Penman No. 412: CPR and the Art of Autobiography

Penman for Monday, April 26, 2021

TWO WEEKS ago, I gave an online lecture sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the University of the Philippines Baguio on the subject of Carlos P. Romulo as a National Artist for Literature. I was frankly surprised to have been asked to speak on CPR, or “the General” as he preferred to be addressed. I am no expert on Romulo, and while our lifetimes coincided for about 30 years, I never had a chance to meet the man, not even at the University of the Philippines, which he served as President from 1962 to 1968.

I did have a brush with Romulo’s writing in grade school when, for reasons I now forget, my declamation piece was his exuberant essay “I Am a Filipino.” Of course I already learned from our Social Studies class that he had been the President of the United Nations General Assembly, so I had a sense of the man as a Filipino who had proudly made a name for himself and for his country in the world.

Like many of you I also remembered Romulo as the diminutive figure sloshing through the surf in Leyte Gulf behind the hulking Douglas MacArthur. But indeed he was someone whose physical stature, at five-foot-four, was often preceded and magnified by his towering reputation. 

Romulo’s was unquestionably a long and stellar life, stretching from the start of the American occupation in 1899 to the last year of Marcosian rule in 1985. He was a participant in and witness to many of the most dramatic moments of the 20th century. Even his association with President Marcos in his later years as Foreign Minister—an appointment clearly meant to lend credence to the martial-law regime, as CPR himself realized and later regretted—has now largely been overlooked by scholars and critics. 

But of all the tributes paid to CPR, the one that seems to have escaped the public imagination is that of Carlos P. Romulo as National Artist for Literature—a fact that many Filipinos, including writers, appear to be ignorant of. I must confess to wondering myself how Romulo’s literary achievements stack up alongside those of Nick Joaquin, F. Sionil Jose, Jose Garcia Villa, Virgilio Almario, Amado Hernandez, and so on.

Romulo was declared a National Artist, along with the film director Gerardo de Leon, by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 2207, signed by President Marcos on June 10, 1982. He was only the third awardee for literature, following Amado Hernandez in 1972 and Nick Joaquin in 1976.

We are not privy to the deliberations of the awards committee for that year and to what procedures were followed. But somehow there arose the suspicion that CPR was summarily given the National Artist Award by Marcos, whom he served as Foreign Minister from 1978 to 1984, as a political favor or reward. Putting politics aside for the time being, the niggling question remains: what exactly should Carlos P. Romulo be recognized as a National Artist for Literature for? What can he teach contemporary Filipino writers?

That Romulo was a prodigious and talented writer cannot be disputed. He is on record as having published 22 books, including one novel (The United, 1951) and a book of plays, but comprising mostly what we would today call creative nonfiction—autobiography, biography, and historical reportage. While his novel—set in the US, with American characters—achieved some success, I strongly doubt that this was or could be the main foundation on which his literary reputation rests. 

Rather, I propose that it is Romulo’s nonfiction reportage that distinguishes him most strongly as a writer of and about his time, and one of the most articulate chroniclers and propagandists of the Philippine midcentury. 

Much of this achievement has to do with Romulo’s uncanny ability to position himself in our history as witness and party to some of its most momentous events. He lived an extraordinary life that led him from Camiling, Tarlac to Columbia University and then back to the Philippines, where he became a teenage reporter, then editor, then university professor, presidential adviser, aide-de-camp to Gen. MacArthur, US Army general, “the last man off Bataan” as one of his book titles says, postwar diplomat, presidential candidate, university president, foreign secretary, and international statesman. 

That life and his encounters with the world became the raw material for his books and his reportage, which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Correspondence in 1942. If you want to know Romulo and his times, look no farther than his 1961 autobiography, I Walked with Heroes. It best displays him as a master of what could be a vanishing literary form in these days of Twitter, Instagram, and generally abbreviated and instantaneous commentary.

