Penman No. 328: Writers for Peace

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Penman for Monday, 19 November 2018

 

TO FOLLOW through on my initial report last week on the 2ndAsian Literature Festival in Gwangju, South Korea from November 6 to 9, it was an exhilarating and enlightening experience to be among fellow Asian writers getting together to wield literature as a weapon of peace.

I’ve been to many international literary festivals and conferences, but inevitably these gatherings—even those held in Asia—have tended to focus on Western writers and their concerns. For a while back there, the Man Asian Literary Awards, which culminated in a gala ceremony in Hong Kong, drew some special attention to contemporary Asian writing, but that fledgling effort folded up too soon. The Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), which will be holding its annual conference in Australia a few weeks from now, is arguably the region’s largest and most active literary network, but with so many topics on offer and so many attendees, it’s hard to keep your eyes and minds on one thing at any one time.

The Gwangju meeting felt just right, bringing together 11 writers from outside Korea to meet and interact with about the same number of their Korean counterparts. I was privileged to be the first Filipino to be invited to this young festival, which was headlined last year by 1986 Nobel Prizewinner Wole Soyinka. This year, the prolific and immensely talented Chinese novelist Yan Lianke, winner of the Franz Kafka Prize, led the delegates, who also included the Mongolian poet Damdinsuren Uriankhai, the first winner of the Asian Literature Award, which is given out at the festival.

Why Korea? Because—even as it globally exports kimchi, Koreanovelas, cellphones, and K-Pop—Korea (at least the southern part of it) is seeking to strengthen its cultural connections to the world at large, by exposing its people to cultural and literary movements from the outside, especially from beyond the Eurocentric zone. Among the key agents of this pivot is the publisher and editor Kim Jae-yong, a professor of modern Korean literature and world literature at Wonkwang University in Iksan, supported by the likes of Prof. Sohn Sukjoo from Dong-a University in Busan. Last year, it was also Prof. Kim and Prof. Sohn who brought another group of writers, including myself, to Jeju to discuss how our literatures were emerging out of the Western shadow.

The Gwangju event was less a conference than an intense but still festive sharing of experiences and responses to the many threats to peace, freedom, and justice around the world today, especially in Asia. As the festival chair Prof. Paik Nak-chung put it, “Particularly, 2018 is a special year when the journey towards denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula began as the leaders of the two Koreas met in Panmunjom and in Pyongyang. The festival urges Asian writers to carry on the spirit of peace on the Korean Peninsula to sublimate Asia’s wounds through literature.”

Writers, of course, are neither politicians nor diplomats (despite Shelley’s generous attribution of poets as the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”). Much of what we write inevitably has political content and intent, but governments don’t listen to writers (and would, in fact, shut down the teaching of language and literature as superfluities, like our magistrates did last week). We agreed, therefore, that our approach has to be direct to our peoples and audiences, to resensitize them to their humanity; freedom and justice are prerequisites to any kind of real and lasting peace, and these in turn are premised on the worth of the individual, which literature can help establish.

It was a great honor to share the company of the likes of Bao Ninh, a Vietnamese novelist who had fought the Americans during the war and had once found just himself and a comrade left alive in their platoon after a bloody encounter. His novel Sorrows of War is a poignant reflection on the fruitlessness of war, and the man’s quiet but fervent advocacy persuaded us (with me as one of the jurors) to award him the Asian Literature Award for this year. Another writer I got along very well with was the Taiwanese novelist Syaman Rapongan, a champion of his Tao tribe from Taiwan’s Orchid Island, who gave up a professorship in anthropology to pursue his true passions, writing and seafaring; “The ocean is a poem we cannot recite to the end,” one of his works memorably begins. The bestselling Korean novelist Sim Yungkyung, a molecular biologist by training, also became a good friend, and with our very capable guide Ms. Kim Hye Ji, my wife Beng and I saw the best of Korean culture and hospitality that week.

Not incidentally, the Asian Literature Festival was organized and sponsored by Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism through Gwangju’s impressive Asian Culture Center (ACC), which should be a model for other countries to emulate. But the best service of festivals like this is to remind writers—especially writers of conscience—that as solitary and sometimes as disheartening as their work can be, they are not alone, and are appreciated.

