Fidel Rillo.

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We’re all friends now in our seniorhood, but I have to admit, with some shame, that in our rebellious twenties we gave Frankie a hard time at the office, so let me make up for some of that by talking about his other talents, beyond business and management, as well as his fascinating family history. As it happens, Francisco Aseniero, Jr. is also one of our country’s most celebrated tenors who never fails to make us swoon every time he launches into “Stranger in Paradise” or “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz”; he has concertized all over the world and continues to lend his voice to programs benefiting worthy causes.

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How Frankie’s story connects with Rizal and a later phase of our history brings us back to Talisay, where Frankie’s grandfather Jose, then a boy of eleven or twelve, became a student of the other Pepe. So devoted was the boy to his teacher that he accompanied Rizal to Manila, hoping to be educated further in the big city, but events quickly overtook both master and pupil, and the young Jose had to suffer the harrowing experience of witnessing his hero’s execution. He had joined Rizal’s mother and sister on the eve of his death, and had seen and copied Rizal’s farewell poem, according to Frankie’s brother George, a philosopher and historian. Jose Aseniero went on to serve as governor of Zamboanga before the war. At one point he also acquired some of Rizal’s belongings, among which is the four-poster bed that can still be found in the Asenieros’ ancestral home.

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The story is no less interesting on Frankie’s maternal side. His grandfather there was a Swedish engineer named Charles Gustaf Carlson who migrated to the United States in 1895, and shortly after became a Protestant missionary to the Philippines, arriving in 1902 and being counted among the “Thomasites” who taught English to Filipinos. Charles became principal of the Industrial Trade School in Zamboanga, where he married a former student, Eugenia Enriquez. Among their six children was Ingeborg Eughenia, who met and married Francisco Aseniero, Jose’s engineer-son.

But what brought the whole experience together for me was a story that Frankie told us on our last day, as we were winding down, about one of his concerts in a small town in Bulacan. He and some friends had been invited to sing there, and he had obliged as usual. “I was surprised to find that in such a small place, the people thronged to see us, dressed in their Sunday best,” Frankie recalled. “We felt like we owed it to them to sing our hearts out, and we did.” He found himself singing like he would have done in London, Vienna, or New York, and the crowd responded with utmost appreciation as Frankie and his party offered up Broadway and operatic classics. “It was a magical moment, and seeing the people enjoying the music made my hair stand on end!”

How Jose Rizal himself would have loved that, having brought his world-honed talent to Dapitan, enriching and ennobling its soil for other and lesser Pepes like us following in his footsteps.

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Penman No. 375: Delightful Turkey

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Penman for Monday, November 25, 2019

 

AS 2019 draws to a close, it’s struck me that the year I turned 65 and retired has also been the busiest travel year of my life. Since I shut the door to my office for the last time in January—and thanks to my retirement check—my wife Beng and I have been to Penang, Tokyo, Scotland, London, Singapore, Turkey, the US, and Macau, doubling down on a pledge to keep moving while our knees can take it, which may not be for much longer. We’re also empty nesters, so with no fixed schedules and domestic responsibilities, it becomes that much easier to pack a bag and vanish for a few days. (Unfortunately this doesn’t mean that I have no work to worry about—I just carry half a dozen book projects with me all the time, on the road, in my trusty laptop and backed up to the Cloud.)

Among all those places—most of which we’d already been to before—the pick of the year has to be Turkey. Like many Pinoy seniors standing at the pre-departure area, I’d long nursed a Turkish trip on my bucket list—and it’s hardly just me: Turkey, specifically Istanbul, remains the world’s top tourist destination, attracting some 30 million visitors a year.

Why Turkey? Because why not? The very name conjures exotic adventures in a landscape swept by history and culture. Mosques, muezzins, and markets all come to mind, in a gaudy parade of images and tropes shaped as much by Hollywood as by the TV news. Indeed my earliest acquaintance with Turkey came with a movie I saw at the Leleng Theater behind Pasig’s public market as a boy in the mid-‘60s. It was titled “Topkapi” and starred Melina Mercouri, and it had to do with jewel thieves going for an emerald-encrusted dagger on exhibit in the palace of that name, and I remember how far away Turkey seemed,  in that lice-infested darkness, from the fish scales and pineapple peels of my reality. More than fifty years later, I was going to be the jewel thief, and the precious dagger was none other than Turkey itself, which I was going to see and hold for myself.

