Penman No. 407: Fifty Februaries

Penman for Monday, February 15, 2021

FOR A certain segment of that generation called the “baby boomers”—people now in their mid-60s and 70s—this month will bring back memories both poignant and painful, harking back to a time when the unbridled fun of the 1960s (think of the Beatles, Woodstock, and Barbarella) was rudely replaced, top of mind, by the all-too-serious clamor of revolutionary politics.

I was 16 and a Philippine Science High School senior when I joined my first big march on January 26, 1970, and had just turned 17 when the nine-day-long “Diliman Commune”—whose 50th anniversary came last February 1st—was put up by students like me as a spontaneous response to what we saw to be an assault on the University of the Philippines campus by military and police forces.

I have many vivid memories of that uprising which I have dealt with in essays and in my first novel, the highlights of which include standing sentry at Area 14 with a kwitis and a home-made Molotov cocktail, as if either of them would have saved me in case of an attack; sneaking out of campus in Dr. Fred Lagmay’s little car to publish the Free Collegian; and being in the DZUP booth as a comrade played a tape of “Pamulinawen” (those of you old enough will know the reference).

Ironically, that anniversary took place at a moment when, once again and half a century after the Commune, UP and other universities were being tagged as leftist “havens” by people with very different ideas about what universities should be doing. This was the same half-century, come to think of it, that produced far more UP-alumni presidents, senators, congressmen, mayors, CEOs, entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, artists, scientists, singers, comedians, and even AFP officers than Red recruits. 

But let’s not go there. I don’t mean to engage in political polemics as much as to wonder how time and distance can change people—or maybe not. The freshman me, who carried that incendiary bottle during the Commune (and maybe thankfully never got to throw it), grew up to be a potbellied and balding professor of English, much to my own surprise. Ours was a generation (as our dear editor and my fellow time-traveler Millet might remember) that did not expect to live long, and so like Achilles, we did what we felt had to be done as soon as we could do it; history was theater and we were actors in it. Less than two years after the Commune, and fresh out of martial-law prison, I met Beng—to whom, against all odds, I remain married after 47 years.

To survive that long is both wonderful and perplexing, especially when we seem to be hearing the same refrains all over again. It’s hard to tell where you are when past and present seem indistinguishable in some ways, except that you now see an old man where the young buck was in the mirror. You pity the small boy at your knee who has to go through all that on his own; you want him to be safe and not take foolish risks as you once did—but he is even smarter than you, and you know he will.

They asked me to give a short speech in UP to commemorate the Commune, but instead of a talk I chose to write and read a poem (with apologies to Janis Ian) about what it was to be seventeen fifty Februaries past, and here it is:

AT SEVENTEEN

At seventeen I raised my left fist to the sky

And held, in my right hand, 

A bottle filled with gasoline—

And far more flammable,

Admixtured faith and folly,

Courage and a thumping fear

That my life would not last much longer than

That hour, at once so still and pensive,

The tall grass around my outpost

Silvered by some distant light.

A “Molotov cocktail” was what they called

That lethal brew, its ragged tongue the sacrifice

Of someone’s cotton underwear, its fuel

Of someone’s ride to Bulacan,

And my right hand, the young elastic limb

That would toss this long-tailed dragon to the sky

Against the dark-faced enemy, my arm,

Myself, the new, rough-hewn, imperfect

Oblation of that fraught age.

I was, I told myself, prepared to die

And perhaps I might have even 

Believed the lie. 

I never threw that bomb, nor any other

Of the kind. The enemy was more

Deceitful than I thought, refusing to appear

Just then—although I’ve seen him since, 

In the old FC and AS and Quezon Hall—

And I even stopped once to ask, “Excuse me,

Do I know you?” because I thought I did.

The intrepid and unwary die.

The articulate survive, to write poems

And raise fuseless cocktails with their right hands

While their left fingers cradle Marlboros

Or tap out the cadence of muted anthems

Once sung to red flags cresting in the wind.

These days I hold nothing

More menacing than hat and cane.

I should have feared, at seventeen,

That I would live this long, that I would know

Waywardness of memory and uncertainty of step—

And still, from time to time, looking down

The long, unfolding scroll of University Avenue,

Feel barricades of salvaged wood

And gathered stone rising in my chest.

Penman No. 402: The Brain That Will Not Sleep

Penman for Monday, December 7, 2020

I APPEARED last Monday at a webinar sponsored by the Philippines Graphic and the BusinessMirror to react to a paper delivered by National Artist and fellow Philippine STAR columnist F. Sionil Jose on “Philippine Literature in the Time of Pandemic,” along with the essayist and critic Lito Zulueta. We had a lively discussion, with over a thousand students listening in, so it was a great opportunity to do some teaching (or preaching, of you will) about how writers work during great upheavals—in this case, the raging fire of a global pandemic. Here’s part of what I said:

Literature goes on. Literature cannot be locked down. It is a tongue that cannot be silenced, a brain that will not sleep, a nerve that will keep twitching even when hammered a thousand times. 

But the best literature about this pandemic will very likely not emerge for many more years, if not decades, to come. What we know is that the best writing is not produced in the heat of the moment. It takes a long time after a calamity or a period of deep distress, like a plague or a war, to write capably and insightfully about it. It requires distance and reflection.

