Penman No. 276: A Storyteller Returns

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Penman for Monday, November 6, 2017

 

I EDIT a lot of books and manuscripts in the course of my work as a professional writer, mostly for institutions like banks, NGOs, government agencies, airlines, and even accounting firms. These people need help with their corporate communications, and I’m glad to lend a hand.

But now and then I get asked to edit a book of a more personal nature—a memoir, an autobiography, a travelogue, or a collection of essays—and when that happens I have to think twice about taking the job on, because these personal projects require a certain compatibility—almost an intimacy—between the writer and the editor. While institutional work is largely impersonal—the very reason I prefer it—editing someone’s life-work demands close familiarity with and sensitivity to the author’s character and concerns. That can be difficult, which is why I’ve declined many such invitations, unwilling to engage in so taxing a process.

There’s been one person, however, for whom I’ve edited four books—each one of them formidably full-length and chockful of detail. I have to admit—and she will agree—that the job has involved careful line-by-line editing and restyling. That’s easy to explain: she’s a terrific storyteller, but English wasn’t her first language—she also speaks Arabic, Greek, French, Dari, at least one other language—so she does need an editor, and she found me.

That happened 15 years ago through the intervention of a mutual friend, Jimmy Laya. He had a good friend in the United States, he said, whose husband had just passed away and who wanted to write a book about her life with him, a life that had taken them around the world and to the Philippines, where they had spent many good years. It seemed interesting enough, so I said yes.

And so began what became a unique friendship for me and my wife Beng with Mrs. Julie Hill, an Alexandrian Greek born and raised in Egypt but who moved to the US for her master’s degree in chemistry, then spent the next many decades traveling the globe with her husband Arthur, an official of the Ford Foundation. Later, Julie herself would become a telecommunications executive—and, after Arthur’s passing, an inveterate traveler trekking the Mongolian desert, the Afghan hills, the Russian steppes, the valleys of Papua New Guinea, and the Norwegian fjords.

Out of that life and those travels came four books, all of which I would edit: A Promise to Keep: From Athens to Afghanistan (2003), The Silk Road Revisited: Markets, Merchants and Minarets (2006), and Privileged Witness: Journeys of Rediscovery (2014). Her newest, In the Afternoon Sun: My Alexandria (2017), was launched just last week in Makati, again through the kind auspices of Jimmy Laya and the Society for Cultural Enrichment, which Jimmy serves as vice-chair, and which published Julie’s book.

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Despite her aches and pains—as any octogenarian globetrotter is bound to suffer—Julie flew in from Southern California to be with old friends like the Cesar Viratas and the Francis Estradas and to give thanks to Angola Consul Helen Ong, who graciously hosted the launch, and to Ambassadors Ahmed Abdelaziz Ezzat and Kaimenakis Nikolaos of Egypt and Greece, respectively. Of course she also gave special thanks to her cover artist, June Dalisay, and to her editor—who, sadly, had to fly to Thailand at the last minute on a mission for his university.

It may seem that My Alexandria—Julie’s haunting memoirs of her childhood years in that vanished cosmopolis—would have very little to do with us Filipinos (A Promise to Keep has some very sharp vignettes of expatriate life here under the Marcoses), and Julie herself had expressed serious doubt about its worth as a book, but I had urged her strongly to press on with it, convinced that its evocation of a place and time where cultures and religions could get along so well was what our fractured world today needed to see.

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Of all her books, it was frankly the hardest to work on, as I challenged her to go into sometimes painful detail; our relationship had long gone past editor and client, well past discussing fees, and I wanted this book to be the crowning glory of her authorial career. Here and there, as any editor would, I worked on tenses, participles, and modifiers; but what rewards the dutiful editor is a natural writer who sees what’s worth seeing, and Julie Hill has been just that, as this passage from an earlier book chronicling her journey over the Silk Road (taken when she was in her seventies!) reveals—simple in language, but bright and articulate with emotion. (You can find all her books on Amazon.)

Night had fallen; it was a bright full moon. The sky bristled with stars; but it remained bluish gray, unlike the black velvet firmament of Rajasthan or the Sulu Archipelago. Constellations tipped at an unfamiliar angle. A shooting star! It had been years since I viewed one, and it was a good omen for the trip.

 At dawn I stepped outside my ger. It was a soft morning with the sun rising behind high clouds. Seized by the clarity and the silence, I stood and listened. Not a breath of wind, not a sound from the gravel paths of our encampment, no machine whirring, no horse snorting, no voice coming from the nearby gers, no bird calling. I felt that I was in one of the emptiest places on earth.

 Freed of distraction I held my breath and listened to my own heartbeat; I sensed nothing. There was no wind to move the clouds or dust or bushes. No sound, no movement, no scent, no warmth yet in the sun, no cold remaining in the air. The only sensation was through the eyes: the desert, the mountains, and the hills. This was the Gobi. I wondered if it was possible to be happier.

 Welcome back, Julie, and from here, happy trails!

 

Penman No. 275: Listening in Bali

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Penman for Monday, October 30, 2017

 

The first time I saw Bali was 34 years ago. I was a much younger man, then only 29, an eager participant in a writers’ conference organized by F. Sionil Jose, in the company of other Filipinos who included, as far as I can remember, the late Rey Duque, Marjorie Evasco, Charlson Ong, and Fanny Llego. We spent a week in a villa on the steamy banks of Lake Batur, far away from the tourist traps of Denpasar and Ubud, which we would visit only at the very end of our trip.