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The immediate trigger for this sortie was an irresistible offer we heard about from the Makati-based Rakso Travel agency, which sells package tours to Turkey for less than $2,000 all-in—and by “all-in” they mean exactly that, inclusive of flights, hotels, all meals, tours, tips, and visas. We thought it was an amazing deal, given that the trip would cover ten days and eight nights (the extra days would be for the flights) and cover all the major cities and sites you’d like to see in that country (with the exception of Mt. Ararat on the eastern side, off-limits because of political tensions). The itinerary included Istanbul, Cannakale, Troy, Pergamon, Kusadasi, Ephesus, Cappadocia, Konya, Amasya, Safranbolu, and Istanbul again—a 3,000-kilometer romp. Rakso also took care of the visas, which are now easier and cheaper to get if you have a US visa, in which case you can receive an e-visa online.

Despite being seasoned travelers, this was the first time Beng and I joined a group tour, and we were relieved to see, as we assembled at the airport, that our all-Pinoy group of 38 was composed mainly of mature professionals and bright young people eager to explore the world. The most senior member of our group was a jolly, still sprightly, and beer-loving 88-year-old we all called “Tatang,” whose very presence offered hope that we had some mileage still ahead of us.

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The 12-hour flight from Manila to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines was timed perfectly to arrive in Istanbul at dawn, with the city’s towers rising about the mists, heralding a whole new day of discovery and adventure. And that’s what awaited us for the next eight days, starting right off the bat after a quick breakfast with the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, two of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks.

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I’m not going to bore you with a blow-by-blow, scene-by-scene account of all the sites we visited; there’s often nothing more annoying than to have to leaf through someone else’s travel pictures, which also tend to look like, well, everybody else’s. There are only so many “evil eyes” (the virtual logo of Turkish tourism) you can look at, only so many Turkish delights you can nibble on.

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I’ll just say that aside from Istanbul itself, with its majestic domes and labyrinthine markets, the highlights of the tour for me were those on the quiet side: driving past the muted batteries of Gallipoli; standing on the ramparts of Troy, overlooking what would have been a tableau of both courage and carnage; stepping into the ancient library at Ephesus; watching dozens of multicolored balloons lift up into the early morning sky at Cappadocia; having lunch in Amasya with a waterfall cascading behind Beng’s shoulder; and stumbling into a sidestreet in Safranbolu, canopied by grapevines.

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Hats off to Rakso for the package—the hotels and the food were excellent, the tours were fascinating (if fatiguing for the slow-footed), our guide was wonderful, and we emerged with three dozen new friends. I still keep two precious boxes of Turkish delights in the fridge, which our guide said would easily keep for six months; Turkey itself will surely linger longer in the memory.

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Penman No. 374: A Pen-Filled Weekend

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Penman for Monday, November 11, 2019

 

IT’S BEEN a while since I’ve written anything about the original inspiration behind this column and its title—my longtime passion for collecting and using fountain pens—so please indulge me as I return to it this week with a big announcement: the holding of the second Manila Pen Show this weekend, November 16-17, at the Holiday Inn and Suites Makati.

But before we go to the show, let me make my standard pitch for fountain pens, for readers new to them. To younger generations weaned on ballpoints, rollerballs, gel pens, and other disposable writing instruments, fountain pens may be strange anachronisms—colorful (and often expensive) metal or plastic tubes filled with ink that could make an awful mess on your paper (or worse, on your shirt or dress). Why even bother with them when there are far more convenient and cheaper writing tools around (and why even bother with physical writing in this age of digital ink)?

It’s because—given the times we live in, when computer fonts and emoticons can make us write and sound alike—many people have begun to feel the need to express their individuality, to step out of the crowd and say “This is me!” in a very visible way. And nothing achieves that better than handwriting, which is best undertaken with a fountain pen.