Take, for example, three of the best-known works associated with the idea of a plague. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which was about the bubonic plague that hit London in 1665, when Defoe himself was only five years old, was written more than half a century later, and published only in 1722. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” which was published in 1842, was not even based on an actual plague but was rather highly allegorical. Albert Camus’ novel The Plague came out in 1947 but looked back to an actual outbreak of cholera in Algeria in 1849, almost a century earlier.

And the fact is that the plague itself is never the real subject of literature—it is what it does to people, to bring out both the best and the worst in them. The plague is merely the backdrop or the trigger for the exposure of human greed, corruption, and indifference, as much as it can provoke nobility, heroism, and humility. This is also how literature has dealt with war, beyond journalism and history, which are concerned with chronicling and interpreting the facts. The best war stories, from the Iliad onward, deal with human character under pressure.

I have no doubt that the time will come when we will see a substantial body of Philippine literature emerge out of this pandemic—novels, stories, poems, essays, and screenplays—that will remind readers of the future of what it was like to live in 2020, and it won’t just be about Covid and lockdowns, but OFWs, tokhang, Netflix, K-drama, Lalamove, and Donald Trump. 

In his talk, Manong Frankie spoke of “the need to be true to one’s self, to be engaged with self, our time and our place,” and it’s something with which I totally agree, because this is how literature refreshes and revitalizes itself over time, with each generation grappling with its own demons. Each generation is defined by a particular challenge—for my parents, it was the Japanese occupation; for mine, it was martial law; for my daughter’s, it was EDSA; for today, it is Covid and its political context.

The young writers of today are writing very differently—in content and treatment—from Manong Frankie’s generation and from mine—and they should. Writers should write about their times, for their times, in their own voice and manner, and if they write well and insightfully enough, their work will have meaning and value for generations yet to come.

I mentioned the political context of Covid, by which I mean that this pandemic has been accompanied and aggravated by the politics of ignorance, fear, and populism. All around the world, it has been used by politicians to aggrandize power and suppress opposition, and this is something literature will also have to confront. 

Thanks to the slippery pervasiveness of social media, the truth is being replaced with insistent assertion, and control of the narrative is on top of the political agenda. If you claim “I won!” and “He’s bad!” a thousand times, some people will begin to believe it.

In a sense, the most daring kind of fiction now is out of the hands of creative writers like me. It is being created by political propagandists who are spinning their own versions of the truth, and who expect the people to believe them. The short story and the novel are no longer the best media for this type of fiction, but the tweet, the Facebook feed, the YouTube video, and even the press conference. The conspiracy has emerged as the most popular genre of fiction—the idea that people are out to fool you or cheat you, but they can’t, because you have a more clever version of the truth.

Covid and fake news may be the most dangerous combination yet. But as I’ve been saying these past few years, the best antidote to fake news is true fiction, which will be up to you and me to write.

Penman No. 401: A Workshop Against All Odds

Penman for Monday, November 23, 2020

THE UNIVERSITY of the Philippines National Writers Workshop has taken place every year—usually around Holy Week—since the mid-1960s, even during the years of martial law. For many young Filipino writers, it has been their initiation into the literary community, providing them with an opportunity to get their work read and critiqued by their peers and seniors. 

For some time now, the UP workshop has been aimed at what we’re calling “mid-career” writers—somewhat older writers who’ve already published at least one book. As I’ve often remarked, the only thing harder than writing your first book is writing your second one, and that’s when struggling writers need some help and encouragement to get over the hill.

We were all set to hold the workshop last April in Baguio, our usual venue, when the Covid pandemic struck, rendering any kind of live meeting reckless and stupid. We could have just written this year off, but we decided to try and move the whole week-long program online, via Zoom, and see if it could work.

I’m happy to report that, against all odds, it did. From October 19 to 23, we on the teaching staff of the UP Institute of Creative writing engaged with 12 fellows chosen as among the best representatives of their generation: Kathleen Osias (Fiction, English), Herlyn Alegre (Creative Nonfiction, English/Filipino), Christine Lao (Poetry, English), Honeylyn Joy Alipio (Screenplay, Filipino), Emmanuel Barrameda (Novel, Filipino), Emmanuel Dumlao (Novel, Filipino), Maynard Manansala (Play, Filipino), Jonellie Santos (Fiction, English), Raissa Claire Falgui (Fiction, English), Fatrick Tabada (Screenplay, Filipino), Glenn Diaz (Fiction, English), and Johanna Michelle Lim (Creative Nonfiction, English).

I knew three or four of these names—Glenn Diaz’s debut novel, The Quiet Ones, began in my class and went on to win a raft of prizes, and I had written admiringly about the Fatrick Tabada-scripted movie, Patay Na si Hesus. But I was glad to encounter many other talents new to me, such as the Cebu-based Johanna Michelle Lim, whose essay about living with vitiligo (the condition of albinos) was written with deep insight and artistry, and to discover new facets in such writers as Christine Lao, a lawyer who had studied Fiction with me but has more recently been known for her poetry. 

In the workshop, we ask the fellows to preface their works with a short essay on the why’s and how’s of their craft, and it was interesting to see how Christine approached her poetry from a lawyer’s point of view:

“One of the first things a law student in the Philippines learns is to produce case digests. A case digest is a summary of a court decision. There is a prescribed order in which information about the case is presented: first, a brief statement of relevant facts; second a statement of the disputed issue; third, the court’s decision; and fourth, the arguments in support of that decision. The practice of ‘digesting’ cases trains the student to think in a linear fashion—to recognize only those facts and arguments that support how the court disposed of—that is, terminated—the case. The student learns to follow the intricacies of a court’s legal argument, but at the expense of context or the consideration of counternarratives. Only those facts that are deemed relevant or material to the issue at hand are considered; those that are not are erased from the narrative. One learns that to win a case, one must excise certain details from the narrative, and enhance others that might allow for one’s cause to become legible to the court as a viable legal claim. 