I was not expecting to appreciate the book and its author as much as I eventually did. It is a pleasurable, engaging, and instructive read, written by someone who has a story to tell and knows how to tell it. The problem with Romulo, to be plain about it, is, well, Romulo. Like most people whose reputations precede them, he invited the impression of possessing a well-nourished ego, which the armchair psychoanalyst might say was likely a form of overcompensation for his short stature. 

What we get at the end of I Walked with Heroes is, to be sure, a varnished portrait of CPR and his contemporaries, but not incidentally we also follow a nation in progress, emerging from colonialism to a fragile postwar independence. And therein, I suggest, lies its value and Romulo’s strongest claim to literary fame, in his ability to interweave the personal with the public—not on the tiny frame of selective memoir but on the wall-sized tapestry of comprehensive autobiography, a diminishing art for many reasons. Our writing has become increasingly smaller in scope and ambition. Accustomed to tweets and Facebook tags, our writers and readers today think of time in terms of fleeting seconds, and lack the memory and capacity for historical reflection.

And then again perhaps we simply lack the kind of larger-than-life personas (pun intended) that CPR and his contemporaries represented. With or without ghostwriters, our Presidents no longer write their autobiographies, or even their memoirs, as Quezon and Elpidio Quirino did. Perhaps they fear that the written word will return to haunt them. But then again why should autobiographies be expected to tell the whole truth and nothing but?

Subjected to scholarly interpellation, Romulo’s reportage on himself and the history swirling around him will surely raise many questions about whether this and that really happened the way he recalls it. But he is a master of narrative, and as fastidious as he was about his suits and uniforms, he clearly sought to portray a positive image of himself as the avatar of his people—“a small man from a small country”—for which no autobiographer in his position can be faulted for attempting.

Penman No. 411: In Praise of Pack Rats

Penman for Monday, April 12, 2021

ANOTHER LONG reminded me, not unpleasantly, of a fact that could be a vice to some and a virtue to others: I’m an incorrigible pack rat—have always been and, given the brevity of the life remaining, will likely always be. 

Having loads of boxes stacked around the house—from floor to ceiling and under the beds—I couldn’t resist making a physical check of what was in them, as if I didn’t know: Instamatic snapshots and other photographs going back half a century, newspapers from under martial law, test papers (my students’ and my own), scripts for movies that never got shot, drafts of cringeworthily bad stories, receipts from restaurants long closed, Love Bus tickets, tourist maps of Hong Kong from before the handover, multi-coupon airline tickets, and certificates of attendance for this and that seminar. 

Some of you will be smiling, because you’re probably just as bad as if not even worse than I am. I don’t think I qualify just yet for one of those “Hoarders” episodes on TV, where tears get shed and egos get smashed as truckloads of trash depart from excavated homes. But I do identify with those grass-chewing farmers in overalls on “American Pickers” with barns full of glorious junk behind them—except that instead of cars and oil cans, I have boxes and suitcases full of old papers (and yes, fire extinguishers all over the place).

That’s not even the side of me that’s the formal, organized collector of vintage pens, typewriters, antiquarian books, old Macs, and midcentury paintings. Those go into real shelves, cabinets, and mylar sleeves. I’m talking about the sheer detritus of time, the flotsam and jetsam that get washed up on the shores of our home in UP Diliman, and never quite leave. 

So the logical question is, why not just throw those useless things away? And the logical answer is, because they may not be useless after all.

Never mind that there’s a growing market for old papers, or what collectors and dealers grandly call “ephemera,” things that come and go. Nostalgia can have a price tag, and people will pay for objects that remind them of simpler and happier times. Others seek out historical connections—signatures of the high and mighty, books from a precious library, a president’s or a general’s juvenilia. 

But pack rats don’t really save bagfuls of stuff to sell them decades down the road. They—we—do so because of sentimental value, because of the personal and intimate associations that even the slightest and commonest articles can carry. They tell stories we like to hear, perhaps over and over again.

