Penman No. 284: A Passion for the Past

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Penman for Monday, January 1, 2018

 

 

DESPITE THE fact that I write biographies and institutional histories, I’m not a historian and have never claimed to be one. But some days I wish I were. Back in 1981, when I was re-entering UP after dropping out for ten years as a freshman, I chose between History and English as my professed major, and settled on English only because it offered the faster path to follow, to make up for lost time. But if truth be told, in more leisurely circumstances, I would have preferred to study History, and thereby learn Spanish and even some Latin.

That’s because I’m fascinated by the past—by what happened, and by “what if”; I suppose that becoming a writer of fiction satisfies some of that curiosity (one always has to imagine and construct a past that never really happened but could have, for one’s characters). I’ve indulged that curiosity by collecting vintage fountain pens, surmising the words of love, pain, loss, and hope they would have inked for their long-vanished owners.

But more recently I’ve been edging into a new area of interest—old books and manuscripts. I’ve had the odd book from the 1800s and some beautifully handwritten documents from Spanish times, but my passion took a more serious turn with the acquisition, on eBay and elsewhere, of some rather more precious pieces. I often bring these specimens—like my December 1922 Philippine Collegian—to my classes, so my students can appreciate the material reality of the past and understand that the world, time, and society didn’t begin with the Internet and Facebook.

About a year ago, I picked up a first English edition of a book I’ve enjoyed (in paperback) since the 1970s—Paul P. de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines, later expanded into Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines. Gironiere was an adventurer who came to the Philippines from France in the early 1800s and established a large estate in Jalajala, on the shore of Laguna de Bay. He wrote about his exploits, and the original French came out in an English edition in 1853. I found a copy of that book on eBay, from the UK.

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Now, 1853 is pretty old, but that would soon be surpassed by another irresistible find: a book of letters written by the Jesuit missionaries in the Philippines, published in France in 1706. The Jesuits arrived here in 1581, so the book—part of a century-long series called the Lettres Edifiantes, covering their missions around the world—is full of stories. I may not be an Atenean and my French is very poor, but I can discern marvelous adventures and great historical importance in this volume, which I found in California.

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Before this, I actually had something older: a page of a German book from 1632, which I picked up at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. But nothing could top the elation of a discovery I made just this Christmas Eve. I was idly browsing olx.ph; not finding any interesting pens, I searched for “antiques,” and stumbled on what was clearly a very old book in English from 1551, printed in Gothic blackletter. I made what I thought was a fair offer, and the seller texted back quickly to accept it; he’d been trying to sell it for a year with no takers, so my offer seemed timely, given the season. He said he was in Cubao; I said that in that case, I’d just drive over to pick it up. I saw the ad around 6:00 pm and by 7:00 the book was in my hands.

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It’s nothing outstanding on its own—an abridgment by the churchman Thomas Langley of an earlier book, De inventoribus rerum, by Polidore Vergil, an Italian scholar, a kind of history of institutions like the Catholic Church (Vergil’s book got him in trouble with the church, which put it on its index of banned books). But I’m amazed by the fact that it’s survived quite handsomely for its 466 years—the pages are crisp, the leather binding firm—and charmed by the marginal notes of one of its owners, a Hugh Davies from 1650, written in extremely fine point with a quill, using sepia ink. When this book came out, Shakespeare (1564-1616) hadn’t even been born yet; the sacking of Manila was still 20 years away.

And how ever did it travel from London to Cubao across five centuries? My seller told me that his mother was a caregiver in Paris, whose clients gifted her with all manner of odds and ends—old books, Russian banknotes, silver spoons—and so the Pinoy diaspora once again works amazing wonders, bringing the flotsam and jetsam of history to our distant shores.

As I’ve often noted, the most wonderful thing about the past is that it’s over, especially when you think about all the terrible wars, the hardships, and the filth people had to endure just to get where we are today. But in a more romantic mood I can imagine myself strolling down the Escolta in the mid-30s in a white linen suit and straw hat, stepping into the Crystal Arcade or Heacock’s to scoop up the newest Parker Duofolds and Vacumatics. If you visit my office in UP, the magazine you’ll find on my visitor’s table won’t be from last month, but from February 1934. This will soon be joined by another magazine—indeed, the very first publication to use “magazine” in its title—the London-based Gentleman’s Magazine, issue of November 1773, and by a copy of the Illustrated London News, showing Taal Volcano, from February 4, 1860.

The past (or should I say eBay?) is truly inexhaustible; I only wish I could say the same for my finances. Happy New Year!