“The case digest, therefore, is form, a technology that allows students to recognize resemblances between cases, claims, and positions. But the form produces a particular product or end—one that is driven by the desire to win, even if this means erasing facts. What if, instead of using legal terms in the context of a case digest, I wrote them as, or in the context of, poems about the law?”

There are downsides, of course, to a workshop-by-Zoom. The fellows understandably lamented the loss of a chance to bond as a batch over beer under the pine trees, and as anybody who’s used Zoom for an extended period of time knows, talking to a gallery of two-dimensional faces isn’t exactly enlivening. But to be honest, I and a few others found the format adequate and even appealing, because it was efficient, and being-home-based, allowed you to get back to whatever else you were doing without having to travel and deal with hotels and such. 

Whether we’ll need to do this again next year will depend on a host of larger factors, as will everything else in our academic and professional lives. But we have to count it as a minor triumph that we were able to pull this off at all—literature and good writing just won’t be locked down or quarantined.

On that note, I’d like to invite you all to a webinar on November 30, 1:30 pm on “The State of Philippine Literature in the Time of Pandemic,” sponsored by, among others, the Philippines Graphic. The keynote will be delivered by National Artist Frankie Sionil Jose, and literary editor and critic Lito Zulueta and I will give responses. It will be livestreamed on www.facebook.com/PhilippinesGraphic. See you next Monday!

Penman No. 399: Teacher’s Travails

Penman for Monday, October 26, 2020

WE CAN’T let this month pass without remarking that World Teachers Day came and went last October 5—the same day that 22 million public school students forcibly entered the digital age in the Philippines, many probably kicking and screaming, or more likely staring at a spinning wheel on a tablet screen or a blank wall.

Covid has wrought what two decades of wishful thinking on the part of some futurists could not—a mass migration to distance education, with students responding to their teachers’ questions from a hundred kilometers away. No more long commutes, no more packed lunches, no more fooling around at the malls after (or during) class. 

At least that’s the dreamy theory. As millions of Filipino parents are discovering, being housebound with their kids, tethered to a tablet or laptop and doing Math and Reading with a child more interested in recess, isn’t exactly a recipe for familial harmony. 

We know this for a fact because our resident apu-apuhan Buboy, now in senior nursery (how can a four-year-old be in any way “senior”?), has been showing all the signs of juvenile rebellion, ducking beneath his chair and the study table we’ve set up for him, while his classmates dutifully recite their ABC’s and 123’s, to the dismay of his mom, our faithful housekeeper Jenny, who keeps him company throughout his 90-minute class. Buboy also finds great delight in seemingly making fun of whatever Teacher says, repeating his own exaggerated version of “Children, be kind!” and similar admonitions.

It’s not that Buboy can’t handle technology. Like many kids today, he’s a digital native, able to turn on an iPad and navigate YouTube on his own. When the Internet is slow, he’ll tell his Tatay Butch that the “signal” is weak and that the image is “loading.” He can’t read yet, but he knows what “USB” is and, perhaps dangerously, can jam a USB device into its port, properly oriented. I’ve heard him trying to coax Alexa into singing the ABC song, and my daily playtime with him invariably includes putting him in the driver’s seat of the Suzuki Jimny, from where he punches all the buttons within his reach, wrangles the wheel and gearshift, and pretends we’re driving to Bicol (the only other place he knows, aside from Cavite, his grandparents’ domiciles). I’ve promised to give him the Jimny when he grows tall enough for his feet to reach the pedals—for which he first has to eat a lot of rice and vegetables—and I have no doubt he’ll hold me to that pledge, when the time comes.

It’s not that he’s inattentive, either, because Jenny says that Buboy regurgitates the day’s lessons in his bugoy way when they’re alone after class, as if to say, “I was listening, okay? I just wasn’t that interested.” Younger than most of his classmates, Buboy has to catch up on reading and arithmetic, but we’re not worried—the learning will happen sooner or later, one way or another, and the more important thing is for him to have fun in school, not an easy thing when all you see are faces on a screen. The onus of keeping Buboy and his like focused and occupied is on moms like Jenny, who now have to be co-teachers on top of everything else.

The other person at home adjusting to the new normal is my wife Beng, who is teaching at UP for the first time in her long career. She’s done many hands-on workshops before, but teaching Art Conservation online is a bit like learning cooking by reading the recipe. Beng was literally in tears when she was cobbling her coursepack together before the semester started, wondering what she had gotten herself into, but peeking over her shoulder during her biweekly classes (she calls me her “Assistant Emeritus”), I can see that she and the kids are having a grand time, despite the weak wi-fi and the inevitable absences.

So all this will pass, as we’re constantly being reassured, and maybe it will. I just happen to have a copy of the October 1932 issue of the Philippine Teacher’s Digest, and one of its US-based articles speaks of “The Maintenance of School Services During the Period of Economic Depression”:

“The school program is being restricted. It is being proposed in many communities that the schools can get along with less music and art. The health service has been crippled or abolished. Opportunities in the industrial and household arts have been removed from the curriculum. The work in physical education is less adequately provided. Indeed, there are those who propose that a return to the curriculum of a past century is the solution to the problem of the support of education.”

