Penman No. 445: Some Notes on Travel Writing

Penman for Sunday, December 4, 2022

I’M SURE you’ve noticed—with much envy in my case—how so many of your friends have been traipsing around the world these past few months on what’s been called “revenge travel,” that perfectly human impulse to flee the cage after years of imposed isolation. 

And whether you’re guzzling down a pint of beer in Munich, chasing pintxos in San Sebastian, or crossing a bridge in Kyoto, the chances are you’ll be happy with a raft of digital photographs to show for your adventures. Many will want to post about their tours on their blogs, while a much smaller group will—perhaps months later—sit down to reflect on their experience and write about it in an effort to make better sense of what they went through. 

That’s something I’ve done myself from time to time, and so I thought of sharing some notes for the prospective travel writer—not just of the usual travel feature we produce for commercial media, but of a more personal kind of travel essay, one focused as much on the traveler as on the place itself. Beyond reportage citing facts and figures, this is writing that implicates and engages the traveler, the writing persona, and makes him or her a character in the piece. 

At my age, I consider myself a fairly well-traveled person, but one of the first things I want to say about good travel writing is that it’s really not about where you’ve gone or how many countries you’ve been to. It’s not about quantity, but quality of experience, perspective, and insight. The challenge isn’t to go to what to most Filipinos would be an exotic place like Paris or Tahiti. It’s to go there and to find and to tell us something about it that millions of other visitors or tourists have never seen.  

And when I say “something others have never seen,” it’s not about looking for obscure places, new bars, strange customs, or unique souvenirs. They could all be part of a great story because they’re intrinsically interesting, and if all you want to do is a standard feature story for a magazine, that would be all right. You could even make a good and exciting living writing these travel features, because the industry travel constantly needs them and they sell. 

For many of us, that would be a dream job: fly off to faraway destinations and to first-class hotels with all your expenses paid, just to write about how wonderful the place and the experience was. In my two decades as a columnist for the Lifestyle Section of the Philippine Star, I was lucky to have had a taste of that kind of luxury, having been sent on special assignment to the US, Germany, Israel, and Malaysia, among many other places. When I traveled for academic or professional conferences, which was quite often, I wrote those up too as travel pieces.

But—putting on my creative writing teacher’s hat—I also want you to think of travel writing not just as a function of place, but rather a function of mind. I want you to realize that you don’t need to go to an African safari or to ride a gondola in Venice to be a good travel writer—or a good writer, period. I want you to be able to turn a place you may have been to a thousand times or even lived in—say, Cubao—into a travel destination, and to explore not just its surface but its culture and subcultures, its inhabitants, its range of markets, its daytime and nighttime versions.

There are always two tracks embedded in a good travel essay: the story of the place itself, and the story of the traveler. To put it another way, there is the external journey, and the internal journey. 

The external journey is the story of the journey itself—the purpose of the travel, the choice of destination, the mode of travel, observations along the journey, reaching the destination, first impressions, engagements with the local people, sights, food, experiences, and other vignettes until departure time. 

The internal journey is the story of the traveler’s life situation at the start of the travel—his or her expectations, anxieties, distractions—and then his or her reactions to the unfolding environment, his or her interactions with the place and people, and his or her terminal thoughts and feelings about the whole experience, whether explicitly stated or implied. Very often, the internal journey involves some kind of quest—a search for something beyond the place itself, or some object in it, but an answer to some personal question, which gives meaning to the visit and the encounter with the place. 

That question could be “Who am I?” or “Where do I belong?” or “What do I really want?” or “Is there hope?” As the travel progresses, the answers to these questions begin to be formed or revealed. Thus do the external and internal tracks run parallel or congruent until they bend and meet at a certain point. Indeed, it can be argued that the external track, the travelogue itself, is simply an excuse or a device to tell the personal story, which emerges as the true point of interest in the piece. 

The internal track could also be subtle and subdued, embedded in the main narrative, and palpable only upon closer reading. Nevertheless it will be there, the result of a place or an experience’s impact on a person. In the travel essay, therefore, it is the interaction between person and place and the insight that comes from it that is the real, unified story. 

As the great travel writer Pico Iyer put it, “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” 

So when you write your next travel story or travel essay, don’t just tell us about what you’re looking at, which many thousands of visitors before you have already seen. Try to look at it from another angle, or find an interesting detail that’s been paid little attention to, and reflect on what it says to you. Your perspective is as important as the place itself; it may not be shown or expressed too strongly, but it will be there and should be there, for the work to be truly yours, truly unique, and truly worth doing. Happy trails!

Qwertyman No. 19: The Real Maria Ressa

Qwertyman for Monday, December 12, 2022

I WAS very honored to speak last Saturday at the launch of Maria Ressa’s new book, How to Stand up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future (Harper, 2022). I’d read an advance copy of it a couple of weeks ago, and to cut to the chase, if you’re thinking of buying a book to read for the holidays or to gift to friends, look no further. This book, for me, is among the year’s best in nonfiction.

I have to emphasize that word—nonfiction. As we all know we live in times when fiction has taken over as the most influential form of human discourse, particularly in the political arena. As a practicing fictionist, I should be happy about that, but I’m not and I can’t be, because so much of it is bad fiction, crudely written—and surprisingly, infuriatingly effective, at least with a certain kind of reader. 

Maria’s book cuts through all that. It’s undisguised, old-fashioned, in-your-face truth-telling, told in the same voice and tone we’ve become familiar with over the years of listening to her reportage over CNN. I’m sure that, like me, many of you wondered the first time you heard her: “Who was this little brown-complexioned woman speaking with an American accent?” She looked Filipino, but how come we’d never seen her before?

This was all before she rose to prominence—some would say notoriety—as the moving spirit behind Rappler, and subsequently to global fame as a Nobel Prize winner for Peace. We identified with her travails, shared her anger and sadness at the abuse she has received, and rejoiced in her victories, whether in the courts or in the larger sphere of public opinion. 

But how well do we really know Maria Ressa, and whatever drives her to be who and what she is? This book takes us to the person behind the phenomenon, and answers many questions we may have had about her and her stubborn advocacies.