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Penman No. 283: (Happy (Digital) Anniversary

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Penman for Monday, December 25, 2017

 

IT USED to be, in simpler times, that we marked and celebrated only the most meaningful of anniversaries—birthdays, weddings, the passing of loved ones, and maybe the day when we became a lawyer, a professor, or a boss. In my case, things got even simpler because Beng and I decided to get married on my 20th birthday (44 years ago in a few weeks). It’s a decision I’ve regretted since—not the marriage, but the twinning of these events, because it would have been nice to have two separate days and two separate excuses to celebrate.

But in this era, when relationships don’t seem to last much longer than cellphone batteries and when people can instantly “unfriend” each other for the most peevish of reasons, anniversaries have become precious things, with millennials having to invent such clumsy portmanteaus as “monthsaries” or “mensversaries” to find relief in the completion of another month’s tetchy togetherness.

And then there’s the turn of the consumer year that merchandisers won’t let you forget; if it’s September, then it’s not only the start of Yuletide in the Philippines, but also the inevitable announcement of the new iPhone X, Y, or Z (accompanied by a deep intake of breath as the awesome new gadget is unveiled, followed by the gnashing of teeth once the price is mentioned).

And yes, of course, I have the new X, which I was intrigued by but surely didn’t need—people my age could have lived happily ever after with the iPhone 4s, if truth be told—but I felt like rewarding myself for having stuck with the iPhone for ten years since the first one came out. That’s what anniversaries usually do—compel you to repeat a lunatic act. (Those of us now screaming about the X’s price tag will do well to remember that the first one, with all of 16 gigs of memory, cost a princely 45K in September 2007, plus another 5K to hack for use with local telcos. And before anyone subpoenas my SALN as a UP prof, I got my X at a steep discount through my telco, by hocking my soul for two more years.)

The decade-defining X reminded me of two more anniversaries that fell this year, of the kind that makes sense only in the context of our new digital reality, where a few years might as well be a lifetime in terms of changes in the way we think and work.

Last December 17, I marked my 20th year on eBay, which means I’ve been a digital consumer for longer than some of my students have been alive. EBay began as Auction Web in 2005, but it was in September 1997 when it opened shop as eBay, so it turns out that I signed up just a few months after its official launch. My first eBay purchase was a 1950s Pelikan 140 fountain pen from Germany, which stayed with me until I foolishly sold it a couple of years ago; my most recent one this month, again from Germany, was a 1950s Montblanc 234 ½ fountain pen—how odd is that? (But perhaps no odder than another recent acquisition—a book of letters of the Jesuits in the Philippines to the King of Spain, in a French edition published in 1706.)

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Between those two purchases lies a long green trail of about 1,000 other eager buys (my 100%-positive feedback score stands at 869)—mostly pens, watches, and books, but also computers, phones, spare parts for everything, and things you can’t get from any store (like original Apple shirts, the blue ones Apple Store employees wear). Like the cliché goes, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, and I’ve very often been that other man, crazy and willing enough to take your grandfather’s Parker 51 or that weird-looking Hamilton Piping Rock (yes, that’s what it’s called) off your hands.

Friends scared of doing business online often ask if I’ve ever been scammed or burned on eBay. In those hundreds of transactions, maybe two or three times, I either never received what I bought, or got something else; but since eBay has an ironclad guarantee, I got refunded in the end. Presuming you take the right precautions—examine advertisements down to the minutest detail; read feedbacks (although they’re not infallible); know your product; review its price history, etc.—eBay’s safe and easily the world’s largest bazaar open to Filipinos. My only word of caution: it can get addictive, especially since it’s cashless; expect your PayPal/credit card bill to soon read “eBay eBay eBay…”

My other anniversary thankfully came free: last March, I marked my tenth year on Twitter. Ironically, I’m not much of a social-media guy, and that Twitter account (@penmanila), which I must’ve opened in 2007 on a whim, lay dormant for most of that decade until two years ago, when—uhm—a certain candidate in a certain election got me so worked up that I quickly found my meek and gentle self embroiled in a full-scale Twitter war with a vandal army. (“Something wicked this way comes,” I tweeted, quoting Macbeth; it didn’t stay that lofty or that literate for long.)

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I’m now up to 760 tweets, and counting—still nowhere near the many thousands that my younger readers have unleashed upon the universe, but old guys think more slowly and our fingers take more time to travel across the keyboard. That’s actually good for social media and its trigger-happy culture, and I can only wish I were that pokey and that deliberate on eBay.

Still, happy anniversary, and Merry Christmas, all!

