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

 

 

Penman No. 247: On the Wings of Women

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Penman for Monday, April 16, 2017

 

IN MY line of work, I get to edit a wide range of books, from institutional histories and biographies to annual reports and technical manuals. They’re all important to my clients, of course, and I accord them all the same seriousness and diligence they should expect from a professional editor.

But now and then a project comes along that’s not only significant but truly interesting, and one of them was the book I recently edited for Philippine Airlines—Stories from the Heart: Buong Pusong Alaga (PAL, 2017)—that the company launched to celebrate its 76th anniversary. The book is a collection of vignettes about PAL’s people, from the ground crews to the pilots and flight attendants to the president and CEO himself, and tells all kinds of stories from delivering babies in mid-flight to having the Pope as a passenger.

But some of the stories I found most fascinating had to do with PAL’s women—especially those who keep the planes up in the air. As a belated salute to National Women’s Month, let me share a few of those stories:

Since Capt. Aimee Carandang-Gloria became the first female to take the helm of a PAL plane in 1993, the number of lady pilots in the airline has continued to grow in recent years—from 20 in late 2012 to 54 (39 from PAL and 15 from PAL Express) in 2016.

“Yes, we’re still a minority, but a growing one. We just recently added a provision in our Operations Manual regarding female pilots. It’s a giant step for us,” says A320 pilot Capt. Emi Inciong-Ragasa.

A lady pilot on the flight deck is not something passengers see every day. But when they do, a magical moment always happens, attended by much curiosity and awe. “I remember a few times when some parents, upon seeing me, would exclaim, ‘Look, she’s a lady pilot!’ and would ask if I could have my picture taken with their daughter,” says A320 pilot Kelloggs Tioseco.

Aside from the occasional picture-taking on the side, these ladies get no special treatment—and they don’t expect it. They go through the same training, read the same manuals, and soar and slog through the same skies as the men.

“Ever since I could remember, I’ve wanted to be a pilot. I remember being in awe of this big machine that graced the blue skies,” says Capt. Ragasa. Emi comes from a family of pilots. Her husband is B777 First Officer Terrence Ragasa, and her father-in-law is former Air Force General Ramon Ragasa.

Having been with PAL for 11 years, she aspires to be a hands-on mother while enjoying her flying career. She doesn’t mind being on long layovers but she makes sure that she regularly sees her two-year old son. “I have only one chance to raise my son well. I arrange my schedule to spend more time with him,” she says.

AVP for Pilot Affairs and A320 pilot Lilybeth Tan Ng says that taking red-eye flights were much easier to handle than waking up in the wee hours of the morning to attend to her motherly duties. “Flying a plane is easier than being a mother. Flying comes with a manual while motherhood doesn’t. So you had to learn by instinct as the answers were not always easy to find.”

A330 pilot Cherryl Flores crossed over from military to commercial flying. She had been a registered nurse in a military hospital in Zamboanga City before joining the Philippine Air Force, where she served as an instructor pilot for four years. Cherryl was a bemedaled UH-IH helicopter combat utility pilot in the PAF. She was also the first and only female PAF pilot to be certified as Pilot-in-Command of UH-IH in Night Vision Goggles by the US Air Force.

Cherryl’s husband, a ship crew member, gave up his job to take care of their first-born. “When I was pregnant with my first-born, we decided that one of us had to stop working to attend to our child. My husband selflessly gave way to me so I could chase my dream of flying planes.”

That same tenacity can be found in the seven female mechanics checking cables and wirings, overhauling systems, and replacing parts among the platoons of men working at PAL Express’ maintenance and engineering.

Avionics mechanic Maridel David wanted to work in an airline since her youth. “In Bicol, whenever we saw a helicopter flying overhead, we ran and followed it as far as we could,” she recalls. When she entered college, she chose to study BS Aviation Electronics Technology at the Philippine State College of Aeronautics.

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Before becoming an avionics or aircraft mechanic, one has to undergo a one-year Maintenance Training Program (MTP), which comprises six months of classroom training and six months’ field exposure. In school, the proportion of male to female students has always been high. “There have always been very few females in aviation and I find it a privilege to become one of them,” says another avionics mechanic, Mercedes Sabordo.

“My motto in life has always been, if they can do it, I can do it. We’re all equal when it comes to the job, because this is what I studied for. So whatever they can do, I can do as well,” says Elaine Saldivar, an aircraft engineer in PALEx for two years now.

More than the physical tasks, the job of an aircraft and avionics mechanic requires critical decision-making that can only be learned through time and experience.

“You have to be really smart if you enter the field of aviation. You have to be ready to go head to head with the men if you want to learn. It’s a long process of continuous learning, like getting a doctorate so you can really be an expert at what you do,” attests Engr. Rhona Abrera, an avionics mechanic. Rhona herself has overhauled and then rebuilt an airplane. From one task card to another, she finished the job after several attempts. “It’s most fulfilling when you can troubleshoot the problem right away. It’s ‘mission accomplished’ when you can watch the plane fly.”

Maridel adds that she treats a plane like her “baby” and would always talk to them. “At morning dispatch, I talk to the plane and say, ‘Baby, safe flight,” she quips.

So, go girls, and many thanks and congratulations to PAL’s Pinky Balagtas and Paeng Evangelista for piloting this project and for letting me use these excerpts!

 

 

Penman No. 243: A New Master of Prose

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Penman for Monday, March 20, 2017

 

 

BECAUSE OF my new administrative duties at the University of the Philippines, I was able to join the UP Writers Workshop for only two days this year, but it was time enough to make a wonderful discovery in the person of a Filipino-American writer whom I had never met before but whose voice, I predict, will resonate more loudly in the years to come.

There are 12 fellows, as usual, in the 2017 workshop, all of them mid-career writers who already have at least one book or film or theater production under their wings and who are currently at work on new projects. This workshop has become a rite of passage for most Filipino writers, and it’s always a privilege for those of us who’ve been on top of it to be able to help our finest literary talents in Filipino, English, and other Philippine languages achieve their potentials.

I wish I could have met all of this year’s fellows, but as it happened, it was Wilfredo “Willy” Pascual whom I got to know best, because we gave lectures about writing together to a large audience of teachers, writers, and students in UP Los Baños. From his talk and workshop and from a subsequent chat with him, I learned that Willy—born in 1967 in San Jose, Nueva Ecija—is a largely self-taught writer who has now spent half of his life overseas, mainly in Thailand and the US. “I had a checkered education,” he says laughing, “with a year in UST, a year in CEU, and so on, but I never finished anything.” It’s clear that his real education came from his voracious reading and his varied experiences, some of which are memorably chronicled in his first book, the privately published Kilometer Zero.