Penman No. 327: More than Memorials

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Penman for Monday, 12 November 2018

 

I WAS in Gwangju, South Korea last week to participate in the 2nd Asian Literature Festival, a new, Korea-based gathering of writers from across the continent aimed specifically at promoting peace through literature, with dozens of delegates from as far as Palestine attending. Initiated and supported by Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism through Gwangju’s Asia Culture Center (ACC), the festival draws its strength from Gwangju’s historic role in keeping Korean democracy alive.

I’ll share more impressions about the literary part of the festival next week, but as this was being written just as the festival opened, I’d like to dwell for a moment on our first formal activity there, which set the tone for the whole week.

Korea’s sixth largest city, Gwangju is about 300 kilometers south of Seoul, an hour and a half away by high-speed train. Known for its cuisine, Gwangju (the name means “city of light”) is also an important cultural center in Korea. It came to global prominence in May 1980, when the city’s people rebelled against the newly installed government of Chun Doo-hwan, who had led a military coup just months before, and who imposed nationwide martial law on May 17, closing down universities, muzzling the press, and arresting critics like future President Kim Dae-jung. (Does any of this sound familiar to us Filipinos?)

Among others in other regions, Gwangju’s citizens rose up against the strongman, as they did against the Japanese. In response, over nine days starting on May 18, the military undertook a brutal campaign of suppression against what came to be known as the Gwangju Uprising, leading to the deaths of hundreds of civilians branded as communists by the government. In 1987, a memorial cemetery was set up to honor the city’s freedom martyrs, and subsequent governments have made amends to these victims and their families.

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Not surprisingly, therefore, and before anything else, the visiting writers were brought by their hosts to this cemetery, Mangwol-dong, for everyone to pay their respects not just to the dead, but also to the spirit of peace that their sacrifice engendered. The cemetery at Mangwol-dong is set in a poignantly serene landscape, resplendent in autumnal colors when we visited. A tall monument rises up to the sky, overlooking hundreds of graves, each marked when possible by a picture of the lost one—a poet here, a garbage collector there, a teacher, a student.

I’ve visited many war memorials in America and elsewhere, and have found them no less sad and moving. But almost invariably they honor the fallen soldiers, rather than the civilian casualties. Korea does it differently.

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Last year, I visited another memorial as well, on the island of Jeju, where thousands of civilians were massacred by government troops on April 3, 1948. Jeju’s memorial to those victims—with its harrowing exhibits but also its emphasis on finding peace and justice in our time—offers, like Gwangju’s, another model for our own martial law museum. While it will not have the same space and breadth of sky in its projected site in Diliman, our memorial should not only be able to provoke horror, but also hope amidst the sorrow, hope that can only materialize through sustained struggle. Beyond memorials, South Korea has ingrained democratic values in its citizens, regardless of their Presidents.

As Dr. Roslyn Russell, chair of the International Committee of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, put it, “Unlike the piecemeal attempts to redress past histories of violence and crimes against humanity committed by the government that have been seen in South America and South Africa, the objectives of liquidation of the past—including ‘investigation,’ ‘punishment of those involved in the repression of the uprising,’ ‘recovery of honor,’ ‘compensation for the victims’ and ‘efforts to commemorate it’—were achieved in Gwangju. The May 18 Democratic Uprising played a key role in the democratization of Korea, and influenced the end of the Cold War and the spread of democracy in East Asia…. Pro-democracy movements occurred in the Philippines, Thailand, China, Vietnam, and other countries following in Korea’s footsteps.”

The Koreans know how to jail their misbehaving Presidents—and to keep them there, instead of springing them free after a few years. They’ve also shown that economic progress doesn’t have to come at the cost of democracy and human rights, as many Filipinos enamored of strongman rule love to claim, albeit with little material benefit to show for the surrender of their souls and minds. Koreans value and enjoy their prosperity, but they also remain vigilant against corruption by their corporate giants and government leaders. In 2016-2017, Korea’s Candlelight Revolution mobilized 17 million candle-bearing citizens to peacefully depose another untenable regime.

A statement was flashed onscreen during one of our sessions: “What we must fear is not pain as such but allowing pain to close our mouths.” That’s courage I seem to remember we once had, and could yet recover.

Penman No. 322: The Fair Filipina

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Penman for Monday, October 8, 2018

 

I’M ALWAYS intrigued—sometimes enthralled, sometimes amused, sometimes annoyed—by the descriptions I come across in my old books of Filipinos seen through the eyes of foreigners. Jose Rizal, of course, had the same interest, and painstakingly annotated Antonio Morga’s 1609 Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, correcting what he thought Morga hadn’t quite understood. (There’s that famous reference to “stinking fish,” which Rizal points out is just bagoong.)