It was my first time to attend an international gathering of writers, and I was deeply impressed by all the big names I met, aside from Manong Frankie himself—our host, the scholar S. Takdir Alisjabanah, among the pillars of Bahasa Indonesia; the Singaporean poet and professor Edwin Thumboo; the Malaysian poet and lawyer Cecil Rajendra; and the Malaysian-American poet Shirley Geok-lin Lim. I can’t recall a thing I said in the impassioned discussions that took place; that first time, it was all about listening and imbibing the wisdom of the masters in an environment that could not have been more conducive to inspiration.

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The lake was a caldera, which explained the hot springs simmering on its fringes, where we joined the unabashed Balinese in their early-morning ablutions; at night, we argued literature under the spell of the stars and the aptly named Bintang beer, to the faint accompaniment of a gamelan symphony. The one discordant note that I would later write about in a short story was an ill-advised sortie across the lake to a private graveyard, which the locals resented; but even that was a writerly touch, an almost obligatory twist to a near-perfect plot. And rightly so: back home, Ninoy and EDSA had yet to happen, and the country was seething in the darkness.

These memories swarmed through my senses last week when I returned to Bali for yet another literary conference, the tenth annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), the region’s largest and most active literary network. Hosted by the Ganesha University of Education in the city of Singaraja in the northern part of the island, the conference brought together about a hundred delegates from all over, but mostly from Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, the US, and, of course, the Philippines, which has always figured prominently in this organization (I sit on its Advisory Board). With me were UPICW Director Roland Tolentino, the essayist and playwright Luna Sicat-Cleto, the poet and translator Randy Bustamante, and my wife the art restorer Beng, an avid observer and fully paid member of APWT.

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Even the most jaded of writers can’t be faulted for flying into Bali and expecting a bit of paradise, and the island and its people can still deliver on that promise in spades. The manicured rice terraces, the monkeys lining the road, the meticulously patterned garlands, the whiskery banyan trees, the uncountable temples and altars—and let’s not forget the scenically smoldering Mount Agung on the horizon—all suggest transport to another realm of blissful serenity. That illusion, of course, was broken fifteen years ago by catastrophic terror bombings that took more than 200 lives, and in the course of our three-day conference, testimonials by our Balinese friends themselves would reveal certain painful realities behind the festive façade.

“It’s very difficult to be a Balinese woman,” more than one of them said (I’m pooling their voices together, as in a chorus). “People expect you just to be a pretty flower. I have a PhD and I make more than my husband, but I still have to appear subordinate to him and to his wishes, and I have to serve him at home, making his coffee and serving his clothes. When I received a fellowship abroad, people congratulated my husband, instantly assuming that it was his achievement and not mine—and I had to smile and say nothing about it. You know why I write in English? Because my husband can’t read English, so English liberates me, allows me to express my true feelings.”

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Another intriguing panel I attended took up “Nostalgia and the Asian City,” and the discussion dwelt on how cities like Hong Kong and Singapore had changed in the literary imagination. But, from the floor, I had to interject the Philippine experience and note how nostalgia in many other places like ours referred to a longing for an unspoiled rural Eden that no longer exists, an unrecoverable if not fact an imaginary past. Over lunch, I pursued the point: nostalgia is being used as a powerful political tool, such as in defense of a mythical “better time under martial law” to support a restoration of that regime.

I was assigned to a panel devoted to protest literature, and found myself grouped with three Australians who spoke on their respective struggles as immigrant, aborigine, and bohemian writers. I chose to speak about our history of protest literature and what a deadly business it was. So, our moderator asked in the end, what were we personally doing to upend the status quo? The status quo for me, I said, was darkness and despair, and it was winning out even in literature, so that there’s nothing easier to write these days than another sad and dismal story. Therefore, I would strive to write happy stories—stories with a believably, hard-won, happy ending—as my form of resistance. We have to fight for joy as much as justice; we have to keep fighting for happiness, hope, and beauty in this age of Trump and tokhang—what else were we persisting for?

As I said those words—which I had not expected to say, but had long been coming around to saying—I felt all of my 63 years, hoping perhaps that some young soul in that audience was truly listening.

 

 

Penman No. 274: Acronyms for Authors

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Penman for Monday, October 23, 2017

 

AS YOU read this, I’ll be in Bali, Indonesia, attending this year’s Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT) conference, about which you’ll hear more next week. But today I’m going to throw in a few more terms aside from APWT into our literary alphabet soup, so you’ll know a bit more about what our writers are doing.

APWT, of course, is the region’s primary and most active network of writers and translators. While many of its members are also teachers, APWT is refreshingly non-academic, meaning you can actually understand what people are saying at its conferences, which are devoted to practical issues and questions of craft. You can find out more about the organization here (apwt.org) and maybe even think of signing up so you can attend next year’s meeting in Brisbane.

If you’re just starting out as a writer and feel like you’re still a long way away from APWT, perhaps you should try out for the next ALBWW, which is the Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio Writers Workshop. Now on its second year, the ALBWW was initiated by the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW) to help and encourage young, beginning writers.

UP, of course, had been supporting novices since the workshop itself began in 1965, but since its main summer workshop shifted toward mid-career writers in the 2000s, beginners have had to choose from a roster of workshops offered by other schools. The ALBBWW—named after the country’s foremost exponent of children’s theater—is UP’s way of saying “We haven’t forgotten you.”

Devoted to young adult writing, this year’s ALBWW was held from October 6 to 9 at the Oracle Hotel on Katipunan Avenue, and brought in 12 of the country’s youngest and brightest writers. They included Ivan Khenard Acero, Angeliza T. Arceño, Gabriel Carlos T. Cribe, Sigrid Gayangos, Ivan Emil Labayne, Kid Orit, Steno Padilla, Rayjinar Salcedo, Rai Aldrin B. Salvador, Krizelle R. Talladen, Carlos Valdes, and Sofia Zemana. They came from as far north as Isabela and Baguio to as far south as Butuan and Zamboanga, with backgrounds as diverse as Math, public relations, illustration, and book design, aside of course from literature and creative writing. Veteran writers Dean Alfar, Eugene Evasco, Mina Esguerra, Vim Nadera, and Christine Bellen walked the fellows through discussions of their works and of aspects of the craft.