The book’s title sounds like that of an instruction manual—which it is, and also is not, being part autobiography, part journalism, and part testimonial. As a manual for freedom fighters, it emphasizes the need for collaborative and collective action against seemingly insurmountable forces. Those forces now include the Internet, which, as Maria documents with both precision and profound dismay, has morphed from a medium that once held all kinds of liberative promises into a medium for mass deception and targeted assault. She draws her counsel not from some esoteric guru or academic paradigm, but from some very basic values that have informed her own life—the Honor Code she followed in school, and the Golden Rule.

“That’s what I lay out in this book,” she says, “an exploration into the values and principles not just of journalism and technology but of the collective action we need to take to win this battle for facts. This journey of discovery is intensely personal. That’s why every chapter has a micro and a macro: a personal lesson and the larger picture. You will see the simple ideas I hold on to in order to make what have—over time—become instinctive but thoughtful decisions.”

It’s this constant back-and-forth between the personal and the political—and at some point they become inextricably fused—that forms the fiber of Maria’s narrative and gives it strength. Her convictions are grounded in personal experience; they have not been paid for—as the hacks in the journalistic trade will allege, seeking to bring her down to their own level—except in the coin of personal suffering under the constant threat of imprisonment and violence.

But we learn from this book that trauma is nothing new to Maria. (We also learn that Maria Ressa wasn’t the name she was born into, but to find out her birth name, you’ll have to buy the book.) From her abrupt relocation from Manila to America at the age of ten, to her journalistic immersion in the horrors of conflict and disaster in Indonesia and Ormoc, the book chronicles Maria’s quest for truth, meaning, and purpose in her life, and that of others. She stresses the importance of remembering the past to make sense of the present, quoting TS Eliot’s phrase, “the present moment of the past.”

And so can we, she seems to suggest, even in these times of high anxiety, when we can see the vultures hovering over such once-sacrosanct treasures as our pension funds, while billions more go to feed the dogs of an increasingly untenable counter-insurgent war. The big words we have become used to tossing around—truth, freedom, reason, justice, democracy—they all come down to a personal choice to do the right thing, and the courage to do it. 

Nowhere is this matter of choice more evident than in the fact that Maria is here in the Philippines, having willfully subjected herself to our brand of justice, however imperfect it may be, instead of escaping to the safety of America or another haven, which her dual citizenship if not her celebrity can certainly afford her. She will see her own story through to the end, in the locale where it matters, among the people to whom it matters most.

I’ve often remarked, as a creative writer and professor of literature, that in this country, the writers most in danger of political persecution and retribution are really not fictionists or poets like me. Not since Rizal has a Filipino novelist been shot dead for what he wrote. For sure, we have lost many brilliant writers to the struggle for freedom and democracy—Emman Lacaba, and most recently Lorena Tariman and her husband Ericson Acosta. But they were killed by the State not for what they wrote—the State is illiterate when it comes to metaphor—but for what they allegedly did.

Rather, the most imperiled writers in the Philippines as in many other places are the journalists who speak the language of the people and of their plaints in terms too clear to ignore. They could be radio announcers like Percy Lapid, or the victims of wholesale murder in Maguindanao, or high-profile and exemplary targets such as Maria Ressa. It would have been easy for her to lash back at her critics and tormentors with the same viciousness. But, she says, “I will not become a criminal to fight a criminal. I will not become a monster to fight a monster.”

That, too, is a difficult choice, and one I am sure we are often tempted to cast aside. But Maria’s equanimity in the face of savagery shames us back into our better selves. It will be that kind of quiet resolve that we will need to survive and prevail. After all, we survived martial law. We can survive this regime—with agility, patience, and courage. But don’t take my word for it. Read Maria’s book to know that we can, and why we must.

Qwertyman No. 6: The Extraordinary Vice Mayor Koo

Qwertyman for September 12, 2022

“PAPA, PAPA! What does ‘consanguinity’ mean?” 

“Consang-what?” Vice Mayor Edison Koo was busy with his cellphone, negotiating his cut from the new bridge they were putting up in Barangay Tullahan. It annoyed him that Mayor Baloloy was going to make double, despite the fact that all the mayor did was to sign the papers while he had to meet with the contractor at a popular girlie joint in Manila—not that he minded the female company.

“Consanguinity. C-O-N-S-A-“

“I can spell it!” VM Koo knew he wasn’t the sharpest pencil in the box—he had passed the bar on his third try, after much coaching from his friends and a novena to St. Jude the Apostle—but he could still remember what “consanguinity” meant and how to spell it. He had stumbled on a question about wills, trusts, and estates that involved consanguinity in his second bar exam, which was why he had to study it extra hard for his next retake. 

“So what does it mean, Papa?” At thirteen, Lawrence was about seven years past being cute and was just being pesky at the worst possible times, but Edison had plans for the boy’s political future and wanted to impress him with his knowledge. “Consanguinity” was easier to explain than to spell, Edison thought with a triumphant smile. 

Facing a mango tree, he recited a memorized Civil Service Commission pronouncement to impress himself with his knowledge: “Under Section 79 of the Local Government Code of 1991, the prohibition against nepotic appointments extends to the appointing or recommending authority’s relatives within the fourth degree of consanguinity or affinity, such as first cousin or first cousin-in-law.” He turned to Lawrence and said, “Does that answer your question?”

“No,” said the boy, fiddling with his cellphone, “but never mind. I found it on Google. It means ‘being descended from the same ancestor.’ So if my Science teacher says we all came from apes, that’s consanguinity? All monkeys are my cousins?”

“Weeell…. If the monkey can show a valid NSO-certified birth certificate that can prove the relationship, why not?” VM Koo congratulated himself for his clever answer; the boy had to think his dad was a genius, to follow in his footsteps and inherit his musty law books. “Why are you asking, anyway? Aren’t you supposed to be going to the mall with your friends? I gave you some money—” A mall—the town’s first—had opened six months earlier, a sure sign of the place’s progress, as a consequence of which the mayor was able to acquire a new van for his wife and an SUV for himself. This was why Edison was convinced he had to run for mayor in the next election—not because Mayor Baloloy was a corrupt bastard, but because he, Edison J. Koo, Esq., was the much better, more highly qualified bastard.

“You know I don’t like hanging out with my friends, Papa,” said Lawrence. “I prefer to stay home and read books and to listen to the news about the war in Ukraine and climate change and all the things that will affect my future as a young Filipino citizen!”