Eighty-eight years later, some of that still sounds distressingly familiar, as does this refrain from another article in the same issue: “Teachers strongly protest against any radical action to reduce the teachers’ salaries. They believe that the reduction of teachers’ salaries will drive from the service many efficient teachers and promising applicants…. In general, teachers are underpaid.”

Very true, but for all that, I’m pretty sure that Buboy’s teacher, his mom Jenny, and his Nanay Beng will do everything they can do stare this pandemic in the eye to make sure there’s more to his fourth year of life than cartoons, TikTok, and Gummi Bears.

Penman No. 394: Zoom-time

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Penman for Monday, August 17, 2020

 

IF THERE’S anything that this Covid pandemic will leave in its wake—aside from a long, deep trail of sorrow and suffering—it will be Zoom, the app that’s become the boon and bane of billions of people worldwide. All at once, it’s become the default alternative to air travel, the telephone, even email and Skype, because it means you can talk to a roomful (or more) of people wherever they may be on the planet in real time, see if they’re listening to you (maybe), make everyone shut up if you’re the host, and pretend to be there if you’re not.

A few months ago, as it just began to be clear that the world as we knew it was never going to be the same again, the word “Zoom” (both noun and verb) entered our vocabulary. Upon learning that it was a “Chinese” invention, many friends loudly declared that they were not going to use the app, because all conversations were going to be routed through servers on the mainland, and who knew what those Red imperialists were going to do with your chit-chat about your 50th high-school reunion and your mom’s recipe for buko pie? Had they stood their ground since, those friends would now probably be, well, friendless, because the rest of humanity has apparently gone on to embrace Zoom, or be embraced by it. (My take on the security issue—Zoom has said that it won’t be routing traffic through China—is that if it’s good enough for our cyber folks at UP, then it’s good enough for me; and frankly I don’t think my dog-face or my desultory comments on Zoom will be of much strategic interest to Beijing.)

And there I was looking at the bright side of the lockdown—finally, I said, I was going to have the time, the peace, and the quiet to finish all my book projects, which had been backed up for years. I was pecking happily away at them, too—until all these Zoom meetings popped up, demanding my attendance and attention: seminars or “webinars,” committee meetings, high-school get-togethers, shibashi sessions, and soon, online classes.

It takes a while, but you soon get the hang of Zoom: inputting the meeting numbers and passwords (and some people, of course, just can’t resist making “statement” or cutesy passwords like “Venceremos1234” and “HelloKittyXYZ”), testing your mike and lighting, and, more important than all the digital to-dos, choosing what to wear (at least above the waist) and what to put in the background.

There are now all kinds of “Zoom etiquette” manuals online—and I predict these guides to “a better Zoom experience” will soon be a sub-industry unto itself—and nearly all of them will say things like “Don’t wear your pajamas or tank tops” or “Don’t wear a suit and boxer shorts.” We understand the need for sartorial prudence, but in these days of work-from-home, it’s easy to get overdressed. A couple of weeks ago, for the first time in months, I felt obliged to put on a blazer and even wear long pants under the table because I was going to interview a bigshot CEO in New York for a book—only to find that he was totally comfy in a tennis shirt (which of course CEOs can wear anytime).

Your choice of background can be just as compelling—especially since you have a stack of vacation photos, all just waiting for a pandemic to be inflicted on your friends. The Boracay sunset? The Eiffel Tower (nah, you need to go horizontal)? The Grant Park skating rink? Academic types like me love to default to the racks of books in the background—which I now have to review to make sure no stray copies of Sweet Valley High or 50 Shades of Gray appear on the shelves.

And what about eating, drinking, family pets, and three-year-old toddlers to liven up the show? You’ll get an earful from the guides—who, I suspect, have never really done Zoom live, every day, for interminable hours. My way of dealing with the time has been to use two computers—one dedicated to Zoom, and the other to real work, so if you catch me looking sideways or turning off my video, you know I’m working on my Nobel Prize.

Most of us didn’t even know that there was a “Zoom attendee attention tracking feature” that should’ve told you if your student was dutifully listening or taking down notes, but that feature, Zoom now says, was removed last April as part of its security and privacy update. (You can, however, report a participant for “inappropriate behavior” to Zoom—which hopefully will dispatch a SWAT team to the offending party and switch him/her off forever.)

No one’s more anxious about Zoom than my sweet wife Beng, who was all set to teach art conservation in UP, the historic first time it’s going to be taught there. All her plans were set—the hands-on assessments of artworks, the field trips to the museums, the on-the-spot discussions and practical exams. And then Covid happened, and it all now has to go online, and all theoretical, at least for the first semester. It’ll be like teaching brain surgery by looking at pictures, but with everything she knows, I know Beng will manage, and so will her lucky students, until she can actually bring them to the Manansala murals at the UP Chapel and show them how to address its pitiful crumbling. (If you want to enroll in her class, it’s SFA 192AC, Art Conservation Techniques, TTh, 8:30-10.)

Even if and when they find a vaccine for Covid, I doubt that they’ll find a cure for Zoom. Let’s just pray no prankster finds a way of spreading a virus through it.

Penman No. 389: Buboy-proofing

Penman for Monday, June 8, 2020

FOR SOME people, getting stuck in Covid lockdown with loved ones has turned out to be a test of just how “loved” one can remain after months of social non-distancing. In our case, Beng and I have gotten used to empty-nesting since our unica hija Demi went off to California to get married many innocent years ago. We’d stir awake around seven, shrug the sleep off our bodies, and stagger into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and the morning news. That was, until a few months ago, coinciding with the early closure of school amid the growing scare of coronavirus.