But what fascinated me about Willy’s work is his ongoing project, a long essay about his search for the personal story of a little-known Filipino-American actress from Cebu named Elena Jurado, who appeared in a small role as an Arabian dancer in a silent film titled White Hands. The essay is, of course, really about two searches: one for Elena, and the other for what Willy—a gay Filipino-American—calls his “rightful place.”

We ask our workshop fellows to preface their work with their “poetics”—an explanation of why they write what they write—and here’s part of what Willy wrote there:

“I remember the artist Roderico Jose Daroy (1954-2014) who rescued shards, refuse, and fragments and brought them home. The objects occupied an entire floor in a rented bungalow in Bangkok. I saw his orderly spread of old picture frames, hardened watercolor cakes, vintage prints in various stages of decomposition. I walked around it, sat down as if on a shore contemplating the sea of dissolution in front of me. They were meant to be exposed to the elements, the flow of time. There was an inherent wildness to it, a constant beginning and ending. I felt tethered to it. I like things that grow. Decay. And all the deviations in between. If I could be a superhero for one day, I would like to have the powers of mutability and permeability. I would be a grain of purple rice, an industrial crane that in a whim can turn into a broken microscope, the gum you are chewing now. My secret joy will be those states in between when I am neither one nor the other.”

And this comes from the essay itself:

“Elena Jurado was interviewed by Wilbur Hall, a forty-plus miner and rancher who wrote weekly features for the Chronicle. The paper ran Wilbur’s story with photos of the fair Filipina actress next to the bearded Hobart Bosworth in a dapper single-breasted suit and bowtie. The 55- year-old, tall and blue-eyed Bosworth, widely known in his time as the Dean of Hollywood, had portrayed historical figures and beloved literary characters lost in time and strange places. He slept for twenty years as Rip Van Winkle and missed the American Revolution. In the earliest film version of L. Frank Baum’s everlasting tale, he was the wizard who appeared in different forms and a disembodied voice. With the magisterial Bosworth holding a script, Elena was introduced in these publicity stills, short wavy hair parted on one side, wearing the adorned ensemble of the Filipina gown of her time. Gone were the European voluminous bell-shaped skirt and the indigenous wrap-around tapis. In its place was a more streamlined cut with an elegant trail pooled on the floor. The upper garment was a fine gauzy layer of fabric: the collarless blouse winged with elbow-length sleeves—wide, airy, suited for warmer climates; the Spanish-influenced scarf folded around her shoulders and fastened in front. She smiled at the camera, listened to Bosworth, and struck a dramatic pose—arms outstretched, palms upward, head slightly turned, lips parted, eyes yearning, almost ethereal. I’m not exactly sure what to make of this vessel’s gesture and expression, this suspended aria. She looked like she had broken through the clouds. And if there was a word or even a sigh uttered, it had been preceded by Bosworth’s pointing finger.

“…. Thousands flocked to the movie palace on opening day and saw a golden throne in the foyer’s octagonal rotunda. Overhead, a cast iron lamp illuminated the vaulted ceiling. The rotunda led to two grand staircases with tapestries on the wall. One depicted the siege of Troy, the other the birth of Rome, the twin brothers Remus and Romulus suckling a she-wolf. Inside the auditorium, the world’s largest gooseneck steel brass supported the balcony. Spanning 108 feet and weighing ninety tons, it braced the boxed seats occupied by industry giants, among them Rudolph Wurlitzer, William Hearst, and Michael de Young. Theirs were the most expensive seats at ninety cents each, commanding a full view of the auditorium: the ceiling’s central dome, its light changing from fiery sunrise to purple dusk; the walls lavished with bold relief, every column, pilaster and parapet carved with scrolls, swags, urns and coat of arms—an inflamed vision in rose and old gold, multiplying and morphing endlessly, excessive, consuming. You think you’re seeing more but you’re not really sure what you’re seeing.

“…. I spent weeks in the archives poring over Jacobs’ photos with a magnifying lens. How do you not lose yourself in this exuberant tangle of forest and empires? The more I saw, the more I read; and the more I read, the more details I saw in each photo. It sucked me into a vortex. My eyeballs became porous and the hungry gaze of ghosts streamed through them. In this world of men and empires, a young Filipina appeared on the giant screen.”

There’s a stunning conclusion to Willy Pascual’s search—he actually locates her gravestone—and I can’t wait for the essay to be finished and for this prose master’s second book to appear.

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Penman No. 234: A Glimpse of Interesting Manila

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Penman for Monday, January 16, 2017

ASIDE FROM the fountain pens which I’ve recently stopped collecting, I’ve long nursed another, quieter passion, albeit on a much more modest scale. Since my grad-school days in the American Midwest in the 1980s, I’ve been drawn to old books from and about the Philippines. Sadly I can’t read Spanish—one of the great regrets of my college life, a casualty of our generation’s sweeping rejection of everything that smacked of colonialism (except, ironically, English)—so my pickings have been confined to books in English, largely from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

I stumbled on the first of these books—and began to be conscious of their significance—while I was poking around antique and thrift shops for pens. The Midwest, with its many universities and industries (not to mention pen companies like Parker and Sheaffer), was a cornucopia of all things old and wonderful, and inevitably my eyes would drift to the dusty bookshelves that typically carried cookbooks, old Bibles, local lore, and Western novels.

Now and then, however, I’d get lucky and come across a book with some Philippine connection, usually from around the early years of the American occupation. With titles like Uncle Sam’s Boys in the Philippines and Our New Possessions, these books celebrated American imperialism, the novel fact that it now had a colony across the Pacific that deserved to be introduced to curious readers in Kansas and Missouri.

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I remember finding the massive two-volume Our Islands and Their People for $10 in a Milwaukee antique store, only to have to leave them behind when I flew home from graduate school in 1991. But I did bring back a small trove of similar material, and have added to them since then, largely via eBay.

My Holy Grail had been a first edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (I would acquire one later locally in the most interesting circumstances—I’ve told the story here—and would give it to my daughter Demi as a wedding present), but another precious book I was relieved to have saved from the Faculty Center fire by foolishly leaving it in my car is a first English edition from 1853 of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s The Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines, an eBay pickup from the UK.

I’m not an antiquarian by any means; I lack the vision, the resources, and the scholarship for that. To be honest, I haven’t even read everything I’ve collected, a pleasure I’m saving for my impending retirement. I just like salvaging these well-worn volumes from the scrap heap, or from some dark corner where they can’t possibly be appreciated. They’re neither particularly rare nor valuable—only two or three have cost me more than $100—but they all contain very interesting, if sometimes horrifying, stories about America’s imperial project.