Edison looked at his son more closely, looking for signs that Lawrence was gay; it was his mother’s fault, giving the kid all those books about endangered species and disappearing islands, when any healthy teenage boy should have been hanging out in malls watching the girls in shorts go by. “So what does that have to do with consanguinity?”

“Well, I came across this news report about a new law that will require public officials like you to disclose all their relatives linked to subversive organizations, up to the fourth degree of consanguinity….”

“Really? What for? Don’t those idiots have better things to do?” It infuriated the vice mayor that on top of the SALN—on which he had to very deftly dissimulate—another reporting requirement was going to be imposed on hardworking civil servants like him.

“What does ‘subversive’ mean, Papa?”

“Oh—it means someone who doesn’t like the government, people like me, and wants to bring it down!”

“You mean like Tita Rory?” Lawrence remembered her fondly for giving him books like Catcher in the Rye and The Little Prince.

Edison felt a wave of shame and guilt wash over him, which he tried not to show the boy, who picked it up anyway. Rory was his younger sister, who had been a troublemaker since high school as far as he was concerned, who never listened, who deplored and never supported his entry into politics, and who once even denounced him in the plaza as a crook. So he also publicly disowned her, calling her a madwoman, and cut off all communication, even when she left and vanished into the underground.

“Yes, like your Tita Rory!” Edison sputtered, barely able to say the name. His eyes bulged as he began to understand the import of “consanguinity.” “Dammit, even when she’s not here, she’s going to put me in trouble!” He was thinking ahead to the next mayoral race, to being accused of consorting with the enemy, and worse, of being a subversive himself, which was the most ridiculous thing, because he didn’t have a rebellious bone in his body. He even ticked off Rory once by calling Rizal stupid for having badmouthed the Spanish.

“I like the books she gave me,” said Lawrence, thinking of a little fox and a garden of roses.

“Burn them! They’re full of silly ideas that—that will turn you into a little red monster. You won’t believe in God, you’ll disobey authority, you’ll do all kinds of terrible things—” 

“Is stealing money from the people subversive, Papa? Tita Rory said—” 

“Your Tita Rory said a lot of crazy things! That’s why she’s—not here. She’s not one of us. Not anymore. I pray for her soul, but I firmly believe in the government’s anti-insurgency program! And I’ll make sure everyone knows that—that their humble servant, Vice Mayor Koo, is a staunch defender of democracy, of peace and order, and of the rule of law! You’ll be very proud of me, my son!”

Just then a text message arrived. The bridge contractor had agreed to throw in a free trip to Seoul for him and Mrs. Koo, with a “K-drama Location Tour” attached. Edison beamed. His wife loved “The Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” and although he hadn’t seen it himself—he preferred Vin Diesel movies—she was sure to love him for it, too.

Qwertyman No. 3: The Book Convention

Qwertyman for Monday, August 22, 2022

THE ANNUAL convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Books of the Democratic Republic of Kawefo was about to begin, and after a rowdy rendition of the National Hymn that was sung in two keys when the video failed, followed by a ten-minute prayer in five different languages invoking Divine Guidance in the formulation of a “coherent, cohesive, and comprehensive national book development policy,” the Introduction of the Honorable Guest Speaker began, properly enough with the birth of the speaker in the country’s easternmost islands, better known for brigandry than textual poaching. 

“Minister Fwefwe could not have arrived at her exalted position at the helm of Kawefan higher education and cultural development without her deep and abiding commitment to the promotion of knowledge, which she gained through her lifelong immersion in the world’s intellectual foundries,” intoned her introducer, the current Vice-Minister of Propaganda whom everyone knew was angling for Fwefwe’s job at the next Cabinet reshuffle. An ex-Marine colonel who had been sacked for leading his men into a rebel ambush while searching for a cellular signal on which he could call his mistress, Vice-Minister Penpen had been rehabilitated through the good graces of his cousin, the chief cook at the Palace who served President Ongong his favorite dishes. “Who could have known that a chance encounter at the circulation desk of the Manoa Public Library on that fateful day of the 23rd of November, 1986, would lead to her elevation from a humble library assistant to our republic’s Chief Cultural Czarina?”

“Good Lord,” muttered Dr. Gawgaw in his corner, “he’s going to tell the full story all over again, is he?” Gawgaw dipped a nacho into the puddle of cheese before him and munched on it noisily. He sat with a group of old men sporting flowery ties and silver-tipped canes, with a sprinkling of elderly ladies whispering in an arcane Creole-like dialect. A retired Professor of Kawefan History, Gawgaw would have preferred to stay home in his library, sniffing the powdery biblichor out of his pigskin-bound volumes on “Robinaux’s Account of Kawefan Border Crossings, 1773” and admiring the faux-Victorian binding of “Society in a Centrifuge: Sugar and the Colonial Domestication of Kawefo,” which he wrote himself. But he had to attend this silly convention on behalf of his Society for the Preservation of Kawefan History, to ensure that any new book policy did not forget to account for the past, of which he was both protector and gatekeeper. “Madame Minister, republish our books!”

Across the aisle, the Kawefan Educational Publishers Guild had other ideas. “Books are everyone’s business!” And indeed it was, especially for Mrs. Krekre, lifetime president of the guild, the grande dame of Kawefan textbook publishing, and supplier of choice to all the government’s informational requirements. The guild employed hundreds of moonlighting schoolteachers to write textbooks that satisfied whatever Kawefan industry and ideology required (the ideology changed every six or twelve years, except for the occasional coup in between), and there was always a need to refresh history and its interpretation. The new administration was anxious to encourage the rumor that its ruling family’s wealth had been founded on ancient treasure, so new myths were being discovered and stories being written about the Lost Kingdom of Lifofo, to which President Ongong could trace his divine ancestry. New material meant new editions and teaching supplements, all of which required thorough vetting by the Ministry of Public Instruction, where Mrs. Krekre’s patient goodwill ensured everyone’s satisfaction.