These days, we get woken up by three loud raps on the door, which then flies open whether or not we scream “Wait a minute!” or “No, stay away, we’re still sleeping!” In pops a tyke, barely three feet tall, who responds to the name of “Buboy” and who has grown up believing—with some justification—that our bedroom is as much his as ours (at least the bed, which—as soon as I yield ground and slink away—becomes his trampoline).

I’ve written about Buboy here before—our three-year-old apu-apuhan, the son of our faithful housekeeper Jenny and her husband Sonny, and younger brother to his Ate Jilliane. Jilliane is a special child, sweet in her own non-verbal way, and even at his young age Buboy realizes that he’s going to have to take care of her down the road. “Ate can’t talk,” he tells me matter-of-factly—in Filipino, of course, because we’ve never been an Inglisero household, not even with Demi. As if to compensate for his Ate, Buboy talks—a lot.

Our working day begins right after breakfast—he sits beside me and we raise a toast of calamansi juice—when we “go to Bicol.” That’s my code word for bringing him to the “big car” in the garage (a Suzuki Jimny, “big” because it sits tall and I have to lift him aboard). Like all boys, Buboy loves cars, and I’ve promised him he’ll get the big car when he grows up—which can only happen if he eats enough rice, fish, and veggies (so he does). He likes using the remote to open the Jimny before clambering aboard. He has me turn on the ignition, the aircon, and the radio, while he switches on the dome light and honks the horn. And then we’re “off to Bicol,” where his grandparents live, and where his Papa Sonny used to dive for fish. “I don’t like swimming,” Buboy complains. “It hurts my eyes.” After three minutes of “vroom-vroom!”, we’re back home, and then it’s time for TV—the Power Rangers (on our fourth rerun of Season 1) and Simon the super-rabbit.

Like me, the guy’s a gadget freak. Where Beng balks at digital controls she doesn’t recognize, Buboy has no qualms about pressing buttons and asking questions later—just to see what will turn on, light up, or start blaring. In one of those intuitive modes that you develop around rambunctious kids, I grew suspicious when the room with Buboy in it became deathly quiet, and when I popped back in, there he was in front of my laptop, eyes big as saucers at getting caught—with my Apricorn USB stick, a specially encrypted security device, plugged in. How he found that stick and even figured the proper plug-in orientation defies me up to now; had he decoded it, I would have paid for his ticket to Caltech. He can call me on his own on Facetime or Google Duo on his mother’s phone, and using its camera is a snap. “Tatay, let’s take a selfie” is one of his favorite commands, and he likes watching himself (and his papa) gyrate on TikTok. One day I was surprised to find that I had sent a message saying “#2hjjjjjnd67edhwekd]]]” to a Viber group. We’ve just brought Alexa into the household, and I just know I’m going to have to Buboy-proof her unless we want to listen to “The Alphabet Song” all day.

Beyond digital smarts, Buboy likes to think he has a firm grip on reality. Like any three-year-old, he’s still terrified of the moo-moo, which is what he calls the shadows cast on the wall behind me by the light, and which I employ to gain some leverage on his behavior. But when we watch snakes and sharks on National Geographic and I try to scare him with them, he shrugs dismissively and says, “That’s only TV!” When once I couldn’t find the remote (which he routinely hides), he sighed and fished it out with a comment: “Tatay is blind.” He asked me about the luggage rack on top of the Jimny: “What’s that for?” It’s for bags, I said—do you want to go up there? “I’m not a bag,” he shot back.

To make sure he doesn’t overdose on technology, Beng has begun to teach him drawing and painting, believing that there’s nothing like art to stretch the imagination. And what a stretch he’s making, showing me his drawing of a tree—basically a long line with some fuzz on top. He can sense I’m underwhelmed. “Draw me something else, something more,” I say. Like what, he says. Like, uhm, a monkey—what does a monkey eat? A banana, he says. So draw me a monkey eating a banana. I already did, he says. Where, I ask? He’s up there, in the tree.

He brings a teddy bear to bed, along with a bag of his favorite toys. One day he asked us, “Tatay, is Nanay your toy?” Beng’s brows shot up, as eager to know the answer as Buboy; I had to be very careful. “Yes, Buboy, Nanay is my toy—my teddy bear.” I should’ve stopped there, but I added, “A big one.” He giggled, but she didn’t like that at all.

I dread to think what he’ll start asking when he turns four in September, but by that time his nursery class should have resumed, albeit online. He’ll be part of the first generation of Zoom-schooled kids, but I suspect we can do better than Zoom. 

Penman No. 380: Commemorating the FQS

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Penman for Monday, February 3, 2019

 

STARTING LAST January 26 and until early this month, some members of a generation of Filipinos now in their 60s and 70s would have commemorated—or at least noted in one way or another—the 50th anniversary of what came to be called the First Quarter Storm, or the FQS. It was a tumultuous season at the very start of the 1970s, a period that would see deepening disenchantment with the Marcos regime, the rise of student activism, and the subsequent declaration of martial law in 1972. For those of us who were part of that generation, it was also the abrupt abbreviation of our carefree youth and our hastened transformation into missionaries of a kind, idealists fired up by the notion of becoming the Rizals, Bonifacios, and Gabriela Silangs of our time.