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It’s difficult, even for a Filipino, not to be entertained by the descriptions in these early travelogues, revive as they do the nostalgic charm of a vanished era. Take, for example, Interesting Manila by George A. Miller, first published in Manila in 1906 by E.C. McCullough, a $10 purchase from a bookseller in Massachussetts.

Its evocation of the past reminds us that Manila was already old even then: “Beautiful these old churches were in their scars and moss and vines. Many have been spoiled by fresh coats of paint. But who can sit silent in their vaulted aisles without hearing from those stained and mellow walls, whispered prayers of priests who long since have vanished, and shadow chants of acolytes who have joined the choir invisible?… My first experience in a Manila church was at High Mass in Santo Domingo at the early hour. There were sixteen hundred candles shining in the gloom of the old sanctuary, and a thousand worshipers were kneeling on the polished floor. Among the high arches gathered the smoke of the incense, and way up in the dome the morning sun streamed red and gold through the colored glass.

“The chanting of the priests reverberated through the aisles like the noise of a cataract, and the answer of the prostrate people was like the murmur of many waters upon the sand. Then the great organ with its thundering reeds made the old pile ring and shout like some strong giant in sport, and in the succeeding silence the people waited in awe for what might follow. What did follow was the chanting of the boys’ choir without accompaniment, and the effect from the high gallery was as if the voices came from everywhere, the very stones had suddenly become vocal and joined in the acclamation.”

In a voice we might be hearing today, Miller laments the thoughtless “restoration” of these old buildings: “The present Malate church has been restored until it is of little interest. The old tile roof, the hole in the west gable made by American shot, and the walls with shrubs and trees growing in their crevices made a building worth going to see, but now it is all paint and corrugated iron.”

The vividness and vigor of the experiences described can be exhilarating: “One of the really delightful experiences that many people have never discovered is that of a trip up the Pasig at sunset. We took the car to Santa Ana and at five-thirty stood by the river and were besieged by a dozen vociferous banqueros, who contended for the distinguished honor of carrying our lunch basket to the landing. The bancas all looked alike, but there must be the preliminary diplomatic stunts as to distance and price. Tagalog, English, and bad Spanish were mixed in a verbal storm for five minutes and then we were aboard and off for Fort McKinley.”

Sometimes these colonial reports afford us a priceless glimpse into our prewar treasures, likely long gone: “There are about twelve thousand volumes on these shelves,” Miller notes of the Franciscan library. “The library of the Recoletos contains about nine thousand volumes; that of the Augustinians eleven thousand, and the Dominicans have eighteen thousand. Most of the collections contain several copies of the celebrated ‘Flora de Filipinas’ by Fr. Blanco and his co-laborers. This work is in six volumes and an index and is a remarkable piece of scientific research. The best edition contains two volumes of colored plates of the flora of the archipelago, and the press work done, in Barcelona, is of the best.”

And then again quite often the interest doesn’t come out of the narrative itself but in the perspective, which almost inevitably involves some triumphal trumpeting of America’s virtues. Miller’s assertion of the Westerner as a man of action and of the Oriental as a laidback soul is typical of these white male observers’ musings:

“The West is known by its deeds, the East by its dreams. The Anglo-Saxon lives in the concrete, the Oriental in the shadows. The American, having found a ‘proposition’ in a field, makes haste and sells all that he has and buys that field that he may dig therein and get ‘results.’ The Oriental inhales the drowsy fumes of some far-off good that was, or is, or is to come—it little matters which—and is content.”

Interesting Manila, indeed—but even more interesting was what these books said of their linen-suited writers.

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Penman No. 230: Two Voices from Singapore

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Penman for Monday, December 19, 2016

 

 

DURING THE Singapore Writers Festival last month, I had the opportunity to chat with two prominent poets from that city-state, Aaron Lee and Eric Tinsay Valles, and I’m sharing the highlights of our conversations to give my readers some idea of what Singaporean poets are writing about. Interestingly, both poets, now just in their 40s, were born outside of Singapore, but now feel very much embedded in that ethnic and cultural melting pot.

Malaysian-born Aaron Lee works as a corporate lawyer in the area of regulatory governance and ethics. “I was born in Malaysia to immigrant Chinese,” Aaron told me. “My father worked for Singapore Airlines so he commuted daily from Johor Baru. It was typical of people at the time to send their children to Singaporean schools if they could afford it. I commuted daily for many years with my passport in my pocket, between the ages of about seven to fifteen. My brother and sister did the same. In our mid-teens we moved to Singapore. After five years my parents moved back but the children stayed behind.

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“I feel myself to be 100% Singaporean, but I do have a lot of affection for Malaysia, especially its natural environment, carried over from my childhood. The city can be a soul-crushing place, and this came out in my second collection, where the metropolis looms over you. In my third collection, I rediscover the renewing force of nature. This was also helped by frequent visits to Hawaii, where my wife studies Hawaiian culture. In my 20s, I met senior writers like Prof. Edwin Thumboo who were dealing with the postcolonial condition. I was a law student in college but I had a couple of English literature modules in which Prof. Thumboo lectured. Discovering this whole shared past of English-language literature between Singapore and Malaysia past gave me an intellectual and emotional hinterland, raising my consciousness of Malayan-ness, which is lost on the present generation.

“I began to take my creative writing seriously in my mid-teens, and I was fortunate to have high-school classmates like Alvin Pang who were just as serious about it. I found a community of people who were interested in literature and this was very important to my formation as a writer. After high school I even applied to several universities overseas to study literature and one of them accepted me but it didn’t come with a scholarship, so I decided to take up law instead here in Singapore, which was much cheaper.

“I’m not really conversant in Bahasa except for the kind of colloquial Bahasa you hear in markets. I’ve done some reading in Chinese but can’t write in Chinese. Our bilingual policy has deep flaws that prevent many Singaporeans from acquiring first-language facility with either English or their mother tongue. Many Singaporeans my age will speak English better than their mother tongue.

“My generation came into its own in the 1990s, and there are about a dozen of us poets who have been categorized as third-generation poets in English. Ours was the first generation of non-academic poets. We were lay people, so to speak, professionals engaged in business, journalism, and law. Our poetry is more down to earth. The earlier generations were more concerned with nation-building. We tend to be more personal.

“I’m essentially a lyric poet and I love the way words sound when they’re well put together. I’m concerned with the inner music of words in sentences and lines. As a student, I looked up to poets like Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin. I’m also concerned with common humanity. My first collection was very personal, poetry about being a poet, but my later collections cast their eye on a wider world, even to current affairs in society and on the international stage. I observe that when people come together in the city, they become anonymized, dehumanized, and alienated from one another. I try to resist that by looking for what we have in common as people, for empathy, compassion, and love. My work might be political in a roundabout way, but at the end of it I always move back from the grand narrative to the person. My Christianity is a big part of my identity, my values, my world view. I see myself as a work of art being fashioned by my Maker. I don’t just want to be a poet, but the poem, a work in progress, a song coming out of the mouth of God.”