This came to mind last week, as I pored over a pile of scrapbooks once kept by a long-departed gentleman whose biography I’ve been working on for the past few years. The first draft had been finished some time ago, but both I and the man’s son who commissioned me to write the book felt that something was lacking—the spark of familiarity, the regular guy, the granular character behind the suited portraits. I urged the family to locate his letters, and they did, sending me a large plastic tub full of scrapbooks, albums, envelopes, and papers from as long as 80 years ago, just before and after the war.

I should do another piece sometime on the vanished art of scrapbooking, but the oldtimers reading this will recall how we used to fill up picture albums not just with photographs but notes, cards, cutouts, clippings, and so on. This was the trove suddenly made available to me—several scrapbooks that the man had diligently kept over two decades, chronicling almost every important phase and point in his young life. 

This was a man—I can’t tell you who just yet—who became one of our most renowned economists and foreign policy experts, a business icon, and civil servant, a provincial boy who made it to the world’s centers of power, acknowledged by his peers to be among the best of them. There are scholarly and journalistic sources enough to narrate his life, but that’s just reportage, not biography.

What I found and appreciated was a 23-year-old sailing on a ship bound for America, on his first trip abroad as a government scholar. (He’s a smart guy—I go over his college transcript, where I see he barely passes English his first semester, but retakes it and gets a “1” the next term.) He saves his receipts for his suits, shirts, socks, ties, pomade, and toothbrush, and the customs pass that allows his mother “and a party of eight” to see him off. 

When the ship docks in Yokohama, he seeks out and visits a famous Filipino exile there, who gives him and signs a revolutionary pamphlet that’s also in the scrapbook (and I later confirm with a historian-friend that the scrawled signature is, indeed, Artemio Ricarte’s). When he arrives in San Francisco, he dashes off a breathless eight-page letter to his sister, exclaiming how beautiful, large, and busy the place is. He keeps and pastes his train schedules and tickets as he travels eastward to his destination, Harvard. 

And so on, and so on—tickets to Broadway, to nightclubs, restaurant menus, hotel receipts, Christmas cards, and then the war comes, and he attends patriotic rallies where the attendees sing “Land of the Morning” and “Philippines, My Philippines,” the mimeographed lyrics of which he keeps.

Suddenly my subject came alive for me—because he was, like me, a pack rat, a savior of the little things that sometimes tell great stories.

Penman No. 390: Faulkner in Manila

Penman for Monday, June 22, 2020

 

A FEW weeks ago, I wrote about the visit to Manila in 1951 of the American writer Wallace Stegner, mentioning that ten years earlier, he had been preceded by the even more celebrated Ernest Hemingway. I also said that they were followed in August 1955 by yet another titan of American literature, the 1949 Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner—a visit I’d first learned about by staring at a small poster from that event on the wall of the old Creative Writing Center in UP back in the 1980s.

That poster, wall, and center sadly burned down with the Faculty Center fire four years ago, but I’ve always been intrigued by what brought these big-name authors over to our shores, and what they possibly could have told their local counterparts (there’s a picture somewhere of a very young and very short NVM Gonzalez getting the autograph of a hulking Hemingway).

Hemingway was stopping over on his way to China; Stegner was brought over by the Rockefeller Foundation; and—thanks to a clipping and other materials sent by my Washington, DC-based friend, Dr. Erwin Tiongson—we know now that Faulkner came here courtesy of the US Department of State, which sent their prize author on a tour of Asia, presumably to foster peace and goodwill during the Cold War. (Interestingly, Faulkner’s wife Estelle had visited Manila the year before, and would write:  “The artificially induced gaiety of the Far East is very pronounced here—a feverish clutching at nothing that is little short of terrifying—As I sit here now, looking out on Manila Bay with its warships and carriers—every one of them ready for instant action—I feel insecurity verging on panic.”)