A highlight of the ALBWW was a group visit with Ma’am Amel at her home, which also happens to be the headquarters of Teatrong Mulat, her pioneering children’s theater group which performed excerpts of their puppet plays for the visitors. The fellows were also treated to a tour of the Ateneo campus and the Rizal Library.

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Another important ICW event last month was the third iteration of the IBF or Interdisciplinary Book Forum, an activity co-sponsored by the UCW and the UP Press. I conceived of the IBF a couple of years ago when I was still ICW Director, thinking how interesting it would be if a new book—in any field, not just literature—were to be read and discussed by a panel of experts from a broad range of disciplines. How would a book on colonial architecture be read by, say, a sociologist, a historian, and a civil engineer? How would a novel on OFWs be received by a labor economist, a diplomat, and a psychologist?

We began this new IBF series last year with discussions around books on tattooing in the northern highlands on new speculative fiction written by Filipinos. For our third book, we chose Dr. Ma. Mercedes Planta’s Traditional Medicine in the Colonial Philippines: 16th to the 19th Century—a book recommended by UP Press Director Neil Garcia not because it was intrinsically interesting but because it also connected us to what its author, a historian, calls “our usable past.” Valuable insights into that past and our appreciation of it were contributed by the archeologist Dr. Victor Paz, the historian Dr. Ma. Luisa Camagay, and the physician Dr. Salvador Caoili. You can find the videos of this and other ICW events at http://panitikan.com.ph/media/.

Last, there’s KSA—Kutura, Sining, Atbp.—a cultural talk show that I host on TVUP along with Drs. Neil Garcia and Cecilia de la Paz. TVUP (tvup.ph) was started last year as UP’s Internet TV station, creating and broadcasting new programs—on significant and important topics, but presented in a popular and accessible manner (one of my favorites titles is “Hairy Balls and Donuts: The Fascinating World of Geometry” by Dr. Joey Balmaceda, a mathematician). On our show—which is bilingual, by the way—we’ve done episodes on film, theater, creative writing, and visual arts, among others, and are looking forward to taping further episodes on architecture, music, and dance, once we get the right mix of guests together.

There’s a few more acronyms for authors I can think of—we’ll soon be looking for our next NSWW fellows (that’s the National Summer Writers Workshop), the big mid-career gig that we’re hoping to be able to move to other UP campuses around the country, possibly in the Visayas next after two years in Los Baños—but you get the idea. In this life of letters, we try to make every word count.

Penman No. 273: A Privileged Friendship

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Penman for Monday, October 16, 2017

 

THE LAST time I saw Wash SyCip was from a far distance. It was his 95th birthday on June 30, 2016, and a long line of well-wishers—businessmen, politicians, and other celebrities—had queued up at the ballroom of the Shangri-La Makati to greet him and have their pictures taken with the icon. I thought for a second about falling in line, just to say hello, but then decided against it, already having spent more time with Wash than most people except his closest associates. He looked more frail than I had ever seen him, even as he kept up a cordial countenance seated in his chair on a raised dais, and I felt content to remember the sprightlier octogenarian I had first met a decade earlier.

Of course I knew who Washington SyCip was well before then; my wife Beng worked as an artist in the communications department of SGV in the 1980s, but I had never met the man himself—not until an opportunity arose to bid for and to write his biography in early 2006, when he was turning 85. I felt very fortunate to have been chosen for the job—and that’s what it was to me then, a job, albeit one involving an illustrious subject. I had no inkling that I was about to enter into a privileged friendship, something that would extend well beyond the writing of a book.

I had already done books for and about other personages in politics and business, and would do many more after Wash. But none of them—meaning no disrespect to or disregard for my other clients—would come close to the biography I would write for Wash, and it had everything to do with the uniqueness of the man, who lived not only an extraordinarily long life but also one far more colorful than you would credit an accountant for.

For months, we met Saturday mornings in his seventh-floor SGV office, and chatted for a couple of hours about phases of his life, proceeding chronologically from his childhood to the key decision to open his own accounting firm, a moment that I would later decide to open the book with. (Wash: Only a Bookkeeper was published in 2009 by the SGV Foundation and the Asian Institute of Management, and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2010.) Immediately I felt at ease with his polite formality; no artificial chumminess there or dramatic flourish, just a quiet consistency of well-remembered detail, everything from trying to learn the foxtrot for a graduation dance and breaking Japanese codes in Calcutta to carrying a cold, dressed duck under his arm on the New York subway to bring to a lady friend.

Most readers, I’m sure, were looking for the grand contours, the big business decisions—and there’s all that in the book—but I tried to keep things homely, and was glad that Wash was game for it. He liked to play “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago on his iPod—but not being a techie, often forgot to recharge it.

When he learned that I collected pens, he sent a bunch of them over to my house; I opened the box and saw that he had gifted me with some very nice ballpoints, which I thanked him for. When a perceptive associate gently reminded him that I collected not ball pens but fountain pens, he sent another box of the correct writing instruments—CEOs like him typically received scores of these as gifts and stored them away in drawers—with an apologetic note, even more graciously acknowledged by the ecstatic recipient. And every Christmas we would receive a box filled with some lovely piece of décor handcrafted by a microenterprise he supported in Cebu.

He had a soft spot for Filipino talent of all kinds. He once hosted a party at his home for President Cory Aquino, some ambassadors, and similarly lofty people. After dinner, he sprung a surprise on them. “Just get into your cars and follow me!” he announced with a twinkle in his eye. He led the convoy to a dimly downscale stretch of Boni Avenue, down into the happy maw of Club Mwah, the gay musical revue. Cory had a blast, and I had fun watching Wash garlanded by that feathery parade.