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Philippine-born Eric Tinsay Valles teaches at the National University of Singapore High School of Math and Science. In 2013, he won a Goh Sin Tub Competition prize, which offers the biggest cash reward for creative writing in the region. Eric was working on his PhD in literature in NUS in 2000, and decided to stay on.

“I was a journalist in Taiwan for six years, and a teacher in Manila before that,” recalled Eric. “It was through Prof. Thumboo that I began to be published in Singapore, through an anthology that focused on the merlion, the very symbol of Singapore. It’s like a rite of passage for Singaporean poets to write about the merlion. Prof. Thumboo has mentored many of those young poets, and he has always been for inclusiveness and for the development of literary traditions in all the languages used here. That’s why the Singapore Writers Festival and the National Poetry Festivals are probably unique in that we have sessions in four languages. Young poets email him, and he responds to them.

“I just feel very fortunate to have met him in NUS. I invited him to speak before some students, and he invited me to attend some poetry sessions, and that was the beginning of a long association and friendship.

“I’m a permanent resident here, but am still a Filipino citizen. I’m the director of the National Poetry Festival here in Singapore and I’m now finishing my PhD in Creative Writing at Nanyang Technological University, working on trauma poetry and on a novella in verse set during the Japanese occupation.

“As a former journalist I got exposed to many human experiences, and some of that has been reflected in my work in terms of empathy for the downtrodden and the marginalized, and faith. My faith is part of my being Pinoy. My second collection is titled After the Fall, and that could allude to the biblical fall and also to the trauma we experience in everyday life. For Singaporean poets, trauma is more domestic, more felt in estrangement from other people such as family. Contentment and complacency lead to boredom, the desire for more wealth brings more tensions, and young Singaporeans grapple with modernity. Much of Singaporean literature deals with this conflict between modernity and tradition.

“I started writing poetry in primary school in Manila. There have been many influences on my work—Elizabeth Bishop, Thom Gunn, Neruda, Lorca, Heaney—but I’ve become very familiar with Singaporean poetry, especially since it’s a very small community.

“There’s about a dozen Pinoy writers working here in Singapore. We even have a couple of Pinoy domestic helpers who participated in the National Poetry Festival, and they read their poems in Filipino. I look forward to my visits home, where I sometimes hold writing workshops.”

[Eric Valles photo courtesy of the SWF.]

Penman No. 225: Sayang in Singapore

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Penman for Monday, November 11

 

TO US Filipinos, sayang has one meaning and one meaning only: a regrettable loss, something that causes us to shake our heads or hold our palms to our hearts and say, “Oh, that’s too bad.” But elsewhere in the region, from some sultry corner of which the word worked its way up our archipelago, sayang means that and more: the love which may have been that which was lost, love as both a noun and a verb, or even an endearment, depending on the nuances of its intonation. So love and loss—the former all too often trailed by the latter—coexist in this wonderfully complex word, through which we Filipinos can at least claim some vestigial connection to the heart of Asia.

Sayang was very much on people’s lips in Singapore last week—you would have thought a lovefest was going on, and in a sense, it was. But the love was for books and literature, the occasion being the Singapore Writers Festival, which I was visiting for the third time after a hiatus of five years. Sayang had been chosen as the festival’s theme, and the word was festooned against a suitably floral backdrop all over the Arts House area where most of the festival events took place.

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Now on its 19th edition, the SWF began in 1986 as a biennial event, but it has since become a fixture on the regional cultural calendar (alongside the Singapore Arts Festival), cementing the city-state’s reputation—like its iconic Merlion—as the fountain of artistic endeavor in this part of the world. (I know what you’re thinking: “Shouldn’t that be us, the Philippines, with our long tradition of cultural expression and our bountiful artistic talents?” But I’ll tell you what festival director Yeow Kai Chai—himself a poet and journalist—told me over lunch: “I can’t believe you Filipinos have yet to establish a Department of Culture!”)

It was clear, from the minute I stepped out into Changi’s arrival area, that the National Arts Council, under Singapore’s Ministry of Culture, had once again pulled all the stops to guarantee a pleasant and efficiently managed experience for all SWF attendees, expected to number about 20,000. I was here as a journalist on coverage for the Star (I had attended the SWF as a participant in 2008, and returned to cover it in 2011) and I knew what to expect, but like they say, you never cross the same river twice, and this year’s festival offered a steady stream of 300 events spread out over ten days from November 4 to 13. There were over 300 official participants registered, with a hundred of them coming from overseas.

That makes the SWF one of the world’s largest and longest festivals of its kind, if not probably the most multilingual one, with its support for literature not just in English but also in Bahasa, Chinese, and other Asian languages. According to Yeow, the goal was to be as inclusive as possible in the SWF’s programming, going so far as to offer facilities for the hearing-impaired.

The fullness of the festival programme required selectivity, so I cherry-picked my way through the three days of my stay there, paying special attention to literary developments in Singapore itself. I’ve often remarked—most recently at a reading in Diliman featuring authors brought over by Ethos Books, one of Singapore’s most energetic presses—that the Philippines and Singapore have enjoyed a longstanding “bromance” going down the generations: between F. Sionil Jose and Edwin Thumboo, for example, followed by Krip Yuson and Kirpal Singh, then Joel Toledo and Alvin Pang, to name a few. We’ve published books together; not too long ago, Isabel Mooney and Lily Rose Tope worked with their Singaporean academic counterparts to edit a landmark anthology of Southeast Asian writing in English. So I wanted to see where things were at.

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The first session I attended addressed the diasporic element in Singaporean literature—but unlike our exodus of workers and writers to the far reaches of the planet, this diaspora was inbound, and a voluntary one. Moderated by the Filipino expat poet Eric Tinsay Valles, the panel comprised the Eurasian short story writer Jon Gresham, who had come to Singapore via the UK and Australia; the Filipino fictionist and diplomat Cathy Torres, who had moved from her posting in Singapore to Germany; and the American creative nonfiction expert Robin Hemley, who’s married to a Filipina and who now teaches in Singapore.

They discussed how, in the words of Eric, the diaspora could be “a creative space” within which the experience of estrangement could create some positive value. Being away from one’s home, the three agreed, made new impressions and expressions possible. The writer’s struggle to adjust and adapt was in itself the story. Jon spoke about how “It isn’t so much about roots as routes—the journey, the getting there” for the diasporic writer. Adverting to the title story of her debut collection, Mariposa Gang and Other Stories, Cathy observed how “Diasporic stories are like butterflies. They may look alike but no two are truly the same. I try to catch them and send them out into the world.”