Of course you could also write with a pencil or a Bic ballpoint and say the same thing as you would with, say, a Parker 75 or a Sheaffer Balance fountain pen. But pencils and ballpens have hard, stiff points which, like rollerballs, leave even and uniform lines. Fountain pens can have softer “nibs” (the business end, either steel or gold, where ink touches paper) which allow for line variation—i.e., very thin or “fine” to very thick or “broad” lines—depending on the pressure you apply. Some so-called “flexible” nibs can even go from Extreme Fine (EF or XF) to Double Broad (BB). All of which means a lot of writing fun—and sometimes you don’t even have to write anything that means anything, as the doodling alone can bring hours of therapeutic pleasure.

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Not surprisingly, according to The Telegraph of London in an article from March 2018, “The fountain pen is enjoying a fresh renaissance with sales of the classic writing instrument rising, a trend which experts are crediting to youngsters wanting to find an ‘antidote’ to their increasingly digital lives.” The Washington Post agreed last December, in a column titled “The handwriting is on the wall: fountain pens are back!” Indeed, all over the world, fountain pen sales are soaring, with younger people rediscovering—sometimes as “fashion statements”—what their grandparents carried daily in their pockets or purses as work tools.

One important shift from the past to the present has been the disappearance or sidelining of the major vintage brands such as Parker, Sheaffer, Waterman, and Wahl-Eversharp in favor of upstarts such as TWSBI, Franklin-Cristof, and Moonman. While some of the old brands have resurrected themselves, and other standouts such as Montblanc, Pelikan, and Pilot have never gone away, it’s the availability online of colorful, inexpensive, and surprisingly well-built pens from such places as China and India that has moved the market for pens from middle-aged executives to college students and young professionals.

Many such youngsters comprise the 8,700-strong membership of Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (https://www.facebook.com/groups/159754404054904/), an organization of FP collectors and enthusiasts which I helped found in my backyard with 19 other pioneers eleven years ago. Like the pens themselves, some of us old fogeys are still around, nursing our collections of pre-war Parker Vacumatics (my specialty) and Waterman 52s, but we’ve happily been overtaken by a younger set obsessed with not just the pens but with inks and papers.

Now, about the Manila Pen Show: for veterans and newbies, and even with the proliferation of pen products on the Web, there’s nothing like going to a pen show to enjoy the whole carnival. The best way to choose and buy a pen is still to hold and feel it and see how it writes. I’ve been to pen shows in Chicago, Baltimore, Ohio, Singapore, and Detroit, among others, and you can imagine how exhilarating (and financially debilitating) those sorties can be, with thousands of glittery pens to choose from within so many square feet.

We held the first MPS last year at SM Aura to mark FPN-P’s tenth anniversary, and it was so successful that we decided to hold another one this weekend, this time for two days, from 9 am to 6 pm. Raffle tickets will be issued in exchange for donations to charity, in lieu of an entrance fee. According to our spokesperson and calligrapher extraordinaire Lorraine Marie Nepomuceno, “Modern and vintage pens will be available, as well as fountain pen inks, paper products, and accessories. Participating international retailers include Aesthetic Bay (Singapore), Atelier Musubi (Singapore), Newton Pens (USA), Pengallery (Malaysia), Pierre Cardin (Hong Kong), Regalia Writing Labs (USA) and Straits Pen (Singapore). Local retailers and brands represented at the pen show include Calibre and Friends, Cross Pens, Everything Calligraphy, Faber-Castell, Gav ‘n Sav, Guia’s Vintage Pens, Inks by Vinta, Kasama Pens, Lamy, National Bookstore/Noteworthy, Pengrafik, Peter Bangayan, Scribe, Shibui, and Troublemaker Inks. Enthusiasts with minor repair needs or who require nib regrinds can visit the booths of nibmeisters John Lim or JP’s Pen Spa. Workshops, as well as talks by special guests, have been organized for both days of the show.”

One of those special guests will be, ahem, me, to give a talk on collecting vintage pens on the afternoon of the 17th. See you at the Holiday Inn!

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