Sometimes I dropped by his office or chatted with him in the corner of a soirée to hear him share his views on current goings-on, both of us probably thinking that they would be useful inputs to the centennial update of his biography, but really just to catch up. It was these unscripted asides, his inviting trust, that I felt most privileged by. I suppose biographers come in through some special door, and with Wash, that door always seemed open.

Last July I received an envelope from Wash, and even without opening it I could feel that it contained a pen inside. “Dear Butch,” said the accompanying note, “This is the only pen that I have come across which may be new to your library. Just note the owl at the head of the pen. Sincerely, Wash.” It was a ballpoint, but I didn’t mind—owls (and turtles) were his trademark avatars.

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His generosity was well known, but it was never the showy or sentimental kind. He believed above all in the capability of the poor to learn and to lift themselves up with a little help. Despite the American citizenship he had to accept in a time of war, he thought and acted as a true global Filipino.

When he passed away last week on a plane above the Pacific—bridging the two shores he knew best, and still on the job at 96—I was requested to draft an obituary, and I replied, choking, that it was going to be my honor. It was the first—and, almost certainly, the only—time I would shed a tear for someone I wrote about.

Penman No. 272: A Poet of Nature

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Penman for Monday, October 9, 2017

 

 

IT’S NATIONAL Artist season again, with the deadline for nominations for the next group of NAs falling last September 30. It’s a triennial exercise that raises some very fundamental questions about how the arts figure in our national life and consciousness, and what we value in art.

There’ll surely be an impressive roster of nominees to review, each name with its own merits to recommend it. But among all those presumptive candidates, the one I’ll be rooting for is a lanky, genial, youthful-looking septuagenarian who goes simply by the name “Junyee,” short for the Luis E. Yee, Jr. that only his family and closest friends probably know.

I’ve known Junyee and his work for some time now, but I was even more impressed by its breadth and quality as I listened to him address a large crowd that had gathered for the launch of his artistic biography Wood Things at the CCP lobby last Tuesday.

Like many artists, Junyee has a certain shyness about him that prevents more aggressive self-advertisement, so let me sing his praises for him in the hope that he finally gets the recognition due his lifetime of labors.

If you’ve never met him but read the book (written with grace and deep insight by the equally gifted artist Jose “Bogie” Tence Ruiz), the first thing that will strike you will be the life itself, the engrossing narrative of how a boy born in the hinterlands of northern Mindanao at the height of the Japanese Occupation nurtured a native talent that would, much later in life, see his works celebrated in France, Cuba, Israel, Japan, and Australia, among other cultural capitals.

The boy drew his first inspirations from the bales of scrap paper his father imported to use as wrappers in their general store, bundles that contained American and local comics depicting worlds far removed from Agusan del Norte. Later moving to Cebu, he found a job with a funeral parlor, first as a janitor and a clerk, then as a beautician for corpses, and later as an embalmer, all the while ogling the art supplies in the local department store, never yielding his dream.

In 1964, he received a scholarship to study Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines, and apprenticed with the renowned sculptor and later National Artist Napoleon “Billy” Abueva. The opportunity opened Junyee’s eyes to a whole new world of modernism, and eventually he broke out on his own, even as the prevailing forces of the 1970s—the psychotropic seductions of Carlos Castañeda on the one hand and the First Quarter Storm on the other—pulled him in different directions. While Junyee held progressive sentiments, Tence Ruiz notes that “He was inherently a maverick individualist who, while recognizing the need for collective actions to affect change, saw how formulaic and uncreative propaganda could get.”

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And that’s key to the kind of visionary and yet also political art Junyee would produce over the next four decades—an art that manifests an abiding love of life, and of nature as the bringer of that life. In his preface to the book, artist Hugo Yonzon III writes that “The dominant and recurring theme of his installation is nature or, more precisely, the respect for it. There is none of the theatrics of LED lights or the electronic sounds that characterize such art especially in the Western world. A twig, a pod, a tree bark, local hemp, and then some. Period.”

“Installation” is a word that would inextricably be attached to Junyee’s art, as he explored and promoted the genre well before the term itself became fashionable, always and again drawing on nature for his materials and inspiration, from the seminal Balag of 1970 to the installations now dotting the campuses of Diliman and Los Baños, in which latter place he has found his literal and spiritual home, amid the trees and rocks that he never sees just as objects but as bearers of messages, like the 10,000 tombstone-like stumps of wood he laid out on the CCP grounds in 2007 to bemoan illegal logging and the catastrophic flooding it induced.

Junyee is a master sculptor and painter, and a wordsmith as well—his sensitive lyrics add a more personal touch to the book—but he is, ultimately, a poet of nature, who can make wood and stone speak and sing in joy, sorrow, and just the sheer excitement of living.

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Speaking of artists, let me draw your attention to a younger painter in mid-career by the name of Lotsu Manes, whose seventh one-man exhibit titled “Handumanay” (after the Visayan word for keepsake or memorial) is now running at the Eskinita Gallery on the 2nd floor of Makati Cinema Square until October 23.

We’d known Lotsu since he was a small boy running on the beach of our hometown in Alcantara, Romblon, and took notice when he won the Grand Prize in the Shell Art Competition of 1996. “Handumanay” shows him maturing well beyond the meticulous craftsmanship that distinguished his earlier work to a more conceptual understanding of time and memory, and of the preciousness of what remains in his termite-ravaged portraits and landscapes.

At the opening, I was also glad to speak with curator and sculptor Renato “Ato” Habulan, who has been mentoring younger artists like Lotsu toward a less technical and more philosophical appreciation of their own work and vision.