Penman No. 281: The Writer in Progress

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Penman for Monday, December 11, 2017

 

(THIS IS the second of three parts of my recent talk on “Celebrating Arguilla” at the Taboan Literary Festival in Bauang, La Union.)

“Midsummer” is of course the quintessential mating story, setting the tone for the younger Arguilla’s lyrical odes to rippling muscles and shapely breasts. The man’s strength is contrasted with the girl’s slenderness, and this dichotomy would repeat itself many times over in the stories ahead: in “Heat,” where the Adonis-like Mero captivates Meliang, she of the “long and supple thighs” and whose body exudes “a healthy sweetness.” We see it again in “The Strongest Man”, where the “tall and shapely Onang” enchants Ondong, whose muscles flow under his sweating skin. Mero and Meliang, Onang and Ondong—it’s tempting to think of Arguilla falling into a mannerism, a romantic formula after Amorsolo’s or Botong’s idealized physiques.

But he quickly disabuses us of our idyllic fantasies, because the same terrain in which so much beauty resides, in both the landscape and the bodies of its fecund youth, is shown to be awash with blood and riven by violence. The second story in the collection, right after “Midsummer,” is “Morning in Nagrebcan,” and it begins with a picturesque description of rustic serenity, depicting “the fine, bluish mist, low over the tobacco fields.” But this mood is soon shattered by the brutal killing of a puppy, and the awakening of the children to the harshness of life—indeed, to evil—in what may seem to be a bucolic paradise.

Sometimes the violence is more subtle and only hinted at. “A Son Is Born” is a long and almost anthropological account of family life and birthing rites, ending on the luminously optimistic note of a Christmas birth and a boy named Jesus, but it is shadowed by its very first line: “It was the year the locusts came and ate the young rice in the fields.” Life is difficult, but it goes on.

“How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife” appears midway through the book, providing another tranquil respite, returning us to tall and lovely women meeting male approbation.

And then almost abruptly come the city stories, beginning with tales of marital stress and distress. Here I can sense the young writer and husband flexing his muscles and trying out new material and new approaches, experimenting with the kind of breathy, abstracted adoration you might find in Arcellana, acknowledging his broadening universe, with references to Picasso and Vanity Fair popping up in the prose. There’s even an attempt at comedy in “The Maid, the Man, and the Wife.” “The Long Vacation” is a melodramatic paean to loss, in the spirit of Carlos Angeles’ “Landscape II,” but without its magic. In these so-called “marriage” stories, it is the brooding hulk of Elias, in the story of that name, that most comes alive, but this is the one story in that suite that returns to the countryside, as if to make the point that country folk can also lead terribly complicated lives and make terribly complicated decisions.

The last part of the book, which is divided into three, comprises the “socialist” stories, for want of a better description. “The Socialists,” “Epilogue to Revolt,” “Apes and Men,” and “Rice” return us to a rural setting, but this time with an explicitly political agenda, which is to awaken the reader to the inhuman exploitation of the Filipino farmer and worker of the 1930s.

“Caps and Lower Case” is often hailed as a searing indictment of labor exploitation, and indeed it pleads the case of its protagonist—a proofreader who needs the relief of just a small raise—with eloquent anguish, but ultimately it deals him a crushing defeat. “The Socialists” is a scathing satire of armchair socialism. “Epilogue to Revolt” deals with surrender and complicity, “Apes and Men” with industrial unrest, and “Rice” with hunger among the tillers.

These were all worthy subjects, of course, the stories reflecting the afterglow of the recent Sakdalista rebellion and other such uprisings in both country and city. Among writers then, the same tensions would simmer over what would be called “proletarian literature,” its standard held high by such avatars as S. P. Lopez and Arturo Rotor, and inevitably Manuel Arguilla. On the other side of the argument were ranged the likes of Jose Garcia Villa, A. E. Litiatco, and a young Nick Joaquin, who in a 1985 essay would dismiss proletarian literature as little more than that generation’s adoption of the latest American fad. It “failed to sweep the local scene,” Joaquin would chortle, “and the only writer of importance who may have been influenced by it was poor Manuel Arguilla—who got derailed.”

Arguilla’s avowals notwithstanding, however—and at the risk of committing blasphemy in the Vatican—let me opine that it would be a mistake to deify Arguilla as any kind of socialist icon. True, he embraced “proletarian literature,” but his proletarian stories are thoroughly depressing, their desperate protagonists broken and beaten, with the sole exception of “Epilogue to Revolt,” which is one of my favorites because it breaks the mold while remaining absolutely true to character and situation. His realism owes more to Charles Dickens than to Maxim Gorky.