It was a political but—as with all politics—also a cultural awakening. We began by reading—not Marx or Mao, but Renato Constantino and, a bit later, Jose Ma. Sison. For me, it was William Pomeroy’s The Forest—a lyrical account of an American GI’s unlikely entry into the struggle of the postwar Huks—that sparked my fascination with rebels and revolutions. I was only in high school when I read it, but I swore that, in my own way, I was going to make a change in society.

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I didn’t even have to wait to get to college for that opportunity. On January 26, 1970, I joined the throngs of uniformed students who gathered in Manila to protest against Ferdinand Marcos, who was delivering the SONA at the old Senate building. I can’t recall now what the specific issues were, but we had a sense that there were very large causes involved of which Marcos was only a part. The Vietnam War was still raging and for many young people, “Make love, not war” was the answer; we had watched Woodstock as a movie on the big screen, we had memorized the Beatles, and Mao’s China was still shrouded in mystery. We were somewhere between dreaming of becoming hippies or becoming bomb-throwers.

Indeed, on that day—a Monday, according to the calendar, so we were all skipping our classes—I still counted myself a moderate, marching under the banner of Ed Jopson’s National Union of Students of the Philippines. We filed out of our assembly grounds on the UST campus toward the Luneta, where large crowds had already gathered, some sporting the streamers of more vocal militants like the KM and SDK—whom, at that point, I held in both suspicion and awe. I was too far to listen to the speeches being made by the likes of Gary Olivar, whom my high-school English teacher had held up for me as a bright young man worth emulating. When things started flying through the air, beginning with the mock coffin someone had brought along to exemplify the death of democracy, and the police began wielding their truncheons, I scampered for the life of me, muttering oaths under my breath directed at both the police and the radicals for spoiling what had been a very nice day. I had just turned 16 barely a week earlier, and I was too young to die or even just to get my head bashed in.

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As it happened, I did get radicalized; before that year was over, I was a freshman at UP, where I joined the Nationalist Corps and later the SDK. Within just three more years I would become part of the Diliman Commune, witness the killings of Francis Sontillano and Sonny Mesina (both of them my fellow scholars at the Philippine Science High School), drop out of UP to work as a newspaper reporter, lose my job under martial law, and be imprisoned in Fort Bonifacio for seven months. I grew up even faster than I thought I would; shortly after my release, I met and married my wife Beng (with so many people dying around us, we couldn’t wait too long), and I became a father at 20.

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That’s what a few books and the FQS all led to—a quick but bracing immersion in youthful rebellion and forced maturity, from which I learned quite a bit about myself and about other people, indeed about human nature itself, beyond providing material for the obligatory semi-autobiographical first novel. Today, as a retired professor, I’m often asked (and will be again, this week) about what all of that meant, and I say that it was about taking charge of your own life and taking your people’s interests to heart, and not just yours.

What I once disavowed as my vulnerable and wishy-washy liberal core turned out to be me at my most honest and perhaps my strongest. I still seek and fight for freedom from any kind of despotism, whether from the Right or the Left (and these days, when both extremes have cohabited, when the mouthpieces of the old Left now sing the praises of the Right, you have to trust your own compass to point northward). I commemorate the FQS not by boxing it in the past and putting it away, but by hoping that a new generation of Filipinos, made curious by books and refusing to accept easy answers, will see themselves as part of a larger struggle to be human, and to be free.

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(Paintings by Juanito Torres, courtesy of Jack Teotico)

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 378: My Retirement Library

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Penman for Monday, January 6, 2020

 

I RECENTLY had occasion to reorganize my personal library, which involved trimming down hundreds of books into what could fit into a large aparador and three long shelves running along the wall of my study. Having retired for a year now, I thought that it was time to start bringing my worldly possessions down to the core, down to things I would actually live with in my old age, however short or long that grace period is going to be.

As you can imagine, this was easier said than done. Downsizing a library takes a lot more than a physical effort. It means going over a virtual history of your own mind, every book bought and kept being a marker of sorts of whatever it was you found interesting at that moment.

To force my hand and speed things up, last November I picked out and donated four large boxes of over 150 books to a benefit sale being held by students in my department in UP, mostly literature books and texts only an English major could love. As I was packing them up I remembered how, in my student days, we scoured the sales at Alemar’s and the old PECO as well as the used-book bins along Recto for bargains, clucking like well-fed chickens when we came across a prize catch (for me then, an orange-spined Penguin book by the likes of Graham Greene or John Updike).

Having a fixed space to move my books into also obliged me to choose well and wisely. In the end I decided that for simplicity’s sake my retirement library would contain only books that fell into certain categories: (1) books I myself wrote (around 40) and edited or contributed to (another 60 or so); (2) books signed by fellow authors; (3) books that were good or important to have, including antiquarian books, Filipiniana, Rizaliana, books on pens, machines, art and design, and collecting in general; and (4) most importantly, my personal favorites—the books that, for the past 50 years, I loved to read or would want to re-read, and, for some new ones, will want to read in retirement. It’s that last shelf I’ll dwell on for now.

As a fictionist, my favorite books of fiction are of course represented: William Kennedy’s Ironweed, J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, John Gardner’s Grendel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, which Franz Arcellana told our class was the most disgusting book he had ever read, prompting me to rush out and look for it. (I still have to find my copy of D. M. Thomas’ The White Hotel.) Anthologies and books by my favorite poets include those by Robert Graves, Constantine Cavafy, Philip Larkin, and Federico Garcia Lorca.