But the it was the keynote talk by Farish Noor, a Malaysian political scientist and historian who’s become something of an intellectual rock star in the region, that both charmed and alarmed the packed chamber where the Singaporean parliament used to meet. Dr. Noor introduced his talk thus:

“How a word can have multiple meanings at the same time, and have their meanings change over time, is an interesting mirror to the unfolding of history. This lecture looks at one word in particular, sayang, charting its path of adaptation from pre-colonial and colonial histories to the post-colonial present; and considering how the changes in its meanings and applications—from fables to novels to cinema and pop culture—tells us more about ourselves, like how our own sensibilities and worldviews have evolved, leading to the postmodern present which we inhabit today. The word remains the same, but do we sayang today as our ancestors did?”

Looking back on how concepts of love evolved over time in the region—including love across species in folklore, and love for the colonial master—Farish noted how “Words are what we have left of the past, and the past is far more complicated—more rich, more deep—than the present. Today, in the age of Facebook, ‘love’ has been reduced to clicking a ‘Like’ button.”

During his turn in the chamber, Singapore’s unofficial poet laureate Edwin Thumboo looked back on a lifetime of literature in his country thus: “Young poets no longer write about nation because the nation has been constructed for them. It’s no longer a problem….. It’s so easy now to get published but I don’t think there’s enough revision going on. People are anthologizing like mad. Be patient. Always think you can do better.”

The renowned American critic Marjorie Perloff spoke at the last event I attended, and she closed SWF 2016 for me with a rousing challenge: “Avant-garde poetry has crossed the boundaries between the verbal and the visual, but poetry hasn’t changed in 70 years the way painting and music have. We need another kind of revolution!”

Many thanks again to my hosts and to my SWF friends—it was all sayang and yet no sayang for me this past weekend. In a coming column, I’ll digest two interviews I conducted with Singaporean poet Aaron Lee and our very own Eric Tinsay Valles on what it’s like to be a poet in Singapore.

Penman No. 224: Fantastic, Frenetic Frankfurt (2)

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Penman for Monday, November 7, 2016

 

GOING TO the Frankfurt Book Fair was a great opportunity to renew old friendships and make new ones within both the global and Philippine publishing community. While we authors count publishers among our closest and most valuable friends, I realized in Frankfurt that we really don’t talk about their side of the business that much, as engrossed as we often are by our own fabulations.

I was particularly happy to finally meet Renuka Chatterjee, who had been India’s premier literary agent when she worked for the big Osian’s cultural conglomerate in New Delhi. As my first literary agent, Renuka had been instrumental in getting my second novel, Soledad’s Sister, translated and published in Italy; but more than that, she guided me through my first textual revisions, through which I began to learn how international publishing worked. When Osian’s shut down its literary operation, I passed on to another very capable agent in New York, and Renuka eventually joined another leading publishing house in India, Speaking Tiger. We had corresponded by email over the years, but Frankfurt gave us an excuse and a venue for a long-overdue face-to-face.

Another acquaintance lost and found was the dynamic and groundbreaking Malaysian publisher Amir Muhammad, whom I had first met at a conference in Penang in 1992; Amir gifted me with a new trilogy of Southeast Asian stories he had just published, featuring the works of some of our best young Filipino authors. (Those books—like many others I’ve gathered on my travels—are now lodged at the Gonzalo Gonzalez Reading Room in UP, where we keep a repository of contemporary Southeast Asian literature.) Indeed, and not surprisingly, the Malaysians became the Philippine delegation’s best buddies at the fair; we frequented their booth to partake of the nasi lemak and to trade notes on the writing life. The Indonesians were equally hospitable, and our troop of visitors enjoyed a chat and the inevitable selfie with their star, the novelist Eka Kurniawan, whose Man Tiger made the 2016 Man Booker International Prize long list.

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Neither were the long hours at our own booth wasted, as a steady stream of visitors curious about our books and our culture came by to browse, to converse, and to do business. Business, after all, was what most people went to the book fair for, and while some of us minded the store, our delegates were often out meeting with their counterparts from the US, the UK, Europe, and the rest of Asia. (I had a very productive conversation with a gentleman from Montenegro who runs a kind of global blog of blogs—expect “Penman” to appear there soon, but only after it’s published here, of course.)

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It was the Ateneo University Press’ new boss Karina Bolasco’s third straight year at the fair, which she had previously attended representing Anvil Publishing. University presses don’t generally look at their books as profit-makers, reducing the financial pressure somewhat, but Karina still had a full schedule of meetings with academic publishers, especially longtime Philippine partners such as the University of Wisconsin Press. “Our job is to negotiate for reprint rights,” Karina told me. “We try to find material already published abroad that will be interesting to Filipino readers, and we also offer other presses the rights to reprint Filipino works with a global appeal.”

One of the most visited displays in the Philippine booth this year was that of Mandaluyong-based OMF Literature, Inc., which has published religious and inspirational books since 1957. OMF CEO Alexander Tan told me that their market was big and growing—extending even to OFWs in the Middle East—and that it had developed its own local stars such as pastor Ronald Molmisa, who draws huge crowds to his lectures on love and relationships. “I realized that by breaking the rules and letting people like Ronald use Taglish in their books, we could reach more readers,” Alex said.

On the other hand, literary agents like Andrea Pasion-Flores, who now works with the Singapore-based Jacaranda agency, assume the task of representing Filipino authors abroad and finding publishers to buy their works (and who then assign editors to work closely with the authors on revising their text for publication). Andrea—an accomplished author in her own right who also happens to be a lawyer and the former executive director of the National Book Development Board—is the first and, so far, the only literary agent working actively in the Philippines. Jacaranda has already sold the rights for such distinguished Filipino writers as the late Nick Joaquin, Charlson Ong, Isagani Cruz, and Ichi Batacan (whose Smaller and Smaller Circles will be a movie soon).

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Andrea and her Jacaranda colleagues Jayapriya Vasudevan and Helen Mangham spent long working days in Frankfurt at the exclusive Literary Agents section upstairs, which only registered agents (who paid a hefty price for table space) and publishers could theoretically access. But Andrea secured a pass for me so I could observe the frenetic 30-minute “speed-dating” sessions that took place in hundreds of cubicles. “You’re probably the only author in this room,” Andrea told me. When I asked her what international publishers were looking for from Filipino authors, her response was quick and to the point: “The big novel, more genre fiction, and more high-quality literary fiction—and less ego, please, as Filipino authors generally aren’t used to revising their work!”