Oblivious to the proceedings onstage were the members of the Kawefan Popular Writers League, an association dedicated to the principle of literature as entertainment, toward which they concocted dizzying romances set in the Swiss Alps, deep-space honeymoons, movie-star ghost stories, and murder sprees provoked by a secret kimchi recipe. They sipped their wintermelon-flavored milk tea at their table, sharing stories of their latest forays and frolics, and when Minister Fwefwe screeched into the mike about something that sounded like “social responsibility,” they screeched right back and giggled, annoying everyone else, but no one could shut them up or leave them out of the party, because everyone read them in their cars and bathrooms, including Dr. Gawgaw and Mrs. Krekre.

Looking much less happier were the dozen-odd members of Kawefan PEN, who stood forlorn just outside the convention hall, clutching placards that mentioned words like “FREEDOM” and “JUSTICE” alongside a slim stand of books illustrated with skulls, barbed wire, and raised fists. They were led by Prof. Mikmik, who had done his dissertation on Baudelaire at Harvard but who, after the Vietnam War, had seen the Marxist light and now sported a goatee and wrote inflammatory poetry. He had once been friends with Dr. Gawgaw until they quarreled over whose books mattered more in the grand scheme of things. Mikmik was convinced that he was under constant and intense surveillance, especially since his FB account was barraged by friend requests from nubile ladies masquerading as masseuses and escorts.

There were spies, indeed, on the convention floor, shuttling from one exhibition booth and table to another, deputized by the Inter-Agency Counter-Subversion Agency to locate, expose, and denounce subversive literature “in whatever form, format, or genre, for the purpose of undermining the people’s faith and belief in duly constituted authority….” The IACSA’s operatives had attended a workshop in Camp Ngungu, where important questions like “What’s a genre?” were addressed by retired professors of comparative literature (“A novel, a cookbook, a nursery rhyme!”). Key words like “liberal,” “gay,” “rejection,” and “penguins” were dissected and discussed to lay bare the insurgent cancer throbbing at the heart of Kawefan society.

Agent Pogpog had joined the IACSA after sleeping on his call-center job, and was now intent on making a name for himself by bagging his first major subversive author, following the recent, high-profile arrests of poets Gemgem, Kripkrip, and Ricric. For the past three hours, pretending to be a graduate student, he had been keeping Prof. Mikmik company, trying to figure out if Mikmik’s autobiographical epic, Seven Seasons of Solipsism, was subversive or not. It contained a line about “the promethean susurrus of unvanquished desire,” which sounded suspiciously rebellious. “It’s totally subversive, I assure you,” said Mikmik, “and if those fools in the military only knew their Homer, I should have been locked up and shot dead thirty years ago when this book came out. And then this book would be in its tenth edition!”

Inside the convention hall, Dr. Gawgaw burped, Mrs. Krekre laughed, and Minister Fwefwe raised a toast to all authors past and present, and to their boundless imagination.

Hindsight No. 18: Wisdom from Suffering

Hindsight for Monday, May 16, 2022

(Image from tunedinparents.com)

THERE’S A line I remember from a college course in Greek drama—specifically the play Agamemnon by Aeschylus—where Zeus memorably explains why the gods bring pain and torment to humans, when they could just as easily shower them with joyful blessings: “Justice inclines her scales so that wisdom comes at the price of suffering.” Man suffers, so he will learn.

I kept going back to that line this past week as I tried to comprehend the enormity of what had just happened: by what appeared to be a huge majority, our people had chosen a dictator’s son to lead this country for the next six years. Despite reports of massive vote-buying and irregularities at the polling stations, I wasn’t even contesting the overall results—I was never much of a conspiracist—but asking myself how and why the masses of our people keep making poor choices at the ballot box, voting against their own strategic interests. (Am I being presumptuous to sit in judgment of our average voter? Yes, and I make no apologies, having lived through martial law, all three EDSAs, Garci, tokhang, and Covid.)

Did we not suffer enough over the Marcos years and from the plunder and repression enabled by martial law to have learned that unbridled authoritarianism is a curse on everyone, both despot and citizen alike? Clearly not, or we would not be here today, facing the restoration of that rapacious regime. And it will be because—going by the moral logic that informed the Athenian stage—we have brought it upon ourselves, by casting more votes for the very same people whose greed we continue to pay for, and will pay yet more for, all over again.

In that case, should we flog ourselves over that seeming poverty of collective wisdom? Shall we call ourselves stupid and even hopeless, to have gained the freedom to vote, only to squander it for the benefit of those who took it away in the first place?

Of course, the right to vote never came with any assurance of voting wisely and responsibly, with democratic values foremostly in mind. For those whose lives have never changed regardless of administration, it can simply be another source of easy income. For others, it can be a form of personal revenge for injustices suffered daily, for the sharp tongues and heavy hands of otherwise pious employers. Still others might simply want, for once in their lives, to be part of what they think is the winning side. 

From these “winners,” we can expect a barrage of gloating and taunting, which has already begun. The cynical will remind us that we were wrong to have even hoped and tried; this was all foreordained by the numbers, which are the only thing elections are ever about. Some will even trot out that hoary quote, “Vox populi, vox Dei,” to stamp divine approval upon this outcome. In other words, we were all just exercising our free will, our freedom of choice, which after all is central to democracy. Only sore losers cry.

But then again, free will has never guaranteed critical intelligence. Which leads me—not being a political scientist—to ask these questions of those who might know better:

What if that “freedom” had been subverted and compromised by massive and deliberate disinformation? Was it still a free citizen who willfully cast a ballot for someone provably inimical to democracy, or a wound-up robot executing a series of plotted motions? Can we blame the desperate and the misled? Can we still call it a “free, fair, and clean election” if the fraud already started many years before, in the distortion of history and the rehabilitation of unpunished convicts? 

If and when voters elect a buffoon and a bully president—like they did with Donald Trump, among other such demagogues we know—does that validate buffoonery and bullying, and make them acceptable? Does it wipe the slate clean, erase all liabilities, and establish a new norm for political behavior? Most simply—as millions of us must have been thinking these past few months—if the president refuses to pay his lawful taxes, can we be morally compelled to pay ours? 

Vox populi, vox Dei—if this was God speaking, what was he saying? This is what I’m hearing: “By your own choice, I am giving you this man to be your president—so you will learn.”