There are also books about the practice and culture of writing: Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, Philip Hensher’s The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves, The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, Thomas Larson’s The Memoir and the Memoirist, The Story of English by McCrum, Cran, and MacNeil, William Harris’ Ancient Literacy, and Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading (a gift from F. Sionil Jose, who asked me to pick a book off his shelf).

If my Pinoy writer-friends don’t see their books among my favorites, that’s because they’re on the shelf of autographed books, alongside those signed by John Updike, Edward Jones, Junot Diaz, Romesh Gunesekera, Charles Baxter, Lawrence Durrell, Frank McCourt, Kazuo Ishiguro, and J. M. Coetzee, as well as, of course, the Filipino standouts: Jose Garcia Villa, Nick Joaquin, and even Carlos P. Romulo (who, let’s not forget, was one of five Filipinos to have won the Pulitzer Prize, mainly for journalism).

For fun, I keep books on poker (James McManus’ Cowboys Full and Positively Fifth Street) and books about Apple and Macs (Michael Malone’s Infinite Loop, Young and Simon’s iCon: Steve Jobs and the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business, Leander Kahney’s The Cult of Mac), as well as E. S. Lumsden’s The Art of Etching, which guided and inspired my shortlived career as a printmaker in the 1970s.

Perhaps most surprising is the predominance of history and nonfiction on this shelf, a tip of the hat to what I might have gone into as a profession if not for creative writing, although it’s mostly popular history for the enthusiast: Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and James Burke’s Connections, Yuvel Noah Harari’s Sapiens, the Hakluyt edition of Morga’s Sucesos, Brian MacAllister Linn’s The Philippine War 1899-1902, Alan Moorehead’s Gallipoli, Dava Sobel’s Longitude, David Howard Bain’s Sitting in Darkness, Thatcher Freund’s Objects of Desire, Anna Pavord’s The Tulip, Nick Joaquin’s Manila My Manila (and his Reportage series), Richard Selzer’s Confessions of a Knife and Mortal Lessons, David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ken Adler’s The Measure of All Things, and William Pomeroy’s The Forest (which I often cite as the most influential book of my young life, because it made rebellion sound romantic, and encouraged me to carry a placard).

When I step back and survey what I’ve chosen to put together (perhaps too unabashedly male), I can still see that boy who was fascinated not so much by fiction but by how things worked and by what the world out there was like (Sobel’s Longitude will tell you that). Because (no thanks to poor math skills) I couldn’t become an engineer and make clocks and centrifuges, literature and creative writing became my second choice—to see how words worked, like cogs in a fine machine.

 

Penman No. 376: The Other Pepe

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Penman for Monday, December 9, 2019

 

THIS COLUMN started out in my mind as an account of a return visit to Dapitan, where my wife Beng and I had first gone eight years ago to pay homage to Jose Rizal, who had lived there in exile for four years between 1892 and 1896, until shortly before his arrest in Europe and his trial and execution in Manila. It was by many accounts a happy and productive interlude, during which he practiced his skills as physician, teacher, poet, and scientist, a period highlighted by his romance with a young woman named Josephine Bracken, whom he would later marry at death’s door.

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Indeed there’s no way you can visit his beachfront estate named Talisay, now a national shrine, without being swept up by the epic drama of Rizal’s last years—a drama wrought not in the theater of armed combat, but in the innermost recesses of his spirit, torn as he was by many loves and longings, successively losing a stillborn son, his freedom, and then his life. Again I looked at his clothes, his letters, and his artworks, trying to see the man beneath the trees, or on the water’s edge pointing something out to Josephine in the gathering dusk. (I keep a plaster bust of Rizal, crafted in 1961 by Anastacio Caedo, in my home office, and often find myself staring at it and asking, “What are you thinking?”)

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We had gone down to Dapitan via Dipolog, where the airport is, to enjoy a weekend with old friends from our time as the elves and acolytes of Dr. Gerry Sicat at the National Economic and Development Authority, back in the 1970s. Our boss at the Economic Information Staff, Frankie Aseniero, and his wife Nanette had graciously invited us to visit them in Dipolog, where Frankie, now retired but not quite, was a gentleman-farmer planting cacao and milling coco sugar and vinegar for the export market. With Beng and me were Medecins Sans Frontieres volunteer-physician Ginny Pineda Garcia and her husband the photographer Oliver Garcia and the poet Fidel Rillo.

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We’re all friends now in our seniorhood, but I have to admit, with some shame, that in our rebellious twenties we gave Frankie a hard time at the office, so let me make up for some of that by talking about his other talents, beyond business and management, as well as his fascinating family history. As it happens, Francisco Aseniero, Jr. is also one of our country’s most celebrated tenors who never fails to make us swoon every time he launches into “Stranger in Paradise” or “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz”; he has concertized all over the world and continues to lend his voice to programs benefiting worthy causes.

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How Frankie’s story connects with Rizal and a later phase of our history brings us back to Talisay, where Frankie’s grandfather Jose, then a boy of eleven or twelve, became a student of the other Pepe. So devoted was the boy to his teacher that he accompanied Rizal to Manila, hoping to be educated further in the big city, but events quickly overtook both master and pupil, and the young Jose had to suffer the harrowing experience of witnessing his hero’s execution. He had joined Rizal’s mother and sister on the eve of his death, and had seen and copied Rizal’s farewell poem, according to Frankie’s brother George, a philosopher and historian. Jose Aseniero went on to serve as governor of Zamboanga before the war. At one point he also acquired some of Rizal’s belongings, among which is the four-poster bed that can still be found in the Asenieros’ ancestral home.