Back downstairs the next day, my companions at the Philippine booth were surprised to see me in animated conversation in Filipino with a Caucasian lady, whom I was happy to introduce to everyone. Our visitor was Annette Hug, a novelist and translator who had come from her home in Zurich to meet with me and with her publisher at the book fair. Annette—who took her MA in Women’s Studies in UP and regularly practices her Filipino with an OFW friend—had just translated a piece I had published last month in the Philippine edition of Esquire magazine, a piece on extrajudicial killings that had somehow gone viral; Annette’s translation had come out that same day in a Swiss newspaper and she brought me my copies, fresh off the press. But apart from that sad topic, Annette had also just published a novel in German, Wilhelm Tell in Manila, based on Jose Rizal’s work on that Swiss hero’s life, and the UP Press will now explore the possibility of publishing a translation of her novel in the Philippines.

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Another visitor was children’s book author and Palanca Hall of Famer Eugene Evasco, who just happened to be in Munich on a three-month research fellowship, so he took the three-hour train ride to Frankfurt to visit the fair and to take in the mind-blowing displays at the children’s literature section.

Of such providential encounters, magnified into the thousands, was the Frankfurt Book Fair made, and while I was there less on business than as a roving cultural ambassador of sorts, I was glad and privileged to tick another item off my bucket list. I’ve run out of space to talk about an excursion some of us took to trace the footsteps of that quintessential Filipino writer, Jose Rizal, in nearby Heidelberg, so I’ll save that for another column soon.

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Penman No. 223: Fantastic, Frenetic Frankfurt (1)

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Penman for Monday, October 31, 2016

 

I’VE BEEN to mammoth meetings before—the Modern Languages Association in Chicago, MacWorld in San Francisco, Comic-con in San Diego, for instance—but nothing comes close to the Frankfurt Book Fair in size and scope. Covering over ten hectares of exhibition space spread out over several buildings and many floors, it’s certainly the world’s biggest and best-known book fair, gathering participants from nearly 200 countries.

Unlike author-focused literary festivals, the vast majority of those participants are publishers, booksellers, editors, literary agents, and printing industry representatives, all looking to make a pitch and a sale of their wares across the globe. That globe may have been made much smaller by the Internet, but nothing still beats a face-to-face transaction with one’s possible partners, and that’s where a book fair like Frankfurt’s comes in, as a week-long physical marketplace where the world’s publishers, from the biggest to the smallest ones, all go.

Inevitably a few writers and artists stray into the mix (we spotted David Hockney through a crack in the wall being interviewed at the Taschen booth by German TV), and this year I was one of those lucky few, with some help from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the University of the Philippines. Spearheaded by the National Book Development Board and invaluably assisted by the prime advocate of culture and the arts in the Senate, Sen. Loren Legarda, the Philippines expanded and upgraded its representation at FBF 2016, with a much larger booth and an impressive array of books from all our major commercial and academic publishers. The NCCA also sponsored one of our top graphic artists, Manix Abrera, and it didn’t hurt that National Artist Virgilio Almario came along in his private capacity to accompany his wife Lyn and daughters Asa and Ani who were representing Adarna Books and the Book Developers Association of the Philippines.

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While Filipinos have attended the FBF in dribbles for some time now, it was only this year that we went all out, helped incalculably by our bigger booth. Last year, publishers had to chip in P100,000 each to rent a tiny plot of real estate at the fair, which starts at 400 euros per square meter. Sen. Legarda’s timely intervention meant that publishers could put their rental money into bringing more representatives and more books, and our 2016 delegation hit a historic high at over 40 members.

Though not yet quite the pavilion that countries like China and Singapore could afford, our corner booth was colorful and visually attractive—a plus in a fair with thousands of such offerings, all competing for the passing viewer’s eye. Through the Ateneo University Press (now headed by Karina Bolasco, formerly of Anvil Publishing), the Philippines also had another albeit smaller booth in another hall as part of the FBF’s invitational program, an affirmative-action project that brings in and sponsors selected publishers from developing countries. Predictably, China’s exhibit occupied a whole city block (for the price of which they could have gotten a better English editor for their signs, which proclaimed “Chinese Publication”).

On the other end of publishing pomp and circumstance, the FBF annually invites and celebrates a Guest of Honor, and this year it was the Netherlands and Flanders, which decked out an enormous hall as a haunting landscape reminiscent of the Dutch flatlands. The Guest of Honor status focuses attention not only on that country’s literature but its entire culture and society, providing an opportunity to put one’s best foot forward (Dutch royalty attended the opening ceremonies, lending a touch of glamor to the event—and ratcheting up security for everyone). The Guest of Honor also gets to choose a theme for its exhibit, which this year was “This Is What We Share” (last year, New Zealand—on the other side of the world, for Europeans—whimsically chose “While You Were Sleeping”). My fancy tickled, I asked what the Philippines needed to be named Guest of Honor—one can both apply or be invited—and received an unequivocal answer: “Millions of dollars.” I shut up.

Its cultural import aside, the book fair means big business for Frankfurt, which, in partnership with the private sector, leases out the fair grounds to such clients as the publishers’ association which directly runs the book fair; at other times the venue hosts other big events such as automotive fairs and a forthcoming Justin Bieber concert. Last year the FBF brought in 250,000 participants, a figure the organizers expect to rise to 280,000 in 2016.

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This year’s edition of the Frankfurt Book Fair is officially the 68th, but it traces its lineage much farther back to medieval times, when friars traded pages of illuminated Biblical manuscripts. There’s still a special section of the FBF devoted to the antiquarian trade, to which I gravitated naturally, being interested in all things ancient. Other than this parchment-heavy and leather-bound corner, the FBF dwells and thrives on nothing but new, newer, and newest—new books, new ideas, new authors, new media, new technologies, new markets, new connections, new networks.

Exhibits are grouped by geographic region, by language, and by theme, so one has to roam far and wide to get the full scale of things and to zero in on specific interests. Much of the business at Frankfurt, however, is pre-planned; with table space at a premium, publishers and agents would have emailed each other months or weeks in advance to set up meetings for specific dates and times in Frankfurt.

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The publishers of so-called “trade books”—novels, cookbooks, children’s books, etc. aimed at the general public—showcase their works to attract attention from international publishers and booksellers who may want to translate them into another language, or to sell the books on consignment in other countries. Academic publishers—this year we were represented by the UP Press, Ateneo de Manila University Press, and UST Press—negotiate among each other for reprint rights, which can make costly works more easily available to local readers.