William Faulkner may have been a giant in his time, but to young readers today weaned on Gaiman and Murakami, he might as well be as remote a figure as W. Somerset Maugham or Henry James. Some may have come across his classic short story “A Rose for Emily,” and a luckier few his novels The Sound and the FuryAs I Lay Dying, and Light in August. As a fictionist, he was chiefly known for his use of the “stream of consciousness” technique that gave even his lowliest characters an ability to articulate their deepest and most complex thoughts and emotions.

But what did Faulkner have to say to his Filipino audience? I found the answer by locating the book Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner 1926-1962 (New York: Random House, 1968, edited by James Meriwether and Michael Milgate), which has a whole chapter on “Faulkner in Manila,” based on transcripts of Faulkner’s talks published earlier by the Philippine Writers League. 

There’s a short but charming documentary on YouTube  where you can see him at home in Oxford, Mississippi in 1952 and listen to his soft, somewhat cigar-burnt voice, and you can imagine yourself sitting in the audience in Manila in 1955, as he imparts these notions, among many others:

“I think that there is a great deal of beauty in any national language, national literature. But that tradition of literature must still be furthered more so that it can meet and can give and take from other national literary traditions. But by all means develop one’s own because there is a certain portion in the legends, the customs of any people, that are valuable, and the best way to get them into a universal literature is to bring them first into a national literature…. Nobody should turn his back on his own tradition, his own language, his own culture, to assume a foreign one. Let his own and the foreign meet and produce a universal one.”

“The writer must believe always in people, in freedom; he must believe that man must be free in order to create the art; and art is in my opinion one of the most important factors in human life because it has been art, literature, folklore, music, painting which have been the record of man’s rise from his beginnings. It is the writer’s duty to show that man has an immortal soul…. A writer’s job is not simply to get books printed but to find the truth, the fundamental truth…. I think that the setting of a novel is just incidental, that the novelist is writing about truth. I mean by truth the things that are true to all people, which are love, friendship, courage, fear, greed; that he writes in the tongue which he knows, which happens to be the tongue of his own native land…. I write about American Mississippi simply because that is what I know best.”

“There is a responsibility that goes with the privilege of saying what one thinks. One must have integrity to know the truth, to believe the truth, to speak the truth, for the sake of truth, not for the sake of aggrandizement or profit or policy, but the truth because it is true.”

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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. 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. 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. 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. 366: A Little Learning

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Penman for Monday, August 12, 2019

 

I KNOW and can appreciate the effort (and maybe even the talent) that it takes to add two or three little letters to your name, which are supposed to suddenly make you look ten times more learned than you were before. For the record, I picked up my PhD in English back in 1991 when I was 37, a few years after I got my MFA (or Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing).

Why am I parading these academic credentials? Because it’s something I hardly ever do, or need to do—except when… but I’ll get to that in a minute. Let me just say, before anyone gets the wrong idea, that among the real, practicing writers I know (even those with PhDs), a PhD is worth about as much as a flyleaf or an empty page in a book. You can get a PhD in English or Literature or Creative Writing after a lot of patient study and writing a ton of intelligent-sounding papers, but the degree won’t guarantee that you can or will write an outstanding novel or book of poems.

Some of us spend an extra five to six years after the master’s anyway to go after the PhD, basically because nearly every university today requires it if you plan on teaching in college as a career besides writing, and because, well, some of us just want to study and write some more under pressure. You could call it the love of learning, which has become strangely irrelevant to many people in this age of tunnel-vision efficiency. At least that’s how I remember my own time in graduate school in Michigan and Wisconsin, when I would madly read two books in one day, exhilarated more by the obscure and bloody excesses of Elizabethan revenge tragedy than by any kind of practical expectation.