I wonder how much more suffering we shall have to endure for our people—especially the generations post-martial law—to learn that voting has personal consequences, that the Marcoses do not represent “moving on” but sliding back into the dismal past, and that this election was their best chance in ages of creating a true “golden era” of humane, honest, and progressive governance, instead of the tinsel fantasy they’d been sold. How and when can we value the truth once more?

Again, Aeschylus—writing half a millennium before Christ—throws us a line from Prometheus Bound, spoken by the hapless girl-turned-cow Io. Hounded by a gadfly, Io is in constant pain, and tells Prometheus her tale of woe; but she insists, at the end of her story, that she wants to know her future, however difficult it might be: “If you can say what still remains to be endured, tell me; and do not out of pity comfort me with lies. I count false words the foulest plague of all.” This campaign saw innumerable “false words” rain down on our electorate, not just words of spite but also of artificial sweetness. 

I am angry and dismayed, but not without hope. In Io’s case, despite her terrible travails, she learns that her future is much brighter than she would have expected—she will be restored to human form, and would count among her descendants the great hero Hercules. 

We can yet be the progenitors of our best selves as Filipinos. We just need to endure, to learn, and to endure some more.

Hindsight No. 12: The Color of Danger

Hindsight for Monday, April 4, 2022

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago, I took on the first of what would become many biographical assignments: the life story of the Lava brothers. In many ways, they remain the most fascinating of my subjects, brilliant men with PhDs and other advanced degrees from such schools as Columbia, Berkeley, and Stanford who, despite their upper-middle-class origins, were counted among the most dangerous subversives in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Three of them—Vicente, Jose (Peping), and Jesus—became general-secretaries of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas. Never Party members, Horacio and Francisco (Paquito) were nationalists and civil libertarians who served in high government positions—Horacio as one of the new Central Bank’s top economists and Paquito as chief legal counsel of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which he helped organize. (A sixth brother, Pedro, also became a Party member in the US but died before the war.) 

I remembered them last week when I read the reports of bookstores being splashed with red paint and of a certain government official spewing the same substance out of her mouth. No, I’m not going to defend Vicente, Peping, and Jesus Lava against Red-tagging; they were proud communists to the end. 

What has stuck in my mind from the many interviews I held with Peping and Jesus in their home in Mandaluyong was a moment with Peping—who, when I met him in the mid-1990s, was a frail and white-haired old man. Peping had graduated salutatorian from the UP College of Law in 1937 and his thesis, hailed by Dean Vicente Sinco as the best they had ever received, was published by the Harvard Law Journal. In his dotage, Peping seemed stiff, dour, and humorless, but as a young man he had played the banjo, with “Always” and “Five-Foot-Two” among his favorites.

At some point, I asked Peping: “Among all the figures in history, whom do you admire the most?” Without batting an eyelash, sitting ramrod-straight in his wooden chair, he answered: “Stalin and Marcos.” 

The mention of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s brutal dictator for over 30 years until his death in 1953, was disturbing but not surprising. The PKP looked up to the Soviet Union as a model, and some of its members had been trained there, although the Lavas themselves downplayed the connection, citing the Philippines’ greater affinity with the Chinese experience. Upon his release from prison in 1970, Peping had gone to Moscow, and then to Prague, where he and his wife lived for the next 20 years. Clearly, even if Stalin had long been officially repudiated in Russia, he left a deep and positive impression on Peping. 

What I didn’t expect—although it would make sense in retrospect—was his admiration for Ferdinand Marcos, whom he had never personally met. Why would Peping Lava, a hardcore Communist, admit to being a fan of yet another dictator, whose martial-law regime was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of so-called “enemies of the State,” many young and idealistic revolutionaries among them?

The answer might be found in the relationship that Marcos cultivated with the old Left, including a meeting between Marcos and representatives of the Movement for the Advancement of Nationalism (MAN) in 1968. Negotiations between Marcos and the PKP leadership reportedly followed, resulting in the release of Peping in 1970, and of Jesus Lava and Casto Alejandrino in 1974; Luis Taruc had been released even earlier in 1968. (The PKP had been decapitated by the arrest of Peping and many leading members in 1950, followed by the arrest of Jesus in 1964.) 

The Lavas were convinced that, despite all his liabilities and abuses, Marcos was a nationalist at heart who was aware of, and opposed to, American imperialist control over the country’s economy and politics. The Americans, not Marcos, were the main enemy. (Peping believed that the Americans were responsible for the deaths of Ramon Magsaysay, Claro M. Recto, and Ninoy Aquino.)

They were attracted by his “independent” foreign policy, especially his diplomatic overtures to China and the Soviet Union. Citing international sources, they even surmised that their release had been a precondition attached by the Soviets to rapprochement with the Philippines. Jesus Lava would contend that as of 1974, the PKP had entered a “negotiated political settlement” with the Marcos administration and had therefore been legalized. (Meanwhile, breaking away from the old PKP, Jose Ma. Sison had “re-established” the CPP in 1968, and it would be his CPP-NPA-NDF combine that Marcos would go after under martial law, as would Marcos’ successors.)

If any of this sounds familiar in light of our recent history, you win no prizes. When Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, my old friends on the Left bubbled over with excitement, believing they had found a trustworthy ally who was prepared to unfriend America in favor of rosier relations with China and Russia. I was dismayed then by what I thought was fatal naivete, or miscalculated opportunism; he played them, not the other way around. 

Today, with such instrumentalities as the NTF-ELCAC and even education officials at the vanguard, going against the Reds is back in fashion. The “threat” they pose is allegedly serious enough to warrant billions in the budget for anti-subversion programs, never mind that the CPP-NPA’s military significance has been severely diminished over the past 40 years, and that we need that money for more pressing concerns. 

Never mind, too, that Russia and China—the erstwhile centers of the global Red revolution—are now universally condemned as oppressors of their own people and aggressors beyond their borders. Stalinism is back with Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping is trying to out-Mao Mao. (And another Marcos threatens to return to Malacañang. Peping Lava could feel right at home today.) Our government says it hates communists with a passion, and yet the best it can do is remain “neutral” in Putin’s war on Ukraine, and “realistic” in dealing with China’s encroachments on Philippine territory. 