Led by NBDB Chair Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz, the Philippines launched its exhibit with a reception at its booth on the fair’s formal opening on October 19, a well-attended event graced by Ambassador Melita Sta. Maria-Thomeczek (who was happy to recall that she had once been an employee in Rio Almario’s Adarna Books and had been a student of Rio’s wife Lyn at Maryknoll) and by First Secretary and Consul Cathy Rose Torres, who herself happens to be a prizewinning fictionist. The reception was catered by Maite Hontiveros, who laid out a scrumptious spread that featured lumpia, spoonfuls of adobo on rice, mango juice, and Philippine chocolate, which were clearly a hit among our foreign guests.

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Filipino books, of course, remained on top of the menu, and for the next week, we took turns at the booth to entertain visitors and book buyers from other countries, while occasionally slipping out to survey the vast array of exhibits and inevitably to marvel at the scope, vitality, and quality of global publishing in the 21st century. I came away even more convinced that culture is a global battleground, and that books are weapons—of mass instruction, if you will.

Next week, I’ll share the highlights of my conversations with key people at the book fair, and report on retracing Rizal’s footsteps in Heidelberg.

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Penman No. 218: History and Irony

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Penman for Monday, September 26, 2016

 

 

I’D NEVER heard of Ramon Cualoping III and Marco Angelo Cabrera until their names were linked to the recent flap involving the use of no less than the Official Gazette in an apparent effort to sanitize the memory of Ferdinand E. Marcos by removing any reference to martial law—you know, the martial law that Marcos invoked to impose his dictatorial rule on his people from 1972 until he was deposed by a popular revolt in 1986. (Yes, he technically lifted martial law in 1981 but he continued to rule with a rubber-stamp legislature.)

Some Googling revealed that Cualoping was an Ateneo Communication Arts graduate, batch 2004, while Cabrera graduated from San Beda in 2013 and interned briefly with the Department of Foreign Affairs; he had also worked for Sen. Bongbong Marcos. Those are both fine backgrounds for jobs at the Presidential Communications Operations Office—just the kind of posting on which many young writers and lawyers aspiring for a political future have cut their teeth—and I can surmise from the dates provided that Messrs. Cualoping and Cabrera must be in their mid-30s and mid-20s, respectively—too young, therefore, to have personally known what the Gazette expunged.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a government propagandist myself at an even younger age—19, fresh out of martial law prison. Having dropped out of UP and having worked for the Philippines Herald and Taliba just before martial law, I got a job with the PR section of the National Economic and Development Authority. The irony of going from writing incendiary flyers to trumpeting such new government projects as Pantabangan Dam wasn’t lost on me. But I was getting married and needed a job, and all the old media jobs were gone save for the Express and the Bulletin, so I was thankful for whatever came my way. (I would much later write hundreds of speeches for FVR, among other Presidents and political clients—mostly to pay the rent, occasionally for the sheer privilege—so don’t look at me as some crusading journalist.)

I don’t know what drove Messrs. Cualoping and Cabrera to the Palace; I’m assuming their motives were loftier than mine. I also don’t know what made them officially forget (hey, it’s the Official Gazette, right?) that FM declared martial law. I suspect they knew what happened, but chose to ignore the most salient fact about Marcos’ life, for reasons only they can tell. To his credit, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar effectively reprimanded his staff for the deliberate oversight and corrected the record.

I’ll leave further chastisement of these two gentlemen to the netizens who broke the story. From one PR pro to another, what I can tell them is this: I understand the job you have to do and even your private allegiances, but there are things—very big things much bigger than yourselves—that you just can’t sweep under the rug. Denying martial law or its disastrous effects on our society and economy is like telling Jews that the Holocaust never happened, or was actually a good thing. I salute you for your cheek, but what on earth were you thinking?

There’s a book I’d like to recommend to these two, one which I and a dozen other writers—all students during martial law—put out four years ago on the 40th anniversary of Proclamation 1081, titled Not on Our Watch: Martial Law Really Happened, We Were There. (For more on that book, see here: http://www.philstar.com/sunday-life/806191/lest-we-forget.) I wasn’t too enamored of the long title at that time, but now I appreciate the emphatic clarity of the thing; it’s just the sort of book martial law amnesiacs and deniers need to read.

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But even as we review history, there’s one thing that seems to have escaped many: the current debate about how to look at martial law and where to bury Ferdinand Marcos isn’t about the past; it’s about the future, and what kind of people we are and want to be.

I know that millennials tend to get beat up on because they don’t know enough about martial law, which is hardly their fault since we didn’t teach them enough about it. But it isn’t just them. When people my age express bewilderment over how Bongbong Marcos came so close to becoming Vice President despite his dad’s misdeeds, and how the Marcoses have survived so handsomely, I have to remind them that even under martial law, those of us who opposed Marcos were in the distinct minority. Most Filipinos supported martial law, actively or passively, or it wouldn’t have lasted so long. Like the Germans who supported Hitler, most Filipinos stood by while we faced the truncheons and firehoses—and even applauded 1081, early on, as the antidote to Communism (1972’s “war on drugs”). So what should we be so surprised about?

That’s why I’ve never referred to EDSA 1 as a revolution, because it wasn’t one in terms of changing anything fundamental in the structures and workings of our society. It was a popular uprising, a street revolt led by another faction of the ruling class, with broad support from the metropolitan middle class. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel euphoric that February, and I still get teary-eyed when I remember the moment; I guess the poignancy comes from knowing what came afterward.

I have no doubt that if the Palace incumbent were to declare martial law today for whatever reason, a majority of Filipinos would support him, although a noisy few of us would be up in arms. Martial law ca. 1972 was also like that, and remained popular for many more years, especially among amoral businessmen who sang its praises until it hit them in the pocket. And then it all went downhill.

Contrary to what you might expect, I don’t see Marcos as a one-eyed ogre, but rather as a calculating Macbeth, keenly aware of his actions and perhaps even troubled by them. In my own turn with revisionism, I’ve even managed to convince myself—as I told the BBC in a recent interview on EDSA (a part which never got aired for lack of time)—that Ferdinand Marcos may have done us a final act of kindness by leaving without ordering a bloodbath. It’s an arguable notion (one I wouldn’t put on the Official Gazette) and it doesn’t change the fact that his regime took what it could until we bled, but as a fictionist and playwright, I like to imagine characters to be more complex than they seem.

A couple of years ago, at a cultural function in Quezon City, Mrs. Marcos preceded me by a few steps down a narrow staircase. She was clearly having a hard time navigating the stairs, and she looked back at me apologetically to say, “Hijo, I’m very sorry I’m keeping you.” I smiled and said, “It’s all right, Ma’am, please take your time.” I felt amused and strangely triumphant.