I recalled those heady moments when, a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a post in a forum I belong to, one devoted to collecting vintage typewriters, from a fellow we’ll call Dickie. Dickie shared an interesting note about his icon—the famously abrasive science fiction writer Harlan Ellison (1934-2018; that’s him in the pic, c/o Variety)—who used typewriters well into the age of laptops, and who supposedly asserted, as some typewriter folk are wont to do, that using computers to write was BS, because computers produced bad, lazy writing. Dickie presented himself as a writer—a claim I’m happy to accept and respect, until proven otherwise—and took Ellison’s word as proof positive that, well, people like him who used typewriters were therefore better writers than the rest of mankind (I’m using a bit of hyperbole here, but you get the point).

Maybe I should’ve known better, but I submitted a gentle rejoinder to say that, with all due respect to Mr. Ellison, that was BS, too—good writers adjust to the tools at hand, and I was willing to bet the house that 99% of all the best novels of the past 20 years, going by anyone’s list, were written on computers. I myself had gone through the whole gamut from handwritten manuscripts to typescripts to computer printouts, and while each technique had its advantages, nothing allowed revision—so essential to good writing—as easily as the computer. Tut, tut, Dickie messaged back: I had better rethink what I just said, because “I’m better educated about literature than you.”

That was kinder than what he told another forum member who queried him about the precarious quality of his own prose, which he promptly withdrew from public viewing, remarking instead on his critic’s mammaries. Still, it set off a little explosion in my head—not because it couldn’t possibly be true (I’d be the first to say that I know zilch about literary theory, for example, which went in one ear and out the other, and that I’ll take Maugham over Murakami anytime), but because he could make statements like that with absolutely no idea whom he was talking to. I was on the forum using a pseudonym (to avoid having to deal with “friends”), and even if I had used my real name, I doubt that it would have rung a bell in his insular brain. I could’ve been TS Eliot, Chinua Achebe, or Susan Sontag, and he would’ve said the same thing.

Again, I have an extremely modest estimate of my own erudition, and I’m not given to flame wars, but in this case I just had to let fly a salvo of demurrers to put a presumptuous, uhm, Dickie in his place: “If,” I said, “you took your PhD in Literature before 1991, published more than 35 books, and taught literature and creative writing for more than 35 years, then indeed, sir, you are very likely better educated about literature than I am. Back to typewriters, shall we?” After a pregnant pause, he huffed: “English is NOT my second language.” I imagined a worm retreating into its burrow, but before it could vanish completely, I posted: “Ah, yes, it’s only my second language—but there’s a third, and a fourth.”

I was tempted to ask, “Pray tell, and please correct this second-language learner if he’s wrong, but would ‘puerile asininity’ best describe your attitude?” But I let it go at that—the moderators kicked him off the forum shortly afterward, for more egregious misbehavior.

Once, as an exchange professor in an American liberal-arts college, I attended a welcome party where a kind-looking lady walked up to the obvious foreigner to make him feel at home. “So what are you teaching?” she asked sweetly. “The American Short Story,” I said. Her eyes widened in utter disbelief. I smiled and excused myself.

It really doesn’t mean much, but maybe I should trot out that PhD more often.

 

Penman No. 363: A Singapore Swing

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Penman for Monday, July 22, 2019

I’VE BEEN visiting Singapore nearly every year for one reason or other, usually for a conference or at least passing through Changi on my way elsewhere, but this month Beng and I decided to fly there just to have a little fun.

I did have an official excuse, sort of, for this particular swing—the 3rdSingapore Pen Show held at the Marina Mandarin on July 13, which brought together the country’s and region’s premier sellers of pens and related products. I thought I would drop by for a look-see as the “old man” of Philippine fountain pen collecting, and happily I was accompanied by a small but very knowledgeable Pinoy contingent that included adwoman and artist Leigh Reyes (who also happens to be the new president of our Fountain Pen Network-Philippines), medical executive Joseph Abueg, and avid collector Micah Robles, among others. We were all proud to see two major Filipino companies represented at the Singapore show and generating brisk sales and inquiries: Jillian Joyce Tan’s Everything Calligraphy, which was showing off its new line of Philippine-made Vinta inks, and Arnold Ang’s Shibui leather pen cases, which can easily compete in quality and design with the world’s best.