Seeing Lotsu in his prime, chatting with Ato Habulan, and applauding Junyee at his book launch all left me warmly reassured that—even and especially in these terror-stricken times—art, like music as the poet Congreve put it, “hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend the knotted oak.”

Penman No. 265: Photography as Propaganda

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Penman for Monday, August 21, 2017

 

I HAVE a cabinet in my home office where I keep shelves of my most valued books—first editions, signed copies, antiquarian volumes, and such. One shelf is occupied by a special mini-collection of books from the turn of the 20th century, from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, most of them having to do with what we’ve come to call the Philippine-American War. Bearing titles like War in the Philippines and Life of Dewey, Under MacArthur in Luzon, and An Army Boy in the Philippines, the books purport to chronicle—“celebrate” might be the better term—the occupation of the Philippines by the United States from 1898 onward.

I picked up many of these books more than 20 years ago when I was a graduate student in the American Midwest and on the prowl for Philippine-related material in used bookstores and flea markets. When eBay came along, I found many more, and was pleased to secure a few, often for less than $20 plus shipping.

While old, these books weren’t necessarily rare, because they must have been printed in the high tens or hundreds of thousands as a form of patriotic propaganda that straddled journalism and popular entertainment. Often written in a triumphal tone and exulting in the victory of America—then a rising naval and imperial power—over decrepit Spain, they blended into travelogues exploring the US’ new possessions—Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines—turning a military project into a story of adventure in exotic lands.

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These stories—and their accompanying illustrations—were very much on my mind last week when Beng and I attended a fascinating lecture at Ateneo de Manila University by an expert who had made that dark period (which few Americans and, sadly, just as few Filipinos seem to remember) part of her academic specialty. Dr. Nerissa Balce was in Manila to read from and talk about her book Body Parts of Empire: Visual Abjection, Filipino Images, and the American Archive (AdMU Press, 2017; U of Michigan Press, 2016), and we thought it was a good opportunity to catch up with and learn from an old friend (she married my Trivial Pursuit antagonist, the poet Fidelito Cortes).

After working as a journalist in Manila, Nerissa went to the University of California-Berkeley for a PhD in Ethnic Studies, took a postdoc at the University of Oregon, and taught at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst before joining the State University of New York-Stony Brook’s Department of Asian and Asian American Studies.

Through photographs and a refreshingly lucid lecture shorn of much of the academic jargon that often renders these presentations impenetrable to many listeners—even fellow professors like me—Nerissa showed how American photographers who were (to use a later term) embedded with the US military forces used their work to celebrate but then also obliquely if unintentionally criticize the violence of a colonial war. Photographs, she would argue in her book, have a life of their own, once taken and published; they may have been originally meant to depict the power of one side over another, and the abject position of the presumptive loser in the conflict, but seen or used a different way, they can convey other messages, like the subject’s insistent humanity or resistance.

I’d seen many such images in my books from that war; one of them—F. Tennyson Neely’s Fighting in the Philippines—typically portrays American soldiers towering angularly over the slack corpses of Filipino “insurgents” (as our fighters would be referred to for the longest time) as Filipino gravediggers prepare to bury their compatriots. This was what Washington wanted the American public to see: visual proof of American power and dominance. It must have been effective propaganda, especially when accompanied by narratives explaining America’s “civilizing” mission.

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But, as Nerissa and other scholars point out, the very same photographs proved useful to those opposed to America’s imperial expansion. The Anti-Imperialist League published a collection of antiwar poems using a picture of a corpse-filled trench as its frontispiece. “The different political uses for the same photograph suggest the paradoxical power of the photographic image, and how photographs can celebrate as well as expose the violence of colonialism and war.” She goes beyond the battlefield to discuss how the empire shaped our image, and how that image, in a way, shaped the empire. Pictures of native women doing embroidery suggested a colony stabilizing into happy domesticity under a benign regime.

I’m not a historian, but if you want a reasonably reliable account of that period, read Brian McAllister Linn’s The Philippine War 1899-1902 (The University Press of Kansas, 2000); to see how that war was waged on the cultural front, Balce’s book makes a great companion piece. In this present time when, more than ever, pictures speak louder than words, and dead men’s bodies have begun to pile up again, we’d have to wonder what new empire is growing out of the shadows.

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[Photo from philstar.com]

 

Penman No. 259: A Showcase of Cordillera Culture

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Penman for Monday, July 10, 2017

 

I WENT up to Baguio a couple of weeks ago to give the commencement address before the Class of 2017 of the University of the Philippines-Baguio (UPB), and began my talk by reminiscing how, as a young boy, “I eagerly anticipated visiting this city, which used to involve a train ride to Damortis, La Union, before transferring to a bus that would wind its way up Naguilian Road. I recall my nostrils tingling when they caught the scent of pine. In high school in the 1960s, Baguio meant the CMLI, Teachers Camp, marching on Session Road to proclaim ‘student power,’ pretty faces from a school called St. Theresa’s, and a dark and exciting place called the Basement—which some of your older teachers might remember.”

You can find the rest of that speech on my blog at http://www.penmanila.ph—it seems to have acquired a life of its own—but the real highlight of my Baguio sojourn turned out to be a visit to the new Museo Kordilyera on the UPB campus along Gov. Pack Road.

UPB, you have to realize, is unique among UP’s campuses in that it sprawls all over a hilltop, so that anything you build on it has to adapt to its challenging topography. When you think of what the builders of the Rice Terraces had to do, you get an idea of how creative and adaptive UPB’s architects have had to be to maximize the use of its property, keeping aesthetics in mind as well as safety, in this earthquake-troubled city.