Thousands of books have since been written by visitors to the Philippines since Morga, and overwhelmingly they’ve been authored by white men. As the American period opens, we begin to see accounts such as those written by Mary Fee (A Woman’s Impressions of the Philippines, 1910). But by and large, we encounter what some might call the colonial male gaze, particularly as applied to Filipino women.

One of the earliest accounts I’ve come across in my library is that of Paul P. de la Gironiere, whose Twenty Years in the Philippines (1853) is a long (and some say fanciful) adventure story, with the author as hero, in the romantic mode of the period. His description of the mestiza is very finely detailed:

“In fine, if Binondoc be exclusively the city of pleasure, luxury, and activity, it is also that of amorous intrigues and gallant adventures. In the evening, Spaniards, English, and French, go to the promenades to ogle the beautiful and facile half-breed women, whose transparent robes reveal their splendid figures. That which distinguishes the female half-breeds (Spanish-Tagals, or Chinese-Tagals) is a singularly intelligent and expressive physiognomy. Their hair, drawn back from the face, and sustained by long golden pins, is of marvellous luxuriance. They wear upon the head a kerchief, transparent like a veil, made of the pine fibre, finer than our finest cambric; the neck is ornamented by a string of large coral beads, fastened by a gold medallion. A transparent chemisette, of the same stuff as the head-dress, descends as far as the waist, covering, but not concealing, a bosom that has never been imprisoned in stays. Below, and two or three inches from the edge of the chemisette, is attached a variously coloured petticoat of very bright hues. Over this garment, a large and costly silk sash closely encircles and shows its outline from the waist to the knee. The small and white feet, always naked, are thrust into embroidered slippers, which cover but the extremities. Nothing can be more charming, coquettish, and fascinating, than this costume, which excites in the highest degree the admiration of strangers. The half-breed and Chinese Tagals know so well the effect it produces on the Europeans, that nothing would induce them to alter it.”

Alfred Marche, whoseVoyage aux Philippines(1887) contains some of the loveliest engravings of local scenes, including one of an unmistakably Filipina beauty, observed (in French) that “The Bella Filipina is one of their favorite tunes, which celebrates the grace, the beauty of Filipina women, señoras  whose type is more or less vague and floating, because there has been a lot of mixing in this corner of the earth.”

Frank G. Carpenter was one of those globetrotters whose journalistic dispatches popularized geography, and he wrote this in his book Through the Philippines and Hawaii (1926) about an evening in a Manila theater, under the heading “The Fair Filipina”:

“All the seats are full, and there are perhaps five hundred dark-skinned people dressed in their best in the boxes and pit. On all sides of us there are Philippine girls and women of every condition and age. Look for an instant at this girl at my side. I pretend to take notes of the play as I write this description, and since it is safe to say that the little lady cannot read my scrawl, she will not object. What a pretty creature she is ! If she were white you would call her a daisy, but as she is brown the name “tiger lily” will fit her much better. She is a plump little thing, with liquid black eyes and a skin as soft and smooth as cream. Her luxuriant black hair is put up in a great knot just back of her crown, and held there by a comb of gold set with rhinestones. Sneak a look out of the tail of your eye at her small brown ears, with the big rings in their lobes, and at the same time notice that gold chain wound round her neck. Maybe you have thought of Filipinas as dirty, ragged, and poor. This one, at least, must be well-to-do, and there are scores just like her all over the house.

“How well the black gauzy dress shows off the beauty of her neck. Her costume consists of a low-cut jacket, with great bell-like elbow sleeves standing out from the arms. Her embroidered undergown also is cut low. About her bare shoulders is pinned a kind of kerchief. I say her shoulders are bare, for the kerchief and jacket are of such sheer stuff that through the meshes you can see the plump, dimpled shoulders and arms. I venture you never saw so many beautiful arms and necks at one time.”

Shall we be enthralled, amused, or annoyed? You be the judge.