All this leads me to conclude that the old Marxism-Leninism—which is barely recognizable in today’s Russia and China—is no more than a bogeyman, and even the government knows that. Red-tagging just happens to be a convenient cover to attack the real enemy: the liberal middle forces now at the forefront of reform and of democratic regime change. The color of danger is pink, not red. 

Penman No. 436: A New Blooming at Milflores

Penman for Sunday, March 6, 2022

CHAIRMAN MAO’S dictum about letting “a hundred flowers bloom, a thousand schools of thought contend” must have been on the mind of former activist, writer, retired UN official, and later gentleman-farmer and entrepreneur Antonio “Tony” Hidalgo when he founded Milflores Publishing in 1999 to publish books that would “meet the needs and wants of the Filipino masses.” His wife, the celebrated author Cristina Pantoja “Jing” Hidalgo, could not have been more pleased. Aside from building a lovely heritage home in San Miguel, Bulacan with a cock farm for Tony behind it, the Hidalgos were eager to do their part for Philippine literature beyond teaching and writing. 

Milflores would go on to publish 80 titles on such varied subjects as suburban living, cockfighting, and 20th-century masculinity, on top of the usual fiction. It was beginning to make a mark as a small but quality press—and then Tony sadly and suddenly died in 2011, leaving a devastated Jing to carry on with distributing their titles. Busy with her own professional life, Jing soldiered on as far as she could, until 2020 when a white knight entered the picture in the form of Andrea Pasion-Flores, who had been her student (and mine) at UP many years earlier. 

Since graduation, Drea—a fine fictionist in her own right—moved on to become a lawyer, then executive director of the National Book Development Board, then our first international literary agent, and until 2020 general manager of Anvil Publishing. Post-Amvil, Drea was looking for fresh challenges and opportunities, and she found it in Milflores. Her husband Javi, also a lawyer, put her up to it: “Javi and I thought about starting a new publishing company, which might’ve been cheaper. But Javi gave me the idea of buying Milflores. First, because of the name—it fits with ours. Second, it already had some goodwill that would be a shame if it were forgotten. Third, it wouldn’t hurt to ask Jing if she had any plans for it. In a heartbeat, she said yes.”

Since that takeover, Milflores has already come out with an impressive list of titles that herald a new blooming for both the company and Philippine literary publishing as a whole. Against all the odds thrown her way by the pandemic, the tenacious Drea managed to secure publishing rights from top-drawer Filipino authors such as Charlson Ong, whose wild and wacky novel White Lady, Black Christ became Milflores’ flagship offering in May 2021. As Charlson’s agent, Drea had already sold an earlier novel of his to a Malaysian publisher, so this was a natural follow-through.

This was followed by a new edition of Nick Joaquin’s Rizal in Saga. Drea had also sold NJ to Penguin Classics. “I wanted this book more than anything because, as Ambeth Ocampo said, the book went out of print the moment it was published because the government gave it out as a souvenir during the centennial of Rizal’s death in 1996, and was never reprinted.” Drea pulled out all the stops, and went for a hardcover edition. “If I was to deserve this book, there would be no cutting corners. I had to make people realize the value of this book. It had to be an object to be desired. And, as Ambeth told me, we both made sure it came out well because we both felt NJ deserved no less. When I die and go to book heaven, I want to hear Nick and Rizal tell me, I did well by them, haha!”

Simeon “Jun” Dumdum’s Why Keanu Reeves Is Lonely and Why the World Goes on as It Does, a small collection of poetry, was another risk worth taking. “Knowing I wouldn’t be raking in millions with this book, why did I want it? Because anyone who reads his poetry will be uplifted. It’s a book to treasure, really. Jun Dumdum was so game with whatever we did with it, even if we said we’d like the book to be neon pink and green. He was onboard! I like those kind of writers.”

Writer and noted bookseller Padma Perez brought Milflores its biggest book yet, Harvest Moon: Poems and Stories from the Edge of the Climate Crisis, co-published with the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC). Most books with a political agenda tend to be preachy and off-putting, but Harvest Moon is unique in its concept and execution. Twenty-four writers from around the world were given evocative photographs as prompts, with the further stipulation that they were to avoid buzz words and phrases such as “sustainability” and “climate change.” The result is visually and textually moving, investing the project with deep personal insight. This book is being sold at a deep discount, thanks to a subsidy from ICSC.

Drea Pasion-Flores has followed these up with other provocative projects, including many more in the pipeline. Robby Kwan Laurel’s Ongpin Stories is a timely reprint; former Sen. Rodolfo Biazon’s biography by Eric Ramos is a gripping narrative of a man who rose from doing other people’s laundry and selling in the market to become a general and senator, and one of the heroes of EDSA 1; David Guerrero’s The Crap Ideas Book is an inspirational book on creativity; the bedridden Nick Carbo’s new book of poems, Epithalamion, is, says Drea, his “shot at immortality.”

Milflores also has something lined up for younger readers: Kat Martin’s debut novel At Home with Crazy is the story of a 14-year-old girl dealing with the stress of living with a mother with a mental illness. Internist-oncologist William Liangco’s Even Ducks Get Liver Cancer and Other Essays is a hilarious romp through the travails of med school in a charity hospital. Drea will also publish two graphic nonfiction books by the feminist Swedish graphic illustrator Liv Stromquist and a cookbook by artist and cancer-fighter Robert Alejandro.

“I have big dreams for Milflores,” says Drea. “I want to try to bring a Philippine company out there, not just here. I’m guessing it’s not going to be the next Coca-Cola Company. It’s going to take time and lots of good books, but I have no doubt I can get there—or somewhere close to it.” (More information at milflorespublishing.com)

Penman No. 435: A Dying Swan at Midnight

Penman for Sunday, February 6, 2022

YOU’VE BEEN reading about some of my book-buying adventures and the most unlikely places I’ve found some of my most valuable books—like a 1551 book of English essays under a lamppost in Cubao, a signed first edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart at Jollibee on Commonwealth Avenue, and an 1868 two-volume facsimile of Don Quixote at a McDonald’s on that same road.

Now here’s an incredible story that happened to me one night a couple of weeks ago—very late that night, just as I was about to go to bed. Beng had just finished another episode of another interminable K-drama, and I was too sleepy to switch to my own program (typically some violent crime show, which gives me a good night’s sleep). And then as I always do, I checked my messages on my laptop before moving from the La-Z-Boy to the bed, and I saw something that instantly woke me up again.