UPB Chancellor Ray Rovillos, himself a historian and one of UP’s most capable administrators, had offered to take us on a personal tour of the new museum the day after graduation, and Beng and I happily took him up on it. The three-level Museo looks little more than a glass box with a few exhibits at ground level, but it’s when you take the stairs going underground that your jaw falls at seeing what UPB’s combination of careful scholarship, administrative commitment, and sheer perseverance has produced.

Formally opened last January under the administration of then UP President Fred Pascual, the museum draws on the curatorial work undertaken by Professor Emeritus Delfin Tolentino, Jr., Prof. Victoria Diaz, archivist Cristina Villanueva and museum director Dr. Analyn “Ikin” Salvador-Amores.

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What immediately catches the eye, of course, are the life-size representations of various indigenous people in full tribal dress and gear—so accurately researched, Ikin would tell us, that some people in the community didn’t even know their ancestors had worn them. Going over the intricate weaves and beadwork, Beng and I exchanged stories with Ikin about similar objects we had seen deep in the bowels of Chicago’s Field Museum. While part of the museum’s mission is the visual showcase for the public, an equally important aspect is the scholarly research it hopes to engender. Century-old artifacts are kept in cabinets, yet to be studied, and donations from collectors are welcome to deepen the museum’s holdings.

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A Ford Foundation scholar at Oxford University, Ikin had published a landmark study titled Tattooing Ink, Tapping Identities: Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Kalinga Society, North Luzon, Philippines (Quezon City: UP Press, 2013), the culmination of a long fascination with the practice and origins of tattooing that began with an encounter with an old woman in Baguio’s market almost 30 years ago.

A corner of the museum is devoted to books published by the UP Press and by the Cordillera Studies Center, which has established itself as the most important source of expertise in its area. Prominently displayed are the three excellently written and produced monographs that accompanied the launch and opening exhibits of the Museo Kordilyera: Batok (Tattoos): Body as Archive by Analyn Salvador-Amores; The Indigenous, In Flux: Reconfiguring the Ethnographic Photograph by Roland Rabang; and Jules De Raedt: Life Works, Lived Worlds by Victoria Lourdes C. Diaz. Anyone wanting deeper insights into the ways of the highlands would do well to consult June Prill-Brett’s Tradition and Transformation: Studies on Cordillera Indigenous Culture (Baguio City: Cordillera Studies Center, 2015).

Worthy of commendation for the museum’s modern but welcoming design is Architect Aris Go and the 90 Design Studio team that has been helping Chancellor Rovillos and UPB make the most of their limited space—a service Aris has also extended to UPB’s new and handsome Science Research Center, another fine example of environmentally adaptive architecture.

The UPB people were eagerly awaiting the visit of one of the country’s most fervent advocates of indigenous culture and arts, Sen. Loren Legarda, which was planned for mid-July. Knowing the senator’s passion for all things Filipino, I urged Ikin and Chancellor Ray to secure further support from her for the museum and its adjoining auditorium, which will host many conferences on indigenous culture in the years to come.

Besides the ube jam and peanut brittle at Good Shepherd—and, of course, the splendid art exhibits and architecture to be found in the Bencab Museum on Asin Road (Bencab has donated some of his most important pieces to the UPB museum)—Baguio visitors now have another must-see stop on their itinerary. The Museo Kordilyera is open Tuesday-Sunday 9 am-5 pm for a nominal entrance fee. For more information, check out its Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/upbmuseokordilyera/.

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Penman No. 255: A History Book Project Like No Other

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Penman for Monday, June 19, 2017

 

LAST MONDAY’S celebration of Independence Day reminded me of the Philippine Centennial nearly 20 years ago, when I took part in the launch of the first and still the biggest book project I’ve taken on in my professional life. I’ve edited about as many books as I’ve written—more than 30—and 10 of those were all for one massive undertaking, Kasaysayan: The Story of the Filipino People (Asia Publishing Co., 1998).

It was a 10-volume history of the Philippines like no other, put together by some of country’s foremost historians, academics, and writers, a joint project of Reader’s Digest Asia and A-Z Direct Marketing, which was then Reader’s Digest’s local distributor at a time when the family-friendly monthly was still going strong.

The idea was hatched in 1996 in anticipation of the forthcoming Centennial between A-Z’s late president Lirio Sandoval and the indefatigable Tere Custodio, who became the project director; Reader’s Digest Asia would foot most of the bill. Their idea was that while Philippine histories and encyclopedias had existed, none of them seemed comprehensive, popularly accessible, and visually compelling enough.

Tere shopped around for an executive editor, and I think it was our mutual friend Gina Apostol who suggested me (to my everlasting gratitude). We then took on two key and stellar talents, both of them sadly now gone—Doreen Fernandez as our editorial consultant and Nik Ricio as our book designer. Together, we planned out a 10-volume series, each full-sized volume no less than 300 pages, with an average of at least one picture—many of them never published before, acquired from international and private collections—on every page, 3,500 images in all.

The volume titles previewed the series’ coverage and contents: The Philippine Archipelago; The Earliest Filipinos; The Spanish Conquest; Life in the Colony; Reform and Revolution; Under Stars and Stripes; The Japanese Occupation; Up from the Ashes; A Nation Reborn; and A Timeline of Philippine History.

To write each of these volumes, we recruited our most eminent historians and experts—people like Dr. Milagros Guerrero, Fr. John Schumacher, Dr. Ricardo T. Jose, and Dr. Ma. Serena Diokno. Each volume was also supplemented by around 20 essays, contributed by the country’s top writers and cultural figures from Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera to Jessica Zafra—on topics ranging from early forms of Philippine writing and wartime “Mickey Mouse” money to 16th-century Visayan warriors and the origins of the kundiman. (My own single contribution as a writer to the series was an essay on the First Quarter Storm.)