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I’ve been to many other pen shows around the world, chiefly in America where they happen year-round, and while Singapore’s may be relatively smaller because newer, it also showcased Asia’s strengths as the producer of some of the world’s finest pens—the high-end Japanese Nakayas, for example, which are rarely seen in the West. Eurobox, which has a formidable collection of vintage pens, came in from Tokyo; and André Mora of the renowned Mora Stylos flew in all the way from Paris with a bevy of their coveted Oldwins. Pen shows are as much about people as they are about pens, and I was delighted to see some old friends like Lai Kim Hoong of Malaysia’s PenGallery, as well as make some new ones like Tan Fong Kum of Singapore’s Aesthetic Bay and Ng Lip Sing of Singapore’s Straits Pens.

So did I buy anything? I normally step out of pen shows with a wild man’s stare, clutching four or five precious finds in my fists, but the great thing about having too many pens is that you know when to stop and to just enjoy the scenery, which is what I did. I came to Singapore to talk pens with kindred spirits, and brought a selection of 12 of my most interesting vintage and modern pens, and had lively conversations about a few of them. Unlike our Manila Pen Show—the next one of which will take place November 16-17 this year—which is far busier and which features more side events like lectures and demos, Singapore’s was still more of a market than a community, and I would’ve liked a longer chat over coffee with our local counterparts, but maybe next time.

Our other objective for this Singapore trip was to visit the National Gallery, which somehow doesn’t figure on most tourist itineraries like the Marina Bay Sands or the Gardens by the Bay. Built where the old City Hall and Supreme Court stood, the National Gallery is both an imposing but also welcoming structure, with guides and docents ready to walk you through the exhibits. Aside from Singaporean art, of course, the gallery’s strength lies in its collection of Southeast Asian art, which is breathtaking in its range of styles as well as in its commonality of themes—nation, nature, people. Filipino talent is well represented throughout the exhibit—from the ground floor, where Mark Justiniani’s mind-blowing (and, for the vertiginous like me, unnerving) “Stardust” bridge obliges the visitor to take a literal walk through bottomless space, to the succession of galleries on Levels 3-5 where “Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia since the 19th Century” is on show.

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A trio of less-known 1940s Amorsolos is flanked by the orchestrated chaos of a Purugganan; an early and dark Edades exudes primal energy; elsewhere are exemplary pieces by Galo Ocampo, Arturo Luz, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Napoleon Abueva, Bobby Chabet, Ray Albano, Santy Bose, and Imelda Cajipe. But the piece de resistanceof Filipino modernist representation is H. R. Ocampo’s Dancing Mutants, encountering which made our whole Singapore trip worth it. And the curators themselves must have been aware of the specialness of this stunning work from 1965, according it its very own corner in the gallery, almost altar-like. I’ve seen many Ocampos (with Beng restoring quite a few of them), but this one made me want to fall on my knees in praise of its creator.

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And purely by serendipity, when we stepped out of a mobile-phone shop on North Bridge Road, I noticed that the building across the street was none other than the National Library, which I’d visited as a journalist on a previous assignment. Let’s go in, I told Beng, I want to show you something. So we did, and there on the 11thfloor was a permanent exhibit on “Singapore’s Literary Pioneers”—featuring not only the books of the country’s best writers, but also their pens, typewriters, and even their eyeglasses. This, I told Beng wishfully, is how writers should be revered. Always better than a pen show is seeing what comes out of those pens, at their very finest.

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Penman No. 353: Our Very Own Indiana Jones

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Penman for Monday, May 13, 2019

 

IT ISN’T every day that a Filipino scientist captures the imagination not only of his own people but of the world, but last month, this amazing feat happened, putting Filipino science squarely on the global map.