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The story is no less interesting on Frankie’s maternal side. His grandfather there was a Swedish engineer named Charles Gustaf Carlson who migrated to the United States in 1895, and shortly after became a Protestant missionary to the Philippines, arriving in 1902 and being counted among the “Thomasites” who taught English to Filipinos. Charles became principal of the Industrial Trade School in Zamboanga, where he married a former student, Eugenia Enriquez. Among their six children was Ingeborg Eughenia, who met and married Francisco Aseniero, Jose’s engineer-son.

But what brought the whole experience together for me was a story that Frankie told us on our last day, as we were winding down, about one of his concerts in a small town in Bulacan. He and some friends had been invited to sing there, and he had obliged as usual. “I was surprised to find that in such a small place, the people thronged to see us, dressed in their Sunday best,” Frankie recalled. “We felt like we owed it to them to sing our hearts out, and we did.” He found himself singing like he would have done in London, Vienna, or New York, and the crowd responded with utmost appreciation as Frankie and his party offered up Broadway and operatic classics. “It was a magical moment, and seeing the people enjoying the music made my hair stand on end!”

How Jose Rizal himself would have loved that, having brought his world-honed talent to Dapitan, enriching and ennobling its soil for other and lesser Pepes like us following in his footsteps.

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Penman No. 370: A Collection and a Collaboration

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Penman for Monday, September 16, 2019

 

YOU KNOW that you’ve reached the hilltop, just in time to view the sunset, when they start compiling your works into hefty one-volume collections that could take a very long vacation on a very lonely island to plow through. Apparently I’m at that point, because Anvil Publishing has just released Voyager and Other Fictions: The Collected Stories of Jose Dalisay, a 500-page compendium of 43 stories written and published over four decades from the 1970s onwards.

I had been quietly at work on this collection these past few months with Anvil general manager Andrea Pasion-Flores and her team, and I was elated to see it being sold at the recent Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, and later at National Book Store, Anvil’s parent company. Let me just share what I said about the project in my brief preface to the stories:

“These stories span forty years, from 1975 to 2015, during which I turned from a lanky 21-year-old to a potbellied senior, and everything in between. I’ve chosen to present them in the chronological order of their writing, as best as my challenged memory could manage, hoping that this sequencing will reveal some patterns of growth and change in the way a writer selects and treats material as he himself is shaped by life and time.

“The inclusion of some juvenilia may be indulgent, but my excuse is that it may be instructive and inspiring (albeit by negative example) to the young writer who must be made to believe that better things come with age.

“I came to fiction in English from a background in drama and screenwriting in Filipino. This helps explain my interest in scene-setting and dialogue, in the unseen currents of thought and feeling that cross synapses and much larger spaces between people.

“While creative nonfiction occupies most of my time in retirement, largely for a living, nothing exhilarates me more than writing fiction—not the novel, for which I never mustered anything resembling affection, but the short story, which I find both exacting and exciting in its compactness.

“I’ve lately often argued that the best antidote to fake news is true fiction, because only fiction—not even journalism—has the power to draw us out of ourselves, out of the present, into that chill place where Honesty resides. Fiction redeems and saves the writer as much as it exalts the reader. That realization has been the personal reward of my work for these past forty years.”

After writing so many books for other people—I always say that rather than live to write, I write to live—it’s a balm for the spirit to see and review all my stories in one place, and to be reminded of fiction as my true love, the thing I most enjoy doing although the least materially rewarding. Indeed I’ve often said that my stories—invariably of lower and middle-class Filipinos like me—are the biographies of those people who can’t afford to hire me to write about them, whose lives are often dismissed as “ordinary” but which are in fact eventful and dramatic in their own fashion.

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I had a second reason to rejoice with the launch of my newest book, Why Words Matter, last Saturday at the Vargas Museum in UP Diliman. With lovely and haunting illustrations by Marcel Antonio, the book is based on a TEDTalk I gave last year in UP about why we read and why we write, and how words can kill but can also heal. It’s being published by Gigo Alampay’s CANVAS (The Center for Art, New Ventures and Sustainable Development). Two other books were also launched alongside mine—a children’s counting book by artist Ioannis Sicuya, and one about horror stories from the martial law era that distills affidavits by claimants of martial law abuses into three sentence tales, illustrated by Renz Baluyot.

While this book was produced as a special, limited art-book edition (only 500 copies, all hardbound), CANVAS will allow the free, non-commercial distribution of material from the book, with proper attribution, in any medium, as part of its program for cultural literacy.

I must say that I’m awed by and deeply grateful for Marcel’s exquisite artwork (just as I appreciated Jordan Santos’ delightful cover design for Voyager). Not since I collaborated with Jaime Zobel on an art book titled The Island almost 25 years ago have I had such a visually engaging publication. While I firmly believe that every author—never mind how sharp he or she may imagine himself or herself to be—needs an editor, and even as I’ve welcomed most of my editors’ suggestions, I’ve also sometimes given my publishers and designers a hard time, having stubborn and stodgy ideas about how my books should look. I’m relieved to have had a very pleasant experience with the publication of these two new books, for which again I thank Andrea and Gigo for putting together. It’s a bracing reminder to this old man that, to a happy few, his words still do matter.

(Voyager is available at National Book Store; to order Why Words Matter, please email info@canvas.ph.)

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