It seemed like a gargantuan project, and indeed it was, requiring not only the production of enormous amounts of historical scholarship and pictorial research (the latter task headed by no less than Romy Gacad) but also the management of a budget hitherto unheard of in local publishing and, more dauntingly, of over 200 egos. I also organized a small team of sub-editors to help me get the job done, and sent them memos emphasizing the need for readability; every author’s brief, after all, was “to write in a style that can be understood by the Filipino high school and college student, without compromising the seriousness of the work as history.” The Internet in the Philippines was in its rudimentary stage; we had email, but still moved files around in floppies.

We gathered the editorial team for the first time one day in January 1997, setting for ourselves the formidable goal of launching 10 new, profusely illustrated books in June 1998, or 18 months hence. Against all odds, that goal was met. I would write as a promotional blurb at the end that “Here, finally, is the story of the Filipino: told from a Filipino viewpoint, but with a full appreciation of the modern Filipino’s engagement in a rapidly globalizing society.”

That priceless experience would teach me everything I needed to know as a textual editor, leaving much of the people management to the thoroughly professional and unwavering Tere. Including the essays, I read, edited, and proofread a million words; I sat side-by-side with Nik poring over the layout, adjusting the text to remove—as the perfectionist in him demanded—rivers, widows, and orphans (publishing terms you’d do well to Google), and writing and positioning subheads for visual relief.

One more task remained for me, which was to draft speeches for the two principal guests of honor at the grand book launch at the Manila Hotel on June 1—President Fidel V. Ramos and former President Corazon Aquino. I’ve sadly lost the draft I did for Cory, but I still have notes that have FVR saying:

“If the art of narrative or of storytelling is the art of making sense of seemingly random or disparate events, then Kasaysayan is our story, our understanding of ourselves, our version of the same events that other writers have used to keep us subjugated and alien unto ourselves. Written from our point of view, this version—this vision—is one that must empower us, that must make us whole, that must enable us to better ourselves and our future. We cannot change history, but history can change us.”

The handsomely boxed ten-volume set initially sold for P16,000; a few months ago I learned that surplus sets were being marketed in some Manila bookstores for as low as P2,000. That sounds to me like the bargain of the century—especially if you have a teenager in the house in need of a sense of history, or just want to see our history in a way you never did before.

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Penman No. 254: Another Filipino Writer in Norwich

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Penman for Monday, June 12, 2017

 

IT’S BEEN nearly 20 years since I received the news that I had won the biggest writing grant of my life. I was 45 and raring to work on my second novel, and had a germ of an idea, suggested by the sad parade of caskets that arrived almost daily at Manila’s international airport. I knew that our overseas workers and their experience was the big story of that period, but I needed time away from teaching to get started on the project, so I applied for a new grant that was being offered at the University of East Anglia in the UK for what was described then as “a novel of Asia.”

The UEA website describes that fellowship thus: “The David T. K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship is a unique and generous annual award of £26,000 to enable a fiction writer who wants to write in English about the Far East to spend a year in the UK, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The Fellowship is named for its sponsor Mr. David Wong, a retired Hong Kong businessman who has also been a teacher, journalist and senior civil servant, and is a writer of fiction. The Fellowship was launched in 1997 and the first Fellow appointed from 1st October 1998.” (Collections of short stories are now accepted in lieu of the novel. The UEA and its writing program are acknowledged to be the leader in the field in the UK, with Booker Prize winners Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, and Anne Enright among their distinguished alumni.)

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I honestly can’t remember now how I chanced upon the Wong Fellowship—these were the early days of the Internet in the Philippines, when modems screeched like mating cats before connecting over phone lines—but Beng and I soon packed our bags for the privilege of a lifetime. It would take a few more years, but that idyllic journey eventually gave birth to Soledad’s Sister, which was shortlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007 and published in 2008. I was only the second Wong Fellow, and after me, in 2003, another Filipino followed me to Norwich—Lakambini Sitoy, now based in Denmark, whose novel Sweet Haven also began taking shape in Norwich.

Last month came the terrific news that yet another Filipino, Nathaniel Go, had been named the new David T. K. Wong Fellow, besting dozens of other applicants from around the world. I was so elated by the news that I sought out Nathan, as he prefers to be called, by email, and got this story from him:

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“I was born and grew up in Davao City. This is quite a statement to make nowadays as Davao has suddenly received a lot of attention. But back then, I remember a quiet and laid-back existence, highlighted every summer with the sickly sweet smell of mangoes, as our neighbor who owned a farm, would bring in basket after basket from their harvest. When it rained, water buffaloes would sometimes stop traffic outside our house by bathing in the large potholes filled with mud. The best thing to have come out of such a childhood, of course, is my love of books. Our bookshelf was quite small and included such juvenilia as the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. Choose Your Own Adventure was also a hit back then. The Bible was a staple. Agatha Christie’s mysteries were the gold standard. Eventually, once I developed a taste for books I quickly sought new titles from our school library.”

Nathan was a voracious reader, so much so that his school librarian once dared him to bring a truck to borrow the whole collection. He left home at 16 and went to Ateneo de Manila, but moved to the US shortly after to join his siblings in California, where he finally got to study what he had always wanted—literature, linguistics, political science, and screenwriting. He worked briefly as a paralegal before giving in to his muse and studying fiction at the University of Michigan and at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, Nathan has taught creative writing at the Braille Institute. He will be working on his first novel in Norwich. But as far as he’s come in the world, Nathan still writes about the Philippines and still considers it his home.

“I go back every now and then and I’m always surprised by how fast things are changing, but how—underneath the changes—the fundamental things remain the same,” he says. “These fundamental things are hard to articulate, but I guess that’s where my stories come in. As an author, I straddle an identity and the space between a true insider and outsider of the Philippines. I write about Davao and I write about the small Filipino Chinese community there that I belong to, because that’s the kind of stories I’d never read while growing up.”