Let’s backtrack a few days earlier to another idle moment when I was poking around the usual FB sites for garage-sale and Japan-surplus flotsam and jetsam—the “antique” Coke trays (probably China-made), the Ambassador furniture sets, the bobblehead figurines, the wooden fruit bowls, etc. And then I came across a rack of paintings being sold for just P1,000 each—most of them quite awful and not even worth the price, even to a bottom-feeder like me.

But then I spotted a painting that had rather intriguing lines and colors, one that was clearly different in theme and treatment from the nipa huts and carabaos that populated the other canvases. 

In the foreground was a young woman in a white dress—a dancer immediately came to my mind—set against what first seemed to me a backdrop of the sea, a huge curling wave threatening to envelop her. But there was another element, aside from the strange shape of the “water”, that didn’t make sense: an orange something near the woman’s face.

And then it all snapped into place: the background figure was a swan with one wing outstretched and the other practically smothering the woman, and the orange thing was its beak. What sprang to my mind was Leda and the Swan, the old Greek myth that has been one of art and literature’s most reinterpreted and most referenced stories (where Zeus, in the guise of a swan, rapes or seduces Leda, and has two children by her). 

This could not have been done by a naif painter; it took some education and sophistication to take on a subject like that, and to represent it with both grace and power. This painting could not have been a recent work; its strokes and colors belonged to another age. It felt old, in a good way. I thought that it had to be decades old, possibly even pre-war.

I immediately messaged the seller to reserve the painting for me. For P1,000, it was a no-brainer. Usually the seller would respond within minutes, and we would do the GCash and Lalamove song-and-dance within the hour. But the day passed with no response. I messaged him again that night, and next morning I still heard nothing back. Another day passed; I had saved the picture of the painting on my phone and returned to it now and then, stewing inside, increasingly annoyed by the seller’s silence.

And then I got the message: did I want it? Of course, I messaged back quickly. It will cost you P1,000, he said. Sure, I said, give me your GCash number. I hope you can book it for pickup now, he said, because I’m leaving very early tomorrow morning—unless you want to get it in the afternoon. No, no, I said—I’ll book it right now. It was 11:30 pm, and Beng was sound asleep. 

And so it happened that just past midnight, a Lalamove rider roared up to my gate to deliver the painting, which I examined immediately. It had been very badly framed, with ragged edges of the painted canvas hanging over the back. Since the edges had been pulled over, I could find no signature. Still it was every bit as powerful as I had thought it to be, the colors laid on in a thick impasto. 

So the mystery was, who painted it, and when? I posted it on FB the next morning, and immediately the writers and artists in my group identified it with Leda and the Swan. I felt vindicated. And then my Toronto-based friend, the poet Patty Rivera (whose husband Joe also paints), posted a link to a story from South Africa, where a painting by a Russian-born artist named Vladimir Tretchikoff was up for auction. It was titled “The Dying Swan,” from the ballet by Mikhail Fokine; Tretchikoff had even persuaded the great ballerina Alicia Markova to pose for him in 1949, when he began the work (one of two he gave that title).

So my midnight acquisition was a copy done by a local painter in the 1950s, possibly by an amateur or even a student. Was I disappointed? How could I be, especially for the price I paid? Tretchikoff’s original was clearly much finer and more radiant; but my rougher copy, in Patty’s words, showed more “torment and despair.” When Beng restores this and we have it reframed, it will have its own life and energy, and the swan will die, over and over again, which means it never will.

Penman No. 432: In memoriam, FSJ

Penman for Friday, January 7, 2022

TO THE chorus of voices mourning the passing of Manong Frankie Sionil Jose, let me add my own.

For a very long time, Manong Frankie and I were not what could honestly be called friends. I had said hurtful things about him and his work, and I could feel that he took that to heart. 

But we did begin on a very high and encouraging note. In 1983, he selected me and a few other Filipino writers—Rey Duque, Marj Evasco, and Fanny Llego among them, as far as I can remember—to attend a writer’s seminar in Bali that he and his friend the late Takdir Alisjabanah had organized to bring young Southeast Asian writers together. It was my first big international conference, and it was exhilarating to be talking literature on the fringe of a crater lake. I deeply appreciated that gesture on Manong Frankie’s part; through him I met such luminaries as Edwin Thumboo, Shirley Lim, and Cecil Rajendra. At that point I had read and appreciated The Pretenders and many of FSJ’s short stories.

Some years later, I was in America studying for my MFA in Michigan and then my PhD in Wisconsin, and at some point I was interviewed by National Public Radio about Philippine literature—I can’t recall why, or why me (it was probably just after EDSA, when the world’s eyes were upon us, and I was conveniently available)—and when FSJ’s name came up I indelicately repeated what I thought was the prevalent opinion then (and until much later) of his work among my fellow writers in English: that while he wrote about all the right things, his prose was far too plain and lacking in certain qualities. (It was an opinion that would understandably provoke a backlash from FSJ’s supporters who valued his substance more than his style.)

That must’ve gotten back to Frankie because—whether I just imagined it or not—I felt that I got the cold shoulder from him from then on. It didn’t help that he seemed to have a bone to pick with UP and creative writing workshops, and held the notion that we were out to create clones of our snooty selves, detached from the harsh realities of life on the ground. I (and many others) continued to be exasperated by his cantakerousness (I even called him “cranky Frankie”) and groaned at his propensity to lecture young writers to the point of scolding them for one shortcoming or other.

But even so no one could deny his massive and meaningful contributions to our literature and to the idea of a literature grounded on history and social reality. When I happened to serve on the preliminary committee vetting candidates for the National Artist Award the year he eventually won it, I had no problem putting my minor misgivings aside and voting for him.

I’m not sure when the thaw in our relationship began, but it must have been when we were both invited in 2017 to an NCCA-sponsored seminar in La Union where I was asked to give a talk on Manuel Arguilla. I knew he was going to be listening, and I have to admit that I wrote my lecture with him specifically in mind, wanting to reassure him that I wasn’t some city-boy snob who didn’t know one end of a carabao from the other and who couldn’t write about anything but professors sipping cappuccinos at Starbucks. Through Arguilla, I wanted him to know that I felt and understood—and indeed wrote about—his concern for common and unarticulated lives.