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Penman No. 311: A Trove of Printed Delights

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Penman for Monday, July 18, 2018

 

A FEW months ago, I wrote about picking up some wonderful books online that I plan to add to my retirement library—books that I’ll be poring over at leisure, for no more compelling or more urgent reason than enjoying the stories they contain, or even just the way they were printed, illustrated, and bound. I won’t be writing any papers about them (well, maybe a column or two), and I’ll leave myself the option of reselling some of them to share the fun and feel better about buying some more.

Most of these books come from the USA, chiefly from eBay, where I’ve been actively trading for more than 20 years. You’d be amazed by the Philippine treasures—not just books but paintings and other artifacts—that made their way overseas and eventually turn up on eBay. I’ve made it my personal mission (of course my wife Beng calls it my excuse) to recover these precious objects as much as I can afford on my professor’s salary—important or interesting Filipiniana, for example, such as the first US publications of Manuel Arguilla’s stories, and early editions of Carlos Bulosan’s books.

I’ve sourced books and paintings from as far away as France, Spain, and Portugal, and have successfully had them shipped to me in Manila by regular air mail. To save on shipping, however, I typically accumulate all my US purchases at our daughter Demi’s place in San Diego, California, and then have them couriered to me when they’re enough to fill a box, or wait for our next visit to Demi and her husband Jerry to cart them home.

That opportunity happened last week, on my annual vacation leave. We came too early for Comic Con this year, but I had stranger things than, well, Stranger Things in mind. I was eager to plow through and pack away about a hundred pounds of books and paintings that had been piling up at Demi’s over the past six months.

The paintings—which include a large and marvelous Gabriel Custodio seascape from 1966 that I found at a resale store in Spokane, Washington—will be worth another story, but for now, let me share some of the most interesting publications from the pile.

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Old editions of the Noli and Fili are always desirable objects of study, and to complement the rather eccentric 1911 Fili I acquired last year, I received a two-volume 1909 Noli from Madrid (also published by Maucci in Barcelona), with annotations by Ramon Sempau. It’s interesting how, scarcely a decade after his execution, Rizal is hailed as a patriot by the Spaniards. This edition contains the Last Farewell and an account of his trial. (Another later edition in the pile, a Noli retitled and published by Norton in 11961 as The Lost Eden, is introduced by James Michener, who describes the novel as “a nineteenth-century Gothic melodrama, filled with eery churches, flashes of lightning, ominous strangers, premonitory whisperings, and almost unacceptable coincidences.”)

I try to collect old books that have something to do or say about the Philippines, but of course that becomes more difficult the farther back you go. In my office, I display a page from a German book on geography from 1578 that talks about “den Philippinischen Insuln,” and I’m sure other collectors have much earlier material. But sometimes I pick up antiquarian documents just to be able to show my students what truly old texts looked like, and in this batch is a page from a Latin breviary published in Augsburg in 1490—an example of true incunabula, or something printed roughly within 50 years of Gutenberg’s 1455 Bible.

There’s an extensive and rather grisly account of a “Massacre at Manilla” in my 1822 copy of Vol. X of The Atheneum, a Boston-based compilation of highlights from imported contemporary English magazines (the “magazine” as we know it today grew popular in England in the 1700s). The article is an unattributed eyewitness account, reported by a victim of a brutal massacre of foreigners—English French, Danish, Spanish, and Chinese, among others—following a false report that they were responsible for fomenting a cholera epidemic that had decimated the natives by giving out poisoned medicine (shades of today’s Dengvaxia hysteria). It occurred to me that I had read about this same massacre before from Paul P. de la Gironiere, who was serving as a doctor aboard a French ship in Cavite at the time, and who claims to have performed great deeds of daring in the emergency.

More congenial is A Little Journey to the Philippines (Chicago: A. Flanagan, 1900), edited by Marian M. George, filled with observations of a pleasant nature: “Our boat is anchored, and we start off with a guide for the Enchanted Lake. We pass ponds filled with fragrant pink pond lilies, and shortly begin to climb the crater of an extinct volcano.” It also remarks, perhaps presciently, that “There is no Philippine nation. Instead there are numerous governments; the people are divided into over eighty different tribes; and there are over seventy-five different languages spoken among them.”

If I had more space in my baggage and my house, I would buy tons more of these books, which remind me how we keep drifting back to the past, despite the GPS in our iPhones.