Three Filipino fellows in 19 years is surely worth cheering about, but I can’t help thinking—having seen the talent out here—that we (and other homegrown Southeast Asians) could be sending more fictionists to Norwich, and Nathan’s triumph is a welcome reminder of that wonderful possibility. For more information about the David T. K. Wong Fellowship, look here: https://www.uea.ac.uk/literature/fellowships/david-tk-wong-fellowship.

(Pictured on top are the Wong Fellows at a reunion with David T. K. Wong in London, 2008. Image of Nathan Go courtesy of UEA.)

Penman No. 252: Eurocentrism in Philippine Literature

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Penman for Monday, May 21, 2017

 

I FLEW out to Jeju, South Korea two Sundays ago to represent the Philippines in a conference organized by the World Literature Forum on “New World Literature Beyond Eurocentrism.” I had invited there by my friend Dr. Sukjoo Sohn, who teaches English in Dong-a University in Busan, to join a group of distinguished scholars and writers that included Dr. Nelson Maldonado-Flores from Rutgers University, Dr. Harry Garuba from the University of Cape Town, Dr. Miguel Rocha Vivas from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, and Dr. Ignacio Lopez-Calvo from the University of California, Merced.

That’s enough doctors to make up a literary hospital, although it’s doubtful that any or all of us could do much to save a patient. And while I have those three little letters to append to my name when I have to, I always feel a bit out of place in a roomful of literary critics and theorists, being more of a storyteller who strayed into academia. But then you really don’t need a PhD to figure out what happened to us and the way we write.

 I began by giving the background of our colonial history under Spain and the United States, and how colonialism shaped our education and literature in certain ways that are unique in Asia. Here’s the rest of what I said, and I beg your indulgence if you’ve seen or heard snippets of these remarks from previous presentations:

This historical background should explain why, unlike most of its neighbors in Asia, the Philippines has had a staunchly Eurocentric tradition in its literature, which proceeds from our Eurocentric and Christian orientation in education. By “Eurocentric” here I really mean “Anglo-American,” because our Spanish connections have been largely and perhaps sadly lost.

Today, young Filipino writers seeking broader audiences continue to write in English, and many do so online, on platforms such as Wattpad and Amazon, which are circumventing the traditional publishing routes and processes. Because of the Internet and its democratic access and global reach, there is renewed interest in writing in Filipino and the other major Philippine languages—we have more than 100 across our archipelago. But there remains a strong impetus to get published overseas, specifically the West, where Filipino authors such as Jessica Hagedorn and Miguel Syjuco have made some breakthroughs. Literary agents are a new phenomenon in this wavelet of international publishing, and now every good Filipino author seems to need one.

Is this a good or a bad thing? It deserves to be emphasized that while our literary bridge to the world remains the English language, our material has long been local—our authors write about Filipino characters, problems, and conditions. Those conditions inescapably include our hybridity, which we have come to embrace with all of its contradictions. Indeed, when the late novelist NVM Gonzalez was asked what language he wrote in, he famously replied “I write in Filipino, using English.”

Postcolonial and hybrid literatures like ours provide support for the argument of the empire writing back. When I teach my undergraduate course in American literature, for example, I always remind my students that we are studying America and its culture not to become Americans, but to become better Filipinos.

I believe, therefore, that the best way to deal with Eurocentrism or, to put it another way, the legacy of Western colonization is to employ and turn its tools, primarily its language, so the West can see us now as we would like to be seen—in our own image, not theirs. Whether originally written in English or in English translation, a new Filipino novel published in Trump’s America or today’s troubled Europe is an act of political engagement, not a submission to the old master.

Meanwhile the need remains to enlarge our own internal audiences, in our own languages, without need of validation from New York or London.

Among most writers I know in the Philippines, the issue of whether to write in English or Filipino or some other Philippine language has ceased to be the kind of issue that paralyzes the writing hand; you write in the language you know, and through which you can do more knowing; otherwise, quite simply, you can’t and you don’t. A good number of us have gone bilingual, using whichever language seems more appropriate to the task.

And we feel much more relaxed about this than we did four decades ago, partly because we realize that Filipino writers in English and Filipino often come up against the same objective constraints (e.g., limited readerships in the age of video), and also because of what I’d call the de-Americanization of English.

Certainly English remains the language of the elite, and it’s still the language that everyone wants to learn. But I think we’ve come around to accepting that writing is always more than language, and always more than politics—it’s insight, it’s craft, it’s feeling. What the writer tries to convey is imaginative experience; language is but part of that experience. The language is part of the writing—a vital and inalienable part of it—but the writing is always larger and more complex than the language.

We are now more aware than ever of the fact that while we inherited English as a colonial tongue, we must now use it as 21st-century Filipinos still trying to define who we are and what we want to be.

As Salman Rushdie put it in Imaginary Homelands, “…We can’t simply use the language the way the British did; it needs remaking for our own purposes. Those of us who do use English do so in spite of our ambiguity towards it, or perhaps because of that, perhaps because we can find in that linguistic struggle a reflection of other struggles taking place in the real world, struggles between the cultures within ourselves and the influences at work upon our societies. To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free.”

This, of course, is the whole burden of postcolonial writing, which, as Bill Ashcroft observes in The Empire Writes Back, “abrogates the privileged centrality of ‘English’ by using language to signify difference while employing a sameness which allows it to be understood.” English is no longer a colonial yoke but a liberative weapon. Achebe was sufficiently confident and hopeful that he could deal with this change: “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings.”

Substitute “Filipino” for “African”, and there we are, and here we are.