Later that year, when I spoke at the annual Palanca Awards dinner about how writers in our society often have to write for others for a living but also need to redeem themselves through their art, he approached me from below the podium and extended his hand to congratulate me, and I knew we had reconciled.

We were brought even closer when he and the late Sen. Edgardo J. Angara founded the Akademyang Filipino, asking me to serve as a trustee along with such stalwarts of civil liberties as former Justices Antonio Carpio and Conchita Carpio Morales. He would remind me, among the most junior members of that board, to make sure the Akademya survived him, pleading his age. (His daughter Jette, who sadly died just weeks before Frankie, was our very capable executive secretary.)

He and Manang Tess would invite me and Beng for dinner, and he was very happy and surprised when I presented him once with a copy of the maiden issue of Solidarity, which he had lost. In private, he told me something that assured me that we had, again, become friends.

Still, for all that, his mercurial politics continued to confound me. Separated by the Covid lockdown, our meetings stopped, although even if we had met I probably would not have been able to ask him to his face how he could reconcile his loathing of dictatorship with his approval for Marcos’ successor. Not I nor anyone else could have changed his mind. It was sad to see him savagely reviled for his contentious remarks about ABS-CBN and Maria Ressa, among other issues, but I suspect that there was a part of him that courted and reveled in the notoriety.

And that was what I learned about F. Sionil Jose: you had to take him as he was, all of a package, or reject him outright, which would also be a pity. Nearly all great writers had their quirks and imperfections, but it’s their work that survives and surpasses all our momentary misgivings.

Farewell, Manong!

Penman No. 431: Restoring a Binondo Landmark

Penman for Monday, January 3, 2021

THERE’S A charm and a mystery to old Manila’s Binondo district that even casual passersby can’t miss, an appeal compounded of centuries of history, commerce, and the daily lives of one of the country’s most industrious and yet also least understood communities, the Chinese Filipinos (the usage Teresita Ang See advocates over “Filipino Chinese,” given that the second term denotes their political and geographical home). 

Having been established in 1594 by the Spanish as a settlement for Catholic Chinese, Binondo (among other contiguous districts) became the world’s oldest Chinatown, evolving down the centuries into one of Manila’s most thriving business centers and choicest real estate locations. Here, all within hailing distance of the 425-year-old Binondo Church, hardware shops selling everything from portable generators and electrical equipment to automotive spare parts and screws of all sizes stand cheek-by-jowl with seafood restaurants and, inevitably, banks.

One of those banks has been an economic and cultural landmark not just in Chinatown but in the country’s history for a century now, and the restoration of its old Binondo headquarters is a fitting capstone to the bank’s centennial celebration.

The bank is none other than China Bank, which set up shop in 1920 in the same general neighborhood—at No. 90 Calle Rosario (now Quintin Paredes St.). It didn’t take too long before the bank realized that it needed more space for its growing business, and by 1924, it had moved into its newly built, five-story (later extended to seven) building at the corner of Juan Luna and Dasmariñas streets. It had been designed by the German architect Arthur Julius Niclaus Gabler Gumbert in the Neoclassical style then in vogue, with Beaux-Arts touches. Later known as the Binondo Business Center, the building served as the bank’s head office until 1969, when China Bank moved its key operations to Makati.

No one could have walked up to that building pre-war and remained unimpressed. It was the physical manifestation of China Bank’s high ambitions, but grounded in the realities and challenges of operating in an environment that in some ways remained suspicious of if not hostile to Chinese businessmen. The young visionary Dee C. Chuan, already a lumber magnate in his twenties, was quoted to have said around 1911 that “Many Chinese known by their countrymen to be worth half a million pesos are unable to get credit from the present banks.” 

The answer was to form China Bank, with the help of such highly respected co-founders as Guillermo Cu Unjieng, Carlos Palanca, and Albino SyCip; it was to be a bank that would combine Eastern values with Western banking know-how and cater to the underserved community of Chinese businessmen and entrepreneurs in the Philippines, many of whom would move on to be become taipans in their own right. And from early on, through the Depression and the Second World War, the bank relied on its close relationship with its clients—among whom xinyong or word of honor was paramountly important—to retain their business, paying off its obligations even when other banks had defaulted on theirs. A century later, China Bank has moved far beyond its Chinese-Filipino niche market to serve a much broader public, achieving its target milestones of P1 trillion in assets and P100 billion in capital by the end of 2020. 

But the bank didn’t want to celebrate its centennial just by counting its money. According to China Bank SVP and Centennial Committee chairman Alex C. Escucha, as early as 2016, the bank’s leadership under its chairman Hans Sy had already decided that the restoration of the old Binondo headquarters would be the centerpiece of their centennial. 

Not only would the building undergo a thorough and historically authentic renovation led by Architect Manuel Noche, former secretary of the Heritage Conservation Society; a bank museum would also be built, curated by Marian Pastor Roces, for the public to appreciate the business and culture of banking through memorabilia, art, and mementoes. Sonia Olivares Santiago & Associates and Maja Olivares-Co would work on the contemporary design aspects of the Binondo branch. This was realized last December 21 with the unveiling of two historical markers for the restored Binondo Heritage Center and the China Bank Museum by the National Museum and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.

The bank also published a comprehensive coffee table book, 100 Years of Trust: The China Bank Story, a substantially new version of its 90th-anniversary book written by the late Raul Rodrigo, updated by his wife Nancy Pe Rodrigo; edited by me, with the invaluable assistance of Alex Escucha (the bank’s encyclopedic institutional memory), Ann Ducanes, and Hershey Villegas, among others; and handsomely designed and produced by Perez NuMedia. 

But it’s the Binondo Heritage and Restoration Project that the general public will likely appreciate the most, because it visibly connects past with present and shows the way forward for institutions with similar forms of heritage to protect. At a time when cultural treasures and landmarks are being demolished wholesale to make way for new malls and condos, China Bank proves that history can be a continuing concern (in all its decades of operation, the Binondo office never stopped being a bank). What’s needed is vision and commitment, which China Bank Chairman Hans Sy and President William Whang have proven to have in abundance.