 

Penman No. 308: A Respite in Luang Prabang

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Penman for Monday, June 25, 2018

 

 

I TRY to give my wife Beng a birthday treat abroad every year—a small price to pay for her manifold acts of kindness and generosity, not to mention her 44 years of patience in sharing a bed with a snorer—so early this June, we flew out to Luang Prabang in Laos. Why Luang Prabang? Because I couldn’t think of a place with a more musical name, and because we’d never been to Laos, and because it had come highly recommended by a dear friend Julie Hill, who’s been all over the planet but who considers Luang Prabang one of her favorite haunts.

With atypical optimism, I’d booked our trip eight months earlier. There are no straight flights from Manila to Luang Prabang, so we spent a night in Kuala Lumpur before making the short hop to LP.

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As in much of Southeast Asia, things were cheap, easy, and infinitely interesting the moment we landed. The local currency is the kip, of which you’ll need about 8,400 to buy one US dollar, but for the princely sum of 50,000 kip or $6, we were brought by an airconditioned van to our digs, the comfortable, two-story Villay Vanh Guest House about 15 minutes away. Like many lodging houses in LP, the Villay Vanh was a largely wooden house—shoes off, please—that had been converted into a hotel, and it maintained that homey ambience without sacrificing modern necessities like airconditioning, hot water, and wi-fi.

Of course, you don’t really go to Luang Prabang for the airconditioning, the hot water, and the wi-fi. As it happened, our hotel was a few steps away from a large Buddhist temple on the left, and a river on the right. And should I say that our four-night stay, including breakfast with about a dozen choices from pancakes to beef fried rice, cost all of $52 (that’s for all four nights)?

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Beng, of course, made a beeline for the night market, which was also just a short walk away, but not before we made the obligatory climb up nearby Phousi Hill, which offered a 360-degree view of the city, the Mekong River, and the misty mountains in the distance. We love to travel around Asia for the markets, the museums, and the food, and LP delivered wonderfully on all accounts.

The night market, where lavishly woven textiles abound, stands right in front of the museum, which is also right next to the food stalls in the public market. I know that many travelers are queasy about eating with the locals, but that’s what Beng and I did, stuffing ourselves on broiled chicken, mudfish, and the sticky rice that’s a staple in Laos, for another 50,000 kip (that’s 300 pesos to us, including a soft drink). Over the next few days, we would discover that Laos has some of the sweetest and smoothest mangoes, which could well put ours to shame. (As well as Laos’ worst-kept secret: all wi-fi passwords are the same anywhere you go.)

The National Museum used to be the palace of the Laotian kings, the last one of whom was deposed in a communist takeover in the mid-1970s. Amid the slightly musty regalia hangs an unspoken horror, that the king and his family, much like the Russian Romanovs, were murdered a few years after they gave up power.

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More uplifting was the tour I truly wanted to take—a day trip involving cruising down the Mekong, visiting a Buddhist shrine up a mountainside, having lunch at an elephant sanctuary, then taking in the fabulous Kuang Si waterfalls. At just $40 per person, including a nourishing lunch, it was a bargain.

The Mekong in Laos is the same immutable, undulating, coffee brown that it is in Thailand and Cambodia, but the boats are long and narrow, often painted in pink and blue, somewhat echoing the Laotian flag. Stately villas and temples overlook the river, and now and then elephants peek through the bushes along the banks.

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Luang Prabang stands at the confluence of two rivers, one that started out in China and the other in Vietnam. So far from the ocean, it thrives on water—and tourists like us, willing to go the extra mile from Bangkok and KL.

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Speaking of China, my wife Beng and I were having lunch at a Megamall restaurant a week ago when we suddenly heard mellifluous operatic voices singing in the lobby nearby. I took a peek and discovered that it was a mall tour to preview Binondo, a Tsinoy musical that’s opening on June 29, Friday, and July 1, Sunday, 8 pm at the Theatre in Solaire.

I got curious enough to seek out its publicist, Toots Tolentino, who told me that this was a love story, set in Manila’s Chinatown ca. 1971, involving a love triangle consisting of Lily, a night club singer and hopeless romantic; Ah Tiong, a scholarly cynic; and Carlos, a childhood friend. With book and lyrics by Ricky Lee and directed by Joel Lamangan, I can predict only good things for this musical, which is being produced by Synergy 88 Digital and Rebecca Chuaunsu Film Production. Rebecca, a theater artist in her own right, also wrote the original story.

I’ll take Chinese love triangles over Chinese island-hoppers anytime!