History is sometimes best seen as a series of comic and tragic ironies, which straight journalism and certainly government tabloids can’t dispense. Come to think of it, who gives a hoot about the Official Gazette? If you want to lie and get away with it, try fiction. I’d be happy to see Messrs. Cualoping and Cabrera in my graduate workshop.

 

Penman No. 215: An Explosion of Graphic Talent

 

IMG_9307.JPGPenman for Monday, September 5, 2016

 

THERE WERE plenty of attractions at this year’s AsiaPOP Comicon, held August 26-28 at the SMX Convention Center at the Mall of Asia—chiefly the presence of such popular stars as X-Men’s Nicholas Hoult, The Vampire Diaries’ Claire Holt, Game of Thrones’ Joe Dempsie, and Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown, and comic book artists Whilce Portacio, Mike Zeck, and Ken Lashley, among others. But what drew my attention and my wife Beng’s the most was the explosion of talent among Filipino graphic artists who displayed their work at the far end of the exhibition hall.

Let me take a step back and recall that just last July, thanks to the sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time, Beng and I found ourselves attending the San Diego Comic Con—the original and still the biggest pop-culture gathering of its kind. The sortie revived my juvenile interest in comics and all things strange and wonderful—an odd detour from the stodgy realism of my own work, but surprisingly refreshing. It was at the SDCC’s Artists’ Alley that I ran into the Fil-Am comics legend Whilce Portacio, and I interviewed him on the spot (the full interview will appear in a forthcoming issue of Esquire Philippines), during which I learned that he was coming to Manila soon for another pop culture event.

That event turned out to be AsiaPOP. AsiaPOP Comicon Manila was organized by Universal Events & Entertainment, a subsidiary of the Singapore-based Al Ahli Holding Group, whose head of Marketing and Business Development Abdulla Mahmood was glad to share the fact that AsiaPOP’s first Manila outing last year attracted 30,000 attendees—a more than respectable figure considering that the San Diego original typically brings in about 130,000 people over four days. “Pinoys are immersed in pop culture,” Abdulla told me, explaining why his group decided to launch their first such event in the Philippines. “They’re among the heaviest users of social media, too, which helps spread the word. From here, we’re bringing the show to Dubai, and from there on to other cities.”

New TV hit series like Stranger Things are central to that pop culture—Beng and I spent two sleepless nights binge-watching on Netflix, and now can’t wait for the next season to meet the Demogorgon (whom everyone seems to think is…). The senior citizen-professor in me has to wonder how Beng and I can so easily succumb to the seductions of superheroes and their ilk, but then I’d have to admit that with nothing much else to do outside of work, we’ve become TV and movie addicts who must’ve seen every nearly sci-fi and fantasy flick that’s been shown over the past five years (with some notable exceptions—we’ve yet to watch a single episode of Game of Thrones).

So we can understand all the buzz about Millie Bobby Brown, but as newcomers to the comics supershow, we’ve come to realize that the fun isn’t in chasing after individual characters and stars as much as imbibing the sheer variety and spectacle of the experience—everywhere you look, there’s something else to catch the eye, whether it’s the X-Men’s shapeshifting Mystique or a new superhero named… Lolang Tsora?

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That was Tandang Sora as we knew her from our history books, but in her reincarnation in Anthony Dacayo II’s Bayani series, she employs a spinning dreamcatcher to thwart her foes. We found Anthony and his merry band of artists in AsiaPOP’s own version of the Artists’ Alley, which hosted exhibits from dozens of the most gifted comic book artists in the Philippines. Anthony himself works on stories (and some of the drawings) for his Bayani project, which has since been developed by Ranida Games into a phone-based game that employs Filipino heroes as characters with special skill sets (Joe Rizal uses a quill sword, for example, and Rio Mabini his Verdadero Decalogo). It was his way, said Anthony, of bringing our national heroes into the consciousness of a new generation.

In another booth, we found Iloilo-born Jann Galino, who’s already done penciling work for Virginia-based Azure Multimedia’s “Ranger” comics. Jann exemplifies the Pinoy artist on the brink of the big breakthrough. He’s gone back to school to finish his Fine Arts degree while putting together a portfolio that he hopes will be good enough to show the scouts from Marvel and DC the next time they come around. On the other hand, Bukidnon native Harvey Tolibao has already done work for Marvel, DC, and Japanese game companies, among others, co-founding HMT Studios with some friends to expand and speed up the work.

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I was especially happy to run into a former student, Paolo Herras, who has published a series of Strange Native comic books for Quezon City-based Meganon Comics after stints in advertising and indie films, drawing on history and folklore to interrogate the present. Beside him was another young author and artist named Tepai Pascual, whose Maktan 1521 is a graphic retelling of the encounter between Magellan and Lapu-lapu.

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The biggest Pinoy names in the comic-book industry may now be too busy to appear at AsiaPOP—like Leinil Yu who trained with Whilce Portacio in the 1990s and is now one of the world’s most sought-after artists, and Budjette Tan, who now works for Lego in Denmark as a creative director in Lego’s ad agency. (A week after AsiaPOP, I ran into the California-based animator Jess Española, who won an Emmy in 2008 for his work on The Simpsons; he missed AsiaPOP but was in town to help motivate younger artists at his alma mater, the UP College of Fine Arts.)

But there’s no lack of younger Filipino graphic talent eager to follow on their heels, and events like AsiaPOP and the big Comicon in San Diego can provide the best launch pads for these Wacom-wielding wizards. (To know more about Filipino comics and their creators, check out http://www.philippinecomics.net.)

 

WITHIN DAYS of each other, two dear friends passed away last week—gallery owner Norma Crisologo Liongoren and retired professor and children’s book author Sylvia Mendez Ventura.

Norma was a memorable character whose eye-catching fashions lent more than a dash of color to her exhibition openings and parties in Cubao’s pioneering Liongoren Gallery. Most importantly, she was a generous spirit, lending artists both new and old her unflagging support and outright charity. Beng was especially close to Norma, and when I found her weeping and praying in our gazebo in the garden early one morning, I knew Norma had passed on in the night.

Sylvia was my Shakespeare teacher when I returned to school in the 1980s, and after one of her subjects, I was hooked on Shakespeare and the English Renaissance for life. Impeccably coiffed, this New York-educated diplomat’s daughter was a style icon who, like Robert Graves’ White Goddess, could lay bare your ignorance and cut you down with a single phrase. For some reason (and much to my classmates’ annoyance), I became her pet in class, and she would sometimes hand the lesson over to me to teach—which helped me decide to stay on and become a teacher myself. Sylvia was also a gifted painter, and I don’t think we ever told her, but for these past ten years, one of her flower paintings has hung over headboard. Good night, sweet princess, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!