The “feat” wasn’t just one event but the culmination of many years of painstaking work, research, and analysis, culminating in the publication of the results in Nature magazine of a cover article titled “Out of Asia: A newly discovered species of hominin from the Philippines,” attributed to an international team including Filipino archeologists Armand Mijares, Eusebio Dizon, and Emil Robles. The article announced the discovery of what the team named Homo luzonensis, a new and previously unknown hominin or human-like species. (For a laymanized version of the article, see here: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01152-3.)

The discovery consisted of about a dozen small bones found over several years in Callao Cave in Peñablanca, Cagayan, which taken together indicate that an early form of man lived here at least 50,000 years ago. Dr. Mijares, an associate professor with the University of the Philippines’ archeological studies program who led the international team, had been excavating the area since the early 2000s. In 2007, the digging paid off with the discovery of a foot bone “dated to 67 thousand years ago  (which) provided the earliest direct evidence of a human presence in the Philippines,” according to Nature. The discovery radically questions and reforms previous theories about human migration in Southeast Asia.

As exciting as the unearthing of luzonensis was, almost just as important was the fact of Mandy Mijares—a UP Manila graduate who took his PhD at the Australian National University—getting published in Nature, which stands at the very pinnacle of scientific publishing. As another well-known UP scientist and a good friend of Mandy’s, the geologist Dr. Mahar Lagmay, puts it, “It is every serious researcher’s dream and struggle to publish in this journal. Out of the 15,000 manuscript submissions that the editorial board of Nature receives a year, only 1,000 or approximately 7% are accepted for publication. Only 2% of science journals have an impact factor of 10 or higher. In 2017, Nature’s IF was 41.57—equivalent to publishing 40 articles in most other scientific journals.”

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Mandy also happens to be a brother of mine in UP’s Alpha Sigma fraternity (that’s him in the middle, with me and Smart founder Doy Vea), and last week, the brods honored our very own Indiana Jones in a public program at the Asian Center, where he also presented his findings. I was asked to say a few words, and here’s part of what I said:

I had been hearing about this discovery from Brod Mandy in my private conversations with him over the past two years, and I knew he was sitting on something literally groundbreaking but even I had no sense of the magnitude of his project until I saw it on the cover of Nature. In my lectures on science journalism, I often refer to Nature as the one of the summits of scientific publishing. It’s hard enough to get published in, and much, much harder to land on the cover of. That’s what Mandy Mijares has been able to do.

But bragging rights aside, the joy I share with Mandy comes from seeing scientific inquiry and intellect recognized and rewarded in an environment that has become increasingly indifferent if not hostile to intelligence, indeed to the search for truth. Sophistry and opportunism have overtaken scholarship and honest labor, and political hacks purport to know and dispense the truth better than scientists and artists remote from the centers of money and power.

The discovery of luzonensis reaffirms the role of a university not just in its own country but in the world at large—in spearheading and supporting the pursuit of knowledge, even knowledge that will probably not add one percentage point to GDP or have any practical application we can think of at the moment, but which enlarges our understanding of ourselves as humans.

The question that luzonensis poses for us in the 21st century is, how much farther have we truly come along as humans from our hominin ancestors, and what have we done with our humanity? Are we any less crude, any less brutal? Could it be that luzonensiswas more caring for its own kind than we are today with ours? What have we done with our larger brains, our gift of language, with which we have become so facile that we can now distort the truth without batting an eyelash and even look smart and smugly smile and be praised by others for how cleverly we get away with murder? Faced with a creature that may have had no appreciation or even need for truth, reason, and justice, what does it say about us today, many millennia later, at a time when a good many of us seem to be in the same position, and let me repeat—with no appreciation or need for, and perhaps just a flickering memory of, truth, reason, and justice?

I’ll stop here before my sadness gets the better of me and beclouds the brightness of the hour, which properly belongs to Homo luzonensis and its brilliant discoverer. I’ll end with our fraternity’s exhortation to seek excellence in all endeavors—or I should say, in all good and just endeavors. Mabuhay ka, Brod Mandy!