Manuel Arguilla was, to me, very much a writer in progress—a writer still coming to terms with his material and his society, one who had explored the range of his talents and was arriving at a fusion of those extremes. Arguilla’s stories have to be read as a continuum, where country and city were beginning to come together in his artistic and political sensibilities. But then, all too soon, he died, leaving us to wonder if his stories could have taken a brighter and more hopeful turn in the postwar world he never saw.

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 280: Handfuls of Fragrant Hay

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Penman for Monday, December 4, 2017

 

I WAS asked to give a keynote address at this year’s Taboan Literary Festival in Bauang, La Union on the subject of “Celebrating Arguilla”—Manuel Estabilla Arguilla, the writer who was born in Nagrebcan, Bauang, 106 years ago. I’ll share that talk in three installments starting this week.

“Celebrating Arguilla” seems simple enough. After all, who hasn’t read and enjoyed “Midsummer” or “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife,” or pondered the social implications of “Caps and Lower Case,” to mention three of his most familiar stories?

But right there is a huge difference in theme and sensibility between “Midsummer” and “Caps and Lower Case,” which might as well have been written by two different people. How the dreamy romanticism of “Midsummer” could coexist with the gloomy realism of “Caps and Lower Case” might seem a mystery, but those of us who’ve written and read enough will know that, well, it happens, and perhaps it should. You see this spread and stretch in Arcellana, for example, in NVM Gonzalez, in Sionil Jose, even in Nick Joaquin.

I am not a literary scholar or theorist, so I cannot speak about Arguilla the way Fr. Joseph Galdon and E. San Juan do, and I have no special familiarity with him the way near-contemporaries like F. Sionil Jose would. I am a biographer of sorts, but have no access to his life beyond the standard summaries on Wikipedia and a few scattered accounts.

All I have to go on is the fact that I, too, have written stories, was born in a small village far from Manila and close to the sea, and have dealt quite often with the countryside in my fiction, although readers who know me as a city boy have never probably noticed that. I moved to the big city much sooner than Arguilla did, and so I cannot claim the almost ritualistic knowledge of rural life that he displays with gusto in his recollections of Nagrebcan, his evocation of such details as “handfuls of fragrant hay” in that stolidly premodern society where men till the fields and harvest the grain, and the women cook and wash.

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So the best I can do today is to engage Arguilla in a kind of conversation, raising the questions that one writer might have for another. Why do you write what you write, for whom, and for what? And for myself, I might ask, what is this writer doing that I should value? How does he or she reflect on my own work?

Without an autobiographical essay in which Arguilla himself would have explained his writing, I can only speculate on the answers based solely on the evidence of his fiction and of what others have said about his work.

Manuel Arguilla’s first—and to my knowledge, his only solely authored—book, How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife, a collection of 19 stories, came out in 1940, on the eve of a war that Arguilla would not survive. He was 29 when the book was published; within four years he was dead at the hands of the Japanese, reportedly beheaded at the Manila Chinese Cemetery in August 1944 along with other guerrilla leaders.

History tells us that 33 can be a good time to die, if you’ve more or less accomplished your mission, as did Jesus Christ, Alexander the Great, Eva Peron, and, just short by a few months, Bruce Lee. Arguably, Arguilla had much more to write, much more to achieve, when his life was abruptly cut short by war.

He had published his first book, with some of his stories appearing in prestigious American literary journals. He had successfully transplanted himself from his provincial roots in La Union to cosmopolitan Manila, earning a degree in Education in 1933 from the University of the Philippines, where he led the UP Writers Club and edited the Literary Apprentice. He taught creative writing at the University of Manila before moving to the Bureau of Welfare and edited its publication well into wartime, when he worked for the guerrillas in intelligence and was captured and executed by the Japanese.

His widow Lydia, herself a fine writer and also a guerrilla, went on to become a painter and to establish the Philippine Art Gallery in Ermita, a seminal promoter of modernist art in the country, and served as a diplomat in Geneva before her death in 1969. In 1957, the book Philippine Tales and Fables was published in Manila by Capitol Publishing, with Manuel posthumously sharing the authorship with Lyd. Two of Lyd’s stories—the first published under her maiden name Lydia Villanueva, before she married Manuel—are featured in Leopoldo Yabes’ landmark anthologies of the Philippine short story.

I have yet to locate his essays, but Manuel Arguilla definitely produced more than the 19 stories in his 1940 collection. One story, the rather whimsical “Rendezvous at Banzai Bridge,” was published in the Philippine Review in April 1943, a year before his death. But it will always be the stories in his book that will define Arguilla for us, and I’ll do a quick review of these for those who may not be too familiar with